Pac-12 bowl projections: The New Year’s Six selection process, the Cotton Bowl and the benefits of a top-heavy conference

Five years and one pandemic ago, the Pac-12 placed an at-large team into the New Year’s Six bowls and accepted a fat paycheck in return.

With four teams ranked in the top 14 of the latest Associated Press poll (Oregon, USC, UCLA and Utah), the conference is well positioned to reap the rewards for (finally) having a top-heavy season.

In case memories are fuzzy across the Pac-12 footprint, let’s explain exactly how the at-large process works and what’s at stake.

The Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange, Fiesta and Peach bowls make up the New Year’s Six, but the playoff rotation and annual conference tie-ins change the at-large berths each year.

For the 2022 season:

— The Fiesta and Peach are hosting semifinals for the College Football Playoff.

— The Rose is under contract to pair the Pac-12 against the Big Ten.

— The Sugar will match the SEC against the Big 12.

— The Orange is obligated to invite an ACC team for one slot and either the SEC, Big Ten or Notre Dame for the other.

(In each case: If the conference champion participates in the playoff, that league sends a replacement team to fulfill the contract.)

That leaves the Cotton Bowl as the only game without a conference or semifinal matchup. But because the highest-ranked team from the Group of Five is guaranteed a berth in the New Year’s Six, there is only one spot available in the Cotton for an at-large team.

If the Pac-12 sends its champion to the playoff, the next-highest-ranked team would jump into the Rose Bowl.

If the Pac-12 champion ends up in the Rose, the conference could fill the at-large spot in the Cotton.

It all depends on the final CFP rankings, but a two-loss team in the top 12 following the conference championship games would have an excellent chance for the Cotton. (The first CFP rankings will be released Nov. 1.)

The Pac-12 has produced two New Year’s Six at-large teams in eight years, both playing in the Fiesta Bowl: Arizona in 2014; and Washington in 2017.

A berth in the semifinals is worth $6 million to the participant’s conference, with an at-large slot in the New Year’s Six generating a $4 million paycheck.

In each case, the team’s expenses are handled separately, and the paycheck is split evenly among the 12 schools, per the Pac-12′s revenue sharing policy.

The at-large bids bring both cash and prestige to the conference. And it’s all within reach this season, so long as parity is kept at bay.

To the latest bowl projections …

Rose Bowl

Team: Oregon (6-1/4-0)

Home games remaining (two): Washington, Utah

Road games remaining (three): Cal, Colorado, Oregon State

Comment: No change here — the Hotline has been slotting the Ducks into the Rose for three weeks. Whether their ceiling is higher than the Granddaddy (i.e., the CFP) depends on 1) winning out and 2) the number and identity of the other one-loss teams at season’s end. We remain skeptical of the Ducks’ chances but haven’t ruled them out just yet.

Cotton Bowl

Team: USC (6-1/4-1)

Home (three): Cal, Colorado, Notre Dame

Road (two): Arizona, UCLA

Comment: For TV ratings, hype and playoff implications, a championship game matchup between USC and Oregon would be as good as it gets for the Pac-12.

Alamo Bowl

Team: UCLA (6-1/3-1)

Home (three): Stanford, Arizona, USC

Road (two): Arizona State, Cal

Comment: While researching the projections, we noticed that not only has the Pac-12 lost six of the past seven Alamo Bowls (to the Big 12); it has lost most of them decisively.

Holiday Bowl

Team: Utah (5-2/3-1)

Home (two): Arizona, Stanford

Road (three): WSU, Oregon, Colorado

Comment: It’s not a one-game season (at Oregon) for a berth in the Pac-12 championship — at least not yet. But if the Utes win Thursday night at Washington State, then it all hinges on the Nov. 19 showdown in Eugene.

Las Vegas Bowl

Team: Washington (6-2/3-2)

Home (two): Oregon State, Colorado

Road (two): Oregon, WSU

Comment: Last week, we speculated that Mississippi State (with former Washington State coach Mike Leach) would be an intriguing opponent in Las Vegas. But the SEC could send one of several teams, including Florida, Mississippi and perhaps Texas A&M.

Sun Bowl

Team: Oregon State (6-2/3-2)

Home (two): Cal, Oregon

Road (two): Washington, ASU

Comment: The climb into the Pac-12 title game is akin to scaling El Capitan due to head-to-head losses to USC and Utah. But the Beavers could land in the Holiday or Las Vegas bowls … if they win in Seattle next Friday night.

LA Bowl

Team: Washington State (4-3/1-3)

Home (three): Utah, ASU, Washington

Road (two): Stanford, Arizona

Comment: A reminder on the selection process: The Alamo, Holiday and Las Vegas bowls have the option to skip one team for another as long as they aren’t separated by more than one game in the conference standings. The Sun and LA bowls must make their selections based on order-of-finish.


Team: Arizona (3-4/1-3)

Home (three): USC, Washington State, ASU

Road (two): Utah, UCLA

Comment: Unless the Wildcats somehow emerge from their bye week with a wholly different defense, we don’t see three wins within that array of five games. The offense will have no margin for error against USC, UCLA and Utah. None.


Team: Arizona State (2-5/1-3)

Home (two): UCLA, Oregon State

Road (three): Colorado, WSU, ArizonaComment: Winning at Stanford was essential to making the bowl math work. We would have moved the Sun Devils into an at-large bowl had they secured that third victory. Now, the road is treacherous.


Team: Cal (3-4/1-3)

Home (three): Oregon, Stanford, UCLA

Road (two): USC, Oregon State

Comment: Given the sputtering offense, the Bears are more likely to lose the rest of their games than they are to win three of the five. And if they end up one win short, blame that atrocious performance in Boulder.


Team: Colorado (1-6/1-3)

Home (three): ASU, Oregon, Utah

Road (two): USC, Washington

Comment: Wait ‘til next year — actually, check that: The Buffs probably need to wait until 2024 for a bowl bid.


Team: Stanford (3-4/1-4)

Home (two): WSU, Brigham Young

Road (three): UCLA, Utah, Cal

Comment: We considered slotting the Cardinal into an at-large bowl — there are three wins available on the remaining schedule. But the grind of playing 10 consecutive weeks makes us wonder about Stanford’s physical condition in the back end of November.

This article originally appeared on Pac-12 Hotline.

— Jon Wilner: Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP top-25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree.

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