Two things I really do like about the current bowl structure with the College Football Playoff:

  1. It’s no muss, no fuss, once the final rankings are announced. You go where your ranking says you should go, according to the formula. You can argue the ranking, but not the destination.
  2. You still have to predict the final rankings to predict the major bowls, so it keeps fun discussions like this in play. And, that’s important to college football.

Anyway, this in many ways is as much a prediction of what the final CFP rankings will look like as it will be a prediction of bowl matchups, considering Penn State is firmly in the running for a New Year’s Six bowl game. It wound up ranked No. 10 in this week’s CFP committee rankings, which of course puts it on the cusp of that practically guaranteed area for a trip to the Fiesta, Cotton, Orange or Peach.

Penn State, for what it’s worth, is going to be a difficult team to gauge for those of us outside the committee down the stretch, which is why I doubt there is going to be very much consensus on where this team will play its bowl game before the final rankings are released on Dec. 3. Right now, the Nittany Lions are ranked essentially as the fourth-best two-loss team, and it would be totally on them if they lost one of their final two games, to slumping Nebraska at Beaver Stadium on Saturday or at lowly Maryland next weekend. But, I don’t know if even two blowout wins guarantee them very much, especially considering USC is right behind them in the rankings and has UCLA and the Pac-12 title game (coming off a bye, mind you) to play. The Trojans can easily vault PSU, which then has ???? paths to possibly rise significantly in the standings.

  • Auburn losing once, which would give it three losses. It would seem strange, in a year when the SEC is down, to give a three-loss team from that conference a ranking ahead of Penn State, which has lost twice in the Big Ten*, on the road, by a combined four points, to two teams that are ranked.
  • Wisconsin losing big, to either Michigan or Ohio State in the conference title game.
  • Georgia losing big in the SEC title game, which would give it two lopsided losses.
  • Notre Dame losing to either Navy or Stanford.
  • Ohio State losing one of its final three.

*And whether you like it or not, losing twice in the Big Ten is not going to be a terrible thing in the eyes of the committee. After all, it ranks four Big Ten teams in the top 17. Only the SEC has as many. And the Big Ten has six teams in the top 25. No other conference has that many. … In the committee’s eyes, the Big Ten is a pretty competitive conference, even in a year when it seems to be down. But as always, you can debate whether it’s down because everybody seems to be losing a couple of games, or up because anybody near the top of the standings legitimately can beat anybody else.

From purely a Penn State perspective, those are the most likely scenarios to move up, without a team near the top of the rankings completely falling apart. (I guess it’s conceivable Miami can lose two out of three, but who would predict that at this point?)

That said, here is my prediction for the top 15 of the final CFP committee rankings:

  1. Alabama
  2. Miami
  3. Oklahoma
  4. Ohio State
  5. Clemson
  6. Notre Dame
  7. USC
  8. Penn State
  9. Georgia
  10. Wisconsin
  11. Auburn
  12. TCU
  13. Oklahoma State
  14. Washington
  15. Michigan State

How do I come to this? I’ll try to explain briefly.

Alabama – Wins out.

Miami – Beats Clemson in ACC title game. But essentially, that game decides the 2 and 5 seeds.

Georgia – Loses to Alabama in SEC title game, handily.

Wisconsin – Loses to Michigan and Ohio State.

USC – Beats UCLA and wins the Pac-12 title game

Ohio State – Climbs the rankings with wins over Michigan and Wisconsin. Gets in as a 2-loss team because it wins a conference title and Clemson and Notre Dame don’t. Essentially, a year after conference championship didn’t matter to Buckeyes, it will be all that matters now.

This is the part that is going to change the most as we go through this exercise week by week, obviously. But, as we sit here today, that’s where I can see this going. And once you figure that out, it’s simple to figure out the rest of it, because it’s just following the formula.

CFP No. 1

Sugar Bowl

CFP No. 4

CFP No. 2

Rose Bowl

CFP No. 3

The next game in line this season to get filled would be the Orange Bowl.

This is a unique season when two of the three bowls with tie-ins to conferences are both hosting national semifinals, which leaves the Orange as the only bowl with a conference tie-in to fill.

Only, the ACC champion in my projection — Miami — is already going to Pasadena.

So, the bowl would fill that spot with the highest-ranked ACC team, which in this scenario is simple: Clemson is No. 5 and the last team out of the playoff. So, they are in.

So, too, is the highest-ranked non champion out of the Big Ten or SEC, or Notre Dame (if the Irish rank higher than the highest-ranked Big Ten or SEC team). So, that should yield a rare fortuitous matchup for the Orange.

ACC

Orange Bowl

Highest-ranked Big Ten/SEC non-champ OR Notre Dame

The next three bowls are going to be a crapshoot, because it’s pretty much the committee’s job to furnish the best matchups possible out of what remains.

Geography is always a big deal — it’s supposed to be, anyway — with the committee, and there are two geographical locales that make sense for two teams that are going to wind up earning top bids.

USC will be the Pac-12 champion in this scenario, and the Fiesta Bowl is at least in Los Angeles’ backyard. The Peach Bowl is played in Atlanta, and Georgia at No. 9 would be a big draw there. It makes more than a little sense for the committee to slot these programs close to home.

Penn State, of course, can fit in either of those games. But, only one problem there: Georgia and USC happen to be the last two bowl opponents for Penn State, and the committee is supposed to take that into consideration, too. So, I doubt Penn State slots anywhere at this point but the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex.

The question is, who would PSU’s opponent be?

Well, that might be pretty easy, too.

The three other teams in line for spots are No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 11 Auburn and the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion (if there is one). And, I’m projecting there will be — Central Florida, even if it loses to a game to Temple, South Florida or even Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game).

Obviously, the committee isn’t going to pair Penn State against Wisconsin. And, if I were the Cotton Bowl committee, I’d be making a frantic pitch to keep UCF out of a matchup with Penn State.

Penn State is carrying that matchup from an interest perspective, frankly. And the bottom line is, Penn State fans might not pay en masse to go to Dallas over the holidays to see the Nittany Lions play a team they just paid to see play in Dublin, Ireland, in 2014 at the Croke Park Classic. It would also be the third time in five seasons the Nittany Lions and Golden Knights have met.

The Cotton Bowl hosted the forgettable Wisconsin-Western Michigan tilt last year, which drew a few more than 59,000 fans into a 100,000-seat stadium. If ever there was a bowl that would ask for a favor, it’s this one, and they might get it.

So, here are my projections:

At-large

Cotton Bowl

At-large

At-large

Peach Bowl

At-large

At-large

Fiesta Bowl

At-large

It’s not exactly a dream matchup for Penn State fans, who are undoubtedly pining for Notre Dame at this point. Plus, if you really want to see Penn State play Auburn, you’ll be able to in three years at Beaver Stadium. So…as it stands now, not the type of game I can see Penn State fans jamming the travel agencies to get to. But, we’ll see.

If you’re interested in where the rest of the Big Ten is heading, I have these predictions, too:

Citrus Bowl: Michigan State
Outback Bowl: Michigan
Holiday Bowl: Northwestern
TaxSlayer Bowl: Minnesota
Pinstripe Bowl: Iowa
Foster Farms Bowl: Indiana (assuming it beats Rutgers and Purdue to win out)

Everyone else falls short of the six wins, I believe.