The Nittany Lions are chipping away.
Eyeing a New Year’s Six bowl berth, Penn State rose to No. 10 in the newest edition of the College Football Playoff rankings, which were released Tuesday night. The Nittany Lions came in at No. 14 in the poll last week.
With marquee matchups this past Saturday, there were plenty of changes in the top 10. Alabama took the top spot after surviving at Mississippi State, while Clemson moved up to No. 2. Miami and Oklahoma filled out the top four.
Georgia — previously the No. 1 team in the country — dropped to No. 7 after a blowout loss to Auburn, now No. 6. The Fighting Irish tumbled to No. 8.
Notre Dame is always on Penn State’s rooting interest radar, but now more than ever after picking up a second loss. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm projects the Nittany Lions and Irish playing in the Cotton Bowl, while Sports Illustrated has Penn State facing Mississippi State in the Citrus Bowl.
How they got here
Penn State’s weird, 29-point win over Rutgers didn’t sway the committee; the fact that it didn’t lose has them here.
This past weekend alone, the Nos. 1, 3, 6, 9, 12, 16, 17 and 20 all lost.
It’s basically survive-and-rise at this point in the season. Thankfully for Penn State, the Nittany Lions have Nebraska and Maryland (8-12 combined) ahead.
Orange Bowl bound?
Penn State is now the third-most-likely Big Ten representative for the Orange Bowl after Ohio State blew the doors off Michigan State 48-3 in Columbus over the weekend. With three losses, Sparty is done.
The Orange Bowl takes the highest-ranked non-playoff team from the Big Ten, SEC and Notre Dame to face an ACC opponent.
But there is a chance — however small — that Penn State becomes the conference’s most attractive option. A lot would have to happen, but let’s have some fun here.
If Michigan defeats No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 9 Ohio State to close the regular season, there’ll be a four-way tie in the Big Ten East. The first tiebreaker here is record against the other teams. In this situation — should the Wolverines, Nittany Lions and Spartans win out and the Buckeyes beat Illinois — Ohio State and Michigan State would have 2-1 records against tiebreaker teams, while Michigan and Penn State sit there at 1-2.
Ohio State and Michigan State move on to the two-team tiebreaker, which is head-to-head. In this situation, a 9-3 Buckeyes squad would represent the Big Ten East in Indianapolis.
Even if Urban Meyer’s crew beat a would-be 11-1 Wisconsin in the title game, the ranking committee wouldn’t think too highly of a three-loss Ohio State or two-loss Badger team, either.
That would leave Penn State — a team with two losses on the road to ranked opponents by four total points and a head-to-head blowout over Michigan — as (probably) the Big Ten’s highest-ranked team.
Or, you know, here’s a simpler scenario: Wisconsin finishes the regular season unblemished and beats Ohio State in the Big Ten title game to earn a playoff berth. Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all have three losses, and Penn State sits there pretty.
Realistically, for Penn State to sniff the Orange Bowl — to be around that Nos. 5-7 range — one of those two situations needs to play out.
Week 12 rooting interests
After a packed weekend, this slate is a lot lighter. It’s “bye” week in the SEC as teams like Alabama and Auburn play Mercer and Louisiana-Monroe, respectively. The No. 2 Clemson Tigers also play The Citadel.
Still, there are a few games to keep an eye on.
No. 24 Michigan at No. 5 Wisconsin: As mentioned above, Nittany Lion fans are humming “Hail to the Victors” this weekend.
Kansas State at No. 13 Oklahoma State: For an at-large New Year’s Six bid to be secured, the Nittany Lions are pulling for teams around them to lose.
In this case, cheer for Bill Snyder and the Wildcats, who are 17.5-point underdogs.
No. 15 UCF at Temple: If Penn State makes it to a New Year’s Six bowl, fans will want to see the Nittany Lions play a perennial power. It’d be easy to get up for a game against Notre Dame or the like.
But there’s a chance Penn State faces a Group of Five opponent. The group consisting of the AAC, MAC, Sun Belt, Mountain West and Conference USA is guaranteed one representative in a New Year’s Six bowl.
It’ll likely be Central Florida, the lone undefeated non-Power 5 team remaining.
SB Nation’s Jason Kirk actually projects Penn State to face Scott Frost’s high-flying program in the Peach Bowl. If the Nittany Lions do take on UCF, fans will at least hope the Knights are undefeated to add a bit more intrigue to the contest.
It shouldn’t be hard for Penn State fans to cheer against Temple, either.
College Football Playoff rankings
8. Notre Dame
9. Ohio State
10. Penn State
11. Southern California
13. Oklahoma State
14. Washington State
16. Mississippi State
17. Michigan State
19. NC State
25. Boise State