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Couch: Michigan State to Citrus Bowl likely hinges on Wisconsin in Big Ten championship


The Spartans’ bowl picture is fairly clear, just not decided
Tuesday night’s College Football Playoff rankings helped to clarify Michigan State’s bowl game destination.
The Spartans are not a part of the College Football Playoff picture. Nor do they have any shot at one of the other New Year’s Six bowls. That leaves their own bowl fate somewhat at the mercy of the teams that are part of New Year’s Six picture, before knowing where they’ll land in the Big Ten bowl-affiliated bowls.
MSU will be in either the Citrus Bowl, Outback Bowl or Holiday Bowl, which are considered the Big Ten’s three “top tier” games. That’s a lock after the Spartans beat Rutgers on Saturday to finish 9-3.
Here’s what’s new after Tuesday night’s rankings: If Wisconsin beats Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, MSU is likely headed to the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in Orlando. That’s the top Big Ten game below the New Year’s Six bowls.
If Ohio State wins, MSU is probably playing in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 in Tampa or the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 28 in San Diego.
Let’s start with how this plays out if Wisconsin wins Saturday night in Indianapolis, sending the 12-0 Badgers to the College Football Playoff. Tuesday’s rankings, which have Wisconsin at No. 4, confirmed that.
Where this impacts MSU is how Wisconsin winning affects the Orange Bowl. If a Big Ten team is in the Orange Bowl, a Big Ten team won’t be in the Citrus Bowl. The Orange Bowl this year features an ACC non-playoff team against the highest-ranked non-playoff team from the Big Ten, SEC or Notre Dame.
Notre Dame is ranked No. 15 and its regular season is over. So the Irish are out of this conversation. Ohio State is No. 8 and Penn State is No. 9, while the SEC’s Auburn (2), Alabama (5) and Georgia (6) are further up the rankings.
If Wisconsin wins Saturday, Ohio State will probably fall a spot or two, but not quite out of the New Year’s Six games. Penn State doesn’t have anything to add to its resume.
Meanwhile, Alabama and/or the loser of the SEC championship game between Auburn and Georgia would be ranked higher than any non-playoff team from the Big Ten. Thus, the SEC would take the Orange Bowl spot, with Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State still in other New Year’s Six games.
Michigan (8-4) and Northwestern (9-3) are the other two Big Ten teams in play for the Citrus, Outback and Holiday bowls. Maybe Iowa, as well, for the Holiday Bowl. Michigan played in the Citrus Bowl just two years ago and, with Big Ten-affiliated bowls required to select five different teams in six years — a rule that went into effect in 2013 — the Wolverines aren’t an ideal fit for the Citrus Bowl. Northwestern’s smaller fan following makes it unlikely the Wildcats would be chosen ahead of MSU.
College football reporter Brett McMurphy, formerly of ESPN, wrote in his latest projections that the Wolverines were “pretty much a lock” for the Outback Bowl. McMurphy projects MSU for the Citrus Bowl, but again, that’s not entirely in the Citrus Bowl’s control.
MSU athletic director Mark Hollis said Tuesday night via text that there are “too many variables” to predict where the Spartans might land.
Hollis said he liked several things about MSU’s resume, beginning with Tuesday’s No. 16 ranking. That’s five spots ahead of Northwestern. Michigan isn’t in the playoff committee’s top 25 rankings. He also pointed to the Spartans’ tied-for-second-place finish in the Big Ten East, arguably the toughest division in college football, along with “good TV ratings numbers, 51,000 enrollment and a huge alumni base.” That includes in Florida.
“We are an attractive bowl team,” Hollis said.
If Ohio State beats Wisconsin, that attractiveness could be tested. The Buckeyes might or might not get into the playoff. If they don’t, they’ll be ranked just outside the playoff at No. 5 or 6 and in position to wind up in the Orange Bowl, which would take away the Citrus Bowl as an option for MSU.
Then, if Michigan is truly Outback-bound, the Spartans would be headed to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl.
Outback Bowl representatives were at MSU’s home finale against Maryland when Spartan Stadium emptied to all but about 10,000 fans in the second half. Surely their analysis would be deeper than that. The Spartans were at the Outback Bowl five years ago, beating Georgia in three overtimes, and brought a decent fan showing, considering the Spartans had just packed Indianapolis and had their hearts ripped out.
MSU has never played in the Holiday Bowl.
If the Buckeyes beat the Badgers, that might change. Perhaps a Rose Bowl rematch with Stanford a couple hours down the road.
Contact Graham Couch at gcouch@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.

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