It's true, the Pac-12's tier one bowls -- Alamo, Holiday, Foster Farms -- have the right to move down and select a team in the conference standings with one less win. That means nothing has been cast in stone. But with the win over Colorado, WSU improved to 6-2 in Pac-12 play and into a tie with Oregon for second place in the conference standings. And that is important.
Here's what we know:
1. WSU cannot fall to the Cactus Bowl.
2. WSU is all but certain not to fall to the Las Vegas Bowl.
3. If WSU loses to UW on Friday, the Cougs are still eligible for the Alamo and Holiday bowls.
So let's go down the line and see WSU's case for every bowl game:
THE ALAMO BOWL
The Situation: The Alamo Bowl gets the first Pac-12 pick after the Rose Bowl. But what is most intriguing here is the Alamo cannot know for sure their pool of choices...and may not for some time. The Pac-12 championship is still two weeks away. The winner of the USC-UCLA game this Saturday will play Stanford for the ticket to the Rose. But because both the LA schools are already a game behind Oregon and WSU, the loser will effectively be eliminated from eligibility for the Alamo.
Oregon also still has an outside chance to get a Fiesta Bowl bid (or Stanford, if they beat Notre Dame but lose the Pac-12 Championship Game) so even if the Ducks, Bruins, Cardinal or Trojans do end up the Alamo's first choice, they won't know for two more weeks if they can have them.
WSU's case: Washington State is the only team under consideration the Alamo Bowl can tab with complete certainty as their Pac-12 entrant -- and the Cougs are a dang attractive candidate. WSU beat Oregon, and also probable south division champion UCLA.
Also, UCLA played in San Antonio last year, and the Ducks the year before. Bowls greatly prefer new schools whenever possible. Washington State, meanwhile, last played in the Alamo in 1994 (their only appearance in the Alamo Bowl).
Plus, the Mike Leach factor will create a ton of local buzz in Texas, and the January 2 slot in San Antonio is a date that CougFans can easily fit into their schedule.
I am going to go out on a limb right now, despite all the various machinations that are yet to come, and say WSU is going to the Alamo Bowl -- IF it beats Washington.
THE HOLIDAY BOWL
The Situation: The Holiday will be stuck with a glut of similar choices. If the Cougs and Ducks win their regular season finale, they will be under a certain amount of pressure to take the remaining second place team. But if WSU loses, it will likely find itself in a three-way tie with Utah and the south division champion LA school.
In such a scenario, it is extremely hard to imagine the Holiday Bowl passing on UCLA. But USC was there last year and fans did not show up. Utah has never been to the Holiday Bowl.
WSU's case: WSU has been to the Holiday Bowl twice and fans showed up in droves. More than any other bowl game, the Holiday is historically a shootout. The Cougars fit the bill of what the Holiday tries to sell. If WSU is in consideration here, it is because Oregon is already off the table so the Cougs only need to sell themselves over a fading Utah team and an LA school who will have likely just been whipped twice recently by north division teams.
THE FOSTER FARMS BOWL
The Situation: Foster Farms is the last bowl whose hands are not tied -- they have the right to reach down in the conference standings and take a team with one less win. But if the Cougs win the Apple Cup, I cannot see any way they could/would pass on WSU for an LA school. The loser of USC-UCLA would be two games behind WSU and thus eliminated. And if the Foster Farms is considering WSU, it is because the Holiday already moved down and took the LA school that won the south division at 6-3.
This is a big deal, the conundrum facing the Foster Farms, because they need to try and overcome a less than favorable time slot - the Saturday after Christmas should be great for TV ratings, but terrible for attendance.
My feeling is the Foster Farms selection committee will likely do anything they can to grab a nearby Oregon or California school, but Saturday's results worked heavily against them. CF.C reached out to Foster Farms on several occasions last week for comment but have not yet heard back.
WSU's case: A week ago, I said don't hang your hopes on the Foster Farms, but it is a distinct possibility now. If the Cougs beat UW and finish second, I don't see them falling any further than here: Utah will present a lesser option, and Foster Farms may have no other real choice than to pick the Cougs. Even if the Cougs lose to UW, Foster may still face the same decision, but with the likely additional option of an imploding USC team (assuming USC loses to UCLA). They might still go with WSU in that scenario.
THE SUN BOWL
The Situation: The Sun Bowl is the first contractually restricted bowl game. They must select the fifth team in the conference standings, getting leeway only in the event of a tie. Realistically, the only way WSU falls this far is to lose the Apple Cup AND have all the Tier 1 bowls to pass them by.
A very good Pac-12 team is going to play here, and every one of them will be twisting arms and calling in favors to try and climb into a Tier 1 bowl instead.
WSU's Case: In taking the temperature of Cougar fans on the CF.C forums, this is the one bowl they want to go to least. The location is difficult, the setting uninspiring and the timing is brutal -- an 11 a.m. kickoff the day after Christmas is lousy, even for Cougar fans willing to travel and spend their holiday in El Paso.
The only good angle in my mind is one of nostalgia. WSU's string of 10-win seasons started at the Sun Bowl in 2001. So hey, if Cougar fans are serious about turning back time and getting the band back together, might as well do it right, right?
The Sun Bowl would likely present the Cougars with the most beatable opponent of any Pac-12 bowl game; a low-end ACC squad.
THE LAS VEGAS BOWL
The Situation: Only four other teams can possibly match the Cougars’ six conference wins at regular season's end -- the only possible scenario where WSU lands here is if WSU loses the Apple Cup, the Foster Farms Bowl selects a USC or UCLA squad with five Pac-12 wins, and the Sun Bowl selects Utah over WSU. Stranger things have probably happened, but I wouldn't put money on WSU somehow landing in the Vegas Bowl.
So what do CougFans want to root for on the regular season's final week?
1. (Obviously) beating UW and finishing in second place. The tier one bowls have the option to move down but it is unusual -- generally speaking, the primary reason a bowl opts to pick a lesser teams is to avoid repeat lineups. But If WSU loses the Apple Cup and ends up in a tie for third place with multiple schools, the chance to be passed over increases. Meanwhile, if Washington State wins and finishes second, the Cougs will likely be rewarded in appropriate fashion.
2. Stanford beating Notre Dame -- convincingly. Stanford's chances of making the playoffs are slim to none, but they can do a lot for conference credibility by beating Notre Dame. Oregon is trying to make a mad dash to the Top 12 to try and earn a Fiesta Bowl slot but with only one game remaining, they need a lot of chaos at the top to help. The better chance for the Pac-12 to get a Fiesta Bowl slot is for Stanford to crush Notre Dame, but lose to UCLA a week later.
3. USC beating UCLA. WSU would benefit with an unpopular south division champ. USC does not travel long distances well, and the fan base is highly soured at the moment. The Trojans went to the Holiday Bowl last year and the game was poorly attended. They will of course say all the right things, but I don't believe the Alamo or Holiday wants USC.
4. Unlikely upsets.
Oregon State beating Oregon would help WSU but let's be realistic, Phil Knight could insist on playing and Oregon would still win easily. Colorado beating Utah seems pretty unlikely, but such a result would help WSU's standings in the bowl selection process. Even a bad showing by a winning Oregon or Utah team could help.