There are 40 bowls and 80 slots for those 40 bowls. And, as of Monday, there are 62 teams with six wins who can qualify for those bowls.
That means 18 spots still remain. And if all 18 spots aren't filled by the end of the season, Nebraska — because of its high Academic Progress Report score — would be the first 5-7 team in line to snag a bowl spot.
This intrigue looms in the background of NU's season finale against Iowa. The Huskers are 5-6. A win over the Hawkeyes would guarantee the Huskers a bowl slot and — what's more —perhaps a pretty good bowl slot against a pretty good team. A better bowl slot and opponent than you think. We'll get to that in a minute.
But, should the Huskers lose to Iowa — which is, after all, still undefeated — there remains a slight chance that they could still make a bowl game. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com and Jason Kirk of SBNation.com both have Nebraska projected to a bowl game, as does Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com. ESPN.com's Brett McMurphy does not, but he has a scenario that would I describe as unlikely, which we'll touch on in a minute.
First: Palm has a list of the 18 teams that are one win away from bowl eligbility. He ranks those teams by their five-year rolling APR score — that's graduation rates and progress made by transfers at different institutions — and Nebraska, with a sterling APR of 985, is right at the top.
Yes, NU's APR improved considerably under former coach Bo Pelini, even if I suspect it'll go on decline because of some transfers in the 2013 and 2014 classes. Nevertheless, Pelini's insistence on education — coupled with Nebraska's excellent academic support structure — has put the Huskers in a position to make a bowl game, and thus get an extra month of practice, even in a losing season.
That is, unless the 80 slots get filled. That would take some combination of the 17 other five-win teams that need to win one game and at least one four-win team that needs to win two games. That's unlikely, but, of course, possible.
Of the 18 teams just one win away, here are the four teams with the hardest path:
Florida International: Has one game left, against Western Kentucky, which is unbeaten in Conference USA. WKU is a 16.5-point favorite this Saturday.
Connecticut: Plays Houston and then a road game at Temple, which would need to win to clinch the American Athletic Conference East division crown. I don't see UConn winning either game.
Missouri: Hosts Tennessee and then plays at Arkansas. The Tigers won't be favored in either game.
Illinois: Plays at Minnesota, then plays Northwestern at Soldier Field in Chicago. The Illini won't be favored in either game.
Then you have four-win teams — like Nebraska was before beating Rutgers — that could win its last two games. I've listed them in the likelihood of those teams actually pulling off the wins:
Rice: at Texas San-Antonio, vs. Charlotte
Louisiana-Lafayette: vs. New Mexico State, at Appalachian State, vs. Troy
Kentucky: vs. Charlotte, vs. Louisville
Indiana: at Maryland, at Purdue
Washington: at Oregon State, vs. Washington State
Minnesota: vs. Illinois, vs. Wisconsin
Texas: vs. Texas Tech, at Baylor
San Jose State: at Hawaii, vs. Boise State
UTEP: vs. Louisiana Tech, at North Texas
Vanderbilt: vs. Texas A&M, at Tennessee
I expect Rice and Lafayette to pull it off. So does Palm; he has both in bowl games. Kentucky will blow out Charlotte and probably take Louisville to the wire. Indiana should win at Maryland and Purdue, but, hey, it's Indiana. Washington will have a good shot to upset Washington State. The rest, including Minnesota, seem a little unlikely.
If you had four teams from that four-win pool, you'd need 14 of the five-win teams. Even if the four above teams — FIU, UConn, Illinois and Missouri — lose out, you could still have a scenario where Nebraska is shut out if the other 14 teams with five wins do their job.
You could have a scenario that's a little bit of a nightmare for the Big Ten, too: Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana all finish at 5-7 and none make a bowl. That could leave all four of the Big Ten's last four bowl slots — the Pinstripe, the Quick Lane, the Foster Farms and the Armed Forces — empty. Especially if the Big Ten sends three teams to the College Football Playoff bowls.
The league is more or less guaranteed that two will. The Big Ten champion, if not selected for the playoff, goes to the Rose Bowl, while another Big Ten team will almost surely be snatched up by the Playoff committee to place in the Peach, Sugar or Fiesta Bowls. You could get three if Ohio State, or Iowa, runs the table and makes the four-team playoff. You could get three if Michigan beats Ohio State, then beats an undefeated Iowa in the Big Ten title game. You could get the same if Michigan State replaces Michigan in that equation, too.
The Big Ten also plays this year in the Citrus, Outback, Holiday and the Music City Bowls. If, for argument's sake, Ohio State is in the four-team Playoff, Iowa makes its first Rose Bowl in more than two decades and Michigan State is called up to the Peach, Fiesta or Sugar, that would leave Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Penn State to populate the Citrus, Outback, Holiday and Music City bowls.
That could leave the other four bowls scrambling for Conference USA, Sun Belt and Conference USA teams. You could have some significant mismatches — anybody up for Oregon-Rice in the Foster Farms Bowl? — or games that virtually no one desires to see.
That's the fallout of having Minnesota draw Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa in successive weeks. If you just swapped out Iowa's schedule for Minnesota's, you know what I think you'd have? Honestly? I think Minnesota would be 8-2, regardless of coach. I think Iowa would be 7-3 or 6-4, and Kirk Ferentz would have a toasty seat.
And that's the fallout of having a pretty good Illinois team draw Penn State on the road and Ohio State at home. And the fallout of having Indiana play Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa in successive weeks.
There is, of course, a flip side to the coin.
If Nebraska beats Iowa and finishes 6-6, there's a good chance — a great one, really — that the Huskers do no worse than the Foster Farms bowl. That would draw NU a pretty choice opponent out of the Pac-12, like Oregon, UCLA, Washington State or perhaps USC again. The Pac-12 is staring down the barrel of being shut out of the four-team playoff and only qualifying one team for the other CFP bowls, which means it'll present a tough down-the-line slate. And I suspect the league will be motivated, too, to show it deserved better than the bowl gruel about to be served to it.
Palm, though, has Nebraska in the Music City Bowl — against Arkansas. That probably presumes that Penn State, currently 7-3, loses to Michigan and at Michigan State to end the season. If a 7-5 Penn State team whose best win is over Illinois is matched résumés against 6-6 Nebraska, which would have beaten Michigan State and Iowa, well, you get the picture: Nebraska gets the edge.
The point is: If Nebraska beats Iowa, its reward may not only be a bowl game, but an opponent that further tests the growth of NU's team. And if Nebraska doesn't beat Iowa, it still may find a back door into a bowl.
For a team that needs more practice in December, that's good news.
Note: A previous version of this blog had FIU and WKU in the Sun Belt. Both moved to Conference USA recently.