In all likelihood, Penn State is going to the Citrus Bowl. After Tuesday night’s College Football Playoff rankings, that’s the reality for the Nittany Lions.
But there is a way for Penn State to reach its third-consecutive New Year’s Six bowl game. Two ways, actually. And both depend on what happens this weekend when conference championship games commence.
For background, in the committee’s newest top 25, the Nittany Lions came in at No. 12, same as last week. Washington State, after losing to Washington, dropped behind Penn State at No. 13, which was good news for those in the Lasch Building. The rest? Not so much.
Florida moved up to No. 9, while LSU fell to only No. 10, ensuring New Year’s Six berths for the two SEC squads. Higher in the rankings, Ohio State leaped to No. 6, but Oklahoma stands in the Buckeyes’ way at No. 5. That’s what really hurts the Nittany Lions.
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If Ohio State’s Week 13 beatdown of Michigan put it at No. 5, then a win over Northwestern in the Big Ten title game would have probably earned the Buckeyes a spot in the national semifinal. Michigan would go to the Rose Bowl, leaving an open slot in the Fiesta or Peach Bowl for Penn State.
Instead, Penn State’s New Year’s Six life, at least partially, runs through Dallas. The Nittany Lions need Oklahoma to beat Texas in the Big 12 title game, but miss the playoffs and fill the conference’s guaranteed spot in the Sugar Bowl. And there are two possible, albeit unlikely, ways to make that happen.
Ohio State blowout
College Football Playoff committee chair Rob Mullens said Tuesday night that Oklahoma has “a little bit stronger schedule right now than Ohio State.” That will not change on Saturday.
The No. 5 Sooners face No. 14 Texas (Noon, ABC), while the No. 6 Buckeyes play No. 21 Northwestern (8 p.m., FOX).
This seems pretty straightforward then, right? Oklahoma has the stronger schedule entering the weekend, so if it beats a higher-ranked team than Ohio State, it should stay above Urban Meyer’s crew. And it probably will.
Unless the Sooners’ vaunted offense lays an egg (or Heisman-caliber quarterback Kyler Murray gets hurt), and Ohio State blows the doors off Northwestern. Dwayne Haskins, Parris Campbell, KJ Hill and the Buckeye passing game tore through Michigan’s No. 1-ranked defense in a 62-39 drubbing, and it can do it again to an above average, but nothing special Pat Fitzgerald defense.
Plus, Ohio State has a history of this sort of thing. Remember 2014? Ohio State made a statement with its 59-0 domination of Wisconsin in Indy to move it from No. 5 to the final four.
If Ohio State reaches the playoff, joining Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame, then Oklahoma — as Big 12 champion — would go to the Sugar Bowl and face Georgia. Michigan would play the Pac-12 champion in Pasadena, leaving some combination of Florida, LSU, Penn State and the Group of 5 representative in the Fiesta and Peach Bowls.
Of course, the odds of this happening are slim. Oklahoma is averaging 50.3 points per game, more than any other team in the country. To think Texas’ defense will shut down the Sooners and make this game ugly is crazy. But crazy is what Penn State fans are clinging to right now.
Which brings us to our second scenario...
Georgia beats Alabama
This might actually be more realistic than Option 1. And that’s saying something.
Alabama, a juggernaut in every sense of the word, is seen as invincible. The Crimson Tide were two-touchdown favorites on the road at No. 3 LSU a month ago (and won 29-0), and they’re significant favorites again in the SEC title game, laying 13 against No. 4 Georgia. For reference, Penn State was an 11.5-point favorite against Maryland right before kickoff last weekend. Yeah.
But the Bulldogs (11-1) have a 36.3 percent chance to pull off the upset, per ESPN’s FPI, when the two SEC powerhouses meet on Saturday (4 p.m., CBS). Georgia has been clicking offensively since its disappointing 36-16 loss to LSU on Oct. 13. Since then, Dawgs quarterback Jake Fromm has completed 72.9 percent of his passes with an 11-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, while De’Andre Swift has rushed for 600 yards in that five-game span.
But even if it happens, how does Georgia shocking ‘Bama have anything to do with Penn State? Because it greatly impacts the final four and, subsequently, the New Year’s Six slots.
In this scenario, Penn State needs Georgia, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma to win their conference championship games. This would put the Dawgs, Clemson, Notre Dame and probably still Alabama in the playoff; the Crimson Tide is too highly thought of by the committee to drop out at 12-1. Now, the Buckeyes face the Pac-12 winner in the Rose Bowl, and the Sooners play the next highest-ranked SEC team (a.k.a. Florida) in the Sugar Bowl.
That would leave Michigan, LSU, Penn State and the Group of 5 representative as Peach and Fiesta Bowl teams.
If Georgia loses to Alabama and Oklahoma gets into the playoff over Ohio State, well, the Nittany Lions are out of luck. At that point, it’ll be safe to narrow flight options to Orlando and Tampa.