The Pac-12 bowls each have separate contracts, and each has different selection policies. Generally speaking, they can be separated into three groups: Rose Bowl, Tier 1 and Tier 2.
The Rose Bowl obviously trumps all and this year gets the Pac-12 champion, unless that team(s) are selected for the CFB playoff. With Utah and Stanford losing this past Saturday, it would require unprecedented chaos for a Pac-12 team to make the four-team playoff this season. And so the Rose Bowl will be filled by a Pac-12 team.
That team will not be WSU, as Bill Moos made clear on his radio show yesterday -- the Cougs cannot win the tiebreakers to become Pac-12 North champion and play in the Pac-12 title game.
That brings us to the Tier 1 Bowls: Alamo, Holiday and Foster Farms (San Antonio, San Diego and Santa Clara, respectively).
These bowls get the second, third and fourth selections from the Pac-12, respectively. They have in their contracts the right to select the highest remaining team in the conference or any team within one win of them.
This means if the Alamo Bowl were selecting today, they would have their choice of all the 5-2 teams (Washington State, Oregon, Utah and USC) plus any 4-3 team (UCLA).
SO IF ANY COUGAR FANS had concerns WSU could get leapfrogged in the bowl selection process by a Pac-12 team lower in the conference standings, their concerns are well founded. If WSU finishes with the second best mark in the Pac-12, the Alamo, Holiday and Foster Farms Bowls still have some leeway to pick someone other than WSU if they so desire.
The Tier 2 Bowls (Sun, Las Vegas and Cactus Bowls) do not have this right. They must select the team next in line in the conference standings.
So with all that in mind, let’s look at how the bowl landscape changed over the weekend: With the win over UCLA, the Cougs jumped from a four-way tie for third into a four-way tie for second. This is obviously very good news for WSU but my take is the same as it was last week -- the Cougs should expect to be the last kid chosen for the kickball team, should it come to that. (There is growing evidence for the Alamo, no question about it. But I'm taking a wait and see approach on this. More on the Alamo at the bottom of this article).
If the season ended today (and assuming they win the Pac-12 title game) Stanford would be the de facto champion. The Alamo, Holiday and Foster Farms would then have their pick of Oregon, USC, Utah, WSU -- and UCLA if they wanted to be controversial.
If those three bowls passes on the Cougs, the Sun Bowl would be required to select WSU (or the other 5-2 team if UCLA were picked by a Tier 1 bowl). If the picks were made today, UCLA could not be selected for the Sun Bowl under any machination.
If the season ended today, the Las Vegas Bowl could only come into play for WSU in a scenario where UCLA were taken by a Tier 1 bowl and the Sun Bowl passed on WSU in favor of the other 5-2 team.
Likewise, if the season ended today, there would be no scenario for the Cactus Bowl to come into play -- and it is likely to remain that way. The only possible scenario going forward for WSU to fall that far is if the Cougs lost both its remaining games and ASU won both its remaining games. They would then tie for sixth place in the conference giving the Las Vegas Bowl their choice of either team and the Cactus Bowl the automatic bid for the remainder.
One more point before looking ahead: Regardless of what happens from this point forward, no other team can catch WSU in the standings and send them to a non-Pac-12 aligned bowl game.
SO, HOW WILL the next two weeks play out for WSU? That’s complex. Almost any outcome this weekend can help or hurt the Cougs, depending on what occurs the following week. But before confusion reigns, and generally speaking, the Cougars and their fans are hoping for the following:
1. Winning out. This goes without saying, but it is important to note that WSU can finish no worse than tied for second place in the Pac-12 if it wins all their remaining games. The Cougs might get screwed in the tiebreakers but even in a worst case scenario, only two other teams can be tied with them. The concern will remain that a lower team could still be taken ahead of WSU by a bowl but in practice this is generally only used by bowls attempting to avoid repeat teams.
No, you can't underestimate the appeal of names like Oregon and USC for the bowls, but WSU does not present itself as a bad option by any means in the bowl selection committee’s eyes, not in terms of travel, storyline or any other criteria. Historically, many teams have been taken with worse overall records but it is very unusual for a team to be taken with a worse conference record unless the better team had been take to the bowl the year before.
On that note: USC was taken by the 2014 Holiday Bowl and UCLA went to the 2014 Alamo Bowl. It is unlikely that either bowl is eager to choose them this year.
So if the Cougs win all their remaining games, they will likely do no worse than the Foster Farms Bowl – and they have a very good shot at the Holiday Bowl. (Crimson fans of Santa Clara and San Diego bowl options are now cleared to climb onto your desk and dance).
2. Upsets. WSU can theoretically overtake any of the remaining Pac-12 teams in the upper half of the standings -- so any teams in the lower half are an ally. Cal beating Stanford, Oregon State defeating Oregon, or Colorado upsetting Utah would all help Washington State. Indeed, any one of those events would likely bump the Cougs up a slot in the Pac-12 bowl selection process.
3. Utah losing again. Utah has a better overall record and is ranked higher in the polls. It will be very hard for the Cougs to overtake Utah if the Utes win their final two games. On the other side of the coin, the Utes are the least likely team to be selected over WSU should they have a worse record.
4. USC beating Oregon, with Utah and USC losing to UCLA. If you are a gambler, this is WSU's best bet. In this scenario, if the Cougs win out, they would finish in sole possession of second place as the only team with a 7-2 record. And UCLA would advance to the Pac-12 championship game.
But if Stanford then beats UCLA in the Pac-12 title game, WSU would probably be the only nationally ranked Pac-12 team other than Stanford. The Alamo Bowl would then have a lot of options -- but bringing Mike Leach back to Texas with his highly ranked Washington State team would be the obvious choice.
The Alamo taking UCLA for a second straight year, with a worse record than WSU, is decidely not an appealing choice for the Alamo's selection committee.
5. Cougar fans should not pin all their hopes on the Foster Farms Bowl. Foster Farms more than any other Pac-12 bowl has a history of going rogue and given their December 26 slot, will be highly motivated to do so again.
The day after Christmas is a double edged sword for the Foster Farms: Dec. 26 lends itself to strong TV ratings, but trying to fill enormous Levi's Stadium (68,500) is very difficult. As such, they will be desperate to attract one of the California schools or Oregon. Based on my analysis, Foster Farms is the Pac-12 bowl most likely to pick another team over Washington State if they get the chance.
6. The Indirect Mystery Bowl Option. With no Pac-12 team in the playoff, that does not mean that there are no surprises still in play for the conference.
Indeed, there is an excellent chance (at the moment) the Fiesta Bowl or Sugar Bowl will have an open slot -- and several Pac-12 schools could present an option.
Here, if Utah and Oregon fail to help WSU's cause by losing when it comes to the Tier 1 bowls, they can still get out of the way by winning.
Stanford, USC and UCLA remain in the drivers’ seat for the North and South titles. Utah and/or Oregon can still get to 10 and nine wins, respectively, miss out on the Pac-12 championship game, and maintain high national rankings by season’s end. Either one could present a possible option to a major bowl with an open seat. That would move WSU up the Tier 1 ladder.
There’s a whole lot left to shake out these final weeks but my reading of the tea leaves is this: the Foster Farms or Sun are WSU's most likely destination - but do not forget the Alamo.
If the Cougs lose another game, they are almost assured the Sun Bowl. If they win out, they might need Oregon to lose and the Pac-12 South to rip itself apart to get into the Alamo or Holiday. But it cannot be overlooked that the Alamo has had a representative at the last four Washington State games. And that includes last week's WSU-UCLA game in Pasadena: you can assume the Alamo Bowl rep was not there to look at UCLA, with the Bruins having just played in the Alamo in January.
It should be exciting to watch unfold but first things first: Beat Colorado.