With the season’s first College Football Playoff rankings out, it’s worth taking a look at how the entire New Year’s Six bowl lineup would look in light of them.
I’m not just going to go over how this year’s set of New Year’s Six bowls would work out, though. There are three possible pairings of semifinal games, and bowl pairings can change based on which sites are hosting the semifinal games. I will also outline how the pairings would work in the other semifinal scenarios to show how the random luck of which system the CFP uses in a given year can affect the bowl outcomes.
I’m following the same procedure that the committee itself uses. The semifinal games go first, and “preference will go to the No. 1 seed” when it comes to picking which matchup goes in which bowl.
I will assume that the top-ranked team in the committee’s rankings for a given conference is that league’s champion. I have to make that kind of assumption due to contractual tie-ins.
When the games aren’t hosting semifinals, the Rose, Sugar, and Orange Bowls have contracts governing their spots. The Rose gets the top available Big Ten and Pac-12 teams, the Sugar gets the top available SEC and Big 12 teams, and the Orange gets the top available ACC team with the top remaining team from the SEC, Big Ten, or Notre Dame.
In years like this one where neither the Sugar nor Orange is a semifinal, the Rose’s Big Ten and the Sugar’s SEC spots have priority over the Orange’s B1G/SEC/ND spot. Similar to the BCS, the champions of the Power Five conferences have guaranteed bids to be somewhere in the system even when their contract bowls are hosting semifinals.
Once those contractual spots have their teams, it’s a matter of filling in the rest. The only other contractual requirement is that the top-ranked champion of a Group of Five non-power conference has a place somewhere. When sorting out these final spots, the guidelines tell the committee to “create the best matchups” while factoring in geography, avoiding regular season rematches, and not sending a team to the same game repeatedly.
The Pool of Teams
The top four teams in the rankings will go to the semifinals. Right now, that’s No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Michigan, and No. 4 Texas A&M.
No. 5 Washington and No. 14 Oklahoma have guaranteed spots somewhere due to being assumed Power Five conference champions. No. 23 Western Michigan is in line right now to get the guaranteed Group of Five placement.
The remaining five spots will go to the five highest ranked remaining teams: No. 6 Ohio State, No. 7 Louisville, No. 8 Wisconsin, No. 9 Auburn, and No. 10 Nebraska. It’s not always so cut-and-dried because of the contracts, but with this week’s rankings, it’s works out to be simple.
Fiesta-Peach Semifinal Scenario
This year, the Fiesta and Peach Bowls host semifinal games. The top-ranked Tide gets preference, and it is closer to Atlanta than it is to Glendale.
Peach: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Texas A&M
Fiesta: No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Michigan
The next piece of the puzzle is fulfilling the contracts. The Sugar, Rose, and Orange all have contractual spots, so filling them in makes this easy.
Sugar: No. 9 Auburn vs. No. 14 Oklahoma
Rose: No. 5 Washington vs. No. No. 6 Ohio State
Orange: No. 7 Louisville vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
Had Washington made the top four instead of Texas A&M—which it definitely would have if this was the final ranking set and the Huskies actually owned the conference crown—Colorado would be going to the Rose Bowl as the second-highest ranked Pac-12 team. The Buffs in Pasadena would be an amazing story.
The sole remaining game must take the Group of Five representative, and it’ll just grab the highest-ranked team to go with it.
Cotton: No. 10 Nebraska vs. No. 23 Western Michigan
Overall, this is a fantastic spread of bowl games. Not only do the top four teams play each other, but No. 5 plays No. 6 and No. 7 plays No. 8. A game between Auburn and Oklahoma has potential for fireworks too. The only real potential dud is the Cotton, where a Nebraska team lacking star power could easily go up against a WMU team missing its head coach because P.J. Fleck took a higher-profile job.
Again, this bowl lineup is what we’re going to have this year. It’s the most straightforward of the bowl configurations because the semifinals and contracts entirely govern five games and one of the spots in the sixth. From here, it’s more of a judgment call.
Rose-Sugar Semifinal Scenario
This scenario is what we had for the initial CFP in 2014 and is what we’ll get next year. Once again, Bama gets preference as the top overall team.
Sugar: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Texas A&M
Rose: No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Michigan
The only contract bowl remaining is the Orange, and it ends up with a whale of a matchup.
Orange: No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 7 Louisville
Lamar Jackson against J.T. Barrett? Yes, please.
It’s a bit of an art placing teams in the rest of these games, especially with only two years of precedent to look at. Geography plays a role, but it doesn’t seem to be the primary overriding factor for distributing teams. Creating the highest possible pairings of team ranks appears to have priority, and then geography seems to help sort those good matchups out.
With that in mind, here is my best guess for how the three remaining games would go.
Fiesta: No. 5 Washington vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
Cotton: No. 14 Oklahoma vs. No. 23 Western Michigan
Peach: No. 9 Auburn vs. No. 10 Nebraska
Putting the Huskies in the westernmost bowl makes sense, and I’ve paired them with the top available team in the Badgers. Auburn in Atlanta is a no-brainer, and the Tigers get the top available ranked team in the Huskers. The last two remaining teams go to the Cotton, and it happens to work out well geographically for the Sooners.
These make the most sense based on the committee’s guidelines and its history, but how amazing would it be to get an Oklahoma-Nebraska Cotton Bowl? Maybe someone in the room would make a case for reviving an old rivalry.
Orange-Cotton Semifinal Scenario
This one is the system we had last year and will see again two seasons hence.
Orange: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Texas A&M
Cotton: No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Michigan
It would make sense to have Alabama in Arlington and Clemson in Miami, but I don’t think the committee would make the top-ranked team play in a location that would feel like a home game for the No. 4 team. If Washington had been fourth, I’d have switched these games and had the Tide and Tigers in the same games as last year.
Next up are the contract bowls, and they work the same as they do under the system we’ll use this year.
Rose: No. 5 Washington vs. No. 6 Ohio State
Sugar: No. 9 Auburn vs. No. 14 Oklahoma
Due to the way the rankings shook out, I have the remaining two bowls with the same matchups as games that would happen this year.
Fiesta: No. 10 Nebraska vs. No. 23 Western Michigan
Peach: No. 7 Louisville vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
So there you have it. Which semifinal scenario a particular year has can change the New Year’s Six bowl matchups quite a bit. What I’ve laid out above is even fairly tame as far as the changes go, as it’s possible to have situations where teams can move in and out of NY6 bowls based on which scenario is in play.
Just flipping Washington to fourth and Texas A&M to fifth would give us a situation where Colorado appears in two of the three NY6 configurations and Nebraska gets in when the Buffaloes don’t. Making a prestige bowl would be enormous for either of those two former Big 12 rivals, but whether they would be in one or not would be luck of the rotation. For better or worse, that’s the system we have.