Conference championship games will help determine three of the programs headed to the College Football Playoff, and the remainder of the New Year’s Six bowl games will be finalized, too.
Since the Cotton and Orange Bowls will host the four-team tournament for the national title, the Peach, Fiesta, Rose and Sugar Bowl will receive the best of the leftovers and will showcase a few stellar matchups.
This is how we see things shaking out.
Peach Bowl: Florida State vs. Houston
The Peach Bowl has no direct conference affiliations, so a pair of at-large bids are up for grabs. Thanks to geography, though, an Atlantic Coast Conference program will likely receive a nod if the standings work out.
As long as Clemson beats North Carolina for the ACC crown, Florida State will stave off the Coastal Division-champion Tar Heels for the NY6 berth. The ninth-ranked Seminoles are already ranked one spot ahead of UNC, anyway.
Florida State’s likeliest opponents are the winner of the American Athletic Conference title — especially if it’s Temple — and the loser of the Big Ten Championship Game.
If Michigan State loses, it’s safe to assume the AAC winner — perhaps seven-point favorite Houston — will get the Peach nod because MSU could then play Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, which is ideal.
Things get a little trickier if Iowa falls, but Houston gives the Peach Bowl a Southern flair while setting up the Fiesta Bowl for a Midwestern throwdown.
Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame vs. Iowa
At-large matchups are rightly manipulated to produce the best product possible. The Fiesta Bowl’s dream scenario is pitting MSU against Notre Dame, a series that has 77 meetings and as recently as 2013 was an annual tilt.
Even if the Spartans topple Iowa as the four-point line suggests, though, the committee still has an excellent fallback option. The Hawkeyes will likely drop behind Ohio State, but they certainly shouldn’t tumble out of the New Year’s Six picture with a 12-1 record.
Regardless, Iowa fans will be saddling up for a road trip or hopping on a not-quite-short plane ride to the bowl destination, so the committee may factor in where the school has a larger alumni base.
That concern isn’t a worry for Notre Dame, though. The fans travel well, which makes the team an appealing choice for a bowl in Phoenix, Arizona, that doesn’t have any regional programs in contention.
Rose Bowl: Ohio State vs. Stanford
Ohio State is the overwhelming favorite to square off against the Pac-12 winner. Although the Rose Bowl isn’t tied to the highest-ranked Big Ten school if the champion qualifies for the College Football Playoff, a Michigan State title means the Buckeyes are Rose Bowl-bound.
Granted, an Iowa win shakes up the whole picture. MSU beat Ohio State, so the committee would weigh a two-loss championship-game-qualifying MSU squad who holds a head-to-head tiebreaker vs. a one-loss team when setting the rankings, which would create a precedent. That’s quite the job.
Fortunately for the Pac-12, it’s pretty simple. Barring complete and utter unlikely madness that gets Stanford into the College Football Playoff, the winner in Santa Clara will head to Pasadena.
USC absolutely has the talent and motivation to upset the Cardinal — a team that beat the Trojans earlier in 2015 — so neither result would be surprising. Nevertheless, Stanford is a four-point favorite for good reason.
Sugar Bowl: TCU vs. Ole Miss
Let’s call this tilt “Revenge: Part I.”
TCU and Ole Miss happened to be on the same field during the Peach Bowl last season, but the Horned Frogs were playing on a different level. They smacked the Rebels 42-3.
Perhaps it would be different this time around. Hugh Freeze’s team has a better quarterback (Chad Kelly), and Laquon Treadwell is healthy. While TCU might be without injured receiver Josh Doctson for the bowl game, quarterback Trevone Boykin can carry the offense.
And there shouldn’t be much debate on how the programs reach the Sugar Bowl.
TCU is ranked one spot above Baylor, who the Frogs beat recently. Both will finish 10-2, so the head-to-head tiebreaker should keep TCU ahead. Unless Florida miraculously beats Alabama, Ole Miss will clearly be the highest-ranked non-CFP school from the SEC.
Cotton Bowl: Alabama vs. Michigan State
CFP Selection Committee chairman Jeff Long recently admitted “there were times I thought Alabama might” be ranked No. 1. That didn’t quiet SEC detractors, and it definitely discounted Clemson’s 12-0 record.
But for now, we’ll assume (or hope) the 12-member panel actually credits Dabo Swinney and Co. for an unblemished season capped with an ACC championship. That would leave Alabama as the clear-cut No. 2 team.
However, the same can’t be said for the third-ranked program. Oklahoma currently holds that spot, but if the AP Top 25 offers any insight, the Big Ten champion—Michigan State, in this exercise—will leap the Sooners.
Fifth-ranked MSU is only 45 votes behind Oklahoma, and the Spartans are competing with Iowa for those votes. Dispatch the Hawkeyes, and those votes become property of Michigan State.
Orange Bowl: Clemson vs. Oklahoma
Not only would this matchup be excellent — two spread offenses led by dual-threat quarterbacks and a pair of stingy defenses — but there’s potentially some bad, bad blood between the programs.
Last season, Clemson wiped the Russell Athletic Bowl turf with the Sooners en route to a 40-6 blowout. Yes, the Orange Bowl would be “Revenge: Part II.”
Theoretically, this showdown could happen as second-ranked Clemson against third-ranked Oklahoma instead of No. 1 vs. No. 4. Even if the scenarios mentioned in the Cotton Bowl section are reversed, the teams would stay the same.
Either way, the committee should make it happen.