By now you're familiar with all of the College Football Playoff's bowl games for this year, but here is where I remind you that the luck of the draw set those games as much as the selection committee did.
There are three different configurations for the semifinals, and that means in any given year, there are multiple ways the New Year's Six bowls could have ended up. I'm going to run down the ones we didn't have this year to show you how different they could have been.
Rose-Sugar Semifinal Scenario
There is a small amount of ambiguity about which teams would go to which bowl, but what is certain is that there would be two new teams in the field.
Ole Miss and Oklahoma State are playing in this year's Sugar Bowl, but that's only because of the tie ins that the game has via contract. With the Sugar Bowl hosting a semifinal, those contractual provisions don't kick in. And because those teams ended up relatively far down the selection committee rankings—12th for Ole Miss and 16th for OSU—they wouldn't be appearing in the big money bowls.
Here is how I think the New Year's Six games would've ended up with this semifinal setup.
- Sugar Bowl: Clemson vs. Oklahoma
- Rose Bowl: Alabama vs. Michigan State
- Orange Bowl: Florida State vs. Iowa
- Fiesta Bowl: Stanford vs. Notre Dame
- Cotton Bowl: TCU vs. Houston
- Peach Bowl: Ohio State vs. North Carolina
The Sugar gets the Tigers and Sooners because it's the closer of the two games to upstate South Carolina. That puts the Crimson Tide and Spartans out west in Pasadena.
The Orange Bowl's contract is for an ACC team and the highest ranked available team from the SEC, Big Ten, and Notre Dame. FSU is the highest ranked available ACC team, and Iowa is the highest ranked from the SEC/B1G/ND pool.
From here, it's more art than science. I feel confident in Stanford for the Fiesta Bowl and North Carolina for the Peach just in going off of geography. The same goes for putting the two Texas teams in the Cotton. I don't have a strong lean on Notre Dame and Ohio State, but let's imagine that somehow out of respect for the Rose Bowl or something that we don't get a Big Ten-Pac 12 matchup in Phoenix. You could swap the Irish and Buckeyes if you want and I'd be fine with it.
Wherever they would end up, these are the teams that would be in the field. The ACC and Big Ten each would have three teams in the games while the SEC would only have one. I'm sweating just from imagining the hot takes resulting from that outcome.
Fiesta-Peach Semifinal Scenario
This one is nice in that there are no decisions to make. It works out that contracts remove all ambiguity from all bowl positions every time we have this semifinal arrangement.
- Peach Bowl: Clemson vs. Oklahoma
- Fiesta Bowl: Alabama vs. Michigan State
- Rose Bowl: Iowa vs. Stanford
- Sugar Bowl: Ole Miss vs. Oklahoma State
- Orange Bowl: Florida State vs. Ohio State
- Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame vs. Houston
The Peach takes Clemson and OU because it's the closest of the two to Howard's Rock. The Fiesta then gets Alabama and MSU.
The Rose and Sugar Bowls take exactly the same teams as they do in reality this year because the same contracts are in effect. The Orange's contract pulls in FSU as above, but it gets Ohio State instead of Iowa because the Rose's Big Ten tie in has precedent over the Orange's SEC/B1G/ND tie in.
That leaves one bowl left for the contractually mandated Group of Five representative, Houston. The other spot goes to the highest ranked available team, Notre Dame. There is no guessing as to where the sole at-large team goes because there is only one possible place.
Summing It Up
Ole Miss is making its first Sugar Bowl appearance since the one after the 1969 regular season, but it wouldn't have happened if we were using the setup we had a year ago. That setup last year, coincidentally, blocked Mississippi State from making its first Sugar Bowl appearance ever and sent the Bulldogs to the Orange Bowl instead. It blocked Arizona from making its first ever Rose Bowl appearance too.
North Carolina would've been the beneficiary of the Rebels' misfortune if we were using last year's system. The Tar Heels would've gone to their first major bowl since they went to the Sugar twice and the Cotton once in the late '40s and early '50s.
Ohio State and Notre Dame are the most variable teams, as one of them would be in different bowls across all three setups depending on which you send to the Peach Bowl using the Rose-Sugar semifinal scenario. No matter which of them you send where, their opponents do change across all three setups.
Houston is something of a loser this year, at least among the teams who are definitely in the big games. The Cougars would've played in their home state in one of the two other setups and probably would've played there in the other as well. Instead, they travel up to Atlanta to play in front of what will probably be a fairly FSU-friendly crowd.
The takeaway, as always, is not that any particular team got away with something while another got shafted. Rather, it's that the asymmetrical nature of the College Football Playoff giveth and taketh away. Sometimes, the difference between making a New Year's Six game or not can simply come down to the luck of which year it happens to be.