College Football Bowl Projections: Week 7 Rankings and Playoff Forecast
At the midway point of the 2018 college football season, not much has changed up top. Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State were the consensus preseason picks to reach the College Football Playoff, and they are still the Top Four teams in the AP poll.
However, those aren't the four teams projected to compete for the national championship, as Notre Dame has crashed the party.
Which team has fallen out, and how does the trickle-down effect impact the other 38 bowl games?
We're still a few weeks away from the first edition of the CFP Top 25. Until that time, the AP poll will have to hold us over. And in this week's edition of that ranking, Texas and Florida made massive strides after upsetting Oklahoma and LSU, respectively.
One week ago, neither the Longhorns nor the Gators seemed likely to play in a New Year's Six bowl. But now one of them is in that projected group, while the other is knocking on that door.
Elsewhere, LSU, Stanford, Auburn and Michigan State all plummeted in the AP poll following losses and appear to be destined for less noteworthy bowl games.
Read on for the full list of bowl projections heading into Week 7.
'Group of Five' Bowls
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: Arkansas State vs. Louisiana Tech
New Mexico Bowl: Marshall vs. San Diego State
AutoNation Cure Bowl: Georgia Southern vs. Memphis
Raycom Media Camellia Bowl: Troy vs. Western Michigan
Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl: Florida Atlantic vs. Toledo
DXL Frisco Bowl: Boise State vs. Middle Tennessee
Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl: Akron vs. Florida International
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Ohio vs. Utah State
Hawaii Bowl: Hawaii vs. UAB
Dollar General Bowl: Appalachian State vs. Buffalo
NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl: Coastal Carolina vs. Nevada
We'll begin at the bottom with three cheers for Coastal Carolina. Regarded by most publications as one of the 10 worst teams in the nation before the season began, the Chanticleers already have three wins and should be able to find at least three more in Sun Belt play. We'll see if they can finish the job, but that would make them bowl-eligible in just their second season at the FBS level. Impressive stuff.
Less impressive: Who would have guessed in the preseason that both Boise State and Florida Atlantic would wind up in this bottom tier of bowl games?
Along with UCF, they were two of the three teams expected to contend for the Group of Five's spot in the New Year's Six bowls. However, Boise State's Week 6 home loss to San Diego State knocked the Broncos out of that conversation for good and possibly out of the running for the Mountain West Conference champion's spot in the Las Vegas Bowl.
And FAU already has three losses with four tough games (at Marshall, vs. Louisiana Tech, at FIU, at North Texas) still on the schedule, so head coach Lane Kiffin and Co. might not become bowl-eligible at all.
Elsewhere, two potential pairings to love are Georgia Southern against Memphis in the AutoNation Cure Bowl and Ohio against Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Well, unless you're a fan of defense, in which case those games will be awful.
Georgia Southern and Memphis have two of the best rushing attacks in the nation, Utah State is averaging better than 50 points per game and Ohio has yet to play in a contest in which either side scored fewer than 26 points. The oddsmakers couldn't set the over/under high enough for those games if they tried.
Lower-Tier Power Five Bowls
Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 15): Utah vs. Fresno State
Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl (Dec. 20): Florida State vs. South Florida
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl (Dec. 22): Army* vs. Cincinnati
Birmingham Bowl (Dec. 22): Temple vs. USC*
SERVPRO First Responder Bowl (Dec. 26): BYU* vs. North Texas
Military Bowl (Dec. 31): Boston College vs. Navy
Walk-On's Independence Bowl (Dec. 27): Georgia Tech vs. Houston*
*Teams taking spots that conferences are unable to fill
As indicated by the several asterisks above, this is where most of the swapping figures to transpire. These are bottom-tier games the power conferences might not be able to fill, marquee opportunities for the Group of Five and likely landing spots for independents such as Army and BYU.
That said, the net result in this projection is a bunch of games that will at least keep us entertained for the first two weeks of bowl season.
FSU against USF would be a solid ACC-AAC clash for the state of Florida—not to mention something of a homecoming game for former South Florida head coach Willie Taggart.
Similarly, Georgia Tech against Houston could be an outstanding ACC-AAC showdown, pitting quarterback TaQuon Marshall and one of the best rushing attacks in the nation against Ed Oliver and a Cougars rush defense allowing just 3.0 yards per carry.
And regardless of which team Cincinnati draws, it's going to be a great chance for head coach Luke Fickell to show the world how far and how fast he has turned around this Bearcats program. With a road game against UCF looming in mid-November, the ranked-for-the-first-time-since-2012 Bearcats probably aren't running the table to reach a New Year's Six game. However, they would probably be favored against any opponent in this tier.
Power Five Bowls with Potential
Cheez-It Bowl: Arizona State vs. Baylor
Quick Lane Bowl: Northwestern vs. Virginia
Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl: Oklahoma State vs. Texas A&M
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Maryland vs. Syracuse
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Kentucky vs. Minnesota
Belk Bowl: North Carolina State vs. Mississippi State
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Virginia Tech vs. Washington State
TaxSlayer Gator Bowl: Duke vs. South Carolina
Redbox Bowl: Indiana vs. Stanford
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Missouri vs. TCU
Generally speaking, these are the 10 bowls that will get power-conference teams that finish 7-5 or 8-4. As such, it should come as no surprise the majority of these 20 teams are already saddled with a pair of losses.
There is one noteworthy exception to the rule, though, and that would be undefeated North Carolina State.
But what are we supposed to make of the Wolfpack thus far?
The showdown with West Virginia that got cancelled because of Hurricane Florence was the one game in the first half of the season that was supposed to be a major test for quarterback Ryan Finley and Co. And the best opponent NC State has faced was nothing close to full strength, as Boston College was without star running back AJ Dillon in last week's 28-23 affair.
There's no question the Wolfpack will become bowl-eligible. They only need one more victory for that, and they finish the season with three straight against Louisville, North Carolina and East Carolina. Given that information, finishing the season on a seven-game losing streak would be a collapse of historic proportions.
But can they win at Clemson in Week 8 to get into the College Football Playoff conversation? If not, could it be the start of a three-game losing skid with Syracuse and Florida State on deck for the following two weeks?
This is one of the biggest wild cards left in the country. Aside from Kentucky, NC State is the one team in this tier that could conceivably still make a run at the national championship. But for now, we're projecting the Wolfpack to finish 9-3 overall, landing behind also-undefeated-in-league-play Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech in the ACC's pecking order for bowls.
Top Non-New Year's Six Bowls
Valero Alamo Bowl: Texas vs. Colorado
Camping World Bowl: Miami vs. Texas Tech
San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl: Wisconsin vs. Oregon
Citrus Bowl: LSU vs. Iowa
Outback Bowl: Auburn vs. Michigan State
The New Year's Six bowls get all of the attention, but feel free to also put these five games on your calendar as must-watch affairs. There won't be any conference champions in this tier, and there won't even be many runners-up. But expect a bunch of battles between squads in the back half of the CFP Top 25.
The two rapidly ascending squads in this group happen to be matched up against one another in the Valero Alamo Bowl. Texas is now an AP Top 10 team following its third win over a ranked opponent, and Colorado is surprisingly one of the 11 remaining unbeatens among FBS teams.
They each have one massive hurdle remaining—Texas against West Virginia; Colorado at Washington—but there's a better-than-average chance they'll both be playing for conference championships in December. If that happens, this might be a NY6 matchup instead.
The projected Outback Bowl pairing is between teams at the opposite end of that momentum spectrum.
Michigan State has yet to face a ranked opponent, but it just fell to 3-2 with a home loss to Northwestern. And Auburn's offense quietly has been a disaster for a while, culminating in a 23-9 loss to Mississippi State this past Saturday. The Tigers dropped 13 spots to No. 21 in the AP poll, and the Spartans didn't receive a single vote this week.
Here's the thing, though. With three Big Ten and three SEC teams projected for New Year's Six games and neither league quite as deep in the title contenders department as expected in the preseason, the Outback Bowl might be a repeat of last year's battle between unranked teams. Still, a matchup between the Big Ten and SEC always draws a lot of attention.
Non-CFP New Year's Six Bowls
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (Dec. 29): UCF vs. Oklahoma
Whether it's UCF, South Florida or Cincinnati, it's starting to look like it's AAC East Division winner-or-bust for the Group of Five's spot in the New Year's Six. If Utah State, Fresno State or Appalachian State wins out while the East fails to win the AAC championship game, maybe that team could sneak into the CFP Top 16.
But this is the most likely scenario and a dream matchup of dual-threat, Heisman-worthy quarterbacks. Kyler Murray and McKenzie Milton have each rushed for five touchdowns and are both averaging at least three passing touchdowns per game. They are the driving forces of two of the top offenses in the country, and their head-to-head battle would highlight possibly the most entertaining game of this bowl season.
Allstate Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1): West Virginia vs. Georgia
We'll get to Georgia later in the playoff projection, but first, a shoutout for the real winners of Texas' Red River Rivalry victory over Oklahoma: the West Virginia Mountaineers. It's now a three-horse race for the Big 12 regular-season crown between the 'Eers, the Sooners and the Longhorns, but WVU is arguably the slight favorite.
But can quarterback Will Grier and Co. possibly survive what is going to be a brutal November? After likely wins over Iowa State and Baylor in the next few weeks, West Virginia finishes the regular season with four straight at Texas, against TCU, at Oklahoma State and against Oklahoma.
And even if they win three of those four games, the Mountaineers would need to win a rematch with either Texas or Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game in order to secure the league's spot in the Sugar Bowl. It won't be easy, but this passing attack could be enough to pull it off.
Rose Bowl (Jan. 1): Penn State vs. Washington
Washington is looking like the clear favorite in the Pac-12. Stanford is crashing and burning, and the Huskies have dominated the Apple Cup (against Washington State) since hiring Chris Petersen as head coach in 2014.
Leave Oregon with a victory this weekend, and Washington would probably have better odds of winning its conference than any other team in the country. But with the season-opening loss to Auburn looking less impressive by the day, it probably wouldn't be enough to get into the playoff.
Penn State is much less of a certainty to represent the Big Ten, since its remaining schedule includes home games against Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin, as well as a tough road game against Michigan. However, the Nittany Lions are the obvious choice for now with their offensive firepower and what they showed in a narrow loss to Ohio State in Week 5.
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1): Michigan vs. Florida
Two weeks into the season, both of these teams were afterthoughts. Michigan didn't look good in a loss to Notre Dame, and Florida's home loss to Kentucky in Week 2 was even more disturbing. (In retrospect, neither loss was that bad.) Good luck finding anyone who was projecting either the Wolverines or the Gators for a New Year's Six bowl heading into Week 3.
Since then, though, neither team has allowed more than 21 points in a game, with both emerging as two of the stingiest defenses in the nation. Florida has won back-to-back games against Mississippi State and LSU and could throw one heck of a wrench into the playoff picture when it faces Georgia at the end of this month.
College Football Playoff
Goodyear Cotton Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Clemson
Capital One Orange Bowl: No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Notre Dame
At the moment, it's clearly five teams fighting for four spots: These four plus Georgia.
That isn't to say others couldn't get into the conversation. Any team in the AP Top 20 could conceivably sneak into the playoff if it wins out and gets some help. In particular, West Virginia or Michigan would have a compelling case for inclusion, given the difficultly of their remaining schedules.
But these are the five squads who control their own destinies.
Though Georgia is rightfully No. 2 in the AP poll, the Bulldogs are the odd men out for now for two reasons.
The obvious one is that they are on a collision course with Alabama in the SEC title game, which means one of those teams is going to suffer at least one loss. Considering how incredible the Crimson Tide have been playing, most expect them to beat Georgia. None of the other teams in the Top Five has a probable loss left on the docket.
The less immediately obvious reason is that the Bulldogs the most difficult remaining schedule among this quintet and by a wide margin.
With consecutive wins over Stanford and Virginia Tech in the rearview mirror, Notre Dame will not face another team that is currently ranked. Heck, the Irish don't have another game against a team that received so much as a single vote in this week's AP poll. Road games against Northwestern and USC are as tough as it gets, and that's not saying much.
Clemson and Ohio State don't exactly have gauntlets coming up either. Both the Tigers and Buckeyes have just one game left against a ranked team, and they're home games against teams outside the AP Top 10. Unlike Notre Dame, they each have conference championship games to worry about, but even adding neutral-site games against Miami and Wisconsin, respectively, shouldn't stop them from running the table.
Alabama has a tougher schedule than any of those three, but it's nowhere near as tough as Georgia's, as the Bulldogs are about to begin a four-game streak against ranked opponents—three of them away from home (one is at a neutral site).
If the Bulldogs survive that grueling run—ESPN's FPI projections give them a 39 percent chance of doing so—to set up a 12-0 vs. 12-0 showdown with 'Bama in the SEC title game, both the winner and the loser would have a better resume than an undefeated Clemson. Probably better than an undefeated Notre Dame too.
But that's a big "if," which No. 13 LSU could eliminate this weekend by upsetting the Dawgs at Tiger Stadium.
Given these rankings/pairings, this should be the first time thus far that the Playoff plays to form. No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Ohio State win in the semifinals, setting up a phenomenal championship game that Tua Tagovailoa and the Crimson Tide narrowly win.
Bowl Games by Conference
The following teams are listed in alphabetical order within each conference.
American (7 teams): Cincinnati (Armed Forces Bowl), Houston (Independence Bowl), Memphis (Cure Bowl), Navy (Military Bowl), South Florida (Gasparilla Bowl), Temple (Birmingham Bowl), UCF (Peach Bowl)
ACC (10 teams): Boston College (Military Bowl), Clemson (Cotton Bowl), Duke (Gator Bowl), Florida State (Gasparilla Bowl), Georgia Tech (Independence Bowl), Miami (Camping World Bowl), North Carolina State (Belk Bowl), Syracuse (Pinstripe Bowl), Virginia (Quick Lane Bowl), Virginia Tech (Sun Bowl)
Big 12 (7 teams): Baylor (Cheez-It Bowl), Oklahoma (Peach Bowl), Oklahoma State (Texas Bowl), TCU (Liberty Bowl), Texas (Alamo Bowl), Texas Tech (Camping World Bowl), West Virginia (Sugar Bowl)
Big Ten (10 teams): Indiana (Redbox Bowl), Iowa (Citrus Bowl), Maryland (Pinstripe Bowl), Michigan (Fiesta Bowl), Michigan State (Outback Bowl), Minnesota (Music City Bowl), Northwestern (Quick Lane Bowl), Ohio State (Orange Bowl), Penn State (Rose Bowl), Wisconsin (Holiday Bowl)
Conference USA (7 teams): Florida Atlantic (Boca Raton Bowl), Florida International (Bahamas Bowl), Louisiana Tech (New Orleans Bowl), Marshall (New Mexico Bowl), Middle Tennessee (Frisco Bowl), North Texas (First Responder Bowl), UAB (Hawaii Bowl)
Independents (3 teams): Army (Armed Forces Bowl), BYU (First Responder Bowl), Notre Dame (Orange Bowl)
Mid-American (5 teams): Akron (Bahamas Bowl), Buffalo (Dollar General Bowl), Ohio (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), Toledo (Boca Raton Bowl), Western Michigan (Camellia Bowl)
Mountain West (6 teams): Boise State (Frisco Bowl), Fresno State (Las Vegas Bowl), Hawaii (Hawaii Bowl), Nevada (Arizona Bowl), San Diego State (New Mexico Bowl), Utah State (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl)
Pac-12 (8 teams): Arizona State (Cheez-It Bowl), Colorado (Alamo Bowl), Oregon (Redbox Bowl), Stanford (Holiday Bowl), USC (Birmingham Bowl), Utah (Las Vegas Bowl), Washington (Rose Bowl), Washington State (Sun Bowl)
SEC (10 teams): Alabama (Cotton Bowl), Auburn (Outback Bowl), Florida (Fiesta Bowl), Georgia (Sugar Bowl), Kentucky (Music City Bowl), LSU (Citrus Bowl), Mississippi State (Belk Bowl), Missouri (Liberty Bowl), South Carolina (Gator Bowl), Texas A&M (Texas Bowl)
Sun Belt (5 teams): Appalachian State (Dollar General Bowl), Arkansas State (New Orleans Bowl), Coastal Carolina (Arizona Bowl), Georgia Southern (Cure Bowl), Troy (Camellia Bowl)
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.