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Penn State football: Nittany Lions rank No. 14 in College Football Playoff rankings, eying New Year’s Six bowl

After a convincing win and surrounding help, the Nittany Lions took their largest leap ever in the College Football Playoff rankings — putting themselves squarely in the hunt for a New Year’s Six bowl.

Penn State is No. 14 in the committee’s third set of rankings, which were released Tuesday night. The Nittany Lions moved up six spots from No. 20 after five teams ranked ahead of them fell in Week 11.

Alabama still sits at No. 1, while Clemson, Notre Dame and Michigan predictably round out the top four in that order. Georgia is on the outside looking in at No. 5, followed by Oklahoma, LSU, Washington State, West Virginia and Ohio State.

Penn State is one of four Big Ten teams in the top 25. The Wolverines and Buckeyes lead the way, while Northwestern — which captured the Big Ten West crown over the weekend — cracked the top 25 for the first time this year, coming in at No. 22. Michigan State and Iowa fell from Nos. 18 and 21, respectively, out of the rankings following losses.

With the third edition of the rankings in, let’s take a look at where Penn State is projected to land in the postseason and which games are ones to keep an eye on this weekend.

New Year’s Six chances

Here are the Nittany Lions’ national media bowl projections:

The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel: vs. No. 9 West Virginia, Peach Bowl

ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura: vs. No. 9 West Virginia, Fiesta Bowl

ESPN’s Mitch Sherman: vs. No. 11 Central Florida, Fiesta Bowl

CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm: vs. No. 17 Kentucky, Citrus Bowl

Sporting News’ Bill Bender: vs. No. 13 Florida, Citrus Bowl

Sports Illustrated’s Eric Single: vs. No. 21 Mississippi State, Outback Bowl

SB Nation’s Jason Kirk: vs. No. 17 Kentucky, Citrus Bowl

USA Today’s Erick Smith: vs. No. 17 Kentucky, Citrus Bowl

Stadium’s Brett McMurphy: vs. Texas A&M, Outback Bowl

247 Sports’ Brad Crawford: vs. Texas A&M, TaxSlayer Bowl

(Note: All projections were made before the playoff rankings were released.)

Like last week, Florida is the most likely destination for the Nittany Lions. Four of the 10 projections peg Penn State for the Citrus Bowl, while three others have either the Outback or TaxSlayer Bowl.

Now, the non-Citrus Bowl projections to Florida are puzzling. Unless the projectors think Penn State will lose to either Rutgers or Maryland to close out the regular season, the Nittany Lions will be the third-most attractive Big Ten option behind Michigan and Ohio State — programs likely bound for the playoff and Rose Bowl, respectively. Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa all have four losses already. McMurphy, Crawford and Single picked Northwestern to play in the Citrus Bowl, bumping Penn State down a slot or two. But even though the Wildcats won the West, the Citrus Bowl — the conference’s No. 1 non-New Year’s Six bowl — is not required to take them.

So as long as the Nittany Lions don’t trip up against the Scarlet Knights or Terps, the Citrus Bowl spot should be theirs. That is, unless Penn State sneaks into another New Year’s Six bowl — which is a legit possibility.

A 9-3 Nittany Lion team always had under-the-radar, at-large prospects. But after moving up to No. 14, they became more real.

Tuesday’s top-25 rankings show what the committee thinks of Penn State. The Nittany Lions — who need to finish in the top-12 — are the second-highest ranked three-loss team, behind only Florida.

Palm, who predicted Penn State would move to No. 12, thought the Nittany Lions’ strength of schedule would work in their favor. Penn State’s strength of schedule ranks No. 7 in the country, per Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings, and the committee takes that into consideration.

Before the rankings came out, Bonagura and Sherman placed Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl, while Mandel had James Franklin’s squad in the Peach Bowl. As Mandel noted, any number of three-loss teams could fill that final at-large New Year’s Six spot. Kentucky, Florida, Texas and Iowa State are in the running, as well.

With that in mind, what kind of help could the Nittany Lions get this weekend? A lot, actually. Let’s take a look.

Rooting interests

Here are two games that matter to the Nittany Lions’ Peach Bowl and Fiesta Bowl odds:

  • No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 12 Syracuse; Saturday, 2:30 p.m., NBC: It’s been mentioned before, but the Nittany Lions want Notre Dame to keep winning. If the Fighting Irish go undefeated, they’ll be in the College Football Playoff. If they lose to either Syracuse or USC, Brian Kelly’s group might take an at-large New Year’s Six slot away from Penn State. The Orange Bowl is a national semifinal, meaning the ACC — and by association, Notre Dame — does not have a New Year’s Six tie-in. A one- or two-loss Fighting Irish squad would likely end up in the Fiesta Bowl or Peach Bowl, possibly pushing Penn State out of contention.
  • No. 16 Iowa State at No. 15 Texas; Saturday, 8 p.m., Longhorn Network: Either way, a three-loss team gets a quality win here. But better Iowa State than Texas. Both teams have signature victories. (Texas beat Oklahoma in a shootout; Iowa State shut down West Virginia.) Both teams share common opponents with the Nittany Lions. (The Longhorns lost to Maryland; the Cyclones fell to Iowa.) And both have a decent shot at reaching the Big 12 title game. But rooting for Iowa State over Texas comes down to perception. Should Texas beat the Cyclones and finish 9-3 but not reach the conference championship, it might be tempting for the committee to rank the Longhorns in the top-12 and give the blueblood an at-large bid. But does Iowa State really move the needle? The committee isn’t supposed to look at its rankings that way, but when picking at-large matchups, it’s hard to deny that plays a role.

And for those optimists out there, there’s still a chance for Penn State to reach the Rose Bowl. No, this isn’t a joke.

  • No. 10 Ohio State at Maryland; Saturday, noon, ABC: If the Buckeyes lose on Saturday and fall to Michigan, Ohio State closes the regular season at 9-3 with three losses in a five-week span. Meanwhile, the Wolverines would likely be on their way to the playoff, leaving the Rose Bowl open to the highest-ranked Big Ten team. How would the committee compare Penn State and Ohio State? The Buckeyes hold the one-point head-to-head win back in September, but the Nittany Lions would be trending upward with wins in five of their final six games. Ohio State has an 82 percent chance to beat the Terps, per ESPN’s FPI, so it probably won’t matter. But it’s worth keeping an eye on.

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