ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It’s been another excellent season for Michigan under Jim Harbaugh, as the Wolverines appear destined for either the College Football Playoff or a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Michigan is 10-1 heading into the Ohio State game and has a chance to win the Big Ten East Division for the first time in school history.
Nobody expected this team -- tabbed in the preseason to win seven or eight games -- to be competing for a New Year’s Six bowl, but now, that’s the worst-case scenario.
Here’s a look at every possible bowl destination for Michigan, which teams it could face in those bowls and what has to happen for each matchup to become reality.
College Football Playoff semifinal
Michigan’s ultimate goal is to upset Ohio State on Saturday, win the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis and secure its place among the top four.
In that scenario, Michigan would play in either the Orange Bowl or Cotton Bowl -- the two CFP semifinal hosts for this season.
Considering Michigan is likely to be a double-digit underdog at home against the Buckeyes, this isn’t the most probable outcome, but it’s still very much on the table. That’s a testament to the job Harbaugh and his staff have done.
Possible opponents: If Michigan makes the playoff, it could match up with Georgia, Alabama, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State or Oklahoma. Chaos could technically rain down on college football to put a two-loss team in the playoff, but it’s very unlikely.
In my opinion, the Rose Bowl is by far Michigan’s most likely destination.
If Michigan loses to Ohio State, and then Ohio State goes on to win the conference title game, the Wolverines would almost certainly be the highest-ranked remaining team in the Big Ten. That means they would represent the conference in the Rose Bowl, since the Buckeyes would make the playoff.
Maybe, if Ohio State blasted Michigan and Michigan State destroyed Penn State, the CFP committee would be moved enough to drop the Wolverines below the Spartans. But judging by how the two teams have been ranked in comparison to each other the last three weeks, that seems to be a long shot.
Possible opponents: Utah, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State
The Pac-12 is out of the playoff picture after Oregon suffered a second loss, so the Rose Bowl will host whichever team wins the conference title.
Utah has already clinched the Pac-12 South Division and a spot in the conference championship game. But Oregon still has some work to do in the North.
Right now, Oregon leads Oregon State and Washington State by one game with one week remaining. If Oregon beats Oregon State this week, the Ducks earn a rematch with Utah for a spot in the Rose Bowl.
If Oregon State goes into Eugene and beats Oregon, and Washington State loses to Washington, the Beavers will play in the Pac-12 title game.
If Washington State and Oregon State both win, they’ll trigger a three-team tie with Oregon. Due to its 4-1 record in the North, Washington State would win the division in this scenario.
So, to recap:
- Oregon goes to the Pac-12 title game with a win over Oregon State.
- Oregon State goes to the Pac-12 title game with a win over Oregon and a Washington State loss to Washington.
- Washington State goes to the Pac-12 title game with a win over Washington and an Oregon State win over Oregon.
The winner will play Utah, and the winner of that game will go to the Rose Bowl.
Peach Bowl or Fiesta Bowl
I’m lumping these two bowls together because the path for Michigan to land in either of them is the same.
There are two ways Michigan can realistically end up in the Peach Bowl or Fiesta Bowl:
- Michigan beats Ohio State but loses in the Big Ten Championship Game.
- Michigan loses to Ohio State and Ohio State loses in the Big Ten Championship Game.
In both scenarios, the Big Ten West winner would play in the Rose Bowl as the conference champion. At 11-2 or 10-2, Michigan would still be ranked high enough for an at-large bid to another New Year’s Six Bowl.
Possible opponents: Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Baylor, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, Clemson, North Carolina State, Alabama, Ole Miss, BYU
Some specifics on possible matchups:
- The only way Alabama becomes a possibility is with a loss to Auburn this week and to Georgia in the SEC championship game. That would put Georgia in the playoff and potentially Ole Miss (which would have to beat Mississippi State and finish 10-2) in the Sugar Bowl, bumping three-loss Alabama to an at-large New Year’s Six bid. This scenario is extremely unlikely.
- Since the Orange Bowl -- where the ACC champion would typically play if it didn’t make the playoff -- is a CFP semifinal this season, the winner of that conference will play in either the Peach Bowl or Fiesta Bowl. Pittsburgh will represent the Coastal Division in the ACC Championship Game, but Wake Forest, Clemson and North Carolina State are still alive in the Atlantic Division (more on that race below).
- The winner of the Big 12 will go to the Sugar Bowl if it doesn’t make the playoff. Since the Big 12 doesn’t have divisions, the possible at-large scenarios are a bit convoluted (more on that below).
- Utah and Oregon can’t make up enough ground to be in the New Year’s Six with a loss in the Pac-12 title game. It’s Rose Bowl or non-New Year’s Six for teams in that conference.
- If Cincinnati somehow doesn’t end up in the playoff, it will go to the Peach Bowl as the Group of Five representative.
- BYU would need to jump a few spots in the rankings to have a chance, but it’s still technically possible for the Cougars to sneak in, if there’s chaos.
If Wake Forest wins at Boston College this weekend, it will earn the Atlantic Division title and play Pittsburgh for a conference championship and a spot in one of these two bowl games.
If Wake Forest and North Carolina State both lose this weekend, Clemson wins the Atlantic Division.
If Wake Forest loses and North Carolina State wins, the Wolfpack wins the Atlantic Division.
The ACC is pretty cut-and-dry: the conference champion will play in the New Year’s Six, and the rest of the conference will play in lesser bowl games. None of these teams will make the playoff or earn an at-large bid.
Big 12 scenarios:
Right now, three teams are vying for two spots in the Big 12 title game: Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Baylor.
Oklahoma State and Oklahoma both have only one conference loss, but they play each other this week, so the winner will earn the No. 1 seed in the conference and the loser will fall into a tie with Baylor (if Baylor beats Texas Tech at home).
If Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma, then Baylor will play in the Big 12 Championship Game because the Bears beat the Sooners head-to-head. If Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State, those two teams will have a rematch in the conference title game, because Oklahoma State owns the tiebreaker over Baylor.
The most likely way for Baylor to get into the Peach Bowl or Fiesta Bowl is to beat Texas Tech, finish 10-2 and not play in the conference title game. That means the Bears wouldn’t win the Big 12 (which would automatically put them in the Sugar Bowl) or finish with three losses (which might bump them out of the New Year’s Six entirely).
A loss to Oklahoma State this week would likely push Oklahoma out of New Year’s Six consideration, since the Sooners are already outside the top 10 with one loss. A win over Oklahoma State, followed by a loss in the title game rematch, could put the Sooners in the at-large pool.
Oklahoma State is in solid position to make the New Year’s Six as a two-loss team, if that’s how the final two weeks play out. The only way that happens is if Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma this week and then loses to Baylor in the conference title game (a loss to Oklahoma this week would mean Oklahoma State either beats Oklahoma in the rematch and goes to the Sugar Bowl or loses again and gets dropped out with three losses).