LINCOLN — Down the stretch comes college football, and in year one of the College Football Playoff, the four that occupied the top spots on Tuesday night could easily be the four you see Sunday.
No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 TCU and No. 4 Florida State all have winnable games this weekend. All are favored. All have more talent than their opponents. All four deserve to be there if they do win, even if Baylor, which beat TCU, ties the Horned Frogs for the Big 12 title. TCU’s better. Watch the games.
If all four win, the Big Ten is almost certainly on the outside looking in.
No. 5 Ohio State will need help even if it beats No. 13 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Surely the committee won’t be so cold to dump undefeated FSU if the Seminoles beat No. 11 Georgia Tech for the ACC championship. And if one-loss TCU drops out after its long, consistent climb into the top four, it’d be an insult to the entire committee process. Because the Horned Frogs aren’t losing to Iowa State.
So OSU may fall short — and that’s if the Buckeyes win at all. Wisconsin is the favorite. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is out with a broken ankle, and his replacement, Cardale Jones, is slower and more stationary. Much of Barrett’s game — and OSU’s success — relied on his ability to feel pressure, move around the pocket and scramble when necessary. Jones doesn’t have that trait.
Strangely enough, an Ohio State loss may help get more Big Ten teams in the New Year’s Six bowls. No. 8 Michigan State is snug on the list. Wisconsin would be if the Badgers won. OSU might be, too.
As for Nebraska? The Huskers weren’t ranked this week and will need luck to be ranked next week, especially considering that Minnesota dropped all the way out. NU players and what remains of the coaching staff will instead look to a bowl game. The Big Ten will play a large hand in where Nebraska goes, but I think it’s fair to narrow it to four destinations: the Jan. 1 Outback, Dec. 27 Holiday, Dec. 30 Music City or Dec. 30 Foster Farms Bowl.
I called all four bowl committees Tuesday. The Outback, Holiday and Music City folks all called back. The Foster Farms Bowl — to be played in the San Francisco 49ers’ new stadium in Santa Clara, California — did not return a call. It’s expected that Stanford will await a Big Ten team in that game.
As for the other three, little appears to have changed with the popularity of Nebraska’s brand, even after the firing of Bo Pelini. Nebraska does well with TV ratings. Nebraska does well with fan support. You’ve heard the lines, and they’re still true.
“Anytime anybody can get Nebraska, it’s a good thing,” said Bruce Binkowski, executive director of the San Diego Bowl Association.
“It’s one of the top brands in college football,” said Scott Ramsey, president of the Music City Bowl.
“Do we want Nebraska? Who wouldn’t?” said Jim McVay, president of the Outback Bowl.
Not all at once here. Remember, the Outback and Holiday Bowls have agreed to have five different teams in six years. As for the Music City, it gets only three Big Ten teams over the next six years — sharing the Big Ten with the Taxslayer Bowl — and probably only one good crack at the Huskers.
But we’ll start there, since, in the course of our conversation, Ramsey brought up a good point.
“Nashville is right on the cusp of being drivable from Nebraska,” Ramsey said. Well, eastern Nebraska, anyway. Try about 11 to 12 hours.
One recent issue with the Music City Bowl was that it tended to draw mediocre teams from the SEC East. Kentucky has played there three times in the last decade. Vanderbilt has played there twice. A fairly lousy 6-7 Tennessee team played there in 2010.
Ramsey said that will change. The SEC’s “pool” process puts the Texas Bowl, Music City Bowl, Taxslayer Bowl, Outback Bowl and Belk Bowl on equal footing. Where there used to be a draft order — with the Outback and Taxslayer getting better teams — there’s now an emphasis on matchups.
So the Music City will be in the hunt for eight- or nine-win SEC teams. Ramsey mentioned Auburn and LSU as possibilities. Georgia is an option, too, but Nebraska wouldn’t be in the Music City Bowl if Georgia were there.
Nebraska played in the Holiday Bowl in 2009 and 2010. Iowa was probably the Holiday’s prime choice, but the Hawkeyes slipped after losing to the Huskers last week. Binkowski said Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska are the top targets from the Big Ten, with UCLA, USC and Arizona as prime choices on the Pac-12 side. USC has never appeared in the Holiday Bowl. UCLA just did. But since the Alamo Bowl picks before the Holiday, the Alamo could pick USC.
The Outback is intriguing. The Tampa game gets you Jan. 1 exposure and sits on the doorstep of a huge day in college football. You get an SEC opponent — Missouri, perhaps? — but it is a fourth straight trip to Florida.
Let’s again project the Big Ten bowls. These could be way off by Sunday, by the way.
College Football Playoff: none.
Cotton, Peach or Fiesta: Wisconsin and Ohio State. Badgers win the Big Ten title and the Buckeyes stay in the top 10.
Orange: Michigan State.
Pinstripe: Penn State.
Foster Farms: Maryland.
Quick Lane: Illinois.
Heart of Dallas: Rutgers.
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