College Football Playoff Projections: Week 11 Rankings and Bowl Forecast
The first College Football Playoff rankings release of the 2020 season is fast approaching (Nov. 24), but we don't need a selection committee to tell us that, as things currently stand and project, the quartet of teams playing for a national championship will most likely be Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Ohio State.
That is still subject to change, of course, and it hinges on the expectation that Clemson will defeat Notre Dame in the ACC championship. What we think we know with six weeks remaining before Selection Sunday rarely holds up until the bitter end.
Florida and Miami are still lurking as one-loss contenders that could play spoiler. Cincinnati, BYU and Indiana are all undefeated and ranked in the AP Top 10. The Pac-12 may eventually produce a viable candidate. There is much left to be determined.
But the only particularly significant change in the rankings/bowl picture from one week ago was Georgia plummeting to No. 12 in the AP poll and out of the New Year's Six after its 44-28 loss to Florida.
We knew the loser of that game would be eliminated from the playoff conversation, but we didn't think the loser would look completely helpless after opening up a 14-0 lead just four minutes into the game.
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. So bye-bye, Penn State. See you later, Florida State. We've got to make room for teams that actually feel like winning sometimes.
Bowls are broken into six tiers in ascending order of magnitude.
Group of Five Bowls
Frisco (Dec. 19): UTSA (4-4) vs. Fresno State (2-1)
Myrtle Beach (Dec. 21): Georgia Southern (5-2) vs. Kent State (2-0)
Boca Raton (Dec. 22): Florida Atlantic (3-1) vs. Tulane (4-4)
Famous Idaho Potato (Dec. 22): Central Michigan (1-0) vs. San Jose State (3-0)
New Orleans (Dec. 23): Coastal Carolina (7-0) vs. Marshall (6-0)
New Mexico (Dec. 24): Boise State (2-1) vs. UAB (4-3)
Camellia (Dec. 25): Louisiana (6-1) vs. Miami-OH (1-1)
Cure (Dec. 26): Buffalo (2-0) vs. Troy (4-3)
LendingTree (Dec. 26): Appalachian State (5-1) vs. Ohio (1-1)
Arizona (Dec. 31): San Diego State (2-1) vs. Toledo (1-0)
Armed Forces (Dec. 31): Louisiana Tech (4-3) vs. Navy (3-4)
Did you know Coastal Carolina has not allowed a single touchdown in 10 quarters? The Chanticleers offense has been potent all year long, but that sort of dominance by the defense drastically increases the likelihood that they could win remaining games against Troy, Appalachian State and Liberty.
Sadly, there's no way it would be enough for Coastal Carolina to get into the College Football Playoff conversation, but it could absolutely crack the New Year's Six by winning out—even if both Cincinnati and BYU also make that cut. After all, it's not like the Big 12 and Pac-12 are likely to have multiple teams finish the year in the top 12 of the CFP rankings.
Marshall's NY6 case is flimsier because of the overall state of its schedule, but the Thundering Herd did beat Appalachian State earlier this season and have won all six of their games by double digits. They will be heavily favored in each of their remaining four games against Middle Tennessee, Charlotte, Rice and Florida International.
And let's be sure to make note of the other team here with at least three wins and no losses: San Jose State. The Spartans have not posted a winning record since 2012, but they have beaten each of Air Force, New Mexico and San Diego State by a double-digit margin. And they should improve to 4-0 this weekend against UNLV.
Power Five vs. Group of Five Bowls
Montgomery (Dec. 23): Tulsa (3-1) vs. Virginia (2-4)
First Responder (Dec. 26): Houston (2-3) vs. TCU (3-3)
Gasparilla (Dec. 26): Liberty* (7-0) vs. UCF (4-2)
Independence (Dec. 26): Army (6-1) vs. Washington (0-0)
Military (Dec. 28): SMU (7-1) vs. Pittsburgh (4-4)
Los Angeles (Dec. 30): Nevada (3-0) vs. California (0-0)
Birmingham (Jan. 1): Ole Miss (2-4) vs. Memphis (4-2)
*Liberty takes an ACC/SEC spot in the Gasparilla Bowl
I've mostly avoided commentary on Liberty's undefeated season up until this point because I assumed the Flames would get blown out by Virginia Tech.
Now that they have won that game, what exactly is the bowl ceiling for a team that isn't actually affiliated with any bowl? Could Liberty possibly climb all the way up to a New Year's Six bowl if it wins remaining road games against NC State and Coastal Carolina?
Probably not. Not without a significant amount of external help at any rate. But there's certainly something to be said for the job Hugh Freeze has done with that offense in Lynchburg. If the Flames get matched up with an opponent like UCF, Memphis, SMU or Ole Miss, that bowl game would have points aplenty.
Liberty replacing now 2-5 Florida State in the Gasparilla Bowl was one of just two changes in this tier. The other is Nevada taking what had long been Boise State's projected spot in the Los Angeles Bowl.
Who actually represents the Mountain West in that game won't be decided until the conference championship, but after Boise State's 34-point loss to BYU, let's give the edge to the Wolf Pack.
Power Five Bowls That Could Be Fun
Guaranteed Rate (Dec. 26): Michigan (1-2) vs. Texas (5-2)
Cheez-It (Dec. 29): Kansas State (4-3) vs. Wake Forest (4-2)
Pinstripe (Dec. 29): Boston College (5-3) vs. Minnesota (1-2)
Duke's Mayo (Dec. 30): NC State (4-3) vs. Maryland (2-1)
Music City (Dec. 30): Kentucky (2-4) vs. Purdue (2-0)
Liberty (Dec. 31): Iowa State (5-2) vs. Missouri (2-3)
Sun (Dec. 31): Arizona State (0-1) vs. Virginia Tech (4-3)
Texas (Dec. 31): Tennessee (2-4) vs. West Virginia (4-3)
There's just something *chef's kiss* about the idea of Michigan and Texas squaring off in a (by those programs' standards) irrelevant bowl game with a scheduled kickoff of 10:15 p.m. ET on the day after Christmas. It's unlikely that either conference would subject one of its flagship programs to that type of situation, but let's have some fun with the only designed matchup between the Big Ten and Big 12.
Elsewhere, let's welcome Maryland to the bowl conversation.
The Terrapins were expected to be one of the worst Power Five teams this season, and their season-opening 43-3 loss to Northwestern reinforced that notion. But Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa's learning curve was evidently an extremely sharp one as he has thrown for three touchdowns in back-to-back victories, including a stunning road win over Penn State in Week 10.
Maryland is almost certainly going to lose to Ohio State this week, but with home games remaining against Michigan State and Rutgers, there's a good chance of a .500 or better season for the first time since 2014.
Minnesota is also back in the bowl mix after a 27-point win over Illinois. The Golden Gophers defense has been pretty darn awful this season, but the lowly Fighting Illini couldn't even capitalize on that opportunity. Minnesota and Iowa will square off this week, and the loser won't appear in next week's bowl projections.
Top Non-New Year's Six Bowls
Alamo (Dec. 29): Oklahoma (5-2) vs. USC (1-0)
Citrus (Jan. 1): Auburn (4-2) vs. Northwestern (3-0)
Gator (Jan. 2): LSU (2-3) vs. North Carolina (5-2)
Outback (Jan. 2): Georgia (4-2) vs. Wisconsin (1-0)
Las Vegas (Date TBD): Arkansas (3-3) vs. Utah (0-0)
One of the more noteworthy developments of Week 10 was Arkansas erasing a 13-0 halftime deficit against Tennessee with 24 third-quarter points to improve to 3-3. I've been saying for a few weeks that it feels like the Razorbacks are one of the six best teams in the SEC, and now they sit alone in sixth place in the conference standings.
In three games against teams currently ahead of them, they held their own well into the third quarter against Georgia, went on the road and outgained Texas A&M in an 11-point loss and would have won at Auburn were it not for an officiating blunder late in the fourth quarter. They have games remaining against Florida and Alabama to potentially pull off one of those shockers.
Speaking of surprising upstart teams that pitched a second-half shutout for a come-from-behind victory, Northwestern clipped Nebraska to move to 3-0. Coupled with Michigan's loss to Indiana, the Wildcats move up to a projected spot in the Citrus Bowl while booting the Wolverines down a tier.
Northwestern is a force to be reckoned with on defense. It has forced nine turnovers while allowing only three touchdowns. If the Wildcats can defend their way to victories over Purdue and Wisconsin in the next two weeks, they legitimately might carry an 8-0 record into a Big Ten championship matchup with Ohio State. (For a game they might lose by 35 points, but still!)
One other key change in these five games is North Carolina replacing Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl. That spot was a toss-up between those two ACC schools one week ago.
But with the Tar Heels thumping Duke 56-24 while Virginia Tech lost a home game to Liberty, there's no longer a debate. Frankly, UNC should've already won that argument since it won the head-to-head meeting on Oct. 10. I just overreacted to North Carolina's loss to Virginia on Halloween.
Non-CFP New Year's Six Bowls
Cotton (Dec. 30): Indiana (3-0) vs. Cincinnati (6-0)
Peach (Jan. 1): Florida (4-1) vs. BYU (8-0)
Fiesta (Jan. 2): Oregon (1-0) vs. Oklahoma State (5-1)
Orange (Jan. 2): Miami (6-1) vs. Texas A&M (5-1)
With road games remaining against both Ohio State and Wisconsin, I'm still more than a wee bit skeptical that Indiana will be able to finish the season ranked high enough to reach a New Year's Six Bowl.
But following Georgia's less-than-inspiring loss to Florida, the viable options for replacing the Bulldogs in the NY6 were Indiana and Wisconsin.
We might as well ride with the one that has actually played multiple games this season.
To be clear, I'm not trying to give the Hoosiers a backhanded compliment by putting them here with an asterisk. I was admittedly hesitant to believe in them after the first two games, but put them on a neutral field against anyone else in this tier and they'll have a real chance. I would certainly pick the Hoosiers to beat Miami or Oklahoma State.
I'm merely conveying a justifiable concern about their upcoming schedule.
The other seven teams in this tier have a combined total of two remaining games against ranked opponents: Texas A&M at No. 24 Auburn on Dec. 5 and Oklahoma State at No. 18 Oklahoma on Nov. 21. That means Indiana doesn't just have the impossible task of trying to win at Ohio State; it has both the most and second-most difficult remaining games among these teams.
If the Hoosiers lose both contests, they would likely at least slot behind both Georgia and Wisconsin in the CFP rankings. Until that time, though, let's be sure to show some love to the AP No. 10 Indiana Hoosiers.
(Apologies to the other schools for focusing entirely on Indiana here, but nothing else about this tier changed in Week 10 aside from Florida firmly establishing itself as the team that would move up into the playoff picture if one of the top four teams loses a game.)
College Football Playoff
Rose: No. 2 Ohio State (3-0) vs. No. 3 Clemson (7-1)
Sugar: No. 1 Alabama (6-0) vs. No. 4 Notre Dame (7-0)
National Championship: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 Clemson
There were no changes here from one week ago. Alabama didn't play, Ohio State predictably smashed Rutgers, and we had projected Notre Dame to win its home game against less-than-full-strength Clemson. In other words, there were no changes because there were no surprises.
We're also projecting Clemson to win the presumed rematch in Charlotte on Dec. 19 with a healthier roster and that winning a neutral-site conference championship would give the Tigers a leg up on the Fighting Irish. That's why Clemson is one spot ahead of Notre Dame despite losing the double-overtime classic.
Excluding conference championship week, these four teams have a combined total of two remaining games against currently ranked opponents: Ohio State's home game against No. 10 Indiana on Nov. 21 and Alabama's home game against No. 24 Auburn on Nov. 28. The Buckeyes and Crimson Tide will both be favored by a considerable margin in those games.
But if you're wondering who is most likely to slip up between now and mid-December, ESPN's FPI projections say it's Notre Dame—and by a rather significant margin.
After multiplying together the win probabilities of all remaining games, we find that Ohio State has a 76.7 percent chance of not losing before its conference championship. Clemson is at 73.5 percent. Alabama is at 71.1 percent. But Notre Dame is only at 46.8 percent.
The Fighting Irish do have at least a 70 percent chance in each individual outing, but the combination of road games against Boston College, North Carolina and Wake Forest means it's roughly a coin flip whether Notre Dame would reach the ACC title game with an unblemished record.
The good news for Notre Dame is it could still make up for a loss by beating Clemson for a second time. If Ian Book and Co. were to lose to the Tar Heels the day after Thanksgiving, though, it would ensure the ACC only sends one team to the College Football Playoff.
However, unless that loss happens, it's hard to imagine anyone else crashing this top four.
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 (Birmingham Bowl), Navy (Armed Forces Bowl), SMU (Military Bowl), Tulane (Boca Raton Bowl), Tulsa (Montgomery Bowl), UCF (Gasparilla Bowl)
ACC (10 teams): Boston College (Pinstripe Bowl), Clemson (Rose Bowl), Miami (Orange Bowl), NC State (Duke's Mayo Bowl), North Carolina (Gator Bowl), Notre Dame (Sugar Bowl), Pittsburgh (Military Bowl), Virginia (Montgomery Bowl), Virginia Tech (Sun Bowl), Wake Forest (Cheez-It Bowl)
Big 12 (7 teams): Iowa State (Liberty Bowl), Kansas State (Cheez-It Bowl), Oklahoma (Alamo Bowl), Oklahoma State (Fiesta Bowl), TCU (First Responder Bowl), Texas (Guaranteed Rate Bowl), West Virginia (Texas Bowl)
Big Ten (8 teams): Indiana (Cotton Bowl), Maryland (Duke's Mayo Bowl), Michigan (Guaranteed Rate Bowl), Minnesota (Pinstripe Bowl), Northwestern (Citrus Bowl), Ohio State (Rose Bowl), Purdue (Music City Bowl), Wisconsin (Outback Bowl)
Conference USA (5 teams): Florida Atlantic (Boca Raton Bowl), Louisiana Tech (Armed Forces Bowl), Marshall (New Orleans Bowl), UAB (New Mexico Bowl), UTSA (Frisco Bowl)
Independents (3 teams): Army (Independence Bowl), BYU (Peach Bowl), Liberty (Gasparilla Bowl)
Mid-American (6 teams): Buffalo (Cure Bowl), Central Michigan (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), Kent State (Myrtle Beach Bowl), Miami-Ohio (Camellia Bowl), Ohio (LendingTree Bowl), Toledo (Arizona Bowl)
Mountain West (5 teams): Boise State (New Mexico Bowl), Fresno State (Frisco Bowl), Nevada (Los Angeles Bowl), San Diego State (Arizona Bowl), San Jose State (Famous Idaho Potato 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 (Sugar Bowl), Arkansas (Las Vegas Bowl), Auburn (Citrus Bowl), Florida (Peach Bowl), Georgia (Outback Bowl), Kentucky (Music City Bowl), LSU (Gator Bowl), Missouri (Liberty Bowl), Ole Miss (Birmingham Bowl), Tennessee (Texas Bowl), Texas A&M (Orange Bowl)
Sun Belt (5 teams): Appalachian State (LendingTree Bowl), Coastal Carolina (New Orleans Bowl), Georgia Southern (Myrtle Beach Bowl), Louisiana (Camellia Bowl), Troy (Cure Bowl)
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.