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Pac-12 bowl game projections: Explaining the 2016 selection process

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How teams end up in which bowl can be tough to understand. We break it down, and figure out the most likely destinations for WSU.

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 ton of practice trying to figure this out over the past decade.

Besides, what we're facing this year is bit different than what we faced last year, when it was fairly clear the Pac-12 was only going to get one team -- its champion, which ended up being Stanford -- into a major bowl game (also known as the "New Year's Six"). This year looks like it probably will be different, and that has major implications on where 8-win WSU ends up for its bowl game.

Thankfully, the conference has clear procedures in place, and the bowl selection process is 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), which has not changed from last year:

Selection Date Game Site Affiliation
1 Jan. 1, 2017 Rose Bowl Pasadena, California Big Ten #1
2 Dec. 29, 2016 Alamo Bowl San Antonio, Texas Big 12 #2
3 Dec. 27, 2016 Holiday Bowl San Diego, California Big Ten - Tier #1
4 Dec. 28, 2016 Foster Farms Bowl Santa Clara, California Big Ten - Tier #2
5 Dec. 30, 2016 Sun Bowl El Paso, Exas ACC - Tier #1
6 Dec. 17, 2016 Las Vegas Bowl Las Vegas, Nevada MWC #1
7 Dec. 27, 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

rose bowl

(Photo: 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 in a given year. The national semifinals in 2016-17 are the Peach Bowl and Fiesta Bowl, so this would be the likely scenario if Colorado -- which is unlikely to be selected to the CFP -- defeats Washington in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

(You might remember that Oregon was in the playoff two years ago and that the Rose Bowl was one of the semifinals; 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 -- a likelihood if Washington wins the Pac-12 Championship Game? Per its contract with the CFP, the Rose Bowl gets to choose a replacement from the remaining bowl eligible Pac-12 teams, which doesn't have to be the loser of the Pac-12 Championship Game. (Although it probably will be this year, if that happens.)

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 two years ago 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 two years ago.

It actually is looking pretty likely that the Pac-12 is going to have two teams in the New Year's Six this season, despite all the hand wringing over the strength of the conference. As we mentioned, a UW win in the Pac-12 Championship Game almost certainly puts the Huskies in the CFP, which would then necessitate the Rose Bowl selecting another Pac-12 team. On the flip side, if Washington loses, Colorado goes to the Rose Bowl, UW is probably still ranked in the CFP top 10 with its two losses, and the Huskies probably secure an at-large bid to a designated New Year's Six game -- this year, that would be the Cotton Bowl against the Group of 5 selection.

That's actually really, really big for WSU, and the other bowl eligible Pac-12 teams.

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. (Final CFP ranking noted.)


Place Team Pac-12 Overall
1 #6 Stanford 8-1 11-2
2 #15 Oregon 7-2 9-3
3 #22 Utah 6-3 9-3
#25 USC 6-3 8-4
WSU 6-3 8-4
6 UCLA 5-4 8-4
7 Cal 4-5 7-5

UW 4-5 6-6

ASU 4-5 6-6

Actual Selections

Bowl Team Pac-12 Overall
Rose Bowl #6 Stanford 8-1 11-2
Alamo Bowl #15 Oregon 7-2 9-3
Holiday Bowl #25 USC 6-3 9-3
Foster Farms Bowl UCLA 5-4 8-4
Sun Bowl WSU 6-4 8-4
Las Vegas Bowl #22 Utah 6-3 9-3
Cactus Bowl ASU 4-5 6-6
Armed Forces Bowl Cal 4-5 7-5
Heart of Dallas Bowl UW 4-5 6-6

Did you see what happened to Utah?

The Holiday Bowl, allowed to select from the remaining 6-3 and 5-4 teams after the Alamo picked Oregon, selected USC. If their committee had wanted the "best" team, Utah -- which finished 22nd in the CFP rankings -- would have been the choice. But the Trojans are the Trojans, and their Southern California cache was enough to leapfrog Utah in the selection process. It was the second consecutive year the Holiday chose USC.

The Foster Farms Bowl, allowed to select from all the 6-3 and 5-4 teams, picked unranked UCLA over No. 22 Utah. Why? Who knows? Their committee seemed to have an infatuation with the Bruins from the outset for whatever reason.

The fudging room almost 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 -- as was the case last year. The Sun Bowl, now allowed to pick between WSU and Utah, again actually picked the "worse" team in the unranked Cougars (presumably because at the behest of Mike Price, who sits on the Sun Bowl committee after coaching both WSU and UTEP).

The Las Vegas Bowl was "forced" to take Utah (although "forced" is funny because we can presume the folks in Vegas were absolutely tickled to land them) and the Cactus Bowl -- played in Phoenix -- unsurprisingly selected ASU above Cal and UW. Without any direct conference tie-ins remaining, each of those schools was left searching for a bowl home, something that's not all that difficult anymore with the plethora of bowl options, and they landed on their feet against a couple of beatable midmajors.

So what about this season?

Let's try it out! Here are the current "single table" standings among bowl eligible teams. (Again, most recent CFP rankings included.)

Place Team Pac-12 Overall
1 #5 UW 8-1 11-1

#9 Colorado 8-1 10-2
3 #12 USC 7-2 9-3
#23 WSU 7-2 8-4
5 #24 Stanford 6-3 9-3
6 Utah 5-4 8-4

With just the Pac-12 Championship Game left to be played, we can make a pretty good guess to see who is going to end up where.

CFP (or Cotton Bowl): Washington

The options: Washington
Explain the pick: If the Huskies win on Friday, they'll almost certainly be in the CFP; if they lose, they'll likely still be ranked in the top 10, meaning they'll probably head to the Cotton Bowl to take on the highest ranked Group of 5 team (probably Western Michigan). It looks like the only thing that could throw a wrench in this is if all four Big Ten teams (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin) end up ranked higher than UW in the event of a Husky loss.

Rose Bowl: USC

The options: Colorado, USC and WSU
Explain the pick: Unfortunately for Colorado, if the Buffs lose to UW, there's a pretty good likelihood the Trojans leap them in the final CFP standings since they each would have three losses and the Buffs lost that head-to-head matchup. In that scenario, the Rose Bowl probably jumps at the chance to reach one game down in the standings to take USC for all the reasons everyone hates USC. WSU to the Rose Bowl, despite the Cougars' eligibility, is a non-starter.

Alamo Bowl: Colorado

The options: Colorado and WSU
Explain: The folks in San Antonio will love the chance to grab the top 10-ish Buffs. Again, no chance they take WSU. This becomes USC if Colorado defeats UW in the championship game and the Huskies end up in the Cotton Bowl.

Holiday Bowl: WSU

The options: WSU and Stanford
Explain: There really is nothing here more than wishful thinking. Stanford isn't known for traveling real well, and our fans would embrace a Holiday Bowl trip. But this could just as easily end up with the Cardinal, who are ranked in the top 25.

Foster Farms Bowl: Stanford

The options: Stanford and Utah
Explain: Can't imagine a Bay Area-ish bowl passing up on a Bay Area-ish school. Also, if the Holiday takes Stanford over WSU, the Cougars will definitely land here, as the Utes are two games back of WSU in the standings.

Sun Bowl: Utah

The options: Utah
Explain: The Utes are the only remaining bowl eligible team, so they land here.

Las Vegas Bowl and Cactus Bowl: Going at-large shopping, as there are not enough Pac-12 bowl eligible teams.

There you have it! This is hardly set in stone, given the shuffling that could take place after the championship games. But this is a pretty good layout of the most likely scenario.

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