On Tuesday, we talked about the unlikely chance of both Michigan and Michigan State making the College Football Playoff. That’s still very much a possibility, but it would require Ohio State to lose twice in a row, which, yeah -- probably not happening.
The most likely scenario over the final two weeks is that Michigan beats Maryland, Michigan State beats Penn State and both lose to Ohio State.
That would give both teams a 10-2 record at the end of the regular season. Their resumes are already incredibly similar (which I discussed here) and that would still be the case in this situation.
Rose Bowl selection
When it’s not one of the CFP semifinal sites, the Rose Bowl is contractually obligated to invite the conference champions from both the Big Ten and the Pac-12. When the champion from one or both of those leagues makes the playoff, the Rose Bowl picks a replacement from that team’s conference.
If Michigan and Michigan State both finish 10-2, that means Ohio State would be 11-1 and, assuming the Buckeyes take care of business against the Big Ten West champ, an obvious playoff team. The Rose Bowl would only have two reasonable choices to replace Ohio State.
Here’s what the Rose Bowl website says about its replacement procedure: “Should a team from the Big Ten or Pac-12 be selected to play in the College Football Playoff, the Tournament of Roses will traditionally select the next-highest CFP-ranked team from that conference.”
“Traditionally.” That’s the elephant in the room. That single word leaves open a smidge of ambiguity, should the Rose Bowl want to stray from the CFP committee’s rankings.
Similar past situations
Let’s take a look at how the Rose Bowl has handled this type of scenario in the past, dating back to the playoff’s inception in 2014.
NOTE: Remember that the Rose Bowl is played on Jan. 1, so the year of each Rose Bowl corresponds with the season of the previous year (example: the 2015 Rose Bowl was at the end of the 2014 season).
The Rose Bowl was a semifinal site for the very first College Football Playoff game on New Year’s Day in 2015. The 2018 and 2021 Rose Bowl games were also CFP semifinals, so they aren’t relevant to this conversation (because being a CFP semifinal removes the Big Ten and Pac-12 tie-ins completely).
So we have the 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020 Rose Bowl games as data points.
In 2015, Michigan State and Stanford won the Big Ten and Pac-12. Michigan State went to the playoff, and the Rose Bowl chose Iowa as its replacement. Iowa was ranked No. 5 in the CFP rankings -- ahead of No. 7 Ohio State -- so the Rose Bowl stuck to the rankings.
In 2016, Penn State and Washington won the Big Ten and Pac-12. Washington went to the playoff, and the Rose Bowl chose USC as its replacement. USC, ranked No. 9 in the final CFP rankings, was chosen over No. 10 Colorado. It would have been an interesting decision if those rankings were flipped, but in the end, the Rose Bowl stuck to the poll.
Neither Ohio State (Big Ten champ) nor Washington (Pac-12 champ) made the playoff in 2018, triggering a straightforward 2019 Rose Bowl matchup.
In 2019, Ohio State and Oregon won the Big Ten and Pac-12. Ohio State went to the playoff, and Wisconsin was selected as a replacement. Wisconsin was No. 8 in the CFP rankings -- ahead of No. 10 Penn State -- so once again, the Rose Bowl went with the highest ranked team.
What does this mean?
My takeaway: While the verbiage of the Rose Bowl rule seems to allow for a lower ranked team to be chosen, that has never actually happened.
Every single time a Big Ten or Pac-12 champion has gone to the playoff during a season in which the Rose Bowl is not hosting a semifinal game, the highest-ranked remaining team from their conference has been chosen as the replacement.
Now, to be fair, we all know there are non-football factors that could make this year’s situation different.
Let’s face it: The Rose Bowl would love to host Michigan. It’s been 15 years since the Wolverines last traveled to Pasadena, and there’s no bigger brand or more passionate fan base. If Michigan finished the season ranked below Michigan State by a spot or two, it would be a major test of that one glaring word: “traditionally.”
The best precedent for this situation would be the 2015 season, when the Rose Bowl selected Iowa over Ohio State. Iowa was ranked No. 5 and Ohio State was ranked No. 7, but the Buckeyes are obviously a much bigger brand and have a larger fan base.
It wasn’t just a matter of the Rose Bowl wanting a new team, either. If Ohio State had been to the Rose Bowl several times leading up to 2015, picking Iowa would have been a no-brainer. But Ohio State hadn’t been to Pasadena in six years at that point, and 2010 was the only time since 1997.
That year in particular could bode well for Michigan State if it can leap Michigan in the CFP poll.
Since the final CFP rankings have such a strong correlation with which team gets picked as a Rose Bowl replacement, it’s very important to follow where Michigan and Michigan State end up.
Right now, Michigan is ranked No. 6 and Michigan State is ranked No. 7. Remember: That was the case even before Michigan went on the road and beat Penn State, so Michigan State taking down the Nittany Lions at home in two weeks shouldn’t (at least on its own) be enough to flip the two teams.
To simplify, Michigan was ranked ahead of Michigan State when they both had the same three teams left on their schedules: Maryland, Penn State and Ohio State. If both teams beat Maryland and Penn State but lose to Ohio State, it makes sense that the two would stay the same in the rankings, at least in comparison to each other.
One possible way this could change is if Michigan State plays a tight game against Ohio State and Michigan gets blown out. The Buckeyes would love nothing more than to pound Michigan right out of Rose Bowl consideration.
Perhaps an unimpressive showing at Maryland this weekend would be enough to drop the Wolverines. The CFP committee has maintained its stance that Michigan deserves to be ranked higher than Michigan State, but considering the public backlash and the head-to-head result, it might not take much for that to change.
Right now, Michigan and Michigan State have their eyes set on a possible playoff appearance. For one of them, the Rose Bowl will be an excellent consolation, especially considering the preseason expectations.