Penn State’s College Football Playoff hopes are over with its loss to Michigan State on Saturday. But a return trip to the Rose Bowl isn’t out of the question.
Now that playing for a national title is off the board, here is a breakdown of what bowl games the Nittany Lions could realistically find themselves in two months from now.
Yes, this is still a very real possibility. In fact, CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm — an industry leader in bowl projections and bracketology — predicts Penn State will face Washington in “The Granddaddy of Them All” on Jan. 1, 2019.
So how does this happen for the Nittany Lions? Basically, they need to win out and need Ohio State to make the College Football Playoff.
Running the table may not look promising after a debilitating loss to Michigan State. But ESPN’s Football Power Index pegs Penn State’s chances to win out at 19.3 percent — the sixth-highest odds among Power 5 programs. FPI projects Penn State as favorites in all of its remaining games except for its Nov. 3 trip to Michigan. The Wolverines, who just mauled Wisconsin 38-13 at home, have a 61.9 percent chance to beat the Nittany Lions.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes, who looked shaky in Saturday’s 16-point win over Minnesota, are still looked at as a national semifinal lock. According to ESPN’s Playoff Predictor, Ohio State has a 72 percent chance to reach the final four. Only two teams have better odds: Clemson (82 percent) and Alabama (80 percent).
But, if Wisconsin or Iowa beat Ohio State in the conference title game, this is all null and void. The Rose Bowl takes the champions of the Big Ten and Pac-12 and only deviates from that if the champion also reaches the College Football Playoff. Then, the bowl takes the highest-ranked team — which could be Penn State.
At-large New Year’s six
If the Nittany Lions don’t make it to the Rose Bowl, odds are it’s because they lost again. But even then, Penn State would still have a chance to go to its third consecutive New Year’s Six bowl game.
Somewhat surprisingly, nine teams in the College Football Playoff era have made it to a New Year’s Six game with three losses or more. Five of those teams got in by way of conference tie-in, but four others were at-large situations: Ole Miss in the 2014 Peach Bowl, Arizona in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, Wisconsin in the 2016 Cotton Bowl and Auburn in last season’s Peach Bowl. So there’s precedent for this happening.
If the Nittany Lions ended up 9-3, they could earn a berth to the Peach Bowl in Atlanta or a return to the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona. The Nittany Lions would play the highest-ranked Group of 5 program (likely Central Florida) or another at-large opponent.
However, no one — from ESPN to Sports Illustrated to Sporting News — is projecting Penn State in the Peach or Fiesta Bowl.
Flight to Florida
The Sunshine State is Penn State’s most realistic destination: the Citrus Bowl in Orlando or Outback Bowl in Tampa.
After a listless loss to Michigan State, 9-3 appears more likely than 10-2. Even 8-4 isn’t out of the equation with the Nittany Lions playing Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin back-to-back-to-back.
The Citrus Bowl is the second-best Big Ten option after the Rose Bowl, followed by the Outback Bowl and Holiday Bowl (San Diego).
In both the Citrus and Outback Bowls, the Nittany Lions would play an SEC team. ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura predicts Penn State will play Florida in the Citrus Bowl, while ESPN colleague Mitch Sherman and Sporting News reporter Bill Bender have the Nittany Lions facing Kentucky in the Outback Bowl. The Gators and Wildcats are currently ranked Nos. 11 and 14, respectively, in the AP Poll.
However, the season is only halfway over.
LSU or Georgia could lose two more times and fall out of the playoff and New Year’s Six conversation. Texas A&M, currently No. 17 in the AP Poll, has won three straight. And who knows? Trace McSorley, James Franklin and the Nittany Lions could even face former Penn State playcaller Joe Moorhead and Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 22 in the country with a 4-2 record and could get to eight or nine wins with their remaining schedule (at LSU, Texas A&M, Louisiana Tech, at Alabama, Arkansas, at Ole Miss).
With six games to go, a lot can happen. McSorley and the Nittany Lions could end up 10-2 with a chance at Rose Bowl redemption. Or, Penn State could fold and finish 8-4 with a disappointing trip to the Outback Bowl.
We’ll find out more about which direction the Nittany Lions are headed this weekend, when Penn State travels to Indiana. The Nittany Lions and Hoosiers kick at 3:30 p.m. on ABC. Penn State opens as a 14-point favorite, according to Vegas Insider.