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Penn State football: The Nittany Lions can still make the Fiesta, Peach Bowl with three losses

It was only three weeks ago that CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm — an industry leader in bowl projections and bracketology — pegged Penn State for a return to the Rose Bowl. Now, he has the Nittany Lions placed in the Pinstripe Bowl.

That’s the kind of season Penn State is having. College Football Playoff dreams have crumbled, and days after a 42-7 drubbing at Michigan, this Penn State fan base will be relieved just to get nine wins.

But if they do, the Nittany Lions’ New Year’s Six bowl prospects will still be alive. Barely.

Of seven national media bowl projections, only one has Penn State bound for a New Year’s Six slot; Sporting News’ Bill Bender believes James Franklin’s squad will face West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. That may seem insane. The general consensus is the Citrus Bowl, with Palm and 247 Sports’ Brad Crawford going with the Pinstripe Bowl and TaxSlayer Bowl, respectively. The Outback Bowl is a possibility, too.

But there’s precedent for three-loss teams squeezing their way into a game like the Fiesta Bowl or Peach Bowl. Nine teams in the College Football Playoff era have made it to a New Year’s Six contest 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, 2014 Peach Bowl: The Rebels finished the regular season 9-3 with a 5-3 record in-conference. Two of their losses were close (10-7 at LSU, 35-31 vs. Auburn) while Hugh Freeze’s team was blown out in November (30-0 at Arkansas). Sound familiar? However, Bo Wallace and the Rebels defeated three ranked opponents: No. 3 Alabama and No. 14 Texas A&M in October and No. 4 Mississippi State in the season-ending Egg Bowl. Ole Miss lost to TCU in the Peach Bowl, 42-3.
  • Arizona, 2014 Fiesta Bowl: The Wildcats finished the regular season 10-2, picking up their third loss in the Pac-12 title game. Rich Rodriguez’s group beat No. 2 Oregon in October and earned ranked wins in November over No. 20 Utah and No. 13 Arizona State. The Wildcats lost a rematch with Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship and later fell to Boise State, 38-31, in the Fiesta Bowl.
  • Wisconsin, 2016 Cotton Bowl: While Penn State fans readied themselves for the Rose Bowl, the Badgers played Central Michigan. Paul Chryst’s crew came to Indianapolis with a 10-2 mark before losing the conference crown in come-from-behind fashion to Penn State. In the regular season, the Badgers boasted two top-10 wins: at No. 8 Michigan State on Sept. 24, and at No. 7 Nebraska on Oct. 29. Wisconsin beat P.J. Fleck’s Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl, 24-16.
  • Auburn, 2017 Peach Bowl: The Tigers lost to Central Florida, 34-27, in Atlanta — but they deserved to be there. Auburn beat No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama in November and lost to No. 3 Clemson by a touchdown in Week 2. With the head-to-head tiebreaker over ‘Bama, Auburn represented the SEC West in the conference title game with a spot in the College Football Playoff on the line. The Tigers were manhandled by Georgia, 28-7, for their third loss of the year.

So, how do the Nittany Lions stack up to those situations? All-in-all, not well.

Three of those four teams won their respective divisions and made it to the conference championship. With losses against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, the Nittany Lions have no chance of reaching Indy.

Additionally, all four of them had at least two wins over top-15 opponents, while three of them beat top-three squads. Penn State’s resume features a win over then-No. 18 Iowa. And that’s it. Nittany Lion fans will be hoping Wisconsin — now 6-3 after a 31-17 win over Rutgers — appears in the CFP rankings Tuesday night, but even that might not be enough.

To reach the Fiesta Bowl, like Bender predicted, or the Peach Bowl, the Nittany Lions are going to need help — and they’ll get some this weekend. At least two teams ranked ahead of them in the AP Poll will lose, with No. 2 Clemson traveling to No. 17 Boston College and No. 1 Alabama hosting No. 18 Mississippi State. Plus, seven other teams ranked ahead of Penn State play on the road.

Should Penn State beat Wisconsin, Rutgers and Maryland, outside chaos could guide the Nittany Lions to a high enough ranking in the final CFP top-25 on Dec. 2.

But there’s a reason why the vast majority of bowl projections have Penn State flying to Florida, not Atlanta or Arizona. On paper, the Nittany Lions don’t stack up to the four three-loss teams that made a New Year’s Six at-large bowl in the past. That much is indisputable.

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