Who’s playing in the Fiesta Bowl? Latest College Football Playoff ranking gives us an idea

After Michigan’s recent victory over Ohio State, coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines are poised to end up in the Fiesta Bowl. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – In 2007, the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl’s first year in Glendale, the college football universe watched in shock and fever as a piece of college sports history unfolded.

Trailing the No. 9 Oklahoma Sooners 42-41 in overtime, Boise State coach Chris Petersen called for his quarterback to run the “Statue of Liberty.” Quarterback Jared Zabransky pump faked to the right, dropped his hand to his hip, and handed the ball to running back Ian Johnson, who ran untouched to the pylon for the game-winning two-point conversion.

After 15 years of playing the Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium, there’s been no shortage of iconic games since. In 2019, the game hosted a College Football Playoff semifinal for the second time, a heavyweight bout between Ohio State and Clemson that came down to a nail-biting final drive.

The CFP semifinal returns to the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl this year, and with the release of the penultimate playoff rankings, the Valley is starting to get an idea of which teams will face off at State Farm Stadium on Dec. 31.

Based on Tuesday’s rankings, the CFP semifinal matchups would feature No. 1 Georgia playing No. 4 USC, and No. 2 Michigan taking on No. 3 TCU.

The playoff committee decides the location of the semifinals based on what will be most advantageous to the highest seeds. In this case, with Georgia ranked at the top, they’d be headed 70 miles west to play at the other semifinal location, the Chick-fil-a Peach Bowl at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

That means a battle of teams currently undefeated – Michigan and TCU – would be headed to the 52nd annual Fiesta Bowl if the current rankings hold steady.

Both TCU and Michigan have appeared once before in the Fiesta Bowl. TCU lost to Boise State in an undefeated group-of-five matchup in 2010, and the Horned Frogs also appeared in the Valley’s other college bowl game, the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, twice in the last decade.

Fiesta Bowl COO Bob Whitehouse is excited about the possibility of hosting either program.

“There’s no question (TCU is) a great team and we’d be excited to have them here,” Whitehouse told Cronkite News. “Their fans in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are very excited about the potential of being in either of the playoff games.”

Whitehouse also had praise for TCU’s story arc this year, as the Horned Frogs are led by a first-year head coach in Sonny Dykes and have won five games by less than one score.

Michigan, on the other hand, is a more classic college football power. They appeared in the Fiesta Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium in 1986, when they beat No. 7 Nebraska.

The Wolverines quarterback for that game? Jim Harbaugh.

Now, the khaki-avid Harbaugh wears a headset as Michigan’s head coach, and for the second straight year, Harbaugh’s Wolverines have a chance to win the Big Ten after beating rival Ohio State (more on them, later).

“I think (Michigan) continued to be who they are and find ways to win games,” said Boo Corrigan, the chair of the CFP selection committee. “Coach Harbaugh has done a great job with that program.”

Of course, Michigan and TCU are not set in stone. With all four teams currently holding playoff spots playing in championship games this weekend, there’s a lot of potential for movement.

In the No. 4 spot, USC is knocking on the door of a Fiesta Bowl appearance, should TCU fall to Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship and the Trojans take care of business Friday in the Pac-12 title game.

Whitehouse told Cronkite News the Fiesta Bowl is preparing for all options, especially knowing how much the top four teams could shift seeding this weekend.

“If we ended up with USC opposing Michigan, that’s two traditional powers,” he said. “I think that USC is a great story.”

Geographically, USC is the closest school to Glendale out of all the remaining playoff hopefuls, and the Trojans have not appeared in the CFP since its inception eight years ago.

Local football programs like Arizona State and Arizona certainly have interest in the Trojans making the bracket, as a Pac-12 appearance in the CFP semifinal would earn the conference $6 million, on top of another $2.74 million to cover expenses for the game itself.

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Whitehouse said the Fiesta Bowl even has to consider longshot scenarios, like if No. 14 LSU were to beat top-ranked Georgia this weekend. While Georgia’s spot in the playoff is likely secured, a loss in the SEC Championship Game may ship them to the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl instead of staying close to home.

“If for some reason (Georgia) were to get upset and they ended up in the 2-3 matchup, or we ended up with the 1-4 (matchup), having the defending national champion and there’s a ton of tradition and history, and their fan base is terrific as well, we’d love to love to see them here too,” Whitehouse said.

Currently, on the outside of the playoff looking in is a pair of titans: Ohio State and Alabama. The former won the inaugural CFP Championship in 2014 and the latter has appeared in all but one since.

As of this week’s ranking, Ohio State has the inside track to the playoff, as the Buckeyes are ranked No. 5 and Alabama is just behind at No. 6. Corrigan didn’t guarantee that their order is locked in place, despite both teams being idle for championship weekend.

He also wasn’t willing to speculate when asked about the playoff security of the three undefeated regular-season teams, Georgia, Michigan and TCU. However, should No. 3 TCU and No. 4 USC lose, the committee would likely try to avoid a semifinal matchup between Ohio State and Michigan after the traditional rivals played last weekend.

The CFP website notes that part of the committee’s responsibilities are to “attempt to avoid rematches of regular-season games and repeat appearances in specific bowls.”

Regardless, college football fans will be eagerly awaiting Sunday’s CFP selection show, airing on ESPN at 10 a.m. MST. On Saturday, there will be nine conference championship games throughout the day, and those at the Fiesta Bowl might be watching the closest.

“Double Play is a great thing on DirecTV to go back and forth, and we’ve got a few TVs here in the office that will have a couple of games on,” Whitehouse said. “But it all starts on Friday night with USC-Utah. That will be the first domino and we’ll see how it falls.”

Gannon Hanevold(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Gannon Hanevold expects to graduate in December 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication and a minor in music. Hanevold has interned as reporter with Phoenix New Times.