College Football Playoff Projections: Week 15 Rankings and Bowl Forecast
No. 1 Ohio State, No. 2 LSU, No. 3 Clemson and No. 4 Georgia won their Week 14 games by a combined margin of 152 points, ensuring no changes atop the penultimate College Football Playoff Top 25.
There were some serious shake-ups elsewhere, though.
Wisconsin climbed four spots to No. 8 after clinching a spot in the Big Ten championship with a 38-17 road win over Minnesota. It's probably a futile question with the way Ohio State has dominated everyone this season—including a 38-7 win over Wisconsin—but are the Badgers now in a position to possibly jump into the top four with a win over the Buckeyes?
On the opposite end of that Big Ten West showdown, Minnesota's boat ran aground and capsized from No. 8 down to No. 18 in the rankings. The Golden Gophers were one win away from playing in their first Rose Bowl since 1962, but they'll instead need to settle for a spot outside the New Year's Six.
The other major developments came from the Iron Bowl. After upsetting Alabama, Auburn ascended four spots to No. 11 while Alabama fell from No. 5 to No. 12. As things stand, neither team would even partake in a New Year's Six bowl. Who could have projected that one before the season began?
The only other particularly noteworthy change was no change at all: Oklahoma remains one spot behind Utah at No. 6 and No. 5, respectively. But could a Big 12 championship victory over No. 7 Baylor be enough for the Sooners to bypass the Utes?
We'll answer that question to the best of our ability in the ensuing bowl projections.
Group of Five Bowls
Bahamas Bowl: Buffalo (7-5) vs. Charlotte (7-5)
Frisco Bowl: Tulane (6-6) vs. Southern Miss (7-5)
New Mexico Bowl: Florida International (6-6) vs. Wyoming (7-5)
Cure Bowl: Georgia State (7-5) vs. UCF (9-3)
Boca Raton Bowl: Western Kentucky* (7-5) vs. Ohio (6-6)
Camellia Bowl: Miami (Ohio) (7-5) vs. Georgia Southern (7-5)
New Orleans Bowl: Marshall (8-4) vs. Appalachian State (11-1)
Gasparilla Bowl: UAB (9-3) vs. Temple (8-4)
Hawaii Bowl: BYU (7-5) vs. Hawaii (9-4)
Arizona Bowl: Nevada (7-5) vs. Louisiana (10-2)
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Utah State (7-5) vs. Kent State (6-6)
LendingTree Bowl: Toledo (6-6) vs. Arkansas State (7-5)
*Western Kentucky takes a spot the American Athletic Conference is unable to fill.
Let's begin by noting that there are 79 bowl-eligible teams and "only" 78 spots to fill, meaning that one unfortunate 6-6 team is going to be left out.
The five candidates are Florida International, Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Ohio and Toledo. It will probably be one of the four teams from the MAC, and we're projecting Eastern Michigan as the team that misses the cut, due to the fact that it went 0-2 against Kent State and Toledo.
Maybe it will be Toledo, as the Rockets lost each of their final three games and possess the worst scoring differential among the group. It might also be FIU, since four of the Panthers' six wins came against 1-11 UTEP, 1-11 Old Dominion, 1-11 Massachusetts and FCS school New Hampshire. Hard to say what's most important when choosing the most and least deserving 6-6 teams.
At the less depressing end of the Group of Five spectrum, there are three huge conference championship games featuring an 11-1 team with Cotton Bowl dreams.
No. 17 Memphis will host No. 20 Cincinnati for a second consecutive week. If the Tigers win that AAC title game, it's all but a lock that they'll represent the Group of Five in the New Year's Six.
If Memphis loses, though, No. 19 Boise State would be the next man up, provided the Broncos can win a home game against Hawaii for the second time this season. (They won 59-37 back in mid-October.) If Hawaii pulls off the upset, though, the Warriors would go to the Las Vegas Bowl as the Mountain West champions.
At the bottom of the pecking order, No. 21 Appalachian State draws 10-win Louisiana for the Sun Belt crown. In all likelihood, the winner will go to the New Orleans Bowl. But if Appalachian State wins while Memphis and Boise State both lose, the Mountaineers would probably move up to the Cotton Bowl. However, it's possible Cincinnati would end up ranked higher than ASU, in which case the Bearcats would have Cotton in their future.
Lower-Tier Power Five Bowls
Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 21): Boise State (11-1) vs. California (7-5)
Independence Bowl (Dec. 26): North Carolina (6-6) vs. Florida Atlantic* (9-3)
Military Bowl (Dec. 27): Florida State (6-6) vs. Navy (9-2)
First Responder Bowl (Dec. 30): Louisiana Tech (9-3) vs. Western Michigan^ (7-5)
Birmingham Bowl (Jan. 2): Cincinnati (10-2) vs. Boston College (6-6)
Armed Forces Bowl (Jan. 4): Liberty‡ (7-5) vs. San Diego State (9-3)
*Florida Atlantic takes a spot the SEC is unable to fill.
^Western Michigan takes a spot the Big 12 is unable to fill.
‡Liberty takes a spot the Big Ten is unable to fill.
Boston College had been out of the projected bowl picture for the past month, but the Eagles eked out a sixth win at Pittsburgh, forcing four turnovers while AJ Dillon rushed for 178 yards in a 26-19 victory. Between that and North Carolina's 41-10 dismantling of NC State, the ACC ended up with 10 bowl-eligible teams. (It's actually 11 if you count Notre Dame, which can take the ACC's spot in any game except for the Orange Bowl.)
Other Power Five leagues weren't so fortunate.
Both the Big Ten and the SEC ended up with nine bowl teams, and each of those conferences is projected for three New Year's Six bowls compared to the ACC's two. It was clear by mid-October that neither of those leagues would be able to fill its spots on this tier.
Worse yet, TCU's Week 14 loss to West Virginia left the Big 12's final tally at six bowl teams. The Big 12 definitely won't be able to fill the First Responder Bowl, and if both Oklahoma and Baylor end up in the New Year's Six, there's going to be a substitution from the Mountain West in the Cheez-It Bowl, too.
At least the Pac-12 did its part, producing exactly one team for each of its seven bowls. But seven out of 12 is only 58.3 percent of teams becoming bowl-eligible, which is the worst percentage among the Power Five leagues. Plus, if Utah beats Oregon and sneaks into the College Football Playoff, the Pac-12 will also be unable to send anyone to the Cheez-It Bowl.
Add it all up, and there's going to be a lot of Selection Sunday swapping taking place on this tier.
Power Five Bowls with Potential
Quick Lane Bowl: Central Michigan* (8-4) vs. Louisville (7-5)
Pinstripe Bowl: Illinois (6-6) vs. Pittsburgh (7-5)
Texas Bowl: Texas (7-5) vs. Texas A&M (7-5)
Cheez-It Bowl: Air Force^ (10-2) vs. Washington State (6-6)
Music City Bowl: Miami (6-6) vs. Kentucky (7-5)
Redbox Bowl: Michigan State (6-6) vs. Washington (7-5)
Belk Bowl: Tennessee (7-5) vs. Virginia Tech (8-4)
Sun Bowl: Arizona State (7-5) vs. Wake Forest (8-4)
Liberty Bowl: Iowa State (7-5) vs. SMU± (10-2)
Gator Bowl: Indiana (8-4) vs. Mississippi State (6-6)
*Central Michigan takes a spot the Big Ten is unable to fill.
^Air Force takes a spot the Big 12 is unable to fill.
±SMU takes a spot the SEC is unable to fill
This tier has potential, but a lot of these teams finished the regular season on quite the sour note, especially in the ACC.
Virginia Tech's string of dominance against Virginia came to an end, costing the Hokies a spot in the conference championship. Wake Forest's 7-1 start turned into an 8-4 whimper, punctuated by an overtime loss to Syracuse. Pittsburgh and Miami enter bowl season on two-game losing streaks. And Louisville just gave up 45 points in a rivalry game against a Kentucky team with no quarterback.
Elsewhere, both Illinois and Texas A&M have lost two straight, Mississippi State needed some Egg Bowl magic to squeak in with six wins, Michigan State narrowly averted disaster at home against Maryland to do the same and Washington State was so thoroughly embarrassed in the Apple Cup that Mike Leach decided to berate a reporter during the postgame press conference.
However, plenty of teams have bounced back from rough November finishes to put together a great game by the end of December. Just last year, Virginia lost three of its final four games before blanking South Carolina in the Belk Bowl, and Duke rallied from back-to-back losses by a combined score of 94-13 to drop 56 points on Temple in the Independence Bowl.
On an unrelated note, the possibility of a Texas Bowl featuring Texas and Texas A&M is very much back in play, which would be even more of a can't-miss game than several of the New Year's Six bowls. And, come on, who among us isn't hoping for a Cheez-It Bowl between an Air Force offense that runs the ball 56 times per game and a Washington State offense that passes the ball 57 times per game?
Top Non-New Year's Six Bowls
Holiday Bowl (Dec. 27): Michigan (9-3) vs. USC (8-4)
Camping World Bowl (Dec. 28): Notre Dame (10-2) vs. Kansas State (8-4)
Alamo Bowl (Dec. 31): Oregon (10-2) vs. Oklahoma State (8-4)
Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1): Minnesota (10-2) vs. Alabama (10-2)
Outback Bowl (Jan. 1): Iowa (9-3) vs. Auburn (9-3)
Oregon is the only team here that still has a game remaining before Selection Sunday.
The Ducks could clinch a spot in the Rose Bowl by beating Utah. If they lose, though, it would be in their best interest to lose the game so badly that the selection committee has little choice but to put the Utes in the playoff. Should that happen, Oregon would end up representing the Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl anyway.
But more intriguing than the one team still in action is the usual title contender now destined to miss the New Year's Six.
After losing a close road game against Auburn, Alabama plummeted all the way from No. 5 to No. 12 in the latest rankings—landing one spot behind Auburn, in a move that couldn't have been an accident or a coincidence.
As far as Alabama's strength of schedule is concerned, it's a perfectly justifiable move. The Crimson Tide now have an 0-2 record against the CFP Top 25. Their most impressive win was a road game against Texas A&M—and the Aggies are 0-5 against opponents with a winning record, so that isn't saying much.
But did Alabama's resume really change that much this weekend? Or did Minnesota seriously deserve to drop 10 spots for losing a snow-globe game against Wisconsin? Some strange moves that had a significant impact on the new bowl picture.
Non-CFP New Year's Six Bowls
Cotton Bowl (Dec. 28): Florida (10-2) vs. Memphis (11-1)
Orange Bowl (Dec. 30): Penn State (10-2) vs. Virginia (9-3)
Rose Bowl (Jan. 1): Utah (11-1) vs. Wisconsin (10-2)
Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1): Georgia (11-1) vs. Baylor (11-1)
If we assume Ohio State beats Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship, the race for the Big Ten's spot in the Rose Bowl will be one of the most intriguing debates on Selection Sunday.
Aside from the Buckeyes, the Badgers are currently the highest-ranked Big Ten team. Factor in their division title, and they would certainly be the choice as of today. But if the Buckeyes stomp them by a 38-7 margin for the second time this season, would it knock the Badgers behind Penn State and down to the Orange Bowl? Might it be enough to drop them out of the Top 10 altogether, falling to the Citrus Bowl while promoting Florida to the Orange Bowl and Auburn to the Cotton Bowl?
Conversely, if Wisconsin pulls off the upset, would it be enough for the Badgers to vault into the Top Four? Would it be Ohio State who drops out to make room for Wisconsin, or would a two-loss Big Ten champion and its one-loss runner-up finish ahead of both 12-1 Oklahoma and 12-1 Utah?
Either way, the Big Ten title game is going to produce a tough decision for the CFP selection committee.
As previously mentioned, the Pac-12 championship is an even bigger wild card, though.
Win or lose, Oregon might jump up into the Rose Bowl, possibly knocking Penn State out of the New Year's Six. However, we're sticking with the scenario in which Utah wins, finishes at No. 5 in the rankings and leaves the Pac-12 with just one New Year's Six bowl team.
We'll revisit this all Saturday night, though, as a Georgia win, a Baylor win or a Clemson loss could also topple this entire house of cards.
College Football Playoff
Peach Bowl: No. 1 Ohio State (12-0) vs. No. 4 Oklahoma (11-1)
Fiesta Bowl: No. 2 LSU (12-0) vs. No. 3 Clemson (12-0)
National Championship Game: No. 1 Ohio State over No. 2 LSU
For the fourth consecutive week, our top four remains the same.
It had been tempting to replace Oklahoma with Utah throughout the string of nail-biting wins over Iowa State, Baylor and TCU, but the Sooners finally looked the part in a much-needed statement win over Oklahoma State.
Jalen Hurts threw for a touchdown, rushed one in and even made a four-yard TD reception in the 34-16 Bedlam victory. He now has 50 total touchdowns and might be one more heroic performance away from going to the College Football Playoff for a fourth consecutive year.
Even more important than what Hurts did to Oklahoma State, the OU defense showed up for the first time in a while. The Sooners limited the nation's leading rusher Chuba Hubbard to 104 yards while forcing two turnovers and holding the Cowboys without a touchdown for the final 54 minutes.
Not only did Oklahoma add a quality road win while Utah was facing its third consecutive sub-.500 opponent, but it did so in impressive fashion, closing the massive "eye test" gap that Utah held.
Plus, Kansas State wrapped up the regular season with wins over Texas Tech and Iowa State to finish at 8-4 and to make Oklahoma's only loss look more acceptable.
If Georgia beats LSU in the SEC championship, it's all a moot point. Even without a conference title, LSU would almost certainly still finish ahead of both Oklahoma and Utah.
The debate would also become irrelevant if either Oklahoma or Utah loses this week, both of which are possible.
For what it's worth, if Utah wins, LSU wins and Oklahoma loses, the Utes should finish ahead of Baylor for the No. 4 seed without too much of a debate. However, that could change if the Bears throttle Oklahoma while Utah barely clips Oregon.
Bowl Games by Conference
Here is the breakdown of bowl projections, listed alphabetically by conference. New Year's Six games are italicized and underlined.
ACC (10 teams): Boston College (Birmingham Bowl), Clemson (Fiesta Bowl), Florida State (Military Bowl), Louisville (Quick Lane Bowl), Miami (Music City Bowl), North Carolina (Independence Bowl), Pittsburgh (Pinstripe Bowl), Virginia (Orange Bowl), Virginia Tech (Belk Bowl), Wake Forest (Sun Bowl)
American (7 teams): Cincinnati (Birmingham Bowl), Memphis (Cotton Bowl), Navy (Military Bowl), SMU (Liberty Bowl), Temple (Gasparilla Bowl), Tulane (Frisco Bowl), UCF (Cure Bowl)
Big 12 (6 teams): Baylor (Sugar Bowl), Iowa State (Liberty Bowl), Kansas State (Camping World Bowl), Oklahoma (Peach Bowl), Oklahoma State (Alamo Bowl), Texas (Texas Bowl)
Big Ten (9 teams): Illinois (Pinstripe Bowl), Indiana (Gator Bowl), Iowa (Outback Bowl), Michigan (Holiday Bowl), Michigan State (Redbox Bowl), Minnesota (Citrus Bowl), Ohio State (Peach Bowl), Penn State (Orange Bowl), Wisconsin (Rose Bowl)
Conference USA (8 teams): Charlotte (Bahamas Bowl), Florida Atlantic (Independence Bowl), Florida International (New Mexico Bowl), Louisiana Tech (First Responder Bowl), Marshall (New Orleans Bowl), Southern Miss (Frisco Bowl), UAB (Gasparilla Bowl), Western Kentucky (Boca Raton Bowl)
Independents (3 teams): BYU (Hawaii Bowl), Liberty (Armed Forces Bowl), Notre Dame (Camping World Bowl)
Mid-American (7 teams): Buffalo (Bahamas Bowl), Central Michigan (Quick Lane Bowl), Kent State (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), Miami (Ohio) (Camellia Bowl), Ohio (Boca Raton Bowl), Toledo (LendingTree Bowl), Western Michigan (First Responder Bowl)
Mountain West (7 teams): Air Force (Cheez-It Bowl), Boise State (Las Vegas Bowl), Hawaii (Hawaii Bowl), Nevada (Arizona Bowl), San Diego State (Armed Forces Bowl), Utah State (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), Wyoming (New Mexico Bowl)
Pac-12 (7 teams): Arizona State (Sun Bowl), California (Las Vegas Bowl), Oregon (Alamo Bowl), USC (Holiday Bowl), Utah (Rose Bowl), Washington (Redbox Bowl), Washington State (Cheez-It Bowl)
SEC (9 teams): Alabama (Citrus Bowl), Auburn (Outback Bowl), Florida (Cotton Bowl), Georgia (Sugar Bowl), Kentucky (Music City Bowl), LSU (Fiesta Bowl), Mississippi State (Gator Bowl), Tennessee (Belk Bowl), Texas A&M (Texas Bowl)
Sun Belt (5 teams): Appalachian State (New Orleans Bowl), Arkansas State (LendingTree Bowl), Georgia Southern (Camellia Bowl), Georgia State (Cure Bowl), Louisiana (Arizona Bowl)
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.