WSU football: Early CF.C bowl game analysis and outlook for the Cougs

YOU MIGHT THINK with Washington State opening the season 7-0 in the Pac-12 play, and standing alone on top of the conference after Week 10, that would earn a certain degree of confidence when it comes to bowl projections. But Cougar fans have come to know better. And if you want a nightmare scenario, well, I’ve got one for you.

Long story short (and we’ll get into all the details below) it is entirely possible, and in my view quite probable, that if the Cougs don't win one of their last two regular season games, they're headed back to El Paso.  If you need to call Help Alert at this point, go ahead, I’ll wait.

Now that you’ve absorbed that, know this: a WSU win Saturday at Colorado improves WSU’s bowl prospects markedly.

If the Cougs beat Colorado, they will retain (at least) a two-game lead on USC, Utah, and Colorado. Utah and Colorado play each other the following week, meaning that one of those two, along with Stanford, is out of WSU’s immediate picture, thereby assuring a top four bowl game for the Cougs even if they were to lose the Apple Cup.  So let's go through the scenarios and in detail.  Here’s the rundown. There are six bowl games in play for WSU, barring some major chaos:

1. The Rose Bowl
WSU controls its destiny to Pasadena, and can even survive a loss to Colorado largely unscathed when it comes to a Rose Bowl berth. The Cougs need to beat the Huskies in the Apple Cup, or beat Colorado combined with a UW loss to ASU on Saturday, to win the North and play in the conference title game. The winner there gets the automatic bid to the Rose Bowl (unless the Pac-12 champ is selected for the playoff, but we'll cross that bridge if/when come to it).  A 3-0 finish to end the season gets the Cougs into the playoff discussion too, but that's also a story we'll get to if it happens.

2. The Alamo Bowl
The conference's No. 2 bowl game actually has the option of selecting WSU no matter what else happens from here on out.  But it can only be forced to take the Cougs if WSU wins its last two remaining games.  If WSU beats Colorado and UW, every other Pac-12 team would have at least two losses, leaving the Alamo Bowl's bid a lock for the Cougs in the event they fall in the conference title game.

3. The Holiday Bowl
The No. 3 Pac-12 bowl game has rejected WSU in the past since taking the Cougs in 2003, and may well do so again if given the choice. One more victory for the Cougs however, will make that path difficult. If the Cougs beat Colorado, the loser of the Utah/Colorado game is out of consideration for the Holiday, along with Stanford. That just leaves only UW, the winner of Utah/Colorado -- and in all likelihood, USC, still in play. The winner of Utah/Colorado would be a tempting choice for the Holiday Bowl, but I am not so sure about USC. The Trojans have been to San Diego two years in a row and have not sold their ticket allotment either trip.  But again, that consideration is secondary when it comes to TV ratings.

4. The Foster Farms Bowl
This is a tricky one. It's played in Santa Clara three days after Christmas and they have had a devil of a time selling tickets in years past (but hey, at least it's not Dec. 26 like it was last year). The big issue here is Stanford, who will be a very tempting local pick if they are eligible. If the Cougs win just one more game, the Cardinal are out of the picture  and the Cougs will be, at minimum, in sole possession of second place in the conference standings, haven just beaten one of the other one-loss teams, UW or Colorado. It is hard to imagine the Cougs being shut out of the Foster Farms given that scenario, but if we've learned anything in recent years when it comes to bowl selections, don't count on anything until it's a 100 percent done deal.

5. The Sun Bowl
It has no option but to take the next highest ranked team in the standings and the Cougs can finish no lower than fifth place no matter what occurs from this point on. Indeed, it would seem next to impossible for the Cougs to fall any further except...

6. The Las Vegas Bowl
There is one scenario that allows the Cougs to fall this far. The Cougs would have to lose final two games, Stanford has to beat Cal, and the Foster Farms takes Stanford, Utah must be the team that beats Colorado, and Utah and USC must likewise take care of business against Oregon and UCLA, respectively. This would create a 4-way logjam tie for second place in the standings at 7-2. And that would give the Sun Bowl the option of selecting somebody other than WSU.

AS THE SONG goes, he who forgets will be destined to remember. So let's not forget.

Last season, WSU battled it's way to a 6-3 Pac-12 record, third place in the conference standings, but the Cougs received an invitation to the Pac-12’s fifth-place bowl game.  It was a similar story in 2013, when WSU t-5th in the Pac-12 standings but did not receive a bid from any of the conference's seven bowl partners, instead settling for an at-large invite from the New Mexico Bowl.  And 2006 was even worse, when the bowl-eligible Cougs received no invitation at all.

Again, do not be fooled: although the Cougs remain the only undefeated team in conference play, WSU is in a very precarious situation IF they do not finish the season strong in the remaining games vs. Colorado and UW.

The rub here is Pac-12 bowl contracts offer the more prestigious bowls a certain degree of flexibility as to whom they select. The conference champion goes to the Rose Bowl (if not the playoff) but the Alamo, Holiday and Foster Farms are free to select any team they want so long as they are within one conference loss of the highest remaining team in the Pac-12 standings. The Foster Farms did precisely that last year, selecting the 5-4 Bruins ahead of 6-3 WSU and Utah.

AND THE DRIVER here is ESPN, TV ratings and the money to be made. 

It used to matter to bowl games to what degree a team’s fan base would travel and pump dollars into the local economy, and not having repeat schools was important, etc. That model is dead.

Don't forget that the Holiday Bowl last season took USC for the second straight year, attracting 7,460 fewer fans than the year before. At the Foster Farms, 33,527 were in attendance. Levi's Stadium seats 66,000. But TV ratings were up for Foster Farms. The ratings were down for the Holiday but that's also telling: the year before, the Holiday Bowl featuring USC, was the most watched Holiday Bowl in a decade.

The ideal outcome in 2016 for Cougar fans is, of course, for WSU to stay in control of its destiny and win its way into the Rose Bowl these coming weeks. But should the Cougs come up short, their fate will fall into the hands of some people who have shown no particular love for the crimson and gray compared to the other colors of laundry in the Pac-12.

At the moment, the Cougs' 7-0 record provides them with a legal buffer from the kind of injustice that has plagued them in years past. But the pack is right on their heels.

Any team two games behind the Cougs in the conference standings cannot be selected over them when the bowl picks are made. That means USC, Utah, and Stanford are out of the picture for the time being. But as you can see, a loss this weekend could change all that. USC and Utah would become selectable provided they beat crumbling UCLA and Oregon, respectively. And consider the potential scenario if the Cougs were to lose the Apple Cup and Stanford is back in the picture too (provided they win their final conference game against Cal).

So to sum up, the Cougars' work is a long way from finished if they want to enjoy some sunshine this winter. One more victory likely gets them at least into one of the top three bowls. If any casual fan out there thinks there's not a whole lot riding on Colorado this week, a frosty trip to El Paso is awaiting one of the Pac-12 teams currently ranked in the top 25. If the Cougs don't want it to be them, it's time to put the heat on Colorado.

FROM THE CF.C ARCHIVES: Cougs still a glitch in the matrix for Vegas

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