Predicting College Football’s 2018-19 Bowl Games
There's one final hurdle we need to clear before the 2018 college football season can get underway: Projected pairings for all 40 bowl games!
Will Alabama and Clemson meet in the College Football Playoff for a fourth consecutive year?
Heck, could the entire four-team playoff be the same as it was this past season?
Which team will represent the Group of Five in the New Year's Six?
We'll address those questions and plenty of others throughout the six tiers of this year's bowl games. Some commentary will be provided after each tier. And at the end, there's a breakdown of bowl representatives by conference.
Group of Five Bowls
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: Marshall vs. Louisiana-Monroe
New Mexico Bowl: UAB vs. Fresno State
AutoNation Cure Bowl: SMU vs. Appalachian State
Raycom Media Camellia Bowl: Toledo vs. Troy
Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl: South Florida vs. Florida Atlantic
Frisco Bowl: Buffalo vs. Temple
Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl: Louisiana Tech vs. Miami (OH)
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Northern Illinois vs. Wyoming
Hawai'i Bowl: Colorado State vs. Western Kentucky
Dollar General Bowl: Arkansas State vs. Ohio
NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl: Louisiana-Lafayette vs. Utah State
Without question, the most entertaining projected matchup here is the Boca Raton Bowl. USF and FAU both ranked top 10 nationally in scoring offense last season, and they should each be among the six or so best Group of Five teams this year. Either one could mess around and land in the top 16 of the final CFP rankings to lock up a spot in a New Year's Six game.
Elsewhere, both Buffalo and Toledo will draw the attention of NFL scouts to whichever bowls they're in—provided they each win enough #MACtion games to become eligible. Anthony Johnson (Buffalo) and Diontae Johnson (Toledo) ranked first and second in 2017 receiving yards among returning players, and Buffalo has a giant at quarterback (6'7" Tyree Jackson) who will get a ton of mock-draft love if he can stay healthy.
One final thought: Watch out for Fresno State. The Bulldogs were a 1-11 disaster in 2016, but once Jeff Tedford took over, they immediately won 10 games. Given their schedule and returning talent, another year with double-digit wins is possible.
Lower-Tier Power Five Bowls
Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 15): California vs. San Diego State
Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl (Dec. 20): UCF vs. Wake Forest
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl (Dec. 22): Houston vs. Iowa State
Birmingham Bowl (Dec. 22): Memphis vs. Arkansas
Heart of Dallas Bowl (Dec. 26): North Texas vs. Nebraska
Military Bowl (Dec. 31): Navy vs. Duke
Walk-On's Independence Bowl (Dec. 27): Louisville vs. Tennessee
There will be Selection Sunday alternates and switches that throw a wrench into everyone's projections, but the first six games here are the only ones designed to be battles between one Group of Five and one Power Five team.
You would think the latter would have the advantage in those games, but the Group of Five teams won four of last year's seven pairings, including UCF's self-proclaimed national championship victory over Auburn.
UCF was one of three AAC teams to knock off a Power Five team in last year's bowl season. Navy smashed Virginia, 49-7, and South Florida had the thrill-a-minute 38-34 win over Texas Tech. Memphis almost made it a 4-0 sweep for the league, but it fell one point shy against Iowa State in the Liberty Bowl.
We're also including one Power Five versus Power Five game on this list, as the Walk-On's Independence Bowl is slated to get the leftovers from both the ACC and SEC. In fact, this bowl is so far down the list for both leagues that both the AAC and C-USA are listed as alternates in case either Power Five league doesn't have enough bowl-eligible teams to fill its spot. Last year's Independence Bowl was Florida State dismantling Southern Miss after the Seminoles just barely became eligible for the postseason.
Power Five Bowls with Potential
Cheez-It Bowl: Oklahoma State vs. Arizona
Quick Lane Bowl: Pittsburgh vs. Indiana
Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl: TCU vs. Texas A&M
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Virginia Tech vs. Northwestern
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Iowa vs. Missouri
Belk Bowl: North Carolina State vs. LSU
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Boston College vs. Utah
TaxSlayer Gator Bowl: Georgia Tech vs. Florida
San Francisco Bowl: Maryland vs. Oregon
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Kansas State vs. Kentucky
These are the games you don't realize you need until they're on TV.
Take the Cheez-It Bowl (formerly known as the Cactus Bowl), for example. In the conference pecking orders, it's the sixth-best/most marketable team from the Big 12 against the seventh-best team out of the Pac-12. It'll probably be a battle between 7-5 teams who don't finish the season in the AP Top 25.
When the bowl pairings are announced, unless you're an avid fan or alumnus of one of the schools selected, these 10 games will barely show up on your radar. But what the heck else are you going to watch in the week between Christmas and New Year's?
OK, maybe that's a little harsh, because some of these bowls have serious potential.
Both the Belk and TaxSlayer Gator Bowls will feature mid-tier ACC and SEC teams. The Texas Bowl will have the No. 4 team from the Big 12 and the San Francisco Bowl will get No. 4 from the Pac-12. Depending on how many teams from those leagues get selected for New Year's Six games, there could be some nine-win heavy hitters in this tier of bowl games.
Top Non-New Year's Six Bowls
Valero Alamo Bowl: Texas vs. Stanford
Camping World Bowl: Florida State vs. West Virginia
San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl: USC vs. Purdue
Citrus Bowl: Michigan vs. Mississippi State
Outback Bowl: Michigan State vs. South Carolina
While there could be some good games in the previous tier, this one is guaranteed to pack a punch, as these are (unofficially) the consolation games for the teams who fall just shy of playing for a conference championship.
It would be premature to start breaking down the potential matchups, but given the number of national contenders in the Big Ten and the SEC, both the Citrus Bowl and the Outback Bowl are bound to be high-profile affairs. Even with each league projected to send three teams to New Year's Six bowls, these two bowls would still get a combined total of three preseason AP Top 20 teams, as well as a fourth team (South Carolina) that deserved to be ranked.
It's a similar story in the Valero Alamo, Camping World and SDCCU Holiday Bowls, where Purdue is the only projected participant who isn't opening the season as a ranked team. If the Big Ten beats itself up so much that no one from the league goes to the College Football Playoff, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin or one of the Michigans would land in that bowl instead of the Boilermakers.
This past season, four of these five bowls (excluding the Outback) were battles between teams who finished in the Nos. 13-22 range in the CFP rankings. Expect more of the same.
Non-CFP New Year's Six Bowls
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (Dec. 29): Miami vs. Penn State
The only thing that would make this Dec. 29th New Year's Six game more of a confusing misnomer is if it were a battle between the top squads from the 10-team Big 12 and the 14-team Big Ten. Rather, it's an at-large showdown that will likely pit the top non-playoff team from the ACC (which has no other New Year's Six tie-ins this year) against the second-best available team from the Big Ten (since the Rose Bowl gets the best one).
Given those parameters, it's looking like Miami against Penn State for the first time since the Hurricanes steamrolled the Nittany Lions way back in the opener of the 2001 season. They've only played twice since 1992, but this would feel like a throwback game since at least one of these teams was a legitimate title contender basically every year between 1981-2005. Both should be in that conversation this year.
Allstate Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1): Oklahoma vs. Auburn
These two teams met in the Sugar Bowl two years ago, but that wouldn't preclude them from playing each other again if they are the top non-playoff teams from the Big 12 and SEC. And this would arguably be the best non-playoff game.
Oklahoma is the clear favorite in the Big 12. That isn't to say there aren't any other good teams in the league, as West Virginia, Texas, TCU and Oklahoma State are all candidates to win as well. But the Sooners should be a cut above, winning the conference for a fourth straight year. Unless they go undefeated, though, they likely won't finish in the top four.
Auburn, on the other hand, isn't expected to win the SEC. If Alabama and Georgia both do what they should, the Tigers won't even be the second-best team in the conference. But at No. 9 in the preseason AP Top 25, we're talking about an excellent third-best squad that would take this spot if the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs both lock up playoff berths.
Rose Bowl (Jan. 1): Washington vs. Wisconsin
Here's where the CFP trickle-down effect really begins. All other things being equal, if Washington gets into the playoff instead of Ohio State, the Rose Bowl would become Ohio State vs. USC. That slight shift in the scales could potentially change every game involving either the Big Ten or Pac-12. We saw it last year in the Big Ten and SEC with the Alabama vs. Ohio State debate for the final spot.
But no matter what, this should be one heck of a fun game. It's kind of hard to expect anything less when pairing the top available teams from the Big Ten and Pac-12.
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1): Boise State vs. Notre Dame
Will the Broncos be good enough to finish in the CFP Top 16 and ahead of whoever wins the AAC? Whether it's Boise State, UCF, Florida Atlantic or some other 13-0 team, this bowl is most likely to feature the top Group of Five team, desperate to prove it deserved more representation in the College Football Playoff conversation.
Considering the Sugar and Rose Bowls will be grabbing the top available team from four of the five Power Five conferences, that Group of Five champion will likely be facing either the ACC runner-up, the third-best team out of the Big Ten or Notre Dame—provided the Fighting Irish can find 10 or more wins on their treacherous schedule. Five of Notre Dame's opponents open the season in the AP Top 20, and nine are projected bowl teams.
College Football Playoff
Cotton Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State
Orange Bowl: No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Georgia
Wisconsin jumped ahead of Ohio State in the preseason AP poll in light of the Urban Meyer situation, but when the Amway Coaches Poll was released earlier in the offseason, these four teams were head and shoulders ahead of the rest. The 164-vote gap between No. 4 Georgia and No. 5 Oklahoma was larger than any other in that poll, signifying a consensus playoff quartet.
Then again, everyone felt good about Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State and USC last year, and those four teams combined for only one spot in the playoff. Factor in the two years before that, and only four of the last 12 teams to start in the preseason Top Four actually made it to the playoff.
It makes you wonder why we all keep bothering with these preseason projections, doesn't it?
Even armed with that knowledge of recent history, it does feel like we can safely lock in either Alabama or Georgia. With the exception of home games against Auburn, neither one plays a single game this season in which ESPN's FPI gives them worse than a 77 percent chance of victory. They should meet in the SEC championship game, with the winner going to the national semifinals. And if it's the first loss of the season for the loser, it will have a strong case for a spot, too.
Clemson has an even better chance of running the table, taking the schedules into consideration. In fact, ESPN gives the Tigers a 20.7 percent chance of reaching the ACC championship game with a 12-0 record. But without any meat on the schedule—No. 19 Florida State is the only preseason Top 25 team they face—a loss to Miami or Virginia Tech in the ACC title game might be enough to keep Clemson out. Wisconsin fans know that feeling all too well from last year.
The real question is whether having five title contenders in the same conference will help or hurt the Big Ten's chances of sending a team to the playoff.
We're projecting Ohio State to win the conference, but Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin are all candidates to do so as well. After so many games against each other, though, what are the chances that the league champion has zero or one losses?
Let's say Ohio State goes 10-2 with wins over TCU and Michigan and road losses to Penn State and Michigan State, but it wins the East Division and picks up another marquee win over Wisconsin in the championship game. Would that be enough to rank ahead of a one-loss Big 12 or Pac-12 champion or even the SEC runner-up?
Start thinking about your answer, because it's a debate that figures to serve as the backdrop to this entire season.
Championship Game (Jan. 7): No. 2 Clemson over No. 1 Alabama
At this point, they're practically playing a five-game series in the playoff. Clemson ties the series up at two games apiece, setting up another humdinger in 2019.
Bowl Games by Conference
American (7 teams): UCF (Gasparilla Bowl), Houston (Armed Forces Bowl), Memphis (Birmingham Bowl), Navy (Military Bowl), SMU (Cure Bowl), South Florida (Boca Raton Bowl), Temple (Frisco Bowl)
ACC (11 teams): Clemson (Orange Bowl), Miami (Peach Bowl), Florida State (Camping World Bowl), Virginia Tech (Pinstripe Bowl), North Carolina State (Belk Bowl), Duke (Military Bowl), Boston College (Sun Bowl), Georgia Tech (Gator Bowl), Wake Forest (Gasparilla Bowl), Pittsburgh (Quick Lane Bowl), Louisville (Independence Bowl)
Big 12 (7 teams): Oklahoma (Sugar Bowl), Oklahoma State (Cheez-It Bowl), West Virginia (Camping World Bowl), TCU (Texas Bowl), Kansas State (Liberty Bowl), Texas (Alamo Bowl), Iowa State (Armed Forces Bowl)
Big Ten (11 teams): Ohio State (Cotton Bowl), Wisconsin (Rose Bowl), Penn State (Peach Bowl), Michigan (Citrus Bowl), Michigan State (Outback Bowl), Purdue (Holiday Bowl), Nebraska (Heart of Dallas Bowl), Iowa (Music City Bowl), Maryland (San Francisco Bowl), Northwestern (Pinstripe Bowl), Indiana (Quick Lane Bowl)
Conference USA (6 teams): Florida Atlantic (Boca Raton Bowl), North Texas (Heart of Dallas Bowl), Marshall (New Orleans Bowl), UAB (New Mexico Bowl), Louisiana Tech (Bahamas Bowl), Western Kentucky (Hawai'i Bowl)
Independents (1 team): Notre Dame (Fiesta Bowl)
Mid-American (5 teams): Ohio (Dollar General Bowl), Northern Illinois (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), Buffalo (Frisco Bowl), Toledo (Camellia Bowl), Miami-Ohio (Bahamas Bowl)
Mountain West (6 teams): Boise State (Fiesta Bowl), San Diego State (Las Vegas Bowl), Fresno State (New Mexico Bowl), Colorado State (Hawai'i Bowl), Wyoming (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), Utah State (Arizona Bowl)
Pac-12 (7 teams): Washington (Rose Bowl), Stanford (Alamo Bowl), USC (Holiday Bowl), Utah (Sun Bowl), Oregon (San Francisco Bowl), California (Las Vegas Bowl), Arizona (Cactus Bowl)
SEC (12 teams): Alabama (Cotton Bowl), Georgia (Orange Bowl), Auburn (Sugar Bowl), Mississippi State (Citrus Bowl), South Carolina (Outback Bowl), LSU (Belk Bowl), Florida (Gator Bowl), Missouri (Music City Bowl), Texas A&M (Texas Bowl), Kentucky (Liberty Bowl), Tennessee (Independence Bowl), Arkansas (Birmingham Bowl)
Sun Belt (5 teams): Arkansas State (Dollar General Bowl), Appalachian State (Cure Bowl), Troy (Camellia Bowl), Louisiana-Lafayette (Arizona Bowl), Louisiana-Monroe (New Orleans Bowl)
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.