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Penn State football: Nittany Lions ranked No. 12 in College Football Playoff rankings, eye New Year’s Six bowl

Penn State didn’t look like a top-20 team in its ugly 13-point win against Rutgers over the weekend — but the Nittany Lions are still firmly in contention for an at-large New Year’s Six spot.

Penn State is No. 12 in the College Football Playoff committee’s fourth set of rankings, which were released Tuesday night. The Nittany Lions moved up two spots from No. 14 after a couple teams ranked ahead of them fell in Week 12.

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

Penn State is one of four Big Ten teams in the top 25. The Wolverines and Buckeyes, who meet Saturday in a game with playoff implications, lead the way. Northwestern, which has won six straight Big Ten games, came in at No. 19. No other conference foe made the cut — but Pitt did at No. 24. The Panthers, which moved into the AP’s top-25 rankings on Sunday, lost to Penn State by 45 points in September, but are vying for the ACC crown.

With the fourth 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.

Fiesta Bowl bound?

Here are the Nittany Lions’ national media bowl projections:

The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel: vs. No. 15 Kentucky, Citrus Bowl

ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura: vs. No. 11 Florida, Fiesta Bowl

ESPN’s Mitch Sherman: vs. No. 15 Kentucky, Outback Bowl

CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm: vs. No. 7 LSU, Peach Bowl

Sporting News’ Bill Bender: vs. No. 18 Mississippi State, Outback Bowl

Sports Illustrated’s Eric Single: vs. No. 18 Mississippi State, Citrus Bowl

SB Nation’s Jason Kirk: vs. No. 7 LSU, Fiesta Bowl

USA Today’s Erick Smith: vs. No. 6 Oklahoma, Fiesta Bowl

Stadium’s Brett McMurphy: vs. No. 11 Florida, Citrus Bowl

247 Sports’ Brad Crawford: vs. No. 7 LSU, Peach Bowl

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

This week’s projections illustrate the kind of season Penn State is having: Half of the experts have the Nittany Lions in the New Year’s Six, while a couple peg James Franklin’s squad for a trip to the Outback Bowl.

If Penn State falls to Maryland as double-digit favorites at home — like it did against Michigan State in early October — then the Outback Bowl is a very real possibility. But assuming the Nittany Lions do enough for a W, the Citrus Bowl ought to be considered a safety net, with a New Year’s Six berth within reach.

However, the Nittany Lions aren’t alone in eying a spot in the Peach or Fiesta Bowl. Really, there are five teams vying for two New Year’s Six slots: Penn State, Florida, Texas, West Virginia and Kentucky.

It looks as if Central Florida will snag the Group of 5 guaranteed berth, while LSU seems destined for an at-large New Year’s Six slot. The Tigers (9-2) won’t be in-play for the Sugar Bowl as long as Georgia loses to ‘Bama in the SEC title game, and even if LSU loses at Texas A&M this weekend, Ed Orgeron’s crew should have enough clout with the committee to remain in the top 12.

So, that means the final two New Year’s Six spots come down to the Nittany Lions, Mountaineers, Longhorns, Gators and Wildcats. Florida and Kentucky can’t both make it; that would set up an all-SEC matchup in the Fiesta or Peach. And given the state of the Big 12, it would likely be either Texas or West Virginia, not both.

But a trio of games this weekend have a lot to do with clearing up the New Year’s Six picture. And thankfully for Nittany Lion fans, all three will be wrapped up by time Penn State kicks off against Maryland. Let’s take a look.

Rooting interests

No. 6 Oklahoma at No. 13 West Virginia; 8 p.m., Friday, ESPN: Nittany Lion fans should pull for the Sooners. Oklahoma (10-1) is already locked into a New Year’s Six game. But West Virginia is one loss away from dropping into the Alamo Bowl. If the Mountaineers win — and they have a 48.8 percent chance to do so, per ESPN’s Football Power Index — not only will their ranking get a significant boost, but Dana Holgorsen’s team will play for the Big 12 title. A loss in Morgantown effectively knocks them out of NY6 contention, though.

No. 11 Florida at Florida State; Noon, Saturday, ABC: Florida is a New Year’s Six roadblock for the Nittany Lions — and this weekend is the last chance for a Gator loss. Dan Mullen’s side is a six-point favorite for its rivalry game in Tallahassee. That number may seem low; the Seminoles have struggled to a 5-6 record in Willie Taggart’s inaugural season. But Florida State, led by pass-rusher Brian Burns (10 sacks, 10.5 TFLs), beat Boston College last weekend and have the talent to upset Florida. That would be huge for Penn State’s Fiesta and Peach Bowl push.

No. 16 Washington at No. 8 Washington State; 8:30 p.m., Friday, FOX: A win by the Huskies would eliminate the Pac-12 from final-four contention — but it also might guarantee two New Year’s Six slots for the conference out west. With a victory on Friday, Washington would play Utah for the Pac-12 title, with the winner going to the Rose Bowl. That would more than likely put a 10-2 Washington State squad in the Peach or Fiesta Bowl, possibly taking a spot away from Penn State.

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