PULLMAN – Most Washington State fans sunk their heads into their hands when the College Football Playoff committee released its most recent rankings on Tuesday. Heading into conference championship weekend, the 10-2 Cougars sit right on the bubble of a New Year’s Six bowl berth – and behind four teams who’ve lost one more game than them.
Depending on what happens in title games across the country Friday and Saturday, and how CFP voters are feeling about the Cougs when they get out of bed Sunday, WSU will either earn a bid to a major bowl game for the first time in 15 years or “settle” for an above-average non-NY6 game.
The official word comes Sunday, so while you wait, here are five intriguing bowl matchups we’ve drawn up for the 2018 Cougars – a few of them more realistic than the others.
1. WSU vs. Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl
How it could happen: On Boise State’s end, the Broncos would have to take care of business against Fresno State in the Mountain West championship game. Bryan Harsin and his crew will also be big Memphis fans this weekend. To reach the Fiesta Bowl for the fourth time in school history, BSU would need the Tigers to beat UCF in the AAC title game and the Knights would need to drop below the Broncos in the College Football Playoff rankings. And for WSU to reach a NY6 bowl? Well, the Cougars need even more help. A quartet of three-loss teams – Washington, Penn State, LSU and Florida – sits above WSU in the rankings and only one of them, the No. 11 Huskies, plays a game this weekend. Committee members would have to reevaluate the Cougars’ resume and decide to bump WSU ahead of at least one of the three-loss teams to give Mike Leach a shot at his first NY6 bowl as the coach in Pullman.
Why we’d like it: First and foremost, because it would be the rubber match in an entertaining series between the Mountain West Broncos and Pac-12 Cougars. Each of the last two meetings were decided by three points, with BSU edging WSU 31-28 on the blue turf two years ago and the Cougars outlasting the Broncos 47-44 in a triple-overtime thriller in Pullman last season. Brett Rypien, the Spokane native and Shadle Park grad with some well-documented ties to WSU, has thrown for more than 13,400 yards as a four-year starter for the Broncos and will be playing his final game in the BSU blue.
2. WSU vs. West Virginia in the Alamo Bowl
How it could happen: At No. 16 in the College Football Playoff rankings, the Mountaineers are completely out of the picture when it comes to a New Year’s Six bowl. The Cougars, now No. 13, no longer control their NY6 destiny after a 28-15 loss to Washington in the Apple Cup. With Oklahoma and Texas in NY6 bowls, it seems most likely the Alamo Bowl would grab WVU. If WSU can’t secure a trip to the Fiesta or Peach Bowl, the Cougars would become the most attractive choice for the San Antonio game.
Why we’d like it: There’d be a storyline just about everywhere you look. Two Heisman Trophy candidates – WVU’s Will Grier and WSU’s Gardner Minshew – squaring off in the Alamodome might be the best QB matchup of the postseason, barring a potential CFP meeting between Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa. Just as fascinating, the reunion of Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen and Cougars coach Mike Leach. Holgorsen played for Leach at Iowa Wesleyan, then coached alongside Leach at Valdosta State and spent seven more seasons with the former Texas Tech boss in Lubbock. Since then, Holgorsen has worked to spread the Air Raid gospel at Houston, Oklahoma State and West Virginia. Leach returning to Texas gives us another subplot here. Sovereign immunity, anyone? Both of WSU’s specialists, kicker Blake Mazza and Oscar Draguicevich, also hail from the Lone Star State.
3. WSU vs. UCF in the Fiesta Bowl
How it could happen: Even without standout QB McKenzie Milton, the Knights of UCF are still favored to beat Memphis by three points in the AAC championship game. If they do, they’ll lock down a NY6 bid for the second time in as many years. WSU, as mentioned above, needs plenty of help from committee members on college football’s “Selection Sunday,” but enough of the prognosticators are recognizing the Fiesta Bowl as a potential destination for WSU – and UCF as a potential foe – that we’ll give it some ink, too.
Why we’d like it: Earlier this year, Leach revisited the still-popular 1999 Red River Rivalry game between his Oklahoma Sooners and the Texas Longhorns. Leach, OU’s offensive coordinator, devised a fake call sheet and left it on the field prior to the game for Longhorns coaches to find. As the story goes, a UT grad assistant picked up the bait and on the first OU drive, quarterback Josh Heupel fired a 44-yard touchdown pass, executing a play that was opposite of the one on Leach’s mock call sheet. Heupel is the coach at UCF, so Knights vs. Cougars would give us another matchup between Leach and an old pupil. We’d definitely scan the turf for stranded playbooks beforehand, too.
4. WSU vs. Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl
How it could happen: The Buckeyes are a heavy favorite to beat Northwestern in the Big Ten title game. If they do, this possibility would be null, because Ohio State would head to the Rose Bowl. If – a big, big “if” – the Wildcats can pull off an upset, they’d fly to Pasadena and OSU would settle for another NY6 game, perhaps the Fiesta Bowl. Yes, we understand that also makes it more difficult for WSU to secure an NY6 spot, but perhaps CFP voters decided to knock the three-loss teams below the Cougars. Lots of “perhaps” and “ifs” here, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Why we’d like it: The reunion with former WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, a first-year co-DC/safeties coach in Columbus, is an obvious plot line here. The Buckeyes rank just No. 67 nationally in total defense and as much Air Raid as Grinch saw over the years in Pullman, they’re just No. 77 against the pass. If Minshew doesn’t get a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, OSU QB Dwayne Haskins is probably the one getting his ticket. The matchup between two high-caliber passers also gives this matchup intrigue.
5. WSU vs. Michigan in the Peach Bowl
How it could happen: If the Cougars are fortunate enough to nab a New Year’s Six spot, it’d almost surely be the Fiesta Bowl. The Peach Bowl is another option, however. Most already expect Michigan to be courted by the Atlanta-based game. The Wolverines, at 10-2 and No. 7 in the CFP rankings, don’t play this weekend and therefore won’t slip out of the top 12. If CFP committee members get out of bed Sunday and somehow fall in love with the Cougars again – and fall out of love with the Nittany Lions, Tigers and Gators – WSU could face the Big Ten for a third consecutive postseason.
Why we’d like it: The press conference might draw bigger numbers than the game itself. On one side of the podium, Jim Harbaugh, who once climbed a tree while recruiting a top cornerback prospect. On the other, Leach, who last year during a pre-Holiday Bowl presser, elaborated on his experience owning a pet raccoon. Two of college football’s most riveting interviews, Harbaugh and Leach are also a few of the sport’s most innovative minds and Michigan and WSU respectively rank No. 21 and No. 15 in scoring offense this season.
And just for kicks…
6. WSU vs. Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl
How it could happen: OK, now we’re really stretching, but stretch with us here. If Utah ekes out a win in the Pac-12 championship game, the Utes would be Rose Bowl-bound and the Pac-12 would presumably be shielded from a second NY6 berth. The Alamo Bowl could technically grab UW at this point, because the Huskies would still be within one conference loss of the Cougars. The Holiday Bowl, theoretically, could take Stanford if the Cardinal avoid a fourth conference loss this Saturday against Cal. But 10-win Wazzu still is the more attractive option – yes, even for the Holiday Bowl.
Why we’d like it: Behind Leach and Minshew, Northwestern strength coach Alex Spanos would be the third-most recognizable character in this game. Spanos’ tight purple polo shirts and jacked up biceps have become virally famous – far more so than any player or coach on Northwestern’s roster. That’s about all we have here.
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