Conference title week has arrived, but clear answers have not when it comes to the national bowl picture.
Even with only one Saturday left before the College Football Playoff committee makes its final decision, a lot can still dictate the Playoff and New Year’s Six games. And how those scenarios unfold will have a domino effect on lower-tier matchups for the SEC and other conferences. So while there’s a good ballpark estimate on possible destinations for a number of schools, nothing is set in stone until Selection Sunday.
For now, here’s a good stab at where each SEC school will wind up playing:
|Peach (Dec. 31, Atlanta) — CFP||#1 Alabama||#4 Ohio State||Top 4, Playoff rankings|
|Fiesta (Dec. 31, Glendale) — CFP||#2 Clemson||#3 Washington||Top 4, Playoff rankings|
|Orange (Dec. 30, Miami) — NY6||Michigan||Florida State||Big Ten/SEC/ND vs ACC #1|
|Sugar (Jan. 2, New Orleans) — NY6||Auburn||Oklahoma||SEC #1 vs Big 12 #1|
|Cotton (Jan. 2, Arlington) — NY6||Penn State||W. Michigan||At-large vs at-large|
|Rose (Jan. 2, Pasadena) — NY6||Wisconsin||USC||Big Ten #1 vs Pac 12 #1|
|Citrus (Dec. 31, Orlando)||LSU||Louisville||SEC #2 vs ACC/Big Ten|
|Outback (Jan. 2, Tampa)||Florida||Nebraska||SEC#3-8 vs Big Ten #2-4|
|TaxSlayer (Dec. 31, Jacksonville)||Tennessee||Miami||SEC #3-8 vs ACC/Big Ten|
|Music City (Dec. 30, Nashville)||Georgia||Minnesota||SEC #3-8 vs ACC/Big Ten|
|Texas (Dec. 28, Houston)||Texas A&M||Kansas State||SEC #3-8 vs Big 12 #4|
|Belk (Dec. 29, Charlotte)||Arkansas||UNC||SEC #3-8 vs ACC #3-6|
|Liberty (Dec. 30, Memphis)||Kentucky||TCU||SEC #3-8 vs Big 12 #5|
|Birmingham (Dec. 29, Birmingham)||South Carolina||Tulsa||SEC #9 vs American|
|Independence (Dec. 26, Shreveport)||Vanderbilt||Wake Forest||SEC #10 vs ACC|
|Armed Forces (Dec. 23, Fort Worth)||Mississippi State||Navy||**Big 12 vs Navy|
|No bowls: Ole Miss, Missouri||**Replaced by fill-in|
College Football Playoff
Ohio State needed double-overtime drama at home, but beating No. 3 Michigan should be enough to keep the Buckeyes within the top four. Just barely. The September win at Oklahoma has done wonders for that resume.
Yeah, the Playoff committee’s first stated criteria is whether a team has won its conference championship. But, in addition to factoring in strength of schedule and head-to-head competition, the committee also can do whatever the hell it wants in order to select the four best teams. Oklahoma is a better win than LSU is for Wisconsin, and if the Badgers beat Penn State, the Buckeyes have a head-to-head win and better record vs. the Big Ten champs.
Ohio State likely would be Alabama’s semifinal opponent if we factor in the rankings boost Clemson and Washington will receive should they win their conferences. The Crimson Tide, being a near-lock for the No. 1 seed, would play in Atlanta because of its proximity to Tuscaloosa.
New Year’s Six
By completely screwing the pooch against Vanderbilt, Tennessee should expect to fall out of the Top 25. That eliminates the Vols from possibly making the Sugar Bowl, which invites the highest-ranked SEC team assuming Alabama makes the Playoff as conference champion.
Auburn now has the inside track for New Orleans by virtue of its No. 13 ranking entering this weekend. The Tigers lost to No. 1 Alabama by the same margin that No. 15 Florida lost to No. 14 Florida State. Unranked LSU won convincingly on the road against Texas A&M, but it is unlikely the committee would bump the Bayou Bengals higher than Auburn because of LSU’s head-to-head loss at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Week 4.
The winner of Saturday’s Bedlam rivalry game will represent the Big 12 in the Sugar Bowl. I’ve got Oklahoma beating Oklahoma State at home.
The only other SEC team with even a remote chance of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl is Florida. If the Gators somehow upset Alabama in the SEC championship game, either the Sugar or Cotton bowls would be a possibility. Anything other than a win on Saturday relegates UF to the lower tier of bowl games.
After the Playoff and New Year’s Six games are decided, the Citrus Bowl gets first pick of the remaining SEC teams. Presuming the Orange Bowl selects a Big Ten team — and with two-loss Michigan and the eventual three-loss Big Ten runner-up sitting there, that’s a near-certainty — the Citrus also would select an ACC school.
Contractually, the Citrus is obligated to invite the winningest SEC team, which would be Florida. However, the bowl also can pick a school within one win of the winningest team. Tennessee and LSU also qualify in this case. The Vols, as mentioned earlier, have played like garbage recently. The Gators should end the season with two consecutive losses, and also got absolutely embarrassed by Michigan in last year’s Citrus Bowl.
LSU, meanwhile, picked up big wins at Arkansas and at Texas A&M in the past three weeks. The Tigers are also keeping the beloved Ed Orgeron around as head coach, and are expected to retain defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Louisville’s November collapse likely puts Florida State in the Orange and drops the Lamar Jackson-led Cardinals down to the Citrus.
So by virtue of the potential matchup and the excitement surrounding LSU, the Tigers should get the invite.
The “Six Pack”
These are the Outback, TaxSlayer, Music City, Belk, Texas and Liberty bowl games. The SEC office collaborates with the schools and bowl committees when filling these slots.
Let’s go rapid-fire:
- Outback: Florida is the best team left on the board. The Gators, if selected, almost certainly will draw 9-3 Nebraska. That’s because Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State all look destined to play in the New Year’s Six. UF hasn’t played in the Outback since 2010, and Tampa is just down the road.
- TaxSlayer: Tennessee fans travel well. Jacksonville is a manageable road trip from Knoxville and a pretty accessible city overall. Nearby Miami also should help with attendance numbers for this game.
- Music City: The bowl’s executive director already has publicly expressed his contingent’s interest in the Bulldogs. It’s been over a decade since Georgia made the trek up to Nashville, and Minnesota would match up pretty favorably. With big recent wins against Michigan and Nebraska, expect Iowa to make the Holiday Bowl over the Golden Gophers. There’s an easy argument that Texas A&M is a stronger team than the Bulldogs, but Kevin Sumlin’s team also made the Music City just last year. Bowl committees usually opt for variety when possible.
- Texas: The Aggies are the only 8-win team left on the board at this point, and their fans won’t have any trouble converging in Houston for this game. TCU would be the sexier matchup, but Kansas State played in the Liberty Bowl last year and enters this week’s game with the Horned Frogs owning a better record.
- Belk: This might be the trickiest to fill, with both Kentucky and South Carolina hanging around. Arkansas played in the Liberty Bowl last year, and also played TCU this season. So while it might not make the most geographic sense, the Razorbacks probably wind up playing in Charlotte, as our own Eric Bolin suggests. Nearby UNC would guarantee that at least one team’s contingent travels well if it’s too much of a hike for Hogs fans.
- Liberty: The upset win at Louisville changes a lot. Memphis is only six hours from Lexington, and the Wildcats’ basketball team plays at Ole Miss — just over an hour a way — the night before the Liberty Bowl. Right now, Kentucky’s high-scoring offensive attack pitted against a team like TCU seems more appealing then a 6-win South Carolina or Vanderbilt.
Rounding out the group
After those six bowls are filled, the Birmingham Bowl gets first dibs on the leftover teams, followed by the Independence Bowl.
South Carolina has a head-to-head win against Vanderbilt, and likely would travel better to Birmingham. Vanderbilt is now guaranteed the Independence Bowl or better by virtue of upsetting Tennessee. The 6-6 Commodores have been better than most predicted, but it’d be hard to envision a bowl picking them over the Gamecocks.
Lastly, Mississippi State is guaranteed to make a bowl game at 5-7. Here’s why:
There are currently 74 bowl-eligible teams and 80 potential bowl slots. Army is 6-5 with two FCS wins, while Hawaii is 6-7 following a 13-game regular season. Both schools will fill bowl slots, so that leaves four spots open.
South Alabama and Louisiana-Lafayette are both 5-6 entering this weekend. If either wins on Saturday, that school would also qualify for a bowl. So that leaves two slots open at minimum, and four at the most.
Then we go to APR scores. Since Vanderbilt is now 6-6, the 5-7 teams with the best APR scores are:
- North Texas (984)
- Mississippi State (971)
- Texas (971)
- Northern Illinois (970)
The Bulldogs hold a tiebreaker over Texas in this instance because their most recently-published single-year APR score (970) is higher than Texas’ (968). Rejoice, MSU fans.
Looking at the most likely open bowl spots, the Big 12 has only six bowl-eligible teams to fill its eight tie-in berths. Texas and Texas Tech are both 5-7, but as pointed out above, Mississippi State’s APR score gives it the advantage. Of the lowest tier of Big 12 bowl games (Cactus, Armed Forces and Heart of Dallas), the Armed Forces Bowl would make sense. Both MSU and Navy put up huge point totals.
In all, the SEC will place 12 of its 14 teams in a bowl game this season.
SEC standings through Week 13
|SEC WEST||SEC EAST|
|Alabama (12-0, 8-0)||Florida (8-3, 6-2)|
|Auburn (8-4, 5-3)||Tennessee (8-4, 4-4)|
|LSU (7-4, 5-3)||Georgia (7-5, 4-4)|
|Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4)||Kentucky (7-5, 4-4)|
|Arkansas (7-5, 3-5)||South Carolina (6-6, 3-5)|
|Miss State (5-7, 3-5)||Vanderbilt (6-6, 3-5)|
|Ole Miss (5-7, 2-6)||Missouri (4-8, 2-6)|