Way-Too-Early Predictions for the New Year's Six Bowls
With Oklahoma losing to Kansas State and LSU losing to Mississippi State in Week 4, we can already just about rule out a repeat of last year's College Football Playoff schedule.
Heck, we don't even have Oklahoma or LSU projected for a New Year's Six bowl any longer.
However, one of the semifinals might be exactly the same, and there's a good chance the SEC champion and Big 12 champion—albeit different teams from last year—will meet again in the other semifinal.
We are expecting all 41 originally scheduled bowl games to eventually take place now that all 10 FBS conferences have plans to play this fall. Once we know the new dates for those games, we will likely expand this piece to project all the bowl games.
Be gentle on us when that time comes, though. With no win minimum for bowl eligibility this year, it's going to be complete anarchy.
Until then, we'll strictly keep our focus where most of the national attention always goes: College Football Playoff and the rest of the New Year's Six bowls.
It's important to keep in mind that these are projections for what things will look like by the end of the season, rather than what the field would look like if the season ended today. With apologies to Florida and Georgia—the current No. 3 and No. 4 teams in the AP poll—we have the current No. 6 and No. 9 teams reaching the CFP semifinals instead.
With the Rose Bowl (usually Big Ten vs. Pac-12) and Sugar Bowl (usually Big 12 vs. SEC) getting the CFP semifinals this year, it's almost a free-for-all in the New Year's Six. The only game with a specific conference affiliation is the Orange Bowl, which will include the top non-CFP ACC team. Beyond that, projected rankings and geography reign supreme.
Teams that just missed the cut: Mississippi State, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Wisconsin
Cotton Bowl (Dec. 30): Notre Dame vs. Penn State
Did you know Notre Dame and Penn State have only played each other twice since 1992, and that they haven't met in a bowl game since the 1976 Gator Bowl?
These are two of the seven winningest programs in college football history, but they sure have avoided each other since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten.
If that next meeting finally happens in the Cotton Bowl, it could be an amazing showdown.
Notre Dame's run game has been stout in its first two games, and it's only a matter of time before senior quarterback Ian Book starts taking over some contests with his arm. Penn State should also have one of the best rushing attacks in the nation once it takes the field, and quarterback Sean Clifford could be a late addition to the Heisman race if he plays like he did for the first eight games of last season—20 passing touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns, three interceptions, 276.4 passing/rushing yards per game.
Each of these teams also has a huge opportunity to upset the apple cart.
Penn State will host Ohio State on Oct. 31 in what will be the second game of the season for both squads. The following weekend, Notre Dame hosts No. 1 Clemson.
Odds are the Fighting Irish will face the Tigers a second time in the ACC Championship regardless of what happens on Nov. 7, but that Nittany Lions-Buckeyes game will likely determine which side gets to play for the Big Ten title.
While it's always fun to make these early projections, the NY6 bowl picture won't really start to take shape until those two games are played.
Peach Bowl (Jan. 1): Georgia vs. UCF
UCF defeated Auburn in the Peach Bowl at the end of the 2017 season. The Knights gave LSU a run for its money in the Fiesta Bowl the following year. Now it'll be Georgia's turn to deal with the best Group of Five team of the past few years.
UCF will certainly be challenged for this spot, though.
Within the AAC, Cincinnati already looks quite formidable, and while Memphis has only played one game thus far, the Tigers will be relevant with Brady White back at quarterback for what feels like his 17th season of college football. UCF plays at Memphis in mid-October and hosts Cincinnati in late November before likely facing one of those teams again in the AAC Championship Game.
Outside of the AAC, Conference USA's Marshall is undefeated with an impressive win over then-ranked Appalachian State, the Sun Belt's Louisiana is 3-0 with a quality road win over Iowa State, and you have to figure the Mountain West's Boise State will be a factor, per usual, once that league gets rolling.
But UCF's offense is so potent that it shouldn't matter. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel opened the season by throwing for at least 400 yards and four touchdowns in blowout road wins over Georgia Tech and East Carolina. Tulsa's defense will provide a stiffer test this weekend, but still expect an easy win for the Knights.
Georgia is in the opposite boat after one game—a 37-10 victory over Arkansas in which the Bulldogs were trailing midway through the third quarter. The SEC East co-favorite is going to have one of the best defenses in the country, but they are still figuring things out on offense, particularly at quarterback.
USC transfer JT Daniels has been medically cleared to play, but does that mean he starts this week against Auburn? Is Kirby Smart going to put his faith in Stetson Bennett—after adding Daniels and Jamie Newman as graduate transfers this offseason because of his lack of faith in Bennett? Or does D'Wan Mathis get another crack at the starting job despite an awful debut against Arkansas?
Mum's the word for now, but we cannot in good faith project Georgia to reach the playoff with this much uncertainty at quarterback in advance of five consecutive games against Auburn, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and Florida.
Orange Bowl (Jan. 2): Miami vs. Florida
It's not often that both Miami and Florida are good at college football at the same time.
The Hurricanes and Gators were both ranked at the end of the 2016 season, but they each went 9-4 and finished outside the Top 10. Still, that was the only time in the past decade that both Florida schools ended the year in the AP Top 25.
This year could be a much different story, though, with Florida currently sitting at No. 3 and Miami at No. 8 in the AP poll and with both sides boasting quarterbacks who feature prominently in the early Heisman conversation.
Either one of these teams could reach the College Football Playoff, but they're likely going to need to bypass a juggernaut in their conference to do so. Miami plays at Clemson in two weeks, and Florida would presumably need to defeat Alabama in the SEC Championship. Both teams have some red flags on defense that will likely prevent those upsets from happening, but there's a good chance both D'Eriq King and Kyle Trask play in the New Year's Six.
And with the exception of the Rose Bowl—aka the College Football Playoff semifinal that will most likely put the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds against each other—and the national championship, an Orange Bowl between Miami and Florida would be an obvious choice for the top spot in any "bowl game watch-ability" rankings.
For starters, it'd be a home game for Miami. Home-field advantage simply isn't a thing in much of the country right now, but Hard Rock Stadium is already allowing 20 percent capacity. Three months from now, who knows, that venue might be rocking.
But if fans are allowed at the game, you better believe Gator Nation will be making the five-hour drive from Gainesville to Miami.
If this matchup does transpire, let's all hope it's more entertaining than the 2019 season opener in which the Hurricanes and Gators combined for 225 penalty yards, five turnovers and a whole bunch of sacks.
Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 2): Auburn vs. Oregon
I have no clue what to make of Oregon, and that will remain the case until the Pac-12 begins playing in early October.
Before the pandemic, the Ducks felt like a top-10 team and a clear favorite to win the conference. But they haven't had much of an opportunity to decide whether Tyler Shough or Boston College transfer Anthony Brown should replace Justin Herbert as starting quarterback. And, even more noteworthy, All-American left tackle Penei Sewell and starting defensive backs Jevon Holland, Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir have all opted out of the 2020 season.
There's still time for them to try to opt back in, but considering Holland made his decision after the Pac-12 announced it's coming back, that seems unlikely.
Without those four guys, perhaps USC emerges as the best team in the Pac-12. Regardless, don't expect the Pac-12 champion to make a legitimate push for the College Football Playoff. Oregon is the only team from the league currently in the AP Top 25, and a seven-game schedule isn't going to provide much of an opportunity to change that. Still, the Pac-12 has to send someone to the New Year's Six, and Oregon is the obvious choice for now.
Oregon's projected Fiesta Bowl opponent has a massive road game against Georgia this weekend. If Auburn wins that one—which it absolutely could—it should at least survive until Halloween before suffering a loss, as its next three games are against Arkansas, South Carolina and Ole Miss.
The second half of the season will likely keep the Tigers out of the playoff, though. Five straight against LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Alabama and Texas A&M is quite the gauntlet. And even if they go 4-1 but lose the Iron Bowl, that would probably keep them from playing in the SEC Championship.
That said, this Auburn team already looks the part of a contender. But it better improve in the run game if it expects to finish 8-2 or better.
CFP Semifinal Rose Bowl (Jan. 1): No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State
A rematch of last year's instant classic?
Please and thank you.
In case it has slipped your mind, in last year's CFP semifinal (Fiesta Bowl), Ohio State jumped out to a 16-0 lead before delivering what appeared to be the knockout blow with a huge, drive-ending hit on Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence. However, one of Ohio State's best defenders (Shaun Wade) was ejected for targeting on the play, which kept the drive alive for a touchdown and which opened the door for the Tigers to come back for a 29-23 victory.
Ohio State fans would kindly request a different officiating crew if they do run this one back in a few months, but it would be fantastic to get an encore meeting here.
We won't get to see the Buckeyes for another few weeks, but they should be great once they take the field. They're going to look a lot different after losing 10 draft picks in April, but let's just say they have more returning starters than LSU, starting with Heisman candidate quarterback Justin Fields. If Fields is anywhere close to as good as he was last year, Ohio State should run the table.
Same goes for Clemson, which already looks every bit as dominant as last season. Lawrence remains a star at quarterback, as does Travis Etienne at running back. And the wide receiver transition from Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross to Amari Rodgers and Frank Ladson Jr. has been seamless. Once the defense starts forcing turnovers at its usual rate, the Tigers should cruise through most of their schedule without much resistance.
Everyone has been circling Oct. 10 for the Miami at Clemson game, because it's an opportunity for "The U" to show that it's back. Most likely, it's just going to serve as a reminder that Clemson isn't abdicating its ACC throne anytime soon.
CFP Semifinal Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1): No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Texas
Do I actually believe Texas is the fourth-best team in the country?
I, too, watched that 63-56 disastrous performance against Texas Tech and had vivid flashbacks to early-season debacles against Maryland in recent years. (The good news is that barely winning at least one game in which no defense was played didn't stop Oklahoma from reaching the playoff for the past three years.)
But with Oklahoma's loss to Kansas State and with Oklahoma State struggling on offense in each of its first two games, the Longhorns are the de facto favorite to win the Big 12. That may well change when they face Oklahoma on Oct. 10. Or, given the way things have gone thus far in the Big 12, it might change this weekend if the Longhorns lose at home to TCU. But for the time being, Texas is in the driver's seat...of a bus that is on fire.
The Big 12 champion is not guaranteed a spot in the Playoff, though. Texas better go at least 10-1 (including the Big 12 title game) if it expects to ward off the second-best SEC team, an 8-1 Big Ten runner-up and an undefeated Pac-12 champion for this final spot. "Big 12 champion" will carry a lot of weight with the CFP selection committee, though, even in a down year for the league as a whole.
As far as the race for the No. 1 seed is concerned, there's no question that an undefeated Alabama would rank ahead of an undefeated Clemson in the final standings. Even with Miami and Pittsburgh looking like much bigger tests on Clemson's schedule than we initially thought, Alabama will need to get through six currently ranked teams, plus a likely showdown with Florida in the SEC Championship Game.
Even if Alabama were to drop a game against a Georgia or an Auburn while Clemson goes undefeated, there's still a reasonable chance the Crimson Tide snags the No. 1 seed by virtue of style points against a brutal schedule.
Just like last season, the battle for No. 1 is probably going to be a bigger deal than the battle for No. 4, considering only three of the Power Five leagues have what appears to be a legitimate threat to win the national championship.