Riding the first five-game losing streak of the Todd Graham-era, the Arizona State Sun Devils still have an opportunity to reach the postseason.
The Sun Devils need a win over the Arizona Wildcats in Friday's Territorial Cup to ensure eligibility and to reach the program's sixth straight bowl, but for the first time since October, ASU enters its matchup as the favorite.
Even if ASU loses Friday, there's still a narrow opportunity for the Sun Devils to reach the postseason at 5-7, because with 80 bowl slots to fill and just 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, it's likely that at least a small handful of 5-7 teams will be selected for postseason play.
If ASU wins Friday, the Sun Devils' postseason destination won't become apparent until the College Football Playoff committee announces which four teams will earn playoff bids, but with less than two weeks to go until that announcement, we have developed a comprehensive breakdown of the possible destinations for the Sun Devils should they earn a bowl bid.
To make ASU's postseason picture appear clearer, we examine the various scenarios if ASU finishes the season either 6-6 or 5-7.
Pac-12 bowl tie-ins
1. The Pac-12 will place a team in the Rose Bowl. The Pac-12 Champion will go to the Rose Bowl if it does not earn a College Football Playoff bid
2. Alamo Bowl
3. Holiday Bowl
4. Foster Farms Bowl
5. Sun Bowl
6. Las Vegas Bowl
7. Cactus Bowl
Scenario one: ASU defeats Arizona, the Pac-12 earns a CFP bid
If the Sun Devils finish the season with a Territorial Cup victory to improve to 6-6 and the Pac-12 Champion earns a bid to the College Football Playoff, then ASU will likely play in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Because neither Cal or UCLA won last weekend, neither team can secure bowl eligibility with a sixth win this weekend, ensuring ASU is the seventh slotted bowl-eligible team in the conference.
Regardless of the outcomes of this weekend's games, a 6-6 ASU squad will fall in line behind Washington, Colorado, Washington State, Utah, USC and Stanford in some order.
Even though ASU is seventh in line, a 6-6 ASU team would likely end up competing in the Las Vegas Bowl on December 17th if the Pac-12 were to place a team in the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings.
ASU would bump up from the seventh slot (reserved for the Cactus Bowl) to the sixth slot (reserved for the Las Vegas Bowl) because the next highest ranked team outside of the conference's College Football Playoff representative would bump up to the Rose Bowl.
Because the Rose Bowl is not a National Semifinal game this season, the Rose Bowl is obligated to take a Pac-12 team, regardless of whether a Pac-12 team earns a bid to the College Football Playoff. That means that Washington, Washington State, Colorado and USC are all still in play for a potential Rose Bowl bid, and the bid hinges on the outcomes of games this weekend and in the Pac-12 Championship game.
Still, because no other Pac-12 team can reach the six-win threshold this weekend with a victory outside of ASU, the Sun Devils are in a strong position to earn a Las Vegas Bowl bid if the conference sends a team to the College Football Playoff.
Scenario two: ASU defeats Arizona, the Pac-12 does not earn a CFP bid
Even though the Pac-12 currently has two teams ranked inside the top-10 of the College Football Playoff rankings, including No. 5 Washington, the conference could end up on the outside looking in if results don't shake out in the Pac-12's favor.
In a scenario in which ASU defeats Arizona in the Territorial Cup, but the Pac-12 misses out on a College Football Playoff bid, then the Sun Devils are headed to the Cactus Bowl for the second year in a row.
We know that an ASU victory on Friday locks the Sun Devils into the seventh Pac-12 bowl slot, and that matches up directly with the Pac-12's seventh bowl tie-in, the Cactus Bowl. As such, if the Pac-12 Champion does not earn a bid to the College Football Playoff, then the champion will represent the conference in the Rose Bowl and all of the other teams will fall in line accordingly.
This scenario is still very much in play, even though at least one of the teams currently ranked in the top-four of the College Football Playoff rankings will lose this weekend, as No. 2 Ohio State faces No. 3 Michigan.
Regardless, a Washington loss against No. 23 Washington State could hurt the conference's playoff chances, because then No. 9 Colorado becomes the conference's most likely playoff representative. However, Colorado still needs to take care of business against No. 22 Utah this weekend to secure a Pac-12 South Championship, and if the Buffaloes are unable to do that, then No. 12 USC will represent the South Division in the Pac-12 Championship game.
Even if USC defeats Notre Dame on Saturday and then beats either Washington or Washington State in the Pac-12 Championship game, it's unlikely the College Football Playoff committee would be able to forgive the Trojans for three early-season losses and place them in the playoff.
With that in mind, there's still a very good chance a 6-6 team ends up in the Cactus Bowl on December 27.
Scenario three: ASU loses to Arizona, APR determines bowl tiebreakers
With 40 bowls this year, the FBS needs 80 of its 128 teams to qualify for bowl eligibility, which means more than 62 percent of teams will play in the postseason.
With one week remaining in the regular season for the majority of FBS teams, 66 teams have already achieved bowl eligibility by reaching the six-win threshold while 33 other teams have either four or five wins which makes bowl eligibility a realistic possibility for those teams.
Reaching a bowl is still a realistic possibility for a four or five-win team at this point in the season because it's impossible for 14 of the 17 teams with five wins to all win a sixth game to give the FBS 80 bowl-eligible teams. Because of that, the FBS uses a program's Academic Progress Rate (APR) as a tie-breaker to determine which 5-7 teams will go to a bowl.
For example, because Northwestern has five wins, but has a very high APR of 992, Northwestern can still lose on Saturday, finish 5-7, and likely secure a bowl bid.
Of the 33 teams with either four or five wins, 17 of those teams (including ASU) have already secured five wins while 16 of those teams have four wins.
Below is a list of the 17 teams with five wins, their APR, and a list of the teams' upcoming matchups.
Five-win FBS teams
1. Southern Methodist--945--(upcoming opponent) Navy
2. North Carolina State--969--North Carolina
3. Boston College--981--Wake Forest
4. Texas Christian--935--Texas
5. Texas--971--Texas Christian
9. Texas San-Antonio--956--Charlotte
10. North Texas--984--UTEP
11. Southern Mississippi--955-Louisiana Tech
12. Akron--947--(Already 5-7)
13. Hawaii--971--(Already 5-7)
15. Ole Miss--958--Mississippi State
16. South Alabama--947--Idaho, New Mexico State
17. Arizona State--960--Arizona
The 17 teams listed above are the only teams remaining that can reach the six-win threshold this season, but because Texas and Texas Christian play one another this weekend and because Akron and Hawaii are already 5-7, a maximum of 14 teams can reach the six-win threshold.
That means at least three bowl bids will be awarded to 5-7 teams based off of Academic Progress Ratings. If the three teams with the highest APRs listed above were to all lose their 12th regular season game, then the three teams first in line to receive bowl bids based on their APR are Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Boston College.
Of the 17 teams with five wins, ASU's APR ranks ninth. That means if the Sun Devils lose on Friday, they will be rooting for the eight teams listed ahead of them to secure bowl eligibility with a sixth win to help bump ASU up the list of 5-7 teams with an APR that would qualify it for postseason play.
However, the scenario becomes more complicated, because there are still 16 four-win teams that could secure a fifth win this season. In lieu of listing all 16 teams below, we have compiled a list of the four-win teams with higher APRs than ASU. We have included these teams because if they secure a fifth win and ASU falls to Arizona to move to 5-7, then these teams would be in line ahead of ASU for a bowl bid.
Four-win FBS teams with an APR above 960.
2. Notre Dame--975
5. Mississippi State--971
6. Northern Illinois--970
The math to determine what would need to occur for a 5-7 ASU team to secure a bowl bid based on its APR is obviously complicated, because there's so many different results that could play out over the weekend.
Essentially, ASU would need about 10 of the other 14 five-win teams with a game this weekend to win, and it would need the right combination of those teams to win. For example, the Sun Devils should root for Texas to beat Texas Christian, for Northwestern to beat Illinois and for Indiana to beat Purdue. ASU should also be looking for certain five-win teams with lower APRs to lose. ASU should hope Navy beats SMU, Charlotte beats Texas-San Antonio and Louisiana Tech beats Southern Miss.
Additionally, ASU would need games involving four-win teams to play out the right way this weekend. The Sun Devils need UCLA to lose to Cal, Oregon to fall to Oregon State, and for Syracuse to suffer a defeat against Pittsburgh.
In an ideal world for ASU, between eight and 10 five-win teams would win a sixth game this weekend, while most of the four-win teams would lose an eighth game this weekend.
The one game that has no real bearing on the Sun Devils' postseason aspirations? The Egg Bowl between a five-win Ole Miss team with a lower APR than ASU and a four-win Mississippi State team with a higher APR than ASU. If Ole Miss wins, it becomes bowl-eligible, whereas if Ole Miss loses and Mississippi State wins, the Bulldogs would overtake ASU in slotting for 5-7 teams. Either way, one of those schools is going to a bowl ahead of ASU.
Clearly, it would take chaotic scenario for everything to go right for the Sun Devils to qualify for a bowl at 5-7, so the best they can hope for is to remove all doubt by beating Arizona on Friday.
Scenario four: ASU defeats Arizona, three Pac-12 teams earn New Year's Six bowl bids
As a result of three Pac-12 teams currently ranking in the top 12 of the College Football Playoff poll, a new, albeit unlikely, scenario has emerged this week.
If Washington finishes 12-1 and represents the Pac-12 in the College Football Playoff, Colorado loses the Pac-12 Championship game to Washington and still finishes with a higher ranking than other at-large teams, and a 9-3 USC team represents the Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl, then the Sun Devils could find themselves in the Sun Bowl.
In this scenario, three Pac-12 teams, Washington, Colorado and USC, would play in New Year's Six bowl games, which means two of the conference's top teams would not receive a bid to a bowl with a Pac-12 tie-in. In such a scenario, each Pac-12 bowl-eligible team that does not play in a New Year's Six bowl would move up two slots, putting the seventh-slotted Sun Devils into the fifth slot, which belongs to the Sun Bowl.
For this scenario to unfold, the Pac-12 would need Washington to defeat Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship game, because the Huskies are the conference's best bet to make the playoff. In this scenario, a 10-3 Colorado team with all three losses coming against potential top-10 teams (Washington, USC and Michigan) may not slip too far in the rankings, potentially setting up a situation where the Buffaloes are the highest-ranked at-large team, which would land them in the Cotton Bowl.
If Colorado does drop the Pac-12 Championship to Washington and USC overtakes Colorado in the rankings to secure a Rose Bowl berth, the Pac-12's ticket to a third team in a New Year's six bowl likely rests on the shoulders of the Big 10.
At the moment, four Big 10 teams currently rank in the top-10 of the College Football Playoff Rankings, so for Colorado to finish as the highest-rated at large team, it likely have to surpass either Penn State or Wisconsin in the final rankings and ensure that no other team (e.g. Florida) moves ahead of the Buffaloes.
Right now, there's a greater likelihood of the Big 10 placing teams in the College Football Playoff, the Rose Bowl and the Cotton Bowl than there is for the Pac-12 to achieve the same feat.
So while the scenario for the Pac-12 to secure three New Year's Six bowl bids is still in play, it would take the perfect storm for the Sun Devils to end up in the Sun Bowl.