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Here are the most likely bowl destinations and opponents for Michigan football

Wolverines appear destined for Outback Bowl or Holiday Bowl

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines prepares to take the field with his team prior to a game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines prepares to take the field with his team prior to a game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It's been a strange college football season in the Big Ten, as a dominant team didn't emerge in the East Division and several teams that were expected to play in bowl games didn't reach six wins.

Only eight teams are guaranteed to go bowling from the conference, as Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska -- teams that figured to have a pretty good chance at six wins -- finished with losing records.

That's not good sign for the Big Ten, but it leaves the bowl picture much clearer for middle-of-the-pack teams such as Michigan.

The Wolverines finished 2017 with an 8-4 record, good for fourth in the Big Ten East Division and sixth in the conference overall.

How the Big Ten title game impacts Michigan

It's impossible to know exactly how the bowl selection will play out until next weekend plays out and a conference champion is crowned. But the Big Ten has three teams with a pretty good chance of, at minimum, playing in a New Year's Six bowl game.

This has a direct impact on where Michigan ends up.

If Wisconsin beats Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game this weekend, the Badgers will be among the four teams selected for the College Football Playoff. If Ohio State wins, the conference is likely to be left out of the playoff, but could have three teams in New Year's Six bowls.

Penn State, at No. 9 in the playoff rankings, is probably cemented into a New Year's Six game. For Wisconsin, that's the worse-case scenario, since it finished the season undefeated.

The tricky part is projecting Ohio State if it were to lose to Wisconsin. The Buckeyes would then have three losses on the season, and would need to still hang on to one of eight New Year's Six spots.

By rule, the ACC will send a team (likely the loser of this weekend's Miami-Clemson game) to the Orange Bowl. Central Florida will also take one of the eight spots if it takes care of business this weekend.

That leaves five open spots after the top four teams get into the playoff. The loser of Auburn-Georgia will take one spot, as will the winner of USC-Stanford as the Pac-12 champion. Even if TCU beats Oklahoma, and both Big 12 teams end up taking spots, there's still a spot open that would likely be taken by Ohio State.

Basically, it looks as if the Big Ten will get three teams combined in the College Football Playoff or the New Year's Six. Especially since Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State are all ranked in the top nine of the latest rankings.

How the selection process works

After the top three teams, only Michigan State is certain to be selected ahead of Michigan in the process, as the Spartans finished with a better record and won the head-to-head battle. Michigan will get picked ahead of Iowa and Purdue, but it's unclear where Northwestern will fall.

Northwestern certainly has less of a draw for bowl officials when compared to Michigan, but the Wildcats won an extra game and are ranked No. 21 in the playoff rankings. It certainly helps that Northwestern plays in the weaker Big Ten West Division, but its win over Michigan State could be a deciding factor.

The Big Ten's best bowl game after the New Year's Six is the Citrus Bowl, so that's likely where Michigan State will land. That leaves Michigan and Northwestern as likely candidates for the next two bowls: the Outback Bowl and the Holiday Bowl.

Outback bowl

Bowl details12 p.m. on Jan. 1, 2018 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida

Bowl officials try desperately not to have the same teams play in the bowl games year after year. They don't want fan bases to pass on a bowl game because they've been there recently, and local football fans enjoy seeing different teams and new players.

That might hurt Northwestern here, as it played in the Outback Bowl just two seasons ago. The Wildcats went 10-2 in the regular season, but got blitzed by Tennessee, 45-6, in the Outback Bowl.

Michigan, however, hasn't played in the Outback Bowl since the 2012 season, and according to college football analyst Brent McMurphy, they're "pretty much a lock" to return this year.

The Outback Bowl also wouldn't take Iowa, which played Florida there last season and lost 30-3.

If Michigan lands in the Outback Bowl, it will play against the top-selected non-New Year's Six bowl SEC team. Alabama, Georgia and Auburn are essentially locks to be in the playoff or a New Year's Six bowl, so that leaves a trio of possible opponents.

South Carolina

McMurphy singled out South Carolina as a likely opponent, which would be a rematch of the Jan. 1, 2013 game that the Gamecocks won 33-28 on a last-minute touchdown.

South Carolina had a solid season after three straight years of, at best, mediocrity. Will Muschamp led his Gamecocks to an 8-4 record, including wins over decent competition in North Carolina State and Missouri.

Like Michigan, South Carolina struggled at times on offense, finishing with 14.7 fewer yards per game than the Wolverines. Both teams were ranked outside the top 100 in the country in terms of total offense.

While Michigan lost to four top-16 teams, the 8-4 Gamecocks lost to two elite teams and two middle-of-the-pack 7-5 teams.

LSU

LSU had a strange season, with a 30-point loss to Mississippi State and a home loss to Sun Belt foe Troy.

But the Tigers were also one of only two teams to knock off Auburn, which rose to No. 2 in the latest playoff rankings. At 9-3 on the year, LSU is ranked No. 17 in the playoff rankings despite having two terrible losses and only two wins over winning teams, both at home.

LSU ranks outside the top 50 in total offense, but the defense is 14th in the nation, allowing just 311.7 yards per game.

Mississippi State

Dan Mullen skipped town at the end of the regular season to join conference rival Florida in the SEC East, so the Bulldogs will be dealing with some adversity in the bowl game.

Mississippi State is somehow still ranked, at No. 23, after losing the season finale at home to previously 5-6 Ole Miss. The Bulldogs finished conference play with a 4-4 record.

The Bulldogs picked up an impressive Week 3 win over LSU at home before getting beat by Georgia and Auburn by a combined 67 points in back-to-back weeks. Though they played tough against Alabama, they lost two of their last three games and finished 8-4.

Michigan played Mississippi State in Rich Rodriguez's only bowl game in Ann Arbor, losing 52-14 in a game that turned out to be his last with the Wolverines.

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Holiday Bowl

Bowl details9 p.m. on Dec. 28, 2017 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California

If something strange happens at the top of the bowl selection process, such as Ohio State falling out of the New Year's Six or Northwestern getting selected ahead of Michigan State due to the head-to-head win, Michigan could fall to the Holiday Bowl.

In the last three years, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota have played in the Holiday Bowl, so none of the recent matchups will have an effect on this year's selection process.

The Wolverines last played in the Holiday Bowl in 1994, beating then-No. 10 Colorado State 24-14. Michigan also played in the Holiday Bowl in 1984, when the undefeated, No. 1 BYU Cougars were forced to play there due the Western Athletic Conference's bowl contract. BYU edged Michigan 24-17 to capture the national championship.

Stanford

If the Cardinal loses to USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game, I'm guessing the conference will only get one team in the New Year's Six. Washington would likely go to the Alamo Bowl, and Stanford would slot in at No. 3 and play in San Diego.

This would be an interesting matchup, with Jim Harbaugh coaching against a program that he revived from the depths of the Pac-12. Since Harbaugh took over, Stanford has risen from one of the worst football programs in the Power Five to a regular contender at the top of the Pac-12.

Stanford is mediocre statistically, ranking outside the top 60 in both total offense and total defense, but the star power of Bryce Love keeps them in every game.

Love rushed for 1,848 yards, 16 touchdowns and 8.6 yards per carry this season. If he played in the bowl game, it would be a tall task for Michigan's stout rush defense.

Stanford had impressive wins over Washington and Notre Dame in November, and is playing its best football down the stretch.

Washington

If Stanford wins the Pac-12, and three-loss USC drops into the Alamo Bowl, Washington would likely be the No. 3 team in the conference.

Washington is a year removed from an appearance in the College Football Playoff, but this season didn't go as well. The Huskies played a cupcake schedule -- no, I don't care that Fresno State was somehow ranked in the committee's top 25 despite being a three-loss team in the Mountain West -- and lost to a 7-5 Arizona State team.

Washington finished the year with by far its best win, a 41-14 trouncing of in-state rival Washington State.

Like Michigan, Washington finished the year with a top-five defense, allowing just 277.4 yards per game.

Michigan and Washington are currently scheduled to play a home-and-home series in 2020 and 2021.

Arizona State

This feels like a major reach, but if Washington somehow gets into a New Year's Six bowl along with the Pac-12 champion, then Arizona State could move up to the Holiday Bowl. Washington State wouldn't move up to that spot because it played in last year's game against Minnesota.

Arizona State basically did what it was supposed to this season, except for a mid-October upset over then-No. 5 Washington. That wasn't enough to buy Todd Graham another season, as he's been fired but will still coach the bowl game.

The Sun Devils would match strength against strength and weakness against weakness with Michigan, as they have a terrible defense and a solid pass-heavy offense.

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Other possibilities

The Big Ten also has bowl tie-ins with the Pinstripe Bowl, the TaxSlayer Bowl and the Foster Farms Bowl. If something crazy happens, the Big Ten gets only two teams in the New Year's Six or playoff, and Northwestern gets chosen ahead of Michigan, these bowls would come into play.


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