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Penn State football: Nittany Lions ranked No. 14 in first College Football Playoff rankings, analysis, bowl projections

This time last year, when the first edition of the College Football Playoff rankings were released, the Nittany Lions had final-four hopes. Now, Penn State is playing for a non-playoff New Year’s Six bowl game — but judging by where they stand in the initial rankings, the Nittany Lions have a solid shot at making it there.

Penn State is No. 14 in the College Football Playoff committee’s first rankings, which were released Tuesday night.

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

Penn State is one of four Big Ten teams in the committee’s rankings. The Wolverines and Buckeyes lead the way, Iowa is hanging around at No. 16 after losing to Penn State last weekend, and that’s it. Michigan State, even with its win over Penn State, didn’t make the cut. Neither did Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions’ next home opponent.

With the initial 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.


Last week, bowl projections across the country had Penn State pegged for a trip to Florida, to either the Citrus or Outback Bowl. But after a much-needed win over Iowa, Penn State’s postseason picture got a little more interesting.

Here are the Nittany Lions’ national media bowl projections:

(Note: All projections were made before the playoff rankings were released, and all rankings reflect the committee’s initial top 25.)

ESPN’s Mitch Sherman: vs. No. 6 Georgia, Peach Bowl

ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura: vs. No. 9 Kentucky, Citrus Bowl

CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm: vs. Stanford, Holiday Bowl

USA Today’s Erick Smith: vs. No. 11 Florida, Citrus Bowl

Sports Illustrated’s Eric Single: vs. No. 11 Florida, Citrus Bowl

SB Nation’s Jason Kirk: vs. No. 3 LSU, Fiesta Bowl

Sporting News’ Bill Bender: vs. No. 13 West Virginia, Fiesta Bowl

Stadium’s Brett McMurphy: vs. No. 9 Kentucky, Citrus Bowl

Most notably, three of the eight predictors picked Penn State to reach a New Year’s Six bowl, which is a very real possibility sitting at No. 14 after holding on against the Hawkeyes.

If Penn State beats Michigan and runs the table — and it has a 21.4 percent chance to win out, per ESPN’s FPI — then 10-2 would assure the Nittany Lions of a spot in the Rose Bowl as the Big Ten representative or in the Peach or Fiesta Bowl as an at-large selection by the committee.

But even a 9-3 Nittany Lion team could get into one of the two at-large New Year’s Six games. Four nine-win teams since the playoff was introduced in 2014 have reached New Year’s Six games as at-large bids. The Nittany Lions have only a 31.4 percent chance to beat Michigan, but the odds to beat Wisconsin (78.9 percent), Rutgers (97.7 percent) and Maryland (89.0 percent) after this weekend are high.

Not to mention Penn State is the second-highest ranked two-loss team, ahead of Texas and Utah and just behind Florida. Clearly the selection committee thinks highly of James Franklin’s crew. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s the case when the final rankings come out on Dec. 2.

Rooting interests

With the Rose Bowl unlikely, Penn State is essentially playing for one of three at-large New Year’s Six spots, with the fourth going to the highest-ranked Group of 5 team.

Obviously, there is still a quarter of the regular season and conference championships left to be played. But here are some Week 10 games with New Year’s Six implications for the Nittany Lions.

  • No. 3 Notre Dame at Northwestern: It might be tough for Penn State fans to root for the Fighting Irish, and that’s understandable. But every single one of the bowl projections referenced above have Notre Dame in the playoff for two reasons: 1) because Brian Kelly’s group is undefeated and 2) because it has a 32.4 percent chance to win out, the fifth-best odds of any Power 5 team. If the Fighting Irish lose, though, they might not make it into the playoff. And the Orange Bowl is a semifinal this year, meaning the ACC — and by association, Notre Dame — does not have a New Year’s Six tie-in. So, if Notre Dame loses to Northwestern and misses the playoff as a result, they would likely take an at-large bid away from one of the current contenders — possibly Penn State.
  • No. 15 Utah at Arizona State: With seven teams boasting a 5-3 record or better, the Pac-12 can still go in several different directions. For now, though, Utah and Washington State are atop their divisions and look to play for a spot in the Rose Bowl. If the Cougars and Utes win out and reach the conference title game at 11-1 and 10-2, respectively, the loser could earn an at-large bid. But Utah especially can’t afford another regular-season loss if it wants to be in that at-large conversation. According to ESPN’s FPI, this Saturday is Utah’s trickiest game remaining on its schedule; Herm Edwards’ Arizona State has a 31 percent chance to pull off the upset at home, where it beat Michigan State in September. Penn State wants the Pac-12 muddied so that no team is ranked high enough for the Peach or Fiesta Bowl. A Sun Devil win would help in that regard.
  • Rutgers at Wisconsin: This should be all but a formality, but Penn State fans should pull for a Badger blowout. Wisconsin has lost two of its last three, including a 31-17 defeat at the hands of Northwestern last weekend. So it makes sense that they missed the top-25 cut this time around. But with the Nittany Lions playing Wisconsin next week, if the Badgers can wiggle their way into the rankings with a dominant win over hapless Rutgers, it’d be a boost for Penn State’s resume. Then, the Nittany Lions would have to take care of business next Saturday.

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