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Michigan football: Breaking down every possible bowl game destination, opponent

Jim Harbaugh’s team finishes regular season 9-3

Michigan wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones (9) celebrates his 25-yard touchdown reception against Ohio State during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan finished the regular season ranked No. 14 in the College Football Playoff poll, leaving open a wide range of possible bowl destinations and opponents.

The Wolverines went 9-3 this season with signature wins over No. 15 Notre Dame, No. 16 Iowa, Michigan State and at Indiana. The losses came at No. 8 Wisconsin and No. 10 Penn State, and at home against No. 1 Ohio State.

As a result, Michigan landed behind all three of those teams in the final rankings. Wisconsin won’t drop below Michigan in the poll regardless of the Big Ten Championship game’s outcome. The Wolverines will be fourth in the pecking order in terms of bowl selection, but it’s not always that clean-cut due to bowl assignments from previous seasons and specific bowl requests.

For the purpose of this breakdown, let’s assume the following:

  • Ohio State, LSU and Clemson are going to the playoff. This is pretty much locked in. Clemson is a massive favorite against Virginia and the other two would likely be in even with losses in their conference title games.
  • Either Utah, Oklahoma or Baylor will take the fourth playoff spot, as long as Georgia loses to LSU.
  • Georgia will go to the Sugar Bowl and Florida will go to the Orange Bowl, as the highest-ranked at-large Big Ten/SEC team.
  • One of Utah, Oregon, Oklahoma or Baylor will take the at-large bid to the Cotton Bowl, meaning either Penn State or Wisconsin -- whichever doesn’t get a Rose Bowl invite -- will fall out of New Year’s Six consideration.

Here’s a look at the bowl possibilities for Michigan this year.

Citrus Bowl

The best possible outcome for Michigan is landing back in the Citrus Bowl, assuming Ohio State goes to the playoff and either Penn State or Wisconsin go to the Rose Bowl.

This would require the Citrus Bowl to select Michigan over either Penn State or Wisconsin. Since the rankings are relatively close, that’s certainly a possibility.

One rule to remember is that the Citrus Bowl has agreed to feature at least five different Big Ten teams over a six-year agreement, which began in 2014. However, the Orange Bowl has replaced the Citrus Bowl as a Big Ten host twice -- taking Michigan in 2016 and Wisconsin in 2017. That means the Citrus Bowl has only hosted three Big Ten schools under the current agreement: Minnesota, Michigan and Penn State.

If Michigan is selected, then the Citrus Bowl can’t pick Michigan, Minnesota or Penn State the next two times it hosts a Big Ten team. That’s likely not enough to deter them from selecting the Wolverines, but it’s something to consider. That could be a factor that works in Wisconsin’s favor if Penn State goes to the Rose Bowl.

Possible opponents

Auburn: This match-up is starting to gain some traction in bowl projections because the SEC will likely send LSU to the playoff, Georgia to the Sugar Bowl and Florida to the Orange Bowl. Auburn is the highest-ranked SEC team outside that three at No. 11, so the Citrus Bowl makes sense in that regard.

Alabama: If you told Michigan fans their team would be playing Alabama in a bowl game, they’d probably have thought Jim Harabugh finally got them to the playoff. But surprisingly, the Crimson Tide lost two regular-season games for the first time since 2010. This will be the first time Alabama has missed the College Football Playoff, and when it was ranked No. 12 in the recent poll release, it was effectively eliminated from New Year’s Six consideration. Alabama lost to Auburn and is the lower-ranked team, but it’s possible the Harbaugh vs. Nick Saban match-up would be enough of a draw to make this happen. The Citrus Bowl might not get another chance to host Alabama, so don’t count this out.

Holiday Bowl

If either Penn State or Wisconsin -- whichever doesn’t land in the Rose Bowl -- gets the Citrus Bowl bid, Michigan would also fall beyond the Outback Bowl because of its agreement to host at least five different Big Ten teams in six years.

The Outback Bowl hosted Michigan two years ago, against South Carolina, and has hosted Iowa twice during this six-year span. That means Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan are out of consideration. It certainly seems like the Outback Bowl is where No. 18 Minnesota will land.

Next up in the Big Ten bowl hierarchy is the Holiday Bowl, and that seems a likely landing spot for the Wolverines.

Since the Big Ten entered into an agreement with the Holiday Bowl, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan State and Northwestern have made the trip to San Diego. Nebraska and Northwestern didn’t qualify for bowls this year, Michigan State is further down the pecking order and Minnesota looks to be heading to Tampa. If Michigan has fallen this far, it means Wisconsin is either in the Rose Bowl or Citrus Bowl.

That leaves Michigan and Iowa as possible Holiday Bowl selections.

Big Ten teams square off against Pac-12 teams in this bowl. There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Pac-12′s bowl situation.

If Oregon beats Utah, the Pac-12 will be left out of the playoff once again. If Oregon doesn’t beat Utah, the Pac-12 still might be left out of the playoff once again.

Utah earning a playoff spot would put Oregon in the Rose Bowl and USC in the Alamo Bowl, which is next in the Pac-12 pecking order.

If Utah beats Oregon but gets jumped by the winner of Oklahoma vs. Baylor. That would bump Oregon down to the Alamo Bowl and essentially guarantee USC plays in the Holiday Bowl.

Possible opponents

USC: As outlined above, USC is the best possible Pac-12 draw for the Holiday Bowl. The Trojans are No. 22 in the CFP poll and the clear-cut third-best team in the conference. USC is one of only two teams -- the other being Cornell -- with a winning record all-time against Michigan (with a minimum of five meetings). USC lost to Notre Dame this season but was the only team to beat Utah.

Washington: You know how sick Michigan fans are of seeing Florida? There will be some Washington fatigue if this is the Holiday Bowl match-up. The Wolverines will play Washington in Seattle to open next season and host the Huskies in Ann Arbor the following year. But there’s not much to differentiate the other four bowl eligible Pac-12 teams, and Washington is likely the most prestigious. The Holiday Bowl doesn’t really mind if Michigan and Washington have to play twice in a row, so don’t count out this scenario.

Arizona State: It wouldn’t be the sexiest match-up, considering Arizona State lost four straight games after starting 5-1, but the Sun Devils finished strong with wins over No. 6 Oregon and rival Arizona.

Cal: The third of three Pac-12 teams that finished 7-5, Cal beat Washington and lost to Arizona State. The Golden Bears started 4-0, lost five of six and then won back-to-back road games to end the season.

Gator Bowl

The Big Ten has a complicated agreement with the Music City Bowl and Gator Bowl that requires the conference to play in each three times over six years. Since Big Ten teams played in the Music City Bowl in 2016, 2017 and 2018, the Gator Bowl will host this season.

Nebraska and Iowa have played in the Gator Bowl during this agreement, so the Hawkeyes won’t be heading to Jacksonville. If Penn State and Wisconsin take the Rose Bowl and Citrus Bowl, Minnesota takes the Outback Bowl and Iowa takes the Holiday Bowl, Michigan could conceivably fall to this point.

The good news for Michigan is there’s almost no way it can fall beyond this bowl. The Wolverines are a much more attractive option than Indiana, Illinois and Michigan State this season, so sixth in line is the worst-case scenario.

If Michigan falls to the Gator Bowl, it will likely play a much lesser SEC opponent -- however there’s a nonzero chance of a match-up we discussed above. If one of Alabama or Auburn goes to the Citrus Bowl and the other isn’t in a New Year’s Six bowl, the SEC would work with officials from the schools and the bowls to place the next six bowl-eligible teams into these slots: the Outback, Gator, Music City, Belk, Liberty and Texas bowls.

Even if Georgia beats LSU and moves into the playoff, putting Florida in the Sugar Bowl, Alabama and Auburn aren’t locks to earn the at-large Cotton Bowl bid. They’re also ranked behind Penn State in the race for the Orange Bowl bid.

What that means is one of either Alabama or Auburn would be available to be placed in one of these six bowls. Full disclosure: That team is likely to be placed in the Outback Bowl against Minnesota. The Outback Bowl is generally regarded as the best of those six bowl destinations. The Gator Bowl is generally next in line.

Possible opponents

Tennessee: After losing the first two games at home to Georgia State and BYU, the Volunteers are stoked to even be in a bowl game, let alone finish 7-5. Tennessee is riding a five-game winning streak and is the type of team nobody wants to see in a mid-level bowl game, because its players are excited to be playing.

Kentucky: Kentucky also had to finish strong to clinch a bowl game, winning three straight to tie Tennessee at 7-5. The Wildcats haven’t played in this game since it was called the TaxSlayer Bowl in 2016, so they could land in Jacksonville.

Texas A&M: This feels unlikely because Texas A&M played in the Gator Bowl last season and all parties probably don’t want a repeat destination, but I can’t find any indication that consecutive appearances are actually prohibited, as they are in the Big Ten. Texas A&M vs. Michigan would be a battle between two of the largest fan bases in the nation.

Mississippi State: While the three teams above won seven games, Mississippi State went 6-6. The SEC probably won’t send the Bulldogs to one of the top bowls in this grouping, but it’s not out of the question.

Alabama: A Michigan vs. Alabama match-up would go beyond the Gator Bowl’s wildest dreams. It’s extremely unlikely.

Auburn: If the Citrus Bowl chooses Alabama over Auburn despite the CFP rankings and the head-to-head result, Auburn could technically get assigned to the Gator Bowl if the SEC wants a match-up with Michigan. This one probably isn’t happening, though.

Prediction

There are three very real possible destinations and 10 potential opponents, but I see two scenarios that seem more likely than the rest.

The first is that Michigan plays either Auburn or Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. This would be a marquee match-up, even outside the New Year’s Six, and is an opportunity for Citrus Bowl officials to field one of the most high-profile games they’ve ever had. Does Michigan deserve to be selected ahead of Wisconsin or Penn State? Absolutely not. But the bowl selection process isn’t always fair.

The other likely scenario is a Michigan vs. USC battle in the Holiday Bowl, which is intriguing based on all the history between the two programs. Once regular rivals in the Rose Bowl, both have gone through terrible times in the last decade and rebounded to become consistent upper-second tier teams in the nation.

If Utah gets left out of the playoff, the Holiday Bowl opponent could also be Washington or Arizona State. Those match-ups sound much less interesting.

Here’s my personal prediction:

  • Ohio State beats Wisconsin handily and goes to the playoff.
  • Wisconsin drops a few spots in the rankings, leaving Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
  • The Citrus Bowl reaches past Wisconsin and selects Michigan.
  • LSU beats Georgia and goes to the playoff, leaving Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and Florida in the Orange Bowl. The Citrus Bowl jumps on the opportunity to host a 10-2 Alabama team.

A Michigan vs. Alabama battle in the Citrus Bowl would certainly be the most high-profile non-New Year’s Six game. But in reality, several players would sit out on both sides to prepare for the NFL draft, and there wouldn’t be much on the line. Alabama has more talented depth than Michigan and would likely be able to overcome attrition and win the game, even with a backup quarterback.


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