Penn State Football

The College Football Playoff rankings are in: What bowl is in Penn State’s future?

Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki celebrates after making a diving catch for a touchdown during the game against Maryland at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium on Saturday.
Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki celebrates after making a diving catch for a touchdown during the game against Maryland at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium on Saturday. adrey@centredaily.com

Penn State received a slight bump in the final regular season poll, as expected.

The Nittany Lions moved up one spot to No. 9 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, which were released Tuesday night. Ohio State and Southern California are ranked directly ahead of and behind Penn State, respectively.

This keeps the Nittany Lions on pace for an at-large New Year’s Six bowl. Playing in the Cotton Bowl against No. 11 TCU is the consensus — from ESPN.com, Sports Illustrated and SB Nation. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm also has Penn State in Dallas, but facing Auburn.

The Tigers moved up to No. 2 in the poll after outplaying Alabama on Saturday. The Crimson Tide dropped from No. 1 to No. 5.

Clemson, which beat South Carolina by 24 over the weekend, is now the top team in the country — followed by Auburn, Oklahoma and Wisconsin in that order. Following a stunning upset to Pittsburgh, Miami dropped from No. 2 to 7.

The Big Ten kept five teams in the top 25. Michigan State and Northwestern are Nos. 16 and 21 after blowing out Rutgers and Illinois, respectively.

College Football Playoff committee chair Kirby Hocutt said on a conference call that the Nittany Lions have a “quality resume.”

“Two losses on the road by a combined four points,” Hocutt added. “We believe we got the sequencing from Nos. 8 to 11 right.”

How they got here

Bye bye, Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish, who were No. 8 last week, were beaten down by Stanford 38-20 in Palo Alto, all but ending their chances at a New Year’s Six bowl game. Brian Kelly’s crew came in at No. 15 in this week’s poll.

For some Penn State fans, it’s actually unfortunate that Notre Dame lost. Penn State was projected by many to play the Irish in the Cotton Bowl, and what a matchup that would’ve been between two storied programs.

But with Notre Dame falling, the Nittany Lions rose up the rankings a bit, further solidifying that New Year’s Six berth.

Of course, Penn State could’ve been higher. If Alabama — which opened as 10-point favorites — took care of Auburn, the Tigers would’ve fallen out of the top 10. Also, Michigan nearly upset Ohio State before surrendering a 14-point lead.

Penn State could’ve been sitting at No. 7 this week, giving the Nittany Lions a better chance at the Orange Bowl.

But that’s looking more and more difficult.

Lions’ likely destination

Even with Notre Dame’s loss, Penn State’s Orange Bowl prospects got muddied over the weekend.

As previously discussed, the Orange Bowl is the lone New Year’s Six bowl with any ties. An ACC representative — at this point, the loser of Clemson-Miami — will face the highest-ranked team out of the Big Ten, SEC or Notre Dame.

At 9-3, the Irish are done here. That’s good for the Nittany Lions.

But Alabama’s loss cuts deep at Penn State’s Orange Bowl chances. If the Crimson Tide beat Auburn, the Tigers would’ve likely fallen behind Penn State and in the Orange Bowl pecking order. Alabama can still make the playoff; Nick Saban’s group actually has the fourth-best odds to do so, according to FiveThirtyEight, despite sitting championship weekend out.

But at this point, at the very least, an 11-2 Georgia or 10-3 Auburn will be left out of the College Football Playoff. It could be both Alabama and the loser of the SEC title game.

But the loser of Georgia-Auburn should be ranked ahead of Penn State, effectively knocking the Nittany Lions out of Orange Bowl consideration.

The Cotton Bowl is looking mighty probable.

Conference championship rooting interests

That in mind, who should Nittany Lion fans be pulling for on Friday and Saturday?

Here is a breakdown of who to root for and against on conference championship weekend.

No. 12 Stanford vs. No. 10 Southern California, 8 p.m. Friday: Honestly, this game doesn’t affect the Nittany Lions’ standing much.

The winner will likely represent the Pac-12 in the Fiesta Bowl, and Penn State could potentially be their opponent. If that’s the case, then a Rose Bowl rematch would be intriguing to say the least.

But if rooting against Sam Darnold and the Trojans out of bitterness from last year is your thing, go for it.

No. 11 TCU vs. No. 3 Oklahoma, 12:30 p.m. Saturday: Penn State has been projected to face TCU. That’s assuming the Horned Frogs lose to Oklahoma.

But if TCU — a 7.5-point underdog which fell 38-20 just a couple weeks ago to the Sooners — can upset Oklahoma, that would probably keep the Big 12 out of the playoff. The Horned Frogs would have only an 18 percent chance to crack the top four after beating Oklahoma, per FiveThirtyEight.

So, how would that affect Penn State? Well, it wouldn’t take a New Year’s Six spot away from the Nittany Lions. Alabama would likely just be bumped up to the playoff instead of TCU.

If anything, that’d just leave another potential blue-blood opponent — Oklahoma — on the table for an at-large bowl.

No. 6 Georgia vs. No. 2 Auburn, 4:00 p.m. Saturday: The only real way for Penn State to make the Orange Bowl would be for Ohio State to lose to Wisconsin, the Badgers make the playoff, and either Auburn or Georgia falls behind Penn State.

The latter almost certainly won’t happen; but if it does, it’s more likely to happen to a three-loss Auburn.

Pull for the Bulldogs, Nittany Lions fans.

No. 7 Miami vs. No. 1 Clemson, 8 p.m. Saturday: The winner goes to the College Football Playoff, while the loser — especially if it’s Miami — is headed to Miami for the Orange Bowl.

Just kick back and enjoy this top-10 matchup.

No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 8 Ohio State, 8 p.m. Saturday: This one is a little different than the ACC title game.

If the Buckeyes beat the Badgers and go to 11-2, they could sneak into the playoffs. It’d really be between them and the Crimson Tide. Good luck to the playoff committee if that’s the case.

If the Buckeyes win and don’t make the playoff, there will be three Big Ten teams — Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State — all vying for New Year’s Six berths. They’ll all get them, but Penn State should sit behind both conference foes in the rankings.

That would be an unwanted headache for Penn State.

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9

College Football Playoff rankings

1. Clemson

2. Auburn

3. Oklahoma

4. Wisconsin

5. Alabama

6. Georgia

7. Miami

8. Ohio State

9. Penn State

10. Southern California

11. TCU

12. Stanford

13. Washington

14. Central Florida

15. Notre Dame

16. Michigan State

17. LSU

18. Washington State

19. Oklahoma State

20. Memphis

21. Northwestern

22. Virginia Tech

23. Mississippi State

24. NC State

25. Fresno State

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