College Football Playoff Projections: Week 15 Rankings and Bowl Forecast
As we enter the home stretch of the 2020 college football season, we have yet another week in which next to nothing changed atop the College Football Playoff Top 25.
No team ranked in last week's Top 12 suffered a loss, and the majority of them didn't even face a challenge. Auburn pushed Texas A&M for three quarters, but the Aggies eventually won by double figures. Clemson was also in some danger late into the third quarter of its game at Virginia Tech, but the Tigers destroyed the Hokies over the final 20 minutes of a 45-10 win.
As a result, our New Year's Six bowls projections are identical to one week ago.
There was carnage in the back half of the rankings, though. Highlighted by Coastal Carolina's win over then-No. 13 BYU, six ranked teams bit the dust.
The Chanticleers moved up a bit as a result of that victory, but is it enough for them to play in a marquee bowl?
Are Iowa and North Carolina—at Nos. 16 and 17, respectively—suddenly in the hunt for a New Year's Six bowl, as well?
And is it too late for undefeated No. 15 USC to crash the playoff party?
Our guesses at answers to those questions are, in order: not yet, maybe if they win their big games this week and probably not. But there's plenty still up in the air even though time is running out.
One more note before we dive in: While there is no wins requirement for bowl eligibility this year, I've instituted a personal rule that teams with a winning percentage below .300 will not be included. The exception to that rule is 2-6 Tennessee, but the Volunteers have a game remaining against winless Vanderbilt that will presumably get them to at least a .300 winning percentage.
Bowls are broken into six tiers in ascending order of magnitude.
Group of Five Bowls
Frisco (Dec. 19): UTSA (7-4) vs. Fresno State (3-2)
Myrtle Beach (Dec. 21): Georgia Southern (7-4) vs. Kent State (3-1)
Famous Idaho Potato (Dec. 22): Central Michigan (3-2) vs. San Jose State (5-0)
Boca Raton (Dec. 22): Florida Atlantic (5-2) vs. UCF (6-3)
New Orleans (Dec. 23): Coastal Carolina (10-0) vs. Marshall (7-1)
Montgomery (Dec. 23): San Diego State (4-3) vs. UAB (4-3)
New Mexico (Dec. 24): Nevada (6-1) vs. Louisiana Tech (5-3)
Camellia (Dec. 25): Louisiana (9-1) vs. Western Michigan (4-1)
Cure (Dec. 26): Ohio (2-1) vs. Georgia State (5-4)
LendingTree (Dec. 26): Appalachian State (7-3) vs. Buffalo (4-0)
Arizona (Dec. 31): Boise State (4-1) vs. Ball State (4-1)
The million dollar question for this tier is: How high can Coastal Carolina climb?
After winning the incredible, scheduled-at-the-last-minute 9-0 vs. 9-0 showdown with BYU, the Chanticleers jumped five spots in the CFP rankings from No. 18 to No. 13. However, as long as Cincinnati can defeat Tulsa in the AAC Championship Game, the eighth-ranked Bearcats have effectively locked up the New Year's Six spot that goes to the highest-ranked Group of Five champion.
If the Chanticleers are going to be selected for one of those marquee bowls, they will need to climb a bit higher. But while beating one-loss No. 19 Louisiana for a second time in the Sun Belt Championship Game would be impressive, Coastal Carolina will almost certainly need external help to make that climb.
Either No. 12 Indiana or No. 14 Northwestern should fall by the wayside, as the Big Ten Championship Game will either be Ohio State vs. Northwestern (if the Big Ten decides to waive the the minimum games requirement for Ohio State) or Indiana vs. Northwestern. The former would likely result in a Northwestern loss, while the latter would guarantee that one of those teams loses—albeit while basically guaranteeing that the winner finishes ahead of Coastal.
There's also No. 7 Iowa State vs. No. 11 Oklahoma for the Big 12 Championship Game, in which the loser will acquire its third loss of the season. One would hope an undefeated Coastal Carolina would slide ahead of that team, but you never know.
If USC wins out, it would likely bypass the Chanticleers, leaving them at No. 13. But even if USC doesn't win out and Coastal Carolina ends up at No. 12, the Pac-12 still has to put someone into the New Year's Six, which would mean only the top 11 teams get in.
So the Chanticleers need an upset somewhere.
The list of candidates pretty much boils down to No. 9 Georgia at Missouri or No. 12 Indiana either against Purdue this weekend or against Iowa or Wisconsin next weekend—provided the Hoosiers aren't playing for the Big Ten championship instead.
And, friend, it would be an amazing story if Eli Drinkwitz—who was Appalachian State's head coach last season—led Missouri to an improbable win over Georgia to pave the way for a Sun Belt team to play in the Peach Bowl.
Power Five vs. Group of Five Bowls
Gasparilla (Dec. 26): Liberty* (9-1) vs. Tulane (6-5)
First Responder (Dec. 26): BYU^ (9-1) vs. Tulsa (6-1)
Independence (Dec. 26): Army (7-2) vs. UCLA (3-2)
Military (Dec. 28): SMU (7-3) vs. Boston College (6-5)
Birmingham (Jan. 1): Memphis (6-3) vs. Wake Forest (4-3)
*Liberty takes an ACC/SEC spot in the Gasparilla Bowl
^BYU takes an ACC/Big 12 spot in the First Responder Bowl
With neither BYU nor Liberty contractually tied to any bowl game, it's plausible that neither receives an invitation. But we're choosing to believe that, at the very least, some of these lower-tier games will throw a bone their way in lieu of awarding a spot to, say, 4-6 Kansas State or 2-6 Mississippi State. It would be fun if one bowl—perhaps the previous tier's Montgomery Bowl, which is not affiliated with any conferences—opts to have BYU and Liberty face each other. (Although, BYU would probably win that game by several touchdowns.)
But I want to discuss the job Chip Kelly has done with UCLA.
It certainly wasn't the overnight rebuilding project that some people were expecting, but in his third year with the Bruins, Kelly has this team looking like one of the best in the Pac-12.
They're only 3-2, but in the loss at Colorado to open the season, they darn near stormed back from an early 35-7 deficit. And in the loss at Oregon, they had a chance to win in the closing seconds, despite being forced to play that entire game with backup quarterback Chase Griffin. The Bruins also crushed California and Arizona and just picked up an impressive road win over Arizona State.
They have no chance of playing for the Pac-12 championship, but they could have a say in who does, as they host USC on Saturday. If they can upset the Trojans, it would likely be Colorado against the Oregon-Washington winner for the Pac-12's spot in the New Year's Six.
UCLA probably needs to upset USC to play in a bowl game this year, though, as Monday's cancellation of the Los Angeles Bowl brings the Pac-12 down to just four: Alamo, Armed Forces, Independence and a TBD New Year's Six Bowl. Undefeated Colorado and USC are pretty much locks for bowls, as is the winner of this weekend's Washington-Oregon clash. But if the Bruins can beat the Trojans, I believe they'll go to a bowl game instead of the Washington-Oregon loser.
And in the AAC, it's time to find out just how good Tulsa is. The Golden Hurricane have won six consecutive games since beginning the year with a hard-fought loss at Oklahoma State, but they end the season against CFP hopeful Cincinnati. It would be quite the eleventh hour curveball for the New Year's Six picture if Tulsa could win the AAC championship.
Power Five Bowls That Could Be Fun
Guaranteed Rate (Dec. 26): Texas (6-3) vs. Wisconsin (2-2)
Cheez-It (Dec. 29): West Virginia (5-4) vs. Virginia (5-4)
Duke's Mayo (Dec. 30): NC State (8-3) vs. Maryland (2-2)
Music City (Dec. 30): Kentucky (4-6) vs. Minnesota (2-3)
Liberty (Dec. 31): Arkansas (3-6) vs. Oklahoma State (6-3)
Texas (Dec. 31): TCU (5-4) vs. Tennessee (2-6)
If these are the actual pairings, go ahead and move the Guaranteed Rate Bowl up a tier to the "Top Non-New Year's Six Bowls," because Texas vs. Wisconsin would be one heck of an entertaining matchup.
Wisconsin's offense was all sorts of bad in recent losses to Northwestern and Indiana, but the Badgers have one of the nation's stingiest defenses, per usual. And then there's Texas, which just scored 69 points against Kansas State and could do the same against Kansas this coming week if it so chooses. This would be an intriguing final collegiate test for Texas QB Sam Ehlinger—assuming he leaves for the NFL draft rather than coming back for a fifth season.
The Cheez-It Bowl would also be a good one, though you might be surprised by the lack of a rivalry between those neighboring states. Virginia and West Virginia have only met once in the past 35 years. But Bronco Mendenhall's Cavaliers offense against Neal Brown's Mountaineers defense would be a good battle.
That game would likely also determine which school gets to boast a winning record for the year. They're both 5-4, but West Virginia ends the regular season against Oklahoma, while UVA has a tough road game against Virginia Tech, where it has lost 10 consecutive times.
But I'll be curious to see what happens with the Big Ten's spots in the Duke's Mayo and Music City Bowls. Based on current and projected records, Maryland and Minnesota are the most deserving. With no wins requirement for bowl eligibility, though, will those games be awarded to the bigger brand names of Michigan and Penn State, despite their sub-.500 records?
Penn State could make a compelling argument if it continues its recent success. The Nittany Lions have won two straight against Michigan and Rutgers, and they should improve to 3-5 against Michigan State this coming weekend. And regardless of whether they draw Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska or Purdue in the Big Ten's final crossover weekend, the Nittany Lions would likely be favored in that one too.
If they finish 4-5, they'll probably get to play a 10th game. For now, though, we're keeping Penn State out of the projected bowl picture.
Top Non-New Year's Six Bowls
Alamo (Dec. 29): Oklahoma (7-2) vs. Colorado (4-0)
Armed Forces (Dec. 31): Oregon (3-2) vs. LSU (3-5)
Citrus (Jan. 1): Auburn (5-4) vs. Iowa (5-2)
Gator (Jan. 2): Ole Miss (4-4) vs. North Carolina (7-3)
Outback (Jan. 2): Missouri (5-3) vs. Northwestern (5-1)
Every week, someone complains about LSU's inclusion in a "Top Non-New Year's Six Bowl," and those complaints will probably be even louder than usual after the Tigers fell to 3-5 while allowing 45 first-half points against Alabama.
And, believe me, I hear you. This LSU team has been a colossal disappointment and doesn't deserve to play in a high-profile bowl game.
Here's the problem, though: There are four SEC games on this tier, and there are four SEC teams projected for the New Year's Six. That means unless Georgia suffers a loss and drops out of the NY6 picture or unless the selection committee for one of these bowls goes with a team like BYU or Liberty instead, the eighth-best team in the SEC will be in one of these games.
Moreover, LSU is one of the biggest brand names in the conference. Even if the Tigers end up in ninth or 10th place in the final standings, there's little doubt that Kentucky and/or Arkansas would get bypassed in order to make a more compelling game. Because, let's be frank, Joe Average College Football Fan is far more likely to watch Oregon vs. LSU than Oregon vs. Kentucky.
Speaking of mid-tier SEC teams, though, how about Missouri's improvement to 5-3 with a 50-48 win over Arkansas?
We were all ill-informed, because Drinkwitz has worked immediate magic in Columbia. Missouri's worst-case scenario at this point is a 5-5, third-place finish in the SEC East. But this team should win its regular-season finale against Mississippi State, and it wouldn't be all that shocking if it can win the home game against Georgia this weekend to potentially finish in second place in the division.
If that happens and Drinkwitz isn't named the AP Coach of the Year, we might as well not even have that award anymore.
Non-CFP New Year's Six Bowls
Cotton (Dec. 30): Indiana (6-1) vs. Texas A&M (7-1)
Peach (Jan. 1): Georgia (6-2) vs. Cincinnati (8-0)
Fiesta (Jan. 2): USC (3-0) vs. Iowa State (8-2)
Orange (Jan. 2): Miami (8-1) vs. Florida (8-1)
Every team ranked in the Top 12 of last week's CFP rankings either won or did not play in Week 14, so no changes here.
It will probably be a similar story next week too.
Clemson, Notre Dame and Iowa State are all idle. Ohio State, Texas A&M and Cincinnati had their games canceled. Alabama (at Arkansas) and Florida (vs. LSU) should be heavily favored. Indiana (vs. Purdue) and Georgia (at Missouri) are certainly expected to win their games, but maybe by not as much as the previous group.
That's the Week 15 agenda for 10 of the 12 projected New Year's Six teams.
Miami has a tough game against North Carolina, but the ACC is guaranteed a spot in the Orange Bowl. Even if they lose, the Hurricanes might be in this same position. If not, it'll be North Carolina taking their place. We'll just have to see who ranks higher in the subsequent CFP Top 25.
It's a similar situation for USC playing at UCLA. The Trojans may lose, but we've got to have a Pac-12 team in here somewhere. It might just be Colorado next week instead.
On behalf of the ever-growing Coastal Carolina bandwagon, though, here's hoping for an unexpected shake-up.
College Football Playoff
Rose: No. 2 Ohio State (5-0) vs. No. 3 Clemson (9-1)
Sugar: No. 1 Alabama (9-0) vs. No. 4 Notre Dame (10-0)
National Championship: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 Clemson
All four of these teams scored at least 45 points in Week 14, and none of the four allowed more than 21. That means we enter a sixth consecutive week with this projected playoff picture.
Might as well pencil us in for a seventh week too. Clemson and Notre Dame have the week off to prepare for the ACC championship, Ohio State also unexpectedly has the week off to prepare for whatever game comes next and Alabama (at Arkansas) should have the luxury of resting its starters for most of the second half of a likely blowout.
But what if Notre Dame beats Clemson for a second time in the ACC championship? Could Florida knock off Alabama? And what if Ohio State doesn't even get the chance to play for the Big Ten title?
The latter question has gotten the most attention lately, but it's probably the least important one. Even if the Buckeyes are unable to face Northwestern for the B1G championship, they would still get a chance to improve to 6-0 with a win over either Iowa or Wisconsin.
Provided OSU easily takes care of business against that foe, the selection committee won't care about the lack of a conference championship. That group is tasked with picking the four best teams; not the four best conference champions.
Florida beating Alabama would be the bigger curveball, because Alabama is a mortal lock for the Top Four. In that scenario, it's probably Ohio State at No. 1, ACC champion at No. 2, Alabama and Florida at Nos. 3 and 4, with the order depending on how convincingly Florida wins the game, and the ACC runner-up finishing at No. 5. Good luck explaining to Notre Dame fans how a 6-0 Ohio State team gets the No. 1 seed while the Fighting Irish potentially get left out after a 10-0 start, but it's a legitimate possibility.
The moral of the story here is there hasn't been much CFP drama as of late, but there's plenty of room for things to get messy during championship week.
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 bowls.
American Athletic (6 teams): Cincinnati (Peach Bowl), Memphis (Birmingham Bowl), SMU (Military Bowl), Tulane (Gasparilla Bowl), Tulsa (First Responder Bowl), UCF (Boca Raton Bowl)
Atlantic Coast (8 teams): Boston College (Military Bowl), Clemson (Rose Bowl), Miami (Orange Bowl), NC State (Duke's Mayo Bowl), North Carolina (Gator Bowl), Notre Dame (Sugar Bowl), Virginia (Cheez-It Bowl), Wake Forest (Birmingham Bowl)
Big 12 (6 teams): Iowa State (Fiesta Bowl), Oklahoma (Alamo Bowl), Oklahoma State (Liberty Bowl), TCU (Texas Bowl), Texas (Guaranteed Rate Bowl), West Virginia (Cheez-It Bowl)
Big Ten (7 teams): Indiana (Cotton Bowl), Iowa (Citrus Bowl), Maryland (Duke's Mayo Bowl), Minnesota (Music City Bowl), Northwestern (Outback Bowl), Ohio State (Rose Bowl), Wisconsin (Guaranteed Rate Bowl)
Conference USA (5 teams): Florida Atlantic (Boca Raton Bowl), Louisiana Tech (New Mexico Bowl), Marshall (New Orleans Bowl), UAB (Montgomery Bowl), UTSA (Frisco Bowl)
Independents (3 teams): Army (Independence Bowl), BYU (First Responder Bowl), Liberty (Gasparilla Bowl)
Mid-American (6 teams): Ball State (Arizona Bowl), Buffalo (LendingTree Bowl), Central Michigan (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), Kent State (Myrtle Beach Bowl), Ohio (Cure Bowl), Western Michigan (Camellia Bowl)
Mountain West (5 teams): Boise State (Arizona Bowl), Fresno State (Frisco Bowl), Nevada (New Mexico Bowl), San Diego State (Montgomery Bowl), San Jose State (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl)
Pac-12 (4 teams): Colorado (Alamo Bowl), Oregon (Armed Forces Bowl), UCLA (Independence Bowl), USC (Fiesta Bowl)
Southeastern (11 teams): Alabama (Sugar Bowl), Arkansas (Liberty Bowl), Auburn (Citrus Bowl), Florida (Orange Bowl), Georgia (Peach Bowl), Kentucky (Music City Bowl), LSU (Armed Forces Bowl), Missouri (Outback Bowl), Ole Miss (Gator Bowl), Tennessee (Texas Bowl), Texas A&M (Cotton Bowl)
Sun Belt (5 teams): Appalachian State (LendingTree Bowl), Coastal Carolina (New Orleans Bowl), Georgia Southern (Myrtle Beach Bowl), Georgia State (Cure Bowl), Louisiana (Camellia Bowl)
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.