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The 2021 Pac-12 bowl selection process, explained

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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. With Washington State set to make its sixth consecutive (in a full season) bowl appearance, it makes sense to revisit the process by which the conference’s bowl participants are picked.

Thankfully, the conference has clear procedures in place, and it's not nearly as much about shady back-room deals as it was a couple of decades 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 six bowl games, in the following order (that's an important piece, which we'll explain in a second):

  1. Rose Bowl vs. Big Ten #1
  2. Alamo Bowl vs. Big 12 #2
  3. Las Vegas Bowl vs. Big Ten #4
  4. Holiday Bowl vs. ACC
  5. Sun Bowl vs. ACC
  6. Los Angeles Bowl vs. Mountain West #1

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

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Rose Bowl - Oregon v Wisconsin Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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.

That’s the case this year, as the Pac-12 no longer has a team contending for one of the four spots. So, the winner of Friday’s Pac-12 Championship Game between Oregon and Utah will head to the Rose Bowl.

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 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.

The Pac-12 has rarely benefited from this provision, unsurprisingly. The last time the Pac-12 got two teams into the New Year’s six was 2017, when Washington played in the Fiesta Bowl (because the Rose Bowl was a semifinal that year) and USC played in the Cotton Bowl.

Oregon was ranked 11th in last week’s CFP and Utah was 18th, so it seems like it would be highly unlikely that the Pac-12 puts two teams in the top 10 or 11.

Selecting the rest of the Pac-12 bowl representatives

Las Vegas Remains Closed As Memorial Day Weekend Approaches Amid COVID-19 Pandemic
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Photo by Ethan Miller/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 Las Vegas 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 Las Vegas Bowl and Holiday Bowl.

This is an old example, from 2014. The bowls have changed, but the process is identical:

Standings

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 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 of bowl eligible teams:

Pac-12 Bowl Standings

Team Wins Losses
Team Wins Losses
Utah 8 1
Oregon 7 2
ASU 6 3
UCLA 6 3
WSU 6 3
OSU 5 4

Here's how the process will work:

1. Rose Bowl

Who could it be? Oregon or Utah (Pac-12 champ, not in the CFP). The winner will be in this game.

2. Alamo Bowl

Who could it be? If Oregon wins the conference championship, Utah will be the pick by virtue of being two games ahead of everyone else in the standings. If Utah beats Oregon, then the Alamo actually has its choice of Oregon, ASU, UCLA and WSU, since they’re all within a game of each other in the standings. It would be shocking if Oregon wasn’t the pick, given that the Ducks almost certainly will be the only ranked team in that bunch.

3. Las Vegas Bowl

Who could it be? Arizona State, UCLA, WSU, and Oregon State all figure into the mix here. This is essentially a new bowl; who or what they will be looking for is anyone’s guess. ASU and UCLA both have better overall records than WSU, and both are in driving proximity to Las Vegas. I’d guess one of them will be the selection.

4. Holiday Bowl

Who could it be? Again, ASU, UCLA, WSU, and OSU all figure into the mix here, and the committee will have its choice of the three remaining teams. It stands to reason that it’s probably going to be either ASU/UCLA or WSU and not OSU. Does the Holiday Bowl have fond memories of WSU’s appearances under Leach, such that it would pick the Cougs with a worse overall record?

5. Sun Bowl

Who could it be? Again, ASU, UCLA, and WSU all figure into the mix here, but not OSU. Presuming two of ASU/UCLA/WSU get picked for the Las Vegas and Holiday, the remaining team is off to El Paso by virtue of being the highest remaining team left in the standings. This is the most likely scenario. However, if Oregon State gets picked for either the Las Vegas or Holiday, then the Sun Bowl would have its choice of the two remaining of ASU/UCLA/WSU since they’re tied.

6. Los Angeles Bowl

Who could it be? If Oregon State doesn’t get picked for the Las Vegas or Holiday, it will be the Beavers. If OSU does get picked for one of those, it would be the last of ASU/UCLA/WSU not picked.

There you have it!

Given all that, here’s how I think it probably shakes out:

  1. Rose: Utah/Oregon (by virtue of winning the Pac-12 Championship Game)
  2. Alamo: Utah/Oregon (either Utah by virtue of the selection rules or Oregon because the Ducks will be the only ranked remaining team)
  3. Las Vegas: UCLA (driving distance to Las Vegas, hasn’t been to a bowl since 2017, alllll those Los Angeles market eyeballs on the TV)
  4. Holiday: ASU (hasn’t been to the Holiday since 2013)
  5. Sun: WSU (highest remaining team)
  6. Los Angeles: OSU (sorry guys, you should have beaten the Ducks! Or the Cougs!)

If you want to know who they’re going to play ... you’re going to have to find someone else who pays attention to all the other conferences!

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