With a 10-2 record and top-10 ranking, Penn State virtually is assured of a place in a New Year’s Six bowl game. But where? And against whom?
Saturday’s conference championship game will provide those answers.
Penn State’s most likely destinations are the Cotton or Fiesta Bowl, followed by the Peach and, remotely, the Orange. Before getting into the possibilities, though, a few reminders.
►The College Football Playoff committee ranks the teams and determines the New Year’s Six match-ups. Though bowls, sponsors, conferences and teams can lobby for destinations and match-ups, they can’t (we’re assured) affect the rankings.
As a result, the size of a team’s traveling party or television rating doesn’t matter if that team isn’t ranked highly enough.
►Bowl contracts do matter. For instance: the Orange Bowl is obligated to pair an ACC team (normally the champ) against the highest-ranked non-champion from the Big Ten or SEC or Notre Dame. If the ACC champ is in the playoff, the next-highest-ranked team goes to the Orange Bowl as its replacement.
Thus, Penn State can’t play Alabama in the Orange Bowl (for example) because the ACC must be represented. But Penn State could play Miami or Clemson there. More on that later.
►No limit exists on the number of conference teams that can play in the NY6 games, and there’s no minimum ranking to be eligible.
With that, let’s entertain the possibilities.
When: 8:30 p.m., Dec. 29.
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas.
Who: At-large vs. At-large
A probable Penn State destination, largely because of geographic considerations with other bowls. The Pac-12 champ is likely headed to the Fiesta Bowl, while the Group of Five representative (UCF-Memphis winner) would appear set for the Peach Bowl against the No. 3 SEC team (Auburn, Georgia or Alabama).
As an opponent, Penn State could get the loser of the Big 12 title game between TCU and Oklahoma.
When: 4 p.m., Dec. 30.
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona.
Who: At-large vs. At-large.
Ohio State played in the Fiesta Bowl the past two years, and six times since 2003, so the CFP committee and university might want to avoid a return. Trouble is, as CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm noted, there’s another potential conflict.
If USC wins the Pac-12, its Fiesta Bowl opponent likely would be either Penn State or Ohio State. Will the committee want a rematch of last season’s Rose Bowl? To avoid both scenarios, the CFP committee could send either Penn State or Ohio State to the Peach Bowl, bring an SEC team west and hope fans want to travel.
A Stanford win over USC in the Pac-12 title game changes things, though. How about Penn State-Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl, and Ohio State heads to the Cotton Bowl?
When: 12:30 p.m., Jan. 1.
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta.
Who: At-large vs. At-large.
The highest-ranked Group of Five (or mid-major) team receives an automatic bid to the NY6. This year, that’s the winner of Saturday’s American Athletic Conference title game between Central Florida and Memphis.
The CFP committee rates geography as a consideration when determining bowl matchups, which makes Atlanta a probable spot for the AAC champ. A natural opponent is the lowest-ranked team among Auburn, Georgia and Alabama.
But to avoid those previously mentioned conflicts, the CFP committee could send Penn State or Ohio State to Atlanta and relocate the SEC representative. And, again, hope fans fly.
When: 8 p.m., Dec. 30.
Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Lakes, Florida.
Who: ACC vs. SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame
Penn State’s least likely destination, though still possible. To qualify, Penn State has to be the highest-ranked non-champion from the SEC or Big Ten. Here’s how that could happen.
Georgia defeats Auburn in the SEC title game.
Wisconsin defeats Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.
TCU defeats Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.
That combination could produce a playoff consisting of the ACC champ, Georgia, Wisconsin and Alabama. The CFP committee then would have to rank Penn State (10-2) ahead of Auburn (10-3).
Plenty of parts remain to be moved in the conference championship games.