Following the College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings being released Tuesday night, the 8-2 Penn State Nittany Lions now sit at No. 8 in the playoff committee’s ranking to go along with being ranked No. 9 in the AP Top 25 and No. 10 in the Coaches Poll.
While making the College Football Playoff remains a long shot, the bowl game picture got much clearer after the chaos this past weekend. The Nittany Lions continue to be a legitimate contender in the Big Ten Championship race, currently sitting in a three-way tie with Ohio State and Michigan atop the Big Ten East.
Having eclipsed the six-win plateau needed for a bowl game, Penn State will be playing no matter what, but where it gets tricky is figuring out in which one they’ll be playing.
Let’s look at the options:
Big Ten Championship
For the Nittany Lions to play the Big Ten West winner, they’ll need to win out the rest of the season. Penn State heads to Rutgers for a prime-time tilt Saturday night before returning home to Happy Valley to face Michigan State the following weekend on Senior Night.
Because there’s a three-way tie atop the Big Ten East, the Nittany Lions need the No. 3 Michigan Wolverines, who beat Penn State earlier this season, to lose one of their next two games. The Wolverines are home against Indiana on Saturday and take on No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus the following week.
As a result of Penn State’s victory over Ohio State, the Nittany Lions hold the tie-breaker against the Buckeyes, and with an Ohio State win over Michigan, Penn State would slide right in to the Big Ten title game.
If the Big Ten champion isn’t selected as a national semifinalist, that team will play in the Rose Bowl. If the champion is selected for the CFP, the Rose Bowl will choose another Big Ten team to replace the champion. A Big Ten non-champion is also eligible to be selected in the Cotton or Orange bowls.
For Penn State to play in the Rose Bowl, they’ll need to have made it to the Big Ten Championship game. Were the Nittany Lions to win the Big Ten Championship game and not make the College Football Playoff, they’d be a lock for the Rose Bowl.
Without winning the Big Ten, Penn State will need to be considered the next-best Big Ten team outside those who make the playoff.
Making it to Pasadena isn’t that far-fetched an idea, especially after this past weekend. The Nittany Lions need to win out and have Ohio State win beat Michigan on the final weekend of the regular season to make the Rose Bowl an even realer possibility.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
Penn State being selected for the Cotton Bowl is made more likely if the Nittany Lions win out but don’t make the Big Ten Championship. Projections on ESPN.com in the last couple of weeks have shown Penn State taking on Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl.
For Penn State to not play in the Cotton Bowl, the CFP committee needs to not put two Big Ten teams in the playoff. If two Big Ten teams make the CFP, it all but guarantees the Nittany Lions a bid to the Cotton Bowl or the Orange Bowl.
The Cotton Bowl appears to be more likely if the committee does select Western Michigan; the committee will need a team with a big following to help fill the stadium, something Penn State fans will have no problem doing.
Capital One Orange Bowl
Each year, the Orange Bowl features a team from the ACC and either Notre Dame or the highest-ranked available team from either the SEC or Big Ten.
This means Penn State would be behind Ohio State, Michigan and No. 7 Wisconsin when the final CFP poll comes out following the Big Ten Championship. The Nittany Lions would wind up playing in the Orange Bowl only if Ohio State, Michigan or Wisconsin gets selected to the CFP, while the others would go to the Rose and Cotton bowls — unless there’s a team ranked higher than Penn State in the SEC that doesn’t make the playoff.
With Notre Dame still without bowl eligibility, the Orange Bowl will be taking the highest-ranked available team from either the SEC or Big Ten.
If Penn State loses either of its next two games against Rutgers or Indiana, the Nittany Lions will most likely find themselves in the Outback Bowl against am SEC team.
Should Penn State lose both weeks, it’ll be the Outback Bowl or less for the Nittany Lions. Losing both would be a huge momentum-killer heading into December, and Penn State would likely find itself in a bowl such as the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.
The two bowl games the Nittany Lions are ineligible for are the TaxSlayer Bowl (they played in it last year) and the Sugar Bowl (representatives from the SEC and Big 12 will play in it this season).
College Football Playoff Semifinal
Penn State playing in the semifinal is still possible — albeit highly unlikely. For the Nittany Lions to likely even be considered, they’ll need to win out, have Ohio State beat Michigan and Penn State must beat the team from the Big Ten West in the Big Ten Championship.
That scenario, should it play out, would be a crazy wrench into the committee’s planning. Penn State, in that scenario, would be an 11-2 Big Ten Champion, Michigan would be 10-2, Ohio State would be 11-1 and Wisconsin would be 10-3. The committee would then have to decide whether to put a non-champion or two in the playoff over a conference champion.
While winning the conference championship isn’t a pre-requisite for making the CFP, it’d be hard to imagine a scenario where a non-champion gets into the playoff when the champion has beat said team —à la Penn State and Ohio State.
The Nittany Lions control their fate for the most part. As long as they continue to win, the Nittany Lions set themselves up nicely to get to a New Year’s Six Bowl Game. But a little help from Ohio State could go a long way in helping Penn State get back in the national championship hunt for the first time under head coach James Franklin.
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