Predicting College Football's 2022-23 Bowl Games
Thirty-two long weeks have passed since Georgia defeated Alabama in last year's college football national championship, and all signs point to both of those SEC schools returning to this year's College Football Playoff.
There is nothing quite like a batch of preseason bowl projections to get your blood pumping for Week 0 of the college football season.
Even we realize that preseason bowl projections aren't worth the paper they are theoretically printed on.
Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma were each in last August's consensus College Football Playoff picture, but the Buckeyes didn't win the Big Ten East while both the Tigers and Sooners failed to even reach a New Year's Six Bowl.
And both Cincinnati and Michigan ending up in the Top Four?
Who could have possibly predicted that?
But it's a fun exercise all the same.
It's somewhat of a baseline against which a team's season can be deemed either a success or a failure, but also something for you to bookmark and throw in my face periodically throughout the season when college football does its thing and goes off the rails. (I welcome and thrive on your belated rage.)
For each tier of bowls (except for the CFP), we'll discuss one team projected for a better bowl than it got (if it got one) in 2021, as well as one team checking in a bit lower than last season. We'll then wrap things up with a conference-by-conference breakdown of which teams are projected to go to which bowls.
Group of 5 Bowls
Bahamas (Dec. 16): UTSA vs. Miami-Ohio
Cure (Dec. 16): North Texas vs. South Alabama
Frisco (Dec. 17): BYU vs. San Jose State
Lending Tree (Dec. 17): Appalachian State vs. Western Michigan
New Mexico (Dec. 17): Boise State vs. Florida Atlantic
Myrtle Beach (Dec. 19): Georgia State vs. Liberty
Boca Raton (Dec. 20): Coastal Carolina vs. Tulane
Famous Idaho Potato (Dec. 20): Air Force vs. Central Michigan
New Orleans (Dec. 21): Louisiana vs. UAB
Independence (Dec. 23): Army vs. Memphis
Hawai'i (Dec. 24): San Diego State vs. Western Kentucky
Camellia (Dec. 27): Kent State vs. UTEP
Arizona (Dec. 30): Toledo vs. Utah State
Moving Up: Tulane Green Wave
Tulane was one of the unluckiest teams in 2021. It almost erased a 23-point deficit in a season-opening comeback attempt at No. 2 Oklahoma, but that was instead the beginning of a campaign in which the Green Wave went 0-5 in one-score games and lost a dozen fumbles.
Prior to that disastrous 2-10 year, though, Tulane had won six regular-season games in three consecutive seasons. Michael Pratt and Tyjae Spears are back at quarterback and running back, respectively, and should rank among the best in the AAC at each position.
And with home games against Massachusetts, Alcorn State and Southern Miss on the docket within the first four weeks, the Green Wave should at least eclipse last season's win total before we reach October.
Sliding Down: UTSA Roadrunners
We're still projecting UTSA to become bowl-eligible, but godspeed in the quest to go 12-2 again. Heck, the Roadrunners are probably going to start out 0-3, as they open the season with Houston, Army and Texas, the latter two on the road.
Moreover, star running back Sincere McCormick is in the NFL after back-to-back seasons with just under 1,500 rushing yards. Left tackle Spencer Burford is also in the NFL, and UTSA needs to replace more than half of last year's starters on defense.
It should still have a strong aerial assault with quarterback Frank Harris and leading receivers Zakhari Franklin, Joshua Cephus and De'Corian Clark all back for another year. And the addition of Arkansas transfer Trelon Smith in the backfield should help offset the loss of McCormick.
But after they went 6-0 in one-score games last season, even a slight drop-off (in conjunction with the aforementioned nonconference schedule) could mean a 7-5 or 8-4 type of year.
Group of 5 vs. Power 5 or Pool Bowls
Fenway (Dec. 17): Boston College vs. SMU
LA (Dec. 17): Fresno State vs. Oregon State
Armed Forces (Dec. 22): TCU vs. UCF
Gasparilla (Dec. 23): Maryland vs. South Carolina
Quick Lane (Dec. 26): Minnesota vs. Northern Illinois
Birmingham (Dec. 27): Auburn vs. Louisville
First Responder (Dec. 27): California vs. West Virginia
Military (Dec. 28): Cincinnati vs. Virginia Tech
Moving Up: TCU Horned Frogs
From a "yards per play" perspective, TCU had the 10th-best offense in the nation last season with a mark of 6.68. Yet, the Horned Frogs barely averaged 20 points over their final six contests, parted ways with head coach Gary Patterson after he spent over two decades at the helm, and finished 5-7 overall.
Scoring shouldn't be a problem with Sonny Dykes calling the shots. California averaged at least 37 points per game in his final three seasons there (2014-16), and then he led SMU to at least 38 points per game in each of the past three years. And with Max Duggan and Chandler Morris, the QB dilemma in Fort Worth is one of which quality option to bench as opposed to which mediocre option to start.
The Horned Frogs aren't going to win the Big 12 or anything. But enough wins for their first bowl game since 2018? That's plenty doable.
Sliding Down: Cincinnati Bearcats
To be clear, we're not anticipating some colossal fall from grace. The Bearcats need to replace most of their standout players on defense, as well as star quarterback Desmond Ridder and explosive running back Jerome Ford.
But they might have the best offensive line in the nation in 2022, Luke Fickell has gone 44-7 over the past four years and the schedule is quite forgiving beyond the season opener at Arkansas. This should still be one of the better Group of Five teams.
But after the Bearcats reached the College Football Playoff last year and a New Year's Six bowl the year before that, anything short of "the singular best Group of Five team" would go down as major regression from a bowls perspective.
It's a harsh reality, but see UCF for proof. The Knights made the New Year's Six in both 2017 and 2018, and then got virtually no national attention in 2019 for going 9-3 (and then winning the Gasparilla Bowl), with the three losses coming by a combined total of seven points.
Power 5 Bowls with Potential to Be Fun
Guaranteed Rate (Dec. 27): Iowa State vs. Nebraska
Holiday (Dec. 28): North Carolina vs. Washington
Liberty (Dec. 28): Kansas State vs. Mississippi State
Texas (Dec. 28): LSU vs. Texas
Pinstripe (Dec. 29): Purdue vs. Wake Forest
Duke's Mayo (Dec. 30): Florida State vs. Penn State
Sun (Dec. 30): Virginia vs. Washington State
Music City (Dec. 31): Iowa vs. Florida
Moving Up: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Was 2021 Nebraska the worst good team or the best bad team in recent history?
Either way, going 3-9 overall with a plus-63 scoring margin (and 1-8 with a zero-point differential in Big Ten play) was preposterously unlucky. All nine of the Cornhuskers' losses were by single digits—six of which came against ranked opponents.
Still, it's now or never for Scott Frost, who is 15-29 with no bowl appearances since taking over as head coach four years ago. And replacing enigmatic quarterback Adrian Martinez with Texas transfer Casey Thompson will either make or break Frost's tenure in Lincoln.
We're betting on at least six wins for once, though. Nebraska is heavily favored in the opener (in Dublin) against Northwestern, certainly should win the subsequent home games against North Dakota and Georgia Southern and figures to benefit from getting Rutgers and Indiana among its three Big Ten crossover games.
Sliding Down: Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson recently said they are optimistic that quarterback Sam Hartman will be back at some point this season from his undisclosed, non-football-related medical condition, and that they'll know more within the next two weeks.
As such, we're in a holding pattern with expectations for the Demon Deacons. But even if the Heisman Trophy candidate is back in time for the Sept. 24 home game against Clemson and good to go the rest of the way after that, regression was already a reasonable expectation for Wake Forest.
It went 11-3 last season in spite of a defense that allowed 28.9 points and 413.4 total yards per game, and it needs to replace most of what was already a mediocre secondary. Plus, both Clemson and NC State should be much improved in 2022, so winning the ACC's Atlantic Division for a second straight year is unlikely.
Top Non-New Year's 6 Bowls
Las Vegas (Dec. 17): Tennessee vs. UCLA
Alamo (Dec. 29): Baylor vs. Oregon
Cheez-It (Dec. 29): Miami (FL) vs. Oklahoma State
Gator (Dec. 30): Ole Miss vs. Pittsburgh
Citrus (Jan. 2): Arkansas vs. Michigan State
ReliaQuest (Jan. 2): Kentucky vs. Wisconsin
Moving Up: Tennessee Volunteers
All 12 of these teams did win at least seven games during the regular season last year, so there's not exactly any projected meteoric rises in the bunch.
But could this be the year that Tennessee gets to 10 wins again for the first time since 2007?
The Vols have the offensive chops to win a lot of games. Quarterback Hendon Hooker is back after an incredibly efficient 2021 campaign. Top receiver Cedric Tillman also returns, and if former 5-star recruit Bru McCoy is ruled eligible to play, that could be a massive boost. Even if the USC transfer can't play, though, there's enough returning talent that a repeat of last year's 39.3 points per game is well within the realm of possibility.
It's just a question of whether the defense can improve after a season in which it allowed at least 31 points on seven occasions. Against Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss, oh well, these things happen. But the defensive effort against Florida, Kentucky and especially Purdue was uninspiring.
Sliding Down: Ole Miss Rebels
Far be it from us to question Lane Kiffin's ability to turn lemons into lemonade on offense, but can Ole Miss—after losing all seven players who accounted for at least 400 yards of total offense in 2021—really be expected to win 10 regular-season games for a second consecutive season after not hitting that pre-bowl threshold once in the previous 115 years?
Kiffin did reload via the transfer portal. Jaxson Dart (QB from USC), Zach Evans (RB from TCU), Ulysses Bentley IV (RB from SMU) and Jaylon Robinson (WR from UCF) should all feature prominently in this Rebels offense. And a nonconference schedule consisting of Troy, Central Arkansas, Georgia Tech and Tulsa will certainly give these new pieces time to mesh.
But Ole Miss' schedule will likely feature a bunch of fours: 4-0 in nonconference and 4-4 in SEC play for an 8-4 finish and a trip to either the Gator, Las Vegas or ReliaQuest Bowl.
Non-CFP New Year's 6 Bowls
Orange (Dec. 30): North Carolina State vs. Notre Dame
Sugar (Dec. 31): Oklahoma vs. Texas A&M
Cotton (Jan. 2): Houston vs. USC
Rose (Jan. 2): Michigan vs. Utah
Moving Up: USC Trojans
It's not often that a team goes straight from a sub-.500 dumpster fire to the College Football Playoff mix in a single offseason, but it's also not often that a team gets to hire a head coach with a career .846 winning percentage who subsequently brings a transfer portal all-star team with him.
It could be a spectacular disaster, but it's more likely that Lincoln Riley and the new-look Trojans will win at least 10 games.
A lot of that is faith in the new talent, headlined by quarterback Caleb Williams, wide receiver Jordan Addison, linebacker Shane Lee and a host of others, but it's also a product of a schedule in which the Trojans only play two games against preseason AP Top 25 opponents (at Utah on Oct. 15 and vs. Notre Dame to wrap up the regular season).
As long as they're Top 25 good, they're well-positioned to end up with a Top 12 resume.
Sliding Down: Michigan Wolverines
Michigan should be very good this season. The Wolverines open at No. 8 in the AP poll, and that isn't just lip service stemming from last year's trip to the College Football Playoff.
They bring back the vast majority of their offense, and though they lost two great edge-rushers in Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, Michigan churns out NFL-ready defensive linemen like a factory and should at least have a competent pass rush, per usual.
The only problem is Ohio State should be better than Michigan, and the Buckeyes get the benefit of hosting "The Game" in late November.
While it's possible both teams enter that game at 11-0 and both manage to sneak into the Final Four of the CFP rankings, it's more likely that Michigan slips up once before then (possibly at Iowa in Week 5) and ends up settling for a 10-2 trip to the Rose Bowl.
College Football Playoff
Peach (Dec. 31): No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Clemson
Fiesta (Dec. 31): No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Georgia
National Championship (Jan. 9): No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 2 Ohio State
Believe me, I know it's boring to project the preseason Top Four teams—the same four teams that always seem to be in the preseason CFP picture—to make the playoff.
But when ESPN's college football power index gives each of Alabama (79.7 percent), Ohio State (83.1), Georgia (75.2) and Clemson (58.2) a better than 50/50 shot while giving no other team so much as an 18 percent chance, I have to just roll with it.
If things hold to form, it will be Alabama's eighth CFP (in the ninth year of the playoff's existence), Clemson's seventh, Ohio State's fifth and Georgia's third.
If you prefer a little chaos in your life, though, the good news is there's an early chance of it.
In Week 1, Ohio State hosts No. 5 Notre Dame and Georgia hosts No. 11 Oregon. The following week, Alabama plays at Texas in what will be its first true road game against a nonconference Power Five opponent since September 2011 (at Penn State).
And while Clemson doesn't figure to break a sweat until at least Week 4, it will eventually face four preseason Top 25 opponents, including a colossal road game against Notre Dame in early November.
Of the bunch, I have the least faith in Clemson finishing the season in the Top Four, and it's not all that close. That offense stunk last season, the defense lost longtime coordinator Brent Venables to Oklahoma, and North Carolina State is very much a threat to keep Clemson from even reaching the ACC championship.
If I had any courage, I would put Utah in that spot instead of the Tigers. However, I possess an uncanny knack for picking a slightly outside-the-box CFP semifinalist and then jinxing that team into a Week 1 loss—Wisconsin last year was the most recent of several—and I'm simply not trying put that curse on Utah in its first ever year as a preseason AP Top 10 team.
Bowl Games by Conference
Here is the breakdown of bowl projections listed alphabetically by conference. New Year's Six games have been italicized and underlined to help those of you who just scrolled to the bottom to find the marquee bowls.
American Athletic (6 teams): Cincinnati (Military), Houston (Cotton), Memphis (Independence), SMU (Fenway), Tulane (Boca Raton), UCF (Armed Forces)
Atlantic Coast (11 teams): Boston College (Fenway), Clemson (Peach), Florida State (Duke's Mayo), Louisville (Birmingham), Miami-FL (Cheez-It), North Carolina (Holiday), North Carolina State (Orange), Pittsburgh (Gator), Virginia (Sun), Virginia Tech (Military), Wake Forest (Pinstripe)
Big 12 (8 teams): Baylor (Alamo), Iowa State (Guaranteed Rate), Kansas State (Liberty), Oklahoma (Sugar), Oklahoma State (Cheez-It), TCU (Armed Forces), Texas (Texas), West Virginia (First Responder)
Big Ten (10 teams): Iowa (Music City), Maryland (Gasparilla), Michigan (Rose), Michigan State (Citrus), Minnesota (Quick Lane), Nebraska (Guaranteed Rate), Ohio State (Fiesta), Penn State (Duke's Mayo), Purdue (Pinstripe), Wisconsin (ReliaQuest)
Conference USA (6 teams): Florida Atlantic (New Mexico), North Texas (Cure), UAB (New Orleans), UTEP (Camellia), UTSA (Bahamas), Western Kentucky (Hawaii)
Independents (4 teams): Army (Independence), BYU (Frisco), Liberty (Myrtle Beach), Notre Dame (Orange)
Mid-American (6 teams): Central Michigan (Famous Idaho Potato), Kent State (Camellia), Miami-OH (Bahamas), Northern Illinois (Quick Lane), Toledo (Arizona), Western Michigan (Lending Tree)
Mountain West (6 teams): Air Force (Famous Idaho Potato), Boise State (New Mexico), Fresno State (LA), San Diego State (Hawaii), San Jose State (Frisco), Utah State (Arizona)
Pac-12 (8 teams): California (First Responder), Oregon (Alamo), Oregon State (LA), UCLA (Las Vegas), USC (Cotton), Utah (Rose), Washington (Holiday), Washington State (Sun)
Southeastern (12 teams): Alabama (Peach), Arkansas (Citrus), Auburn (Birmingham), Florida (Music City), Georgia (Fiesta), Kentucky (ReliaQuest), LSU (Texas), Mississippi State (Liberty), Ole Miss (Gator), South Carolina (Gasparilla), Tennessee (Las Vegas), Texas A&M (Sugar)
Sun Belt (5 teams): Appalachian State (Lending Tree), Coastal Carolina (Boca Raton), Georgia State (Myrtle Beach), Louisiana (New Orleans), South Alabama (Cure)
Recruit ratings via 247Sports.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.