The Cougars, at 4-2 in conference play, find themselves in a four-way tie for third with Oregon, USC and UCLA.
The last time the Cougs were in a logjam like this was 2001 when they finished the season 9-2 but got shipped off to the Sun Bowl while an 8-3 UW team got picked ahead of them for the Holiday Bowl.
For bowl-game bean counters looking at proximity of the respective fan bases and the TV ratings, WSU cannot match USC, UCLA or Oregon. If the season ended today, there's little doubt the Cougs would get a bid to the Las Vegas Bowl, the Pac-12's sixth bowl slot. That's certainly not the worst fate in the world, but WSU is right to hope for a bowl higher on the list.
There is a lot of football still to be played. The remaining schedule for the group of four teams that currently are tied for third is very difficult:
- WSU plays UCLA, Colorado, and Washington
- UCLA plays WSU, Utah, and USC
- USC plays Colorado, Oregon and UCLA, and
- Oregon plays Stanford, USC and Oregon State.
The odds of anybody surviving their remaining schedule unscathed is extremely slim. In fact, the group collectively plays each other enough to almost ensure that they won't. UCLA or WSU will pick up a loss this weekend. USC or Oregon the week after. And UCLA or USC the week after that. Oregon also has to contend with heavily favored Stanford.
So what does this mean? Your guess is as good as mine, but if I break out my crystal ball, this is how the various scenarios play out:
IF THE COUGS WIN OUT ...
they are going to the Holiday Bowl (likely facing Michigan, Northwestern or Penn State)
UCLA will have lost to WSU. Either USC or Oregon will have a loss from their matchup and the winner will have had to sweep either UCLA and Colorado in the case of USC or Stanford and Oregon State in the case of the Ducks. Highly unlikely, but even in the event that occurs, there is a decent chance a three-game sweep by WSU will move the Cougs ahead of Utah if the Utes lose another game and fail to win the South. The Holiday bowl would be the probable destination in either case.
IF THE COUGS WIN 2 OF 3 ...
Sun Bowl (likely against N.C. State, Louisville, Miami or Duke)
In this scenario, WSU remains firmly in the logjam but will get relegated out of the choice bowl slots. In all probability, one of the pier group will lose two of its final three, allowing the Cougs to bump up one spot, but it would be very difficult for the Cougs to move into sole possession of third or fourth place, forcing the hand of the Holiday or Foster Farms bowls. The Holiday Bowl always has a strong preference for the L.A. schools and the Foster Farms Bowl (in Santa Clara) will covet Oregon, who has never played there and is driving distance away. The Cougs will likely get ticketed to El Paso.
IF THE COUGS GO 1-3 ...
Las Vegas Bowl (likely against BYU or Boise State)
If the Cougs are unable to keep pace with the pack, they will still likely hold onto sixth place. They currently have a two-game lead in the conference standings over Washington, Arizona State, Arizona and Cal. A WSU win over Colorado next week means Arizona is eliminated, and UW, ASU, and Cal would have to win all three of their remaining games to catch up. Given that those three schools collectively have lost 8 of their last 9 games, a run like that seems very unlikely.
IF THE COUGS GO 0-3 ...
Cactus Bowl (likely against West Virginia, Texas Tech or At Large)
If everything falls apart down the stretch, the Cougs are still going bowling in my opinion. It isn't enough for the teams below WSU to merely get to six wins -- they have to get two more conference wins. Given the fact that they largely schedule each other, it is mathematically very difficult for multiple teams to do so. WSU losing three straight likely means UW will catch them in the standings, and will take the Las Vegas Bowl slot in the process. I don't see anyone else getting it done. The Cactus Bowl is still a pretty solid consolation prize for the Cougs. It is a January 2 game in Phoenix against a low-end Big 12 team who will likely have strong ties to Mike Leach.
We should know a lot more after this week. If WSU beats UCLA, the intrigue only grows. If the Bruins win, Cougar fans should start shopping for flights to Las Vegas or El Paso.
THE COUGARS' RISE TO 6-3 this season has others weighing the crimson bowl outlook as well. Here's a sampling of who is forecasting what ...
Brett McMurphy: Washington State vs. Boise State, Las Vegas Bowl
Mark Schlabach: Washington State vs. Louisville, Sun Bowl
Washington State vs. Kansas State, Cactus Bowl
Washington State vs. Penn State, Foster Farms Bowl
Washington State vs. Louisville, Sun Bowl
Washington State vs. Kansas State, Cactus Bowl
Washington State vs. Air Force, Armed Forces Bowl
Breaking down the bowl scenarios for Cougars
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