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The Pac-12 bowl selection process, explained

If you're confused about how teams end up in which bowl game, you've come to the right place.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The world of Pac-12 bowl game selections can be a complicated and confusing place.* It also doesn't help that we WSU fans haven't had a lot of practice trying to figure this out over the past decade.

Besides, what we're facing this year is far different than what we faced two years ago, when -- with just six wins -- it was a question of whether we might get left out of the Pac-12's bowl tie-ins. That's obviously not the case this year, but that doesn't mean it's any less muddled for fans who are trying to figure out where our team might end up.

Thankfully, the conference has clear procedures in place, and it's not nearly as much about shady back-room deals as it was even 10 years ago.

Here's everything you need to know to try and figure out where WSU -- or any team in the Pac-12 -- will land in the postseason.

The Pac-12's bowl agreements

This is the most logical place to begin, since you're here to try and figure out where your favorite team might end up. The Pac-12 has tie-ins with seven bowl games, in the following order (that's an important piece, which we'll explain in a second):

Selection Date Game Site Affiliation
1 Jan. 1, 2016 Rose Bowl Pasadena, California Big Ten #1
2 Jan. 2, 2016 Alamo Bowl San Antonio, Texas Big 12 #2
3 Dec. 30, 2015 Holiday Bowl San Diego, California Big Ten - Tier #1
4 Dec. 26, 2015 Foster Farms Bowl Santa Clara, California Big Ten - Tier #2
5 Dec. 26, 2015 Sun Bowl El Paso, Exas ACC - Tier #1
6 Dec. 19, 2015 Las Vegas Bowl Las Vegas, Nevada MWC #1
7 Jan. 2, 2016 Cactus Bowl Phoenix, Arizona Big 12 #6

The problem with this table, though, is that it's full of misleading information. Not even the Rose Bowl is as simple as sending the conference champs from the Pac-12 and Big Ten anymore.

The Rose Bowl and the College Football Playoff

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Florida State vs Oregon Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

So here's where we start: If the Pac-12 champ isn't one of the four teams selected for the playoff, that team will head to the Rose Bowl -- provided the Rose Bowl isn't one of the semifinal games for the playoff.

This appears to be the most likely scenario this year, as Stanford and Utah -- the leading candidates to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game -- each now have two losses and are extremely unlikely at this point to finish in the top four. The national semifinals in 2015-16 are the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl, so the winner of the conference this season is almost certainly going to go to the Rose Bowl.

(You might remember that Oregon was in the playoff last year and that the Rose Bowl was one of the semifinals, so the Ducks were placed in that game, satisfying the Pac-12's Rose Bowl agreement.)

However, in years when the Rose Bowl is not one of the semifinals and its champion is one of the four CFP teams? The Rose Bowl gets to choose a replacement from the remaining bowl eligible Pac-12 teams.

But what about the New Year's Six?

If you remember the old BCS era, there were five big bowl games -- the Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl, plus the national championship, which was a second game played at one of those sites a week to 10 days later. With the advent of the CFP, that arrangement was replaced last year by the so-called "New Year's Six" -- the four "BCS bowls" plus the Cotton Bowl and the Peach Bowl, with the national championship on top of that at a rotating site.

Unlike the BCS era, which featured all sorts of shady moves that seemed to screw the Pac-10 every year, getting into a New Year's Six game is as simple as being rated high enough in the CFP rankings. There's a provision to get in a "Group of 5" team from the minor conferences, but in general, if you're from the Pac-12 and you're not the conference champ and you're in the top 10 of the CFP rankings, you're going to one of those New Year's Six bowls. That's how Arizona -- ranked No. 10 by the CFP committee -- ended up in the Fiesta Bowl last year.

There's a chance -- albeit a small one -- that Stanford could end up with an at-large bid to the New Year's Six if it beats Notre Dame and Cal but loses in the Pac-12 Championship Game to a two-loss Utah, causing the Cardinal to finish in the top 11 of the CFP rankings. Last season, the No. 9, 10 and 11 teams each had three losses, so it's not implausible to think a three-loss Stanford could get in. In a minute, we'll talk about what it would mean for the other Pac-12 bowls if that were to happen to Stanford.

Selecting the rest of the Pac-12 bowl representatives

Holiday Bowl Washington State v Texas Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

When it comes to selecting the teams for the remaining bowls, it's helpful to keep a few things in mind. First, forget about the divisions -- they're only used to select the Pac-12 Championship Game participants. For these bowl games, you need to think of the Pac-12 as a single table, ordered by conference record -- overall record is technically not part of the selection criteria. (Although we all know more wins overall make teams generally more attractive to bowls.)

Second, keep in mind that the rest of these bowl selections don't strictly follow the standings. Think of it more like a draft, where the Alamo Bowl gets the first pick of the remaining eligible teams, then the Holiday Bowl gets the next pick of the remaining eligible teams, etc.

Now, the Alamo Bowl committee can't just pick whoever they want; they have to select from among the team(s) with the best remaining record(s) and team(s) within one loss of those team(s). Same for the Holiday Bowl and Foster Farms Bowl.

Confused? Here's how it played out last year after Oregon and Arizona headed to the New Year's Six.


Place Team Pac-12 Overall
1 Oregon 8-1 12-1
2 Arizona 7-2 10-3
3 ASU 6-3 9-3
UCLA 6-3 9-3
USC 6-3 8-4
6 Stanford 5-4 7-5
Utah 5-4 8-3
8 UW 4-5 8-5

Actual Selections

Bowl Team Pac-12 Overall
Rose Bowl/CFP Oregon 8-1 12-1
Fiesta Bowl Arizona 7-2 10-3
Alamo Bowl UCLA 6-3 9-3
Holiday Bowl USC 6-3 8-4
Foster Farms Bowl Stanford 5-4 7-5
Sun Bowl ASU 6-3 9-3
Las Vegas Bowl Utah 5-4 8-3
Cactus Bowl UW 4-5 8-5

Did you see what happened to ASU?

The Alamo, allowed to select from all the 6-3 and 5-4 teams, picked UCLA -- not surprising, as the Bruins were the highest rated CFP team remaining in the Pac-12.

The Holiday Bowl, allowed to select from the remaining 6-3 and 5-4 teams, selected USC. If their committee had wanted the "best" team, ASU -- which finished 15th in the CFP rankings -- would have been the choice. But the Sun Devils played in San Diego the year before, so the committee went in a different direction.

The Foster Farms Bowl, now allowed to pick between ASU and 5-4 Stanford, actually picked the "worse" team in the Cardinal -- presumably to boost attendance because the game is in close proximity to Palo Alto.

The fudging room disappears, though, for the final three bowls. By Pac-12 rules, these games have to select based on conference finish (though they can have their choice of tied teams), so the Sun Bowl was forced to take ASU (although "forced" is funny because we can presume the folks in El Paso were absolutely tickled to land them), Vegas took Utah and the Cactus took UW.

So what about this season?

Let's try it out! Here are the current "single table" standings:

Place Team Pac-12 Overall
1 Stanford 7-1 8-2
2 Oregon 5-2 7-3
USC 5-2 7-3
Utah 5-2 8-2
WSU 5-2 7-3
6 UCLA 4-3 7-3
7 Cal 3-4 6-4
ASU 3-4 5-5
9 Arizona 3-5 6-5
10 UW 2-5 4-6
11 Colorado 1-6 4-7
12 OSU 0-7 2-8

To illustrate the selection process, we're not going to try and figure out who's going to win what the rest of the way and come up with a meaningful projection; we're just going to use the standings as they are to show how it works.

Here's how it might play out.

  1. Rose Bowl: Stanford (Pac-12 champ, not in the CFP)
  2. Alamo Bowl: Oregon (One of four 5-2 teams, Ducks are the pick because they are on the rise, travel well and bring sexy name recognition)
  3. Holiday Bowl: Utah (USC is attractive here, but the Trojans were in the game last year)
  4. Foster Farms Bowl: USC (You really think a bowl in California would pass up the Trojans to take WSU?)
  5. Sun Bowl: Washington State (Highest team remaining in the standings)
  6. Las Vegas Bowl: UCLA (Highest team remaining in the standings)
  7. Cactus Bowl: Cal (Highest team remaining in the standings; ASU is not yet bowl eligible in this scenario)
  8. At-large bowl: Arizona (hopefully head to another bowl left unfilled by a conference tie-in)

There you have it!

But let's run through one more scenario: What if Stanford sneaks into a New Year's Six game after losing to Utah? If you think Utah was likely to end up in a higher bowl, then that's really great for WSU -- this scenario is actually really plausible:

  1. Rose Bowl: Utah (Pac-12 champ, not in the CFP)
  2. New Year's Six at-large: Stanford (Top 11 in CFP rankings)
  3. Alamo Bowl: Oregon (One of three remaining 5-2 teams, Ducks are on the rise, travel well and bring sexy name recognition)
  4. Holiday Bowl: Washington State (USC is attractive here, but the Trojans were in the game last year, and this committee knows how well the Cougs travel from 2003 experience)
  5. Foster Farms Bowl: USC (More attractive than UCLA)
  6. Sun Bowl: UCLA (Highest team remaining in the standings)
  7. Las Vegas Bowl: Cal (Highest team remaining in the standings; ASU is not yet bowl eligible in this scenario)
  8. Cactus Bowl: Arizona (Highest team remaining in the standings)

One final thought: If Stanford is somehow able to sneak into the CFP with two losses? It would probably look the same as above. At the very least, it would have the same effect as the scenario above for the teams down the table.

I think that covers everything. If you still have questions, leave them in the comments below.

*It's so complicated and confusing, that I originally goofed the process for who plays in the Rose Bowl if a Pac-12 team is selected for the playoff in a year when the Rose Bowl doesn't host a semifinal. It has been corrected.