College Football Playoff Projections: Week 9 Rankings and Bowl Forecast
It only took one week for the Big Ten to throw a huge wrench into college football bowl projections and rankings.
Now that all the AP Top 25 voters are willing to include Big Ten teams—eight of the 62 had refused to do so until this week—Ohio State jumped from No. 5 to No. 3 following its 52-17 victory over Nebraska. The expectation was that Penn State would enjoy a similar boost from No. 8 to No. 6 after beating Indiana, but the Nittany Lions instead lost that game and plummeted 10 spots to No. 18. So, instead of No. 3 and No. 6, it'll be No. 3 at No. 18 in the most anticipated game of Week 9.
Elsewhere in the rankings, Indiana makes its season debut at No. 17 while both Marshall and Coastal Carolina jumped into the Top 20 at No. 19 and No. 20, respectively, thanks to losses by the likes of Iowa State, SMU, Virginia Tech, Minnesota and NC State. For the Hoosiers, it's their first time in the AP Top 20 in nearly three decades.
Where do those poll climbers find themselves in our latest bowl projections?
One more note before we dive in: While there is no wins requirement for bowl eligibility this year, I'm instituting a personal rule that teams with at least two games played and a winning percentage below .300 will not be included. I will likely make an exception for Penn State next week if the Nittany Lions drop to 0-2 with a loss to Ohio State, but that will generally be the minimum bar for inclusion.
Bowls are broken into six tiers in ascending order of magnitude.
Group of Five Bowls
Arizona: San Diego State (1-0) vs. Toledo (0-0)
Armed Forces: Tulane (2-4) vs. UTEP (3-3)
Boca Raton: Louisiana Tech (3-3) vs. Navy (3-3)
Camellia: Louisiana (4-1) vs. Miami-Ohio (0-0)
Cure: Ball State (0-0) vs. Arkansas State (3-3)
Famous Idaho Potato: Hawaii (1-0) vs. Central Michigan (0-0)
Frisco: UTSA (4-3) vs. Wyoming (0-1)
LendingTree: Appalachian State (3-1) vs. Ohio (0-0)
Myrtle Beach: Georgia Southern (3-2) vs. Tulsa (2-1)
New Mexico: Nevada (1-0) vs. UAB (4-2)
New Orleans: Coastal Carolina (5-0) vs. Marshall (5-0)
Can anyone stop Coastal Carolina?
Despite needing to play without injured starting quarterback Grayson McCall, the Chanticleers defended their way to a 28-14 victory over Georgia Southern. Unable to get anything going with their triple option, the Eagles only scored one offensive touchdown against their undefeated foes.
Coastal Carolina does still need to face both Appalachian State and Liberty, but they'll get both of those teams in Conway, South Carolina. A New Year's Six bowl isn't going to happen unless Cincinnati shoots itself in the foot with at least one loss, but if the Chanticleers were to run the table in just their fourth season at the FBS level, it would be a fantastic story regardless of bowl ceiling.
Marshall is also undefeated and has won each of its five games by a double-digit margin. Hard to imagine that changing any time soon, too, as the Thundering Herd's next two games are against winless Florida International—which just lost to FCS school Jacksonville State—and winless Massachusetts. They likely won't even be challenged again until the projected Conference USA championship game against UAB.
One final note on this tier: Tulsa improved to 2-1 with a 42-13 blowout of South Florida. The Golden Hurricane's first two games were a close loss at No. 11 Oklahoma State and a nice win at No. 11 UCF. We haven't seen enough of this team yet, but Tulsa might be the second-best team in the AAC. It will host SMU in mid-November and Cincinnati in early-December to potentially drive that point home.
Power Five vs. Group of Five Bowls
Birmingham: Liberty* (6-0) vs. SMU (5-1)
First Responder: Houston (2-1) vs. Texas Tech (2-3)
Gasparilla: Louisville (2-4) vs. UCF (3-2)
Independence: Army (6-1) vs. Washington (0-0)
Los Angeles: Boise State (1-0) vs. California (0-0)
Military: Wake Forest (3-2) vs. Memphis (3-1)
Quick Lane: Buffalo (0-0) vs. Northwestern (1-0)
*Liberty takes an SEC spot
How about Northwestern's 2020 season debut?
The Wildcats had one of the most anemic offenses in the nation last year, averaging 4.24 yards per play and 16.3 points per game. During one particularly terrible stretch, they went 14 quarters without scoring a single touchdown.
Against Maryland, though, they were unstoppable, rushing for 325 yards in a 43-3 blowout. It was the first time in more than 50 years that Northwestern defeated a Big Ten opponent by a margin of at least 40 points. If the Wildcats are even half as good as that margin suggests, a 4-0 start to the season is at least within the realm of possibility, as their next three games are against Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue.
The only other noteworthy Week 8 development among teams in this tier was Louisville smashing Florida State 48-16, knocking FSU out of our bowl picture altogether.
The 'Noles shocked North Carolina last week, but it clearly wasn't any sort of turning point for this program. In five games against FBS opponents, Florida State is 1-4 and has been out-gained by at least 125 yards in each contest. This was its third consecutive week allowing at least 550 total yards. The Seminoles might get into a bowl game based on brand name, but they don't deserve it—particularly with both the Fenway Bowl and Holiday Bowl getting canceled in the past week, meaning two fewer spots for the ACC.
Power Five Bowls That Could Be Fun
Cactus: Indiana (1-0) vs. Kansas State (4-1)
Cheez-It: Texas (3-2) vs. Virginia Tech (3-2)
Duke's Mayo: Minnesota (0-1) vs. North Carolina (4-1)
Liberty: Iowa State (3-2) vs. Missouri (2-2)
Music City: Kentucky (2-3) vs. Purdue (1-0)
Pinstripe: Boston College (4-2) vs. Rutgers (1-0)
Sun: Arizona State (0-0) vs. NC State (4-2)
Texas: South Carolina (2-3) vs. West Virginia (3-2)
Rutgers in a bowl game?
Rutgers in a bowl game!
The Scarlet Knights haven't even sniffed bowl eligibility since 2014, but they're off to a 1-0 start after an unexpected road win over Michigan State in which they forced seven turnovers and scored more than twice as many points as they did in any Big Ten game last season.
Is Rutgers actually kind of good or is Michigan State just that bad? It might be both, although my initial impression is that the game said more about the Spartans than the Scarlet Knights.
We'll find out much more about Rutgers this coming Saturday, though, as it hosts No. 17 Indiana—ranked in the AP Top 20 for the first time since 1993 following its upset of Penn State.
Like Rutgers, the Hoosiers were able to put up an impressive amount of points in spite of what was a rather poor overall performance on offense. Rutgers scored 38 points with 276 total yards; Indiana got to 36 points with just 211 total yards. But one of those questionable offenses is going to be 2-0 in a few days. What a time to be alive.
Speaking of bad offense, Kentucky managed a meager 145 total yards in its 20-10 loss to Missouri—slightly worse than its 157-yard game against Mississippi State on Oct. 10. In that previous game, the Wildcats were bailed out by their defense with six interceptions, including a pick six. But Missouri made no such mistakes, sucking the life out of Kentucky with long drives.
Believe it or not, Missouri is now alone in third place in the SEC East with a 2-2 record, as Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee all fell to 2-3 this week. Don't expect it to last long, as the Tigers face Florida and Georgia in their next two games. But it's worth acknowledging that Eliah Drinkwitz has done a fine job in his first year as the head coach of what was expected to be one of the worst teams in the SEC.
Top Non-New Year's Six Bowls
Alamo: Oklahoma (3-2) vs. USC (0-0)
Citrus: Penn State (0-1) vs. LSU (2-2)
Gator: Auburn (3-2) vs. Miami (5-1)
Las Vegas: Arkansas (2-2) vs. Utah (0-0)
Outback: Tennessee (2-3) vs. Wisconsin (1-0)
Was Penn State caught peeking ahead to next week's game against Ohio State? Maybe. They certainly didn't look like a Top 10 team in the first half against Indiana.
Can the Nittany Lions recover from that overtime loss to the Hoosiers and still reach a New Year's Six bowl? Probably not, unless they're able to upset the Buckeyes and/or win at Michigan on Thanksgiving weekend. Even if they go 1-1 in those games, their best-case scenario would be a 7-2 record.
Hard to believe one clock-management gaffe can drop a team from "CFP contender" to "unlikely to partake in the NY6," but such is life for Penn State one week into its season.
At the opposite end of that spectrum, Wisconsin looked pretty darn good in its 45-7 victory over Illinois. Graham Mertz' near-perfect performance at quarterback helped vault the Badgers from No. 14 to No. 9 in the AP Top 25. If we weren't required to put a Pac-12 team in the New Year's Six, Wisconsin would take Oregon's place in that tier. As is, the Badgers are the "Next Man Up" for if and when BYU loses its first game.
The only team in this group all that close behind Wisconsin in that regard is Miami, although the Hurricanes were not impressive this week in a 19-14 home win over Virginia. They're 5-1 overall, but their only win over a team currently boasting a .500 or better record was a home game against Conference USA's UAB more than a month ago. Four of their five remaining games are against teams with winning records, though, and three of those games will be played on the road. November will make or break them.
Non-CFP New Year's Six Bowls
Cotton (Dec. 30): Florida (2-1) vs. Cincinnati (4-0)
Peach (Jan. 1): Georgia (3-1) vs. BYU (6-0)
Fiesta (Jan. 2): Oregon (0-0) vs. Michigan (1-0)
Orange (Jan. 2): Notre Dame (5-0) vs. Texas A&M (3-1)
Cincinnati is quickly emerging as a legitimate College Football Playoff contender, despite its status as a Group of Five team.
The Bearcats were the only team thus far to defeat 6-1 Army, doing so by a 14-point margin back in September. They also just became the only team to beat 5-1 SMU, blowing out the Mustangs 42-13 behind a combined 305 passing and rushing yards and four touchdowns by Desmond Ridder.
In both games, the Cincinnati defense was outstanding. Aside from a first quarter scoop and score off a Ridder fumble, the Bearcats held Army's lethal triple-option offense without a single touchdown. And against an SMU passing attack that ranks among the best in the country, Cincinnati only allowed one touchdown.
As far as the CFP selection committee is concerned, that defense might make Cincinnati more worthy of Top Four consideration than those UCF teams in 2017 and 2018.
The difficulty of the schedule will also help the Bearcats' case. They've already beaten two ranked teams. Memphis is almost ranked (first among others receiving votes) for this week's matchup. UCF may well be ranked again by the time it faces Cincinnati in late November. And the AAC championship should be yet another game against a ranked opponent. Comparatively, UCF faced a combined total of three ranked teams (excluding their bowl games) between the 2017 and 2018 seasons, and they were all home games.
Cincinnati is still going to need a lot of help in the form of carnage in the Power Five leagues. But if the Bearcats keep winning, it's going to be a more difficult decision for the selection committee than it was in recent years.
College Football Playoff
Rose: No. 2 Alabama (5-0) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (1-0)
Sugar: No. 1 Clemson (6-0) vs. No. 4 Oklahoma State (4-0)
National Championship: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 2 Alabama
Demoting Georgia during a bye week and promoting Oklahoma State to the No. 4 seed will likely be a controversial decision. But following another strong defensive effort in the Cowboys' win over a ranked Iowa State squad, it's time to at least consider the possibility of Oklahoma State running the table.
It's still an unlikely scenario, liable to go up in smoke in a few days when the Cowboys host Texas. Or the following Saturday at Kansas State. Or later in November on the road against Oklahoma.
But at least Oklahoma State could go undefeated.
Georgia already has a loss and is likely going to acquire a second one against Alabama in the SEC championship. (Or, if you think the Gators will beat the Bulldogs and win the SEC East, feel free to read that sentence with "Florida" in place of "Georgia.")
Even though Notre Dame was quite impressive in its win over Pittsburgh, the Fighting Irish will probably lose to Clemson on Nov. 7 and again in the ACC championship.
Oklahoma State might not be as good as those two teams, but it doesn't have an individual game anywhere close to that level of difficulty on its remaining schedule.
One other team worth considering after a great Week 8 performance is Michigan. The Wolverines are very likely going to lose at Ohio State in mid-December, but the team that just blew out Minnesota on the road could win home games against Penn State and Wisconsin and enter that huge showdown with a 7-0 record. But let's at least give the Big Ten two or three weeks before we put too much stock in the possibility of multiple playoff teams from that conference.
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 (8 teams): Cincinnati (Cotton Bowl), Houston (First Responder Bowl), Memphis (Military Bowl), Navy (Boca Raton Bowl), SMU (Birmingham Bowl), Tulane (Armed Forces Bowl), Tulsa (Myrtle Beach Bowl), UCF (Gasparilla Bowl)
ACC (9 teams): Boston College (Pinstripe Bowl), Clemson (Sugar Bowl), Louisville (Gasparilla Bowl), Miami (Gator Bowl), NC State (Sun Bowl), North Carolina (Duke's Mayo Bowl), Notre Dame (Orange Bowl), Virginia Tech (Cheez-It Bowl), Wake Forest (Military Bowl)
Big 12 (7 teams): Iowa State (Liberty Bowl), Kansas State (Cactus Bowl), Oklahoma (Alamo Bowl), Oklahoma State (Sugar Bowl), Texas (Cheez-It Bowl), Texas Tech (First Responder Bowl), West Virginia (Texas Bowl)
Big Ten (9 teams): Indiana (Cactus Bowl), Michigan (Fiesta Bowl), Minnesota (Duke's Mayo Bowl), Northwestern (Quick Lane Bowl), Ohio State (Rose Bowl), Penn State (Citrus Bowl), Purdue (Music City Bowl), Rutgers (Pinstripe Bowl), Wisconsin (Outback Bowl)
Conference USA (5 teams): Louisiana Tech (Boca Raton Bowl), Marshall (New Orleans Bowl), UAB (New Mexico Bowl), UTEP (Armed Forces Bowl), UTSA (Frisco Bowl)
Independents (3 teams): Army (Independence Bowl), BYU (Peach Bowl), Liberty (Birmingham Bowl)
Mid-American (6 teams): Ball State (Cure Bowl), Buffalo (Quick Lane Bowl), Central Michigan (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), Miami-Ohio (Camellia Bowl), Ohio (LendingTree Bowl), Toledo (Arizona Bowl)
Mountain West (5 teams): Boise State (Los Angeles Bowl), Hawaii (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), Nevada (New Mexico Bowl), San Diego State (Arizona Bowl), Wyoming (Frisco Bowl)
Pac-12 (6 teams): Arizona State (Sun Bowl), California (Los Angeles Bowl), Oregon (Fiesta Bowl), USC (Alamo Bowl), Utah (Las Vegas Bowl), Washington (Independence Bowl)
SEC (11 teams): Alabama (Rose Bowl), Arkansas (Las Vegas Bowl), Auburn (Gator Bowl), Florida (Cotton Bowl), Georgia (Peach Bowl), Kentucky (Music City Bowl), LSU (Citrus Bowl), Missouri (Liberty Bowl), South Carolina (Texas Bowl), Tennessee (Outback Bowl), Texas A&M (Orange Bowl)
Sun Belt (5 teams): Appalachian State (LendingTree Bowl), Arkansas State (Cure Bowl), Coastal Carolina (New Orleans Bowl), Georgia Southern (Myrtle Beach Bowl), Louisiana (Camellia Bowl)
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.