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Bowl Scenarios and Championship Week Rooting Interests

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Where MSU goes will be determined largely by six games this week. Here's what you need to know.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports


With Michigan State moving up to #8 in the latest Playoff Committee rankings, it's looking quite likely that the Spartans will be in a New Year's bowl. Here's a quick summary of how this week's games could affect our bowl assignment:

The Selection Process

12 spots are available in the New Year's bowls. One will be taken by a non-Power 5 conference champion (most likely Boise State, assuming they defeat Fresno State, although for our purposes it doesn't matter who), leaving the cutoff line no lower than #11. Georgia Tech is virtually assured of an Orange Bowl bid: if they win, they're the ACC champions and get it automatically; if they lose, unless FSU manages to slip out of the top four while still being unbeaten (highly unlikely), they will be the highest-ranked available replacement for FSU. Right now the Yellow Jackets sit at #11 themselves, but if they drop they will still get in.

Since every possible conference champion except Wisconsin and Missouri is already in the top 11, and those two are close enough to make the jump if they win (maybe not Missouri, but given that they'd have beaten Alabama, I think they would), we don't need to worry about any possible automatic-bid teams who would not otherwise qualify apart from Georgia Tech (by virtue of the Orange Bowl choosing an automatic replacement from the ACC for Florida State). The bottom line: unless three teams, not including Georgia Tech, jump us without any falling behind, we're in. Since only three teams behind us (not including Georgia Tech) are in action with a chance to jump us (Oklahoma is too far back for a win over Oklahoma State to move the needle at all), this means any one of those three failing would guarantee a bid for us - and for one of them (Kansas State) to win would likely drop their opponent (Baylor) behind us in their place.

The Bowl Assignments

The highest-ranked team from either the Big Ten, SEC, or Notre Dame which is neither in the playoff nor a conference champion gets an automatic bid to the Orange Bowl. As of right now (and assuming Ohio State is the Big Ten champion), that would be us. (The Orange Bowl can skip a team to avoid a rematch, but that's not an issue with any of the plausible matchups.) Incidentally, if the Orange Bowl takes a Big Ten team, the Big Ten's Citrus Bowl bid is transferred to the ACC instead, which I didn't take into consideration in earlier projections (partly because it looked likely that an SEC team would finish in that spot).

If we remain in the top 10 (or 11 with Georgia Tech ahead) but are not the team selected for the Orange Bowl, we would then go to one of the other three non-semifinal bowls: the Cotton, Peach, or Fiesta.

The Games That Matter

Times are ET; odds are based on my margin-aware ratings but the team rankings are from the Playoff Committee.

Big Ten Title Game: #5 Ohio State vs. #13 Wisconsin (Saturday, 8:17, FOX; OSU 67%, 4.5 pt favorites)

These odds don't take J.T. Barrett's injury into consideration, so it's fair to assume this is somewhat optimistic for the Buckeyes. An OSU win is the straightforward scenario from our perspective: Wisconsin stays out of the New Year's hunt, and OSU stays ahead of us. If Alabama remains in the playoff, this would guarantee us the Orange Bowl. Wisconsin winning could see three Big Ten teams in the New Year's games, but if it doesn't there's a decent chance we would be the odd one out; Wisconsin would have an automatic bid and Ohio State's overall resume would be at worst comparable to ours with the added advantage of a road head-to-head win. Unless they got blown out and the committee gave them a serious downgrade for Barrett's injury (which I think would be unfair), we would likely be behind both. That would give the Buckeyes the Orange Bowl bid in addition to forcing Wisconsin ahead of us.

Pac-12 Title Game: #2 Oregon vs. #7 Arizona (Friday, 9:00, FOX; Oregon 84%, 10.5 pts)

If Arizona wins, both stay ahead of us for sure; if Oregon wins, Arizona could drop behind (although the way the committee has treated teams playing competitively against higher-ranked opposition so far, they might not). If you want Ohio State in the playoff, an Arizona win helps, but there are plenty of other ways to get them there without devaluing our loss to Oregon.

ACC Title Game: #4 Florida State vs. #11 Georgia Tech (Saturday, 8:00, ABC; Florida State 50.3%)

Florida State has continued to drop while pulling out exactly enough to win week after week, but Georgia Tech is a strong enough opponent that any win is a good enough performance to halt that slide. There's no way they get left out of the playoff at 13-0. Under that assumption, Georgia Tech will be in the Orange Bowl no matter what. (If FSU wins but somehow does drop to fifth, they would go to the Orange and Georgia Tech would have to maintain a top 11 spot to qualify at all, but I don't consider this a serious possibility at all.) Could FSU drop behind us with a loss? Given the way they've dropped without one, it's hard to say the committee wouldn't consider it, although I think it somewhat unlikely.

SEC Title Game: #1 Alabama vs. #16 Missouri (Saturday, 4:00, CBS; Alabama 79%, 8.5 pts)

An Alabama win is the easy scenario: Missouri is out, Bama is in the playoff. This would ensure a Big Ten team in the Orange Bowl, and if Ohio State also beats Wisconsin it would guarantee that that team is MSU. A Missouri win would likely steal a bid from somewhere (Alabama wouldn't fall from #1 to out of the top 10), and it would likely push us out of the Orange Bowl (assuming Alabama falls out of the playoff but not below us). Thus, an Alabama win is the safer outcome for ensuring a New Year's bid for MSU. If you want a New Year's bid that is not the Orange Bowl, a Missouri win is more likely to deliver but also increases the risk of MSU not making any of the prestige bowls (although that risk is quite small anyway).

Big XII Finales: Iowa State at #3 TCU (Saturday, Noon, ABC; TCU 213-to-1, 34 pts) and #9 Kansas State at #6 Baylor (Saturday, 7:45, ESPN; Baylor 76%, 7.5 pts)

TCU isn't going to lose, but if they do, that's one heck of a resume hit. Meanwhile, one of Baylor and K-State has to lose, and if it's Baylor they probably drop behind us (offsetting K-State moving ahead). If K-State loses, they obviously stay behind us.

So Where Are We Going?

The Orange Bowl

If Ohio State and Alabama win, this is a near certainty (only Mississippi State being moved ahead of us, despite both teams being idle, could possibly avert it). If Ohio State loses and Alabama wins, it still might happen if the Buckeyes drop behind us. If Alabama loses, we can only get to the Orange Bowl if 1) the Tide stays in the playoffs (doubtful), or 2) they drop behind us (also doubtful). The Orange Bowl is a virtual certainty to be against Georgia Tech.

A Different New Year's Game

If either OSU or Alabama loses and ends up outside the top four but ahead of us, they will get the Orange Bowl bid instead. If the other wins, under the assumption that no idle team jumps us, that would be enough to clinch a New Year's bid. With as many western teams as are likely to make it, the Peach Bowl is the most likely of the three others for geographic reasons, although I wouldn't be surprised by the Cotton Bowl either. (The Fiesta could happen, but I doubt a Big Ten team gets shipped all the way out there unless Alabama takes the Orange Bowl slot and there are three Big Ten teams for the other three bowls.)

If in the Peach Bowl, Mississippi State is a fairly likely opponent as long as someone else (Arizona or the KSU-Baylor loser, or both if OSU and Alabama both lose) falls past them. If no one does, Mississippi State would be eliminated due to the auto-bid claimed by Wisconsin or Missouri. Missouri is a plausible opponent there if they beat Alabama, though the committee might balk at sending a team who played in the SEC title game to Atlanta a second time. If the KSU-Baylor loser and Arizona both drop hard enough to fall out while only one of OSU and Alabama loses, Ole Miss would be next in line for a bid and could end up here.

For the Cotton Bowl, whichever of TCU and Baylor doesn't make the playoff is a fair bet; if both do (which is possible but requires a bit of chaos), it could be just about anyone here. The Fiesta Bowl would likely be against the Pac-12 title game loser (assuming Arizona stays in if they lose; if not, Boise State likely ends up here); if that's Oregon, it's even less likely we get shipped out there because it would be a rematch.

The Nightmare Scenario

The only realistic way I can see MSU left out of a prestige bowl entirely is:

  • Missouri beats Alabama
  • K-State wins a close one over Baylor, enough to leap us without pushing Baylor below us
  • Wisconsin wins close over Ohio State, getting an auto-bid without pushing OSU below us
  • Florida State beats Georgia Tech (GT gets an auto-bid anyway) or loses but stays ahead of us
  • Arizona does at least well enough against Oregon not to drop behind us
  • TCU beats Iowa State

This could jump three teams ahead of us without pushing anyone behind, and that would be enough to knock us out. But any change guarantees a New Year's game. In this scenario, the Citrus is the most likely destination unless Alabama remains in the top four; if they do, Ohio State would be in the Orange Bowl and that means the Big Ten gives up its Citrus Bowl slot, so we would likely end up in the Outback.