College Football Playoff Projections: Week 11 Rankings and Bowl Forecast
The first College Football Playoff Top 25 rankings of the season finally arrived Tuesday night, letting us know Ohio State, LSU, Alabama and Penn State would duke it out for the national championship if the season ended today.
It doesn't, of course. There are still four more weeks in the regular season plus the all-important conference championship week in early December. Not a darn thing has been set in stone.
But the selection committee's Top 25 did tell us a few important things.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation was that Clemson debuted at No. 5, even though that doesn't matter in the slightest. No. 2 LSU visits No. 3 Alabama this weekend. No. 1 Ohio State hosts No. 4 Penn State in a few weeks. As long as Clemson keeps winning, it will finish in the Top Four.
Undefeated Baylor's landing all the way down at No. 12—behind two-loss Florida and two-loss Auburn at Nos. 10 and 11—was a more noteworthy statement by the committee.
The Bears already have road wins over the committee's No. 16 Kansas State and No. 23 Oklahoma State, but they were clearly penalized for a woeful nonconference schedule. If they win out, they could probably still get to No. 4, regardless of what happens elsewhere. But if they lose at any point, they likely won't finish high enough to earn a spot in a New Year's Six bowl.
Speaking of which, this Top 25 told us next to nothing about which Group of Five contender has the inside track for the Cotton Bowl. Four of the six teams in the Nos. 20-25 range hail from the American Athletic Conference with the Mountain West Conference's Boise State also landing in that tier. It was interesting, however, that the MWC's San Diego State (No. 24 in the Associated Press poll) didn't crack the CFP Top 25. If the 7-1 Aztecs win out, they would probably still finish behind a one-loss AAC team.
Last but not least: poor Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are 8-0 and have destroyed their last four opponents, but they were all the way down at No. 17.
If you factor in the possibility of a showdown with Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, their remaining schedule is the toughest in the nation. They get Penn State this week, play at No. 18 Iowa next Saturday and finish the regular season with No. 13 Wisconsin. There's no question they would be a playoff team if they win out. But, like with Baylor, there's a good chance that just one loss could keep them from playing in the New Year's Six.
With just four weeks remaining in the regular season, it's time to tally up the numbers to project whether we'll be above, below or smack dab on the target of 78 bowl-eligible teams.
There are already 43 teams with at least six wins and 22 others sitting at either 5-3 or 5-4. That means 65 teams* have either already done enough or are just one win away from sealing the deal.
*Missouri is one of the teams with five wins, but the status of its bowl-ban appeal is still inexplicably unknown.
From that group, Florida International (5-4) probably won't get to six wins, as it finishes the season with three likely losses to Florida Atlantic, Miami (FL) and Marshall. Nevada (5-4) is also a big question mark with two likely road losses to San Diego State and Fresno State and a coin-flip home game against UNLV left on its docket. But the rest look promising.
Beyond that group, 17 more teams teeter with a 4-4 record. Several of them—most notably BYU, Michigan State, Kentucky and Ohio—should have no problem winning at least two of their four remaining games to become eligible. Others such as Oregon State, South Florida and California might need some divine intervention just to go 2-2 down the stretch.
But factor in the teams with 4-5 records that look like good bets to get at least two more wins—North Carolina, Mississippi State, Tennessee, North Texas, Charlotte and Eastern Michigan—and we should get to 78 bowl-eligible squads with room to spare.
If not, though, and we end up needing to use APR scores to fill out the final couple of spots with 5-7 teams, here is a Top 10 APR ranking of teams projected for at least 4.5 wins (per ESPN's FPI) that haven't already gotten to six:
1. Duke (4-4, 992 APR)
2. Washington (5-4, 991 APR)
3-tie. Nevada (5-4, 989 APR)
3-tie. Boston College (5-4, 989 APR)
5. Stanford (4-4, 986 APR)
6. Louisville (5-3, 984 APR)
7. Temple (5-3, 983 APR)
8-tie. Illinois (5-4, 982 APR)
8-tie. Middle Tennessee (3-6, 982 APR)
10-tie. Ohio (4-4, 981 APR)
10-tie. Toledo (5-3, 981 APR)
Group of 5 Bowls
Bahamas Bowl: Ball State vs. Western Kentucky
Frisco Bowl: Fresno State* vs. Southern Miss
New Mexico Bowl: Florida Atlantic vs. Wyoming
Cure Bowl: Georgia State vs. UCF
Boca Raton Bowl: Tulane vs. Western Michigan
Camellia Bowl: Buffalo vs. Georgia Southern
New Orleans Bowl: Marshall vs. Arkansas State
Gasparilla Bowl: UAB vs. Temple
Hawaii Bowl: BYU vs. Hawaii
Arizona Bowl: San Diego State vs. Louisiana
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Utah State vs. Central Michigan
Mobile Alabama Bowl: Toledo vs. Appalachian State
*Fresno State takes a spot the AAC is unable to fill.
Of the 24 teams in this tier, 21 are in the same projected spot as one week ago. And each of the three changes was a direct result of Appalachian State's Thursday night loss to Georgia Southern.
Before that game, we had projected the undefeated Mountaineers as the Group of Five's representative in the New Year's Six. And given SMU's loss to Memphis and the close calls by Cincinnati (at East Carolina) and Boise State (at San Jose State) against sub-.500 teams, odds are more folks would have joined us on the App. State-to-the-Cotton Bowl bandwagon had it won.
Alas, Georgia Southern knocked off a ranked Appalachian State for the second consecutive year, despite forcing no turnovers and only completing one pass. That dropped the Mountaineers from the Cotton Bowl to the Mobile Bowl, creating a chain reaction that shifts Louisiana to the Arizona Bowl, Arkansas State to the New Orleans Bowl, and Liberty—which was projected for a spot the Sun Belt was previously unable to fill—to a different tier.
One other note while we're here: The MAC finally has a bowl-eligible team! Central Michigan improved to 6-4 with a 48-10 victory over Northern Illinois. But that 11-way 6-6 tie that I presented last week is still a possibility. We do need to tweak it slightly because of Buffalo's Week 10 win over Eastern Michigan. But if we switch Buffalo's upcoming game at Kent State from a win to a loss and change Eastern Michigan's home game against Kent State from a loss to a win, voila.
Lower-Tier Power Five Bowls
Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 21): Boise State vs. Washington State
Independence Bowl (Dec. 26): North Carolina vs. Liberty*
Military Bowl (Dec. 27): Boston College vs. Navy
First Responder Bowl (Dec. 30): Louisiana Tech vs. SMU^
Birmingham Bowl (Jan. 2): Cincinnati vs. NC State**
Armed Forces Bowl (Jan. 4): Ohio^^ vs. Air Force
*Liberty takes a spot the SEC is unable to fill.
^SMU takes a spot the Big 12 is unable to fill.
**NC State takes a spot the SEC is unable to fill.
^^Ohio takes a spot the Big Ten is unable to fill.
This is rapidly becoming an unofficial AAC and ACC tier.
Neither the Big Ten nor the SEC is anywhere close to filling all of its spots, as both leagues have three teams projected for the New Year's Six. In fact, the Big Ten is in even worse shape than it was seven days ago thanks to Nebraska's third consecutive loss (at Purdue). A handful of teams with 4-5 records will likely stumble into six wins, but the Cornhuskers are not one of them. Remaining games against Wisconsin and Iowa should ensure that.
The Big 12 also joined the fray of Power Five conferences with too many spots and not enough teams, although that one is good news, as it was a result of Baylor's moving up a tier and replacing Florida as the "wild card" team in the Cotton Bowl.
Even if Baylor (or Oklahoma) drops back out of the New Year's Six picture, though, this Big 12 spot in the First Responder Bowl might still end up being unoccupied. TCU is 4-4 with projected losses to Baylor and Oklahoma and projected wins over Texas Tech and West Virginia remaining. That means we have the Horned Frogs in, but those TTU and WVU games are anything but guaranteed victories. TCU could easily miss the cut.
And while it has more than enough teams projected to make a bowl, the ACC has more than its fair share of iffy teams too. Four ACC squads have four wins and four others have five, and only one of them (4-4 NC State) has to deal with the juggernaut known as Clemson. They'll mostly beat up one another over these final four weeks and are projected to leave Duke and Florida State on the wrong side of the cut line with 5-7 records.
(However, as previously noted, Duke has the highest APR score of any team on the bubble, so the Blue Devils might sneak in anyway.)
Power Five Bowls with Potential
Quick Lane Bowl: Illinois vs. Louisville
Pinstripe Bowl: Michigan State vs. Pittsburgh
Texas Bowl: Kentucky vs. Oklahoma State
Cheez-It Bowl: TCU vs. Stanford
Redbox Bowl: North Texas^ vs. USC
Music City Bowl: Miami vs. Missouri*
Belk Bowl: Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech
Sun Bowl: Arizona State vs. Virginia
Liberty Bowl: Texas vs. Texas A&M
Gator Bowl: Indiana vs. Mississippi State
*Missouri is banned from postseason play, but it has an appeal pending. Until there is concrete news to the contrary, we'll continue to entertain the possibility of the Tigers in a bowl game.
^North Texas takes a spot the Big Ten is unable to fill.
It's worth reiterating that I don't intentionally schedule juicy matchups or intriguing storylines. After making the selections for the New Year's Six, it's just a matter of filling in the spreadsheet one conference at a time and then sorting to discover who plays whom.
And yet, this middling tier always ends up with three or four can't-miss affairs.
Right off the bat in the Quick Lane Bowl, you've got Illinois vs. Louisville, which might as well feature a giveaway of Burger King's impossible burgers, given the preseason expectations for both teams.
USA Today had Louisville ranked dead last in the ACC at No. 104 overall while Illinois was at No. 111, narrowly losing to Rutgers for the title of least respected Big Ten team. It called Louisville a "rebuilding project" and Illinois a "sinking ship." The only less conceivable bowl-game pairing of Power Five conference teams would be Kansas vs. Rutgers. It would be fun to see Illinois and Louisville both finish 6-6 and then duke it out to decide who gets the winning record.
There's Kentucky vs. Oklahoma State, which would feature receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. and running back Chuba Hubbard, two of the most unstoppable weapons in the nation. There's also Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech in Charlotte, North Carolina, which could draw a massive crowd from both fanbases.
But the cream of this crop is the Liberty Bowl, pitting Texas and Texas A&M against each other for the first time since the Aggies left the Big 12 in 2012 and killed the annual rivalry. Aside from the College Football Playoff and the Rose Bowl, that would be the biggest bowl game of the year. The only thing better would be if it happened in the Texas Bowl instead, which is possible, given their respective conference standings and projected win totals.
Top Non-New Year's Six Bowls
Holiday Bowl (Dec. 27): Iowa vs. Washington
Camping World Bowl (Dec. 28): Iowa State vs. Notre Dame
Alamo Bowl (Dec. 31): Kansas State vs. Utah
Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1): Florida vs. Michigan
Outback Bowl (Jan. 1): Auburn vs. Wisconsin
Let's focus on the outlier in this tier: Utah.
Each of the other nine teams has suffered at least two losses—four in Washington's case—and has virtually no hope of reaching the College Football Playoff. Maybe Auburn, Michigan or Wisconsin could do it by winning out and getting a significant amount of help, but if the AP doesn't consider you a Top 10 team at this point, climbing into the Top Four is highly unlikely.
However, the Utes are 8-1. They are No. 8 in the latest AP poll, and their odds of winning out are a heck of a lot better than most others'. After an idle Week 11, they'll host sub-.500 UCLA, travel to sub-.500 Arizona and finish the season at home against sub-.500 Colorado. Considering there are only three Pac-12 teams with losing records, you can't ask for a much more favorable schedule.
Help or no help from the other conferences, if they win those three games and then wrap up a 12-1 season with a win over Oregon in the Pac-12 championship, the Utes will have a strong argument for a spot in the playoff.
If they lose to Oregon as projected, though, they can probably kiss the New Year's Six goodbye. (Unless, of course, that victory propels the Ducks into the College Football Playoff, leaving the Pac-12's spot in the Rose Bowl for Utah.)
Thanks to an easy nonconference schedule and a spot in what is arguably the weakest Power Five division this year, Utah has a resume that leaves much to be desired. The road win over Washington on Saturday was impressive, but a two-loss Baylor, two-loss Minnesota, two-loss Florida and probably even a three-loss Auburn would have a better overall balance of quality wins and losses.
Maybe 11-2 would be enough to secure a spot in the final CFP Top 10—what it will likely take this year to reach a New Year's Six bowl, considering two of the 12 spots will be reserved for the top Group of Five team and the ACC runner-up to Clemson—but we'll revisit this discussion in the weeks to come if Utah holds serve.
Non-CFP New Year's Six Bowls
Cotton Bowl (Dec. 28): Baylor vs. Memphis
Orange Bowl (Dec. 30): Minnesota vs. Wake Forest
Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1): Georgia vs. Oklahoma
Rose Bowl (Jan. 1): Oregon vs. Penn State
Three of these are the same projections as last week. Minnesota, Oklahoma and Penn State did not play in Week 10; Georgia (vs. Florida) picked up the most impressive win of the week; and Oregon (at USC) and Wake Forest (vs. NC State) won by 32-point and 34-point margins, respectively. And with no good reason to amend our top four at this point, all six of those teams stayed put in the third-, fourth- and fifth-best bowl games.
The Cotton Bowl received a makeover, though, as both Appalachian State and Florida suffered losses this week to drop out of the NY6 picture.
App State's loss leaves the AAC champion as the most likely Group of Five representative. That league has No. 17 Cincinnati, No. 19 Memphis, No. 23 SMU and No. 25 Navy all sitting at either 7-1 or 8-1. Memphis already beat both SMU and Navy, and it has a home game against Cincinnati at the end of the regular season. There's a non-zero chance (especially if Memphis wins) they'll run that game back the following week to determine the league champion.
However, the Mountain West isn't dead yet. No. 21 Boise State and No. 24 San Diego State could be on a collision course for an 11-1 vs. 11-1 showdown. If Memphis and Cincinnati split their two games, a 12-1 Boise State or 12-1 San Diego State would probably slide into the Cotton Bowl.
Either way, it'll be fun to have some uncertainty for a change. UCF was a fantastic story the past two seasons, but it got boring to just project the Knights as the no-hope-for-the-CFP Group of Five champ week after week.
As far as the other half of the Cotton Bowl is concerned, Florida still has a good chance of securing that spot, but Baylor deserves it for now. The Bears leaned heavily upon their defense to improve to 8-0 last week, and they'll need to continue flexing those defensive muscles with TCU, Oklahoma and Texas coming up in the next three weeks.
If Baylor goes 3-1 the rest of the way with a loss to Oklahoma and loses to the Sooners for a second time in the Big 12 Championship, that 11-2 record would likely be enough to finish ahead of the SEC's fourth-best resume. Though at that point, there's a strong possibility Oklahoma would to the playoff and Baylor would end up with the Big 12's spot in the Sugar Bowl instead of the Cotton Bowl. Either way, the outcome would be two Big 12 teams and "only" three SEC teams in the New Year's Six.
College Football Playoff
Peach Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 LSU
Fiesta Bowl: No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Clemson
National Championship: No. 1 Alabama over No. 2 Ohio State
Nothing new to report here. Three of the four were idle this past weekend, and the fourth, Clemson, casually put up over 700 yards in a blowout of Wofford. The only thing that changed is we're seven days closer to the big SEC West showdown.
Let's talk about the first team out, though, because a lot of folks were upset last week that I didn't even mention Penn State while asserting that the LSU-Alabama loser will still have a great shot at reaching the playoff.
The 8-0 Nittany Lions face 8-0 Minnesota this week. If they win that game—Caesar's Sportsbook says they should do so by a touchdown—it likely means we'll get 10-0 Penn State at 10-0 Ohio State on Nov. 23, which would be glorious.
But assuming the Nittany Lions lose that one, they have a twofold problem.
The more fair and objective of the two is they haven't looked dominant this season. Their defensive front seven is excellent, but they struggled to move the ball in each of their three wins against opponents who have already secured bowl eligibility. In fact, Penn State was outgained in each of those one-possession victories over Pittsburgh, Iowa and Michigan.
If the Nittany Lions destroy Minnesota this week and Indiana next week before losing a close game against Ohio State, that'd be one thing. But if they eke out two more W's before losing by multiple possessions to the Buckeyes, they won't have much of a case for the title of best one-loss divisional runner-up, since LSU has played a much more difficult schedule and since Alabama has beaten everyone convincingly thus far.
The less fair part of the problem is the undeniable bias of preseason polls and expectations.
From a quality-of-opponent perspective, there is a case to be made that Penn State has a better resume than Alabama right now. But there's a reason the Nittany Lions are a distant fifth place in the AP poll with no first-place votes: Their preseason starting point well behind Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and LSU means they had to prove more than those four teams to be validated. And they haven't done that yet.
Again, that's the not fair part. We all recognize that. And maybe it starts to change with a statement win over Minnesota while one of those SEC teams suffers a loss this week.
But there's actually a third somewhat-fair, somewhat-not-fair fold in the Penn State dilemma: It would get no opportunity to recover from a Week 13 loss to Ohio State.
Alabama could lose to LSU this weekend and bounce back with eye-opening road beatdowns of Mississippi State and Auburn. All Penn State gets is a home game against Rutgers that won't do anything to help its resume or perception. So if we're using the proverbial eye test to compare them, Alabama figures to have the edge. Alternatively, if it's LSU that loses on Saturday, wins over Florida, Auburn and Texas should be more than enough to land an 11-1 Tigers team ahead of an 11-1 Nittany Lions that lost its last noteworthy game.
Long story short, there's a lot of arguing yet to take place, but an 11-win SEC West runner-up should end up in better national standing than an 11-1 Penn State. But as with the Utah debate earlier, I have no doubt this will continue in earnest for the next few weeks.
Bowl Games by Conference
Here is the full 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 games.
American (7 teams): Cincinnati (Birmingham Bowl), Memphis (Cotton Bowl), Navy (Military Bowl), SMU (First Responder Bowl), Temple (Gasparilla Bowl), Tulane (Boca Raton Bowl), UCF (Cure Bowl)
ACC (10 teams): Boston College (Military Bowl), Clemson (Fiesta Bowl), Louisville (Quick Lane Bowl), Miami (Music City Bowl), NC State (Birmingham Bowl), North Carolina (Independence Bowl), Pittsburgh (Pinstripe Bowl), Virginia (Sun Bowl), Virginia Tech (Belk Bowl), Wake Forest (Orange Bowl)
Big 12 (7 teams): Baylor (Cotton Bowl), Iowa State (Camping World Bowl), Kansas State (Alamo Bowl), Oklahoma (Sugar Bowl), Oklahoma State (Texas Bowl), TCU (Cheez-It Bowl), Texas (Liberty Bowl)
Big Ten (9 teams): Illinois (Quick Lane Bowl), Indiana (Gator Bowl), Iowa (Holiday Bowl), Michigan (Citrus Bowl), Michigan State (Pinstripe Bowl), Minnesota (Orange Bowl), Ohio State (Fiesta Bowl), Penn State (Rose Bowl), Wisconsin (Outback Bowl)
Conference USA (7 teams): Florida Atlantic (New Mexico Bowl), Louisiana Tech (First Responder Bowl), Marshall (New Orleans Bowl), North Texas (Redbox Bowl), Southern Miss (Frisco Bowl), UAB (Gasparilla Bowl), Western Kentucky (Bahamas Bowl)
Independents (3 teams): BYU (Hawaii Bowl), Liberty (Independence Bowl), Notre Dame (Camping World Bowl)
Mid-American (6 teams): Buffalo (Camellia Bowl), Central Michigan (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), Miami-Ohio (Bahamas Bowl), Ohio (Armed Forces Bowl), Toledo (Mobile Alabama Bowl), Western Michigan (Boca Raton Bowl)
Mountain West (7 teams): Air Force (Armed Forces Bowl), Boise State (Las Vegas Bowl), Fresno State (Frisco Bowl), Hawaii (Hawaii Bowl), San Diego State (Arizona Bowl), Utah State (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), Wyoming (New Mexico Bowl)
Pac-12 (7 teams): Arizona State (Sun Bowl), Oregon (Rose Bowl), Stanford (Cheez-It Bowl), USC (Redbox Bowl), Utah (Alamo Bowl), Washington (Holiday Bowl), Washington State (Las Vegas Bowl)
SEC (10 teams): Alabama (Peach Bowl), Auburn (Outback Bowl), Florida (Citrus Bowl), Georgia (Sugar Bowl), Kentucky (Texas Bowl), LSU (Peach Bowl), Mississippi State (Gator Bowl), Missouri (Music City Bowl), Tennessee (Belk Bowl), Texas A&M (Liberty Bowl)
Sun Belt (5 teams): Appalachian State (Mobile Alabama Bowl), Arkansas State (New Orleans Bowl), Georgia State (Cure Bowl), Georgia Southern (Camellia Bowl), Louisiana (Arizona Bowl)
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.