Despite Minnesota loss, Penn State's postseason picture includes a path to the playoff

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
Penn State head coach James Franklin shouts during an NCAA college football game against Minnesota, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Minneapolis. Minnesota won 31-26. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)
  • Penn State is coming off a 31-26 loss to Minnesota on Saturday.
  • Despite that loss, Penn State could still earn a College Football Playoff berth.
  • To reach the playoff, PSU would almost certainly have to go 4-0 down the stretch.

After his team’s 31-26 loss to Minnesota on Saturday, Penn State coach James Franklin noted that “all of our goals are still out there ahead of us.”

That includes the team’s first appearance in the College Football Playoff.

As they return home Saturday to face Indiana, their first home game in four weeks, the Lions still have a playoff bid in sight. The road is more difficult but also more clear.

Penn State must finish 4-0, including a road victory at Ohio State and a win in the Big Ten championship game, to have any playoff argument. But it would be a compelling one.

So here’s how Penn State’s bowl picture is beginning to emerge.

College Football Playoff: Had it won Saturday and finished the regular season 11-1 with a loss to Ohio State, Penn State could have made a good-loss playoff case — particularly if it played the Buckeyes close in Columbus. Last week, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit actually drew that scenario.

“If Penn State wins every game, including not only what’s already on their resume but a win potentially Saturday against Minnesota, and then they lose a hard-fought game in Columbus, then I think that’s the potential for the committee then to put [Penn State in] what they call a cluster,” Herbstreit said on a conference call. “And the cluster would be the one-loss PAC 12, the one-loss Oklahoma, the one loss LSU [or Alabama] and the one-loss Penn State. And then they start trying to separate those four teams to see who could be that fourth team.”

Now, Penn State clearly has to win the Big Ten title, though that would weigh heavily in its favor. As ESPN’s Heather Dinich reported, conference champs remain the CFP committee’s favorites: 17 of the last 20 teams selected have won titles. The outliers are teams like Ohio State in 2016 and Notre Dame in 2018.

If Penn State runs the table, it will have beaten Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and the Big Ten West champ — possibly even Minnesota in a rematch. That’s a resume the CFP committee would have a hard time overlooking.

New Year’s Six bowl: Two-loss Penn State is a contender for a New Year’s Six bowl game, though the options are limited this season. The loss to Minnesota likely removed Penn State from Rose Bowl consideration, unless it wins the Big Ten title but is not selected for the playoff. If Minnesota is ranked higher than Penn State at season’s end, it would get the Rose Bowl bid, assuming Ohio State makes the playoff.

The remaining New Year’s Six schedule is tighter because fewer at-large slots are available. The Fiesta and Peach bowls, games without conference contracts, are hosting playoff semifinals. The Rose Bowl (Big Ten and Pac-12) and Sugar Bowls (SEC and Big 12) will fill their slots with teams from their contract conferences.

That leaves the Cotton and Orange bowls. The ACC will fill one Orange Bowl slot, and the Group of 5 qualifier will fill a Cotton Bowl slot. Thus, two NY6 bowl bids are left for the two next-highest ranked teams in the final CFP rankings.

Will two-loss Penn State rank highly enough to earn one of those bids? There will be plenty of competition, notably from the SEC (potentially LSU, Alabama, Georgia and Florida).

Penn State got into the Fiesta Bowl as a two-loss team in 2017. This year, it might be left out.

Other possibilities: What then? If that happens, a 10-2 Penn State team likely would play in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl in Tampa.

The Lions played in the Citrus Bowl last season, precluding it from a return trip unless the parameters are changed. According to the Big Ten’s selection process, its contract bowls (including the Citrus and Outback) are to feature at least five different teams over the current six-year period.

Since Penn State played in the 2019 Citrus Bowl, and hasn’t been to the Outback Bowl since 2011, that shuffle likely would occur.

A mitigating factor to consider: Minnesota played in the 2014 Citrus Bowl, which would test its eligibility as well. In that case, Notre Dame could qualify at 10-2.