College Football Playoff Projections: Week 16 Rankings and Bowl Forecast
For well over a month now, it has felt like something of a foregone conclusion that Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Ohio State will play in the College Football Playoff. Those teams were (not surprisingly) ranked in the CFP Top Four when that ranking first debuted on Nov. 24, and there they sit for a fourth consecutive time.
Fun fact, though: In five of the past six years, at least one team dropped out of the Top Four following conference championship weekend.
In 2014, it was TCU falling from No. 3 to No. 6 while the Big 12 did not have a championship game. The following year, Iowa slipped from No. 4 to No. 5 after losing the Big Ten championship. In 2017, both Wisconsin (No. 4 to No. 6) and Auburn (No. 2 to No. 7) dropped out of the playoff picture after losing their championship games.
And in each of the past two years, Georgia was replaced by Oklahoma in the Top Four when the former lost the SEC championship and the latter won the Big 12 championship.
So don't go chiseling those CFP semifinal previews into stone just yet. There has been quite a precedent set for last-minute changes.
Outside the Top Four, UNC climbed up to No. 15 after its 62-26 victory over Miami. More importantly, that result sent the Hurricanes plummeting to No. 18. That's a critical order for the Orange Bowl, as North Carolina would now take the ACC's spot in that New Year's Six bowl if Clemson and Notre Dame both make the playoff.
Coastal Carolina also climbed a bit to No. 12, but that's not as promising as it seems, since No. 13 USC and No. 15 North Carolina are in line for New Year's Six bowls before the Chanticleers. There's still a chance, but they need help.
Iowa State and Florida flip-flopped at Nos. 6 and 7, respectively, after the Gators lost to LSU. It wasn't as bad of a loss as many were expecting, and it certainly suggests Florida still has a good chance of making the CFP if it happens to upset Alabama in the SEC championship.
And say hello to undefeated San Jose State at No. 24. The Spartans still need to beat Boise State in order to finish the fight, but who could have guessed two months ago that SJSU would be the only Mountain West team to appear in the penultimate CFP rankings?
With that, let's dive into the latest bowl projections.
Noteworthy Assumptions/Projections for Championship Week
It's always important to note that these bowl pairings are projections for what will happen at the end of the season, not necessarily for what would happen if contracts had to be signed today. And now that there's only one weekend remaining, we might as well take a moment to explicitly lay out the assumptions being made for this final slate of games.
ACC Championship: Clemson over Notre Dame
Big 12 Championship: Oklahoma over Iowa State
Big Ten Championship: Ohio State over Northwestern
Pac-12 Championship: USC over Oregon
SEC Championship: Alabama over Florida
AAC Championship: Cincinnati over Tulsa
Sun Belt Championship: Coastal Carolina over Louisiana
MWC Championship: Boise State over San Jose State
MAC Championship: Buffalo over Ball State
CUSA Championship: Marshall over UAB
Non-championship games with potential bowl implications: Texas A&M over Tennessee, Iowa over Michigan, Indiana over Purdue, Minnesota over Wisconsin and Penn State over Illinois
That's 15 games that either definitely would or easily could impact our bowl picture if they go in the opposite direction.
Group of Five and Lower-Tier Power Five Bowls
Frisco (Dec. 19): SMU (7-3) vs. UTSA (7-4) [Canceled due to COVID outbreak on SMU roster]
Myrtle Beach (Dec. 21): North Texas (4-5) vs. Appalachian State (8-3)
Boca Raton (Dec. 22): UCF (6-3) vs. BYU (10-1)
Famous Idaho Potato (Dec. 22): Nevada (6-2) vs. Tulane (6-5)
New Orleans (Dec. 23): Louisiana Tech (5-4) vs. Georgia Southern (7-5)
Montgomery (Dec. 23): Memphis (7-3) vs. Florida Atlantic (5-3)
New Mexico (Dec. 24): Houston (3-4) vs. Hawaii (4-4)
Camellia (Dec. 25): Louisiana (9-1) vs. Ball State (5-1)
Independence (Dec. 26): Army (8-2) vs. Colorado (4-1)
First Responder (Dec. 26): UTSA (7-4) vs. Western Michigan (4-2)
Gasparilla (Dec. 26): Toledo (4-2) vs. San Jose State (6-0)
LendingTree (Dec. 26): Western Kentucky (5-6) vs. Georgia State (5-4)
Cure (Dec. 26): Coastal Carolina (11-0) vs. Marshall (7-1)
Military (Dec. 28): UAB (5-3) vs. Liberty (9-1)
Arizona (Dec. 31): Buffalo (5-0) vs. Boise State (5-1)
Birmingham (Jan. 1): Tulsa (6-1) vs. Virginia Tech (5-6)
This used to be two separate tiers. However, with bowls getting canceled seemingly every few days and teams opting out or self-imposing one-year postseason bans, things have gotten so convoluted in the bottom half of the bowl picture that it just makes sense to lump them all together.
Here's what we think we know about this tier, based primarily upon checking the Twitter feed of Stadium's Brett McMurphy multiple times per day for the past two months. (Bless his heart for summing up most of it in one tweet Monday morning.)
- Per McMurphy, the Boca Raton, Famous Idaho Potato, LendingTree, Montgomery, Myrtle Beach, New Mexico and New Orleans Bowls have all set their matchups.
- UTSA was supposed to face SMU in the Frisco Bowl, but that was canceled and UTSA is now playing in the First Responder Bowl.
- McMurphy had also previously reported on the AAC's bowl lineup, revealing that (assuming Cincinnati wins the conference championship and locks up a New Year's Six spot) Tulsa will play in the Birmingham Bowl. (He also had Navy in the Military Bowl in that report but later said the 3-7 Midshipmen are now not expected to play in a bowl game.)
- After the LA Bowl was canceled, it was reported that the Mountain West champion will play in the Arizona Bowl. (We're making an assumption that the MAC champion will also go to the Arizona Bowl, but that has never been announced.)
- Army will play in the Independence Bowl against a Pac-12 team, as has been the plan since October.
In all, that's 17 of the 30 teams from this tier already reportedly locked into a bowl. And based on this information, it sure seems like the Mid-American Conference is going to be getting the proverbial shaft.
The bowl-affiliation information I've had in my spreadsheet for months had the MAC definitely going to both the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (vs. Mountain West) and LendingTree Bowl (vs. Sun Belt), and possibly going to the Boca Raton Bowl, Frisco Bowl, Montgomery Bowl and Myrtle Beach Bowl. Instead, it was left out of all six of those bowls while Hawaii, Houston, North Texas and Western Kentucky all got in with .500 or worse records.
I was able to cobble together spots for the four MAC teams that won at least four games, but that was it. Even that was tough considering there are only 13 spots available, one of those (Independence) is going to the Pac-12, another (Birmingham) is supposed to go to the ACC and the collection of Boise State, San Jose State, Coastal Carolina, Louisiana, Marshall and UAB is certain to take six of the others.
Throw in Liberty presumably getting an invitation somewhere and options are scarce for the MAC.
Power Five Bowls That Could Be Fun
Guaranteed Rate (Dec. 26): Northwestern (6-1) vs. West Virginia (5-4)
Music City (Dec. 30): Minnesota (3-3) vs. Mississippi State (2-7)
Duke's Mayo (Dec. 30): Wake Forest (4-4) vs. Penn State (3-5)
Liberty (Dec. 31): Arkansas (3-7) vs. Kansas State (4-6)
Texas (Dec. 31): TCU (6-4) vs. Tennessee (3-6)
Let's be sure to put some emphasis on could be fun because there's a whole lot of "how in the world is that awful team going to play in any bowl game?!" going on here.
Arkansas, Mississippi State and Tennessee are in with awful records because A) the SEC played no nonconference games, B) the SEC is tied to a bunch of bowl games, C) the SEC is probably going to send four teams to the New Year's Six and D) LSU self-imposed a postseason ban. Maybe one or several of them will decide not to play in a bowl game, but this is where we currently stand.
At least winless Vanderbilt isn't in a bowl game?
It's a similar story in the Big Ten, even though (spoiler alert) Ohio State is the only team from that conference in our projected New Year's Six.
The league only has four teams with winning records, but it is tied to at least six bowl games. That's how you end up with 3-3 Minnesota and 3-5 Penn State here. But at least the Nittany Lions have won three straight and should defeat Illinois this weekend. (If 2-3 Wisconsin beats Minnesota this weekend, it would likely replace the Golden Gophers in the Music City Bowl.)
But the Big Ten is also responsible for the exception to the rule with 6-1 Northwestern all the way down here.
To that end, we're expecting Ohio State to comfortably defeat the Wildcats in the Big Ten championship, which—despite winning their division—would likely bump them behind both Indiana and Iowa into fourth place in the Big Ten's bowl pecking order. And due to a couple of bowls getting canceled, all the Big Ten has left above this tier is the Citrus Bowl, the Outback Bowl and the league champion's spot in the New Year's Six.
If I'm wrong about the NY6 and Indiana ends up sneaking in, then Northwestern would move up to the Outback Bowl. Catch-22: That means another sub-.500 Big Ten team (Rutgers if it beats Nebraska and improves to 4-5?) would move into the bowl mix.
Top Non-New Year's Six Bowls
Cheez-It (Dec. 29): Miami (8-2) vs. Oklahoma State (7-3)
Alamo (Dec. 29): Texas (6-3) vs. Washington (3-1)
Armed Forces (Dec. 31): Oregon (3-2) vs. Kentucky (4-6)
Citrus (Jan. 1): Iowa (6-2) vs. Auburn (6-4)
Outback (Jan. 2): Indiana (6-1) vs. Missouri (5-4)
Gator (Jan. 2): NC State (8-3) vs. Ole Miss (4-4)
The gap between the haves and the have-nots in the SEC makes this tier a little less exciting than in most years. It's rather telling that Auburn has the best record of the four SEC teams here, and it just fired its head coach because it was yet another underwhelming year for the Tigers.
Having said that, the Cheez-It Bowl and Alamo Bowl could be awesome.
Miami vs. Oklahoma State would be a great battle between a stout Hurricanes offense and a relatively stingy Cowboys defense. D'Eriq King hasn't faced many stiff challenges in the ACC this year, but this could be a pivotal game in determining if he's ready for the NFL or if the 23-year-old will return for one more season in college.
A similar situation is brewing for Sam Ehlinger and Texas against one of the better teams the Pac-12 has to offer.
The Longhorns quarterback has had impressive performances in bowl games during each of the past two seasons, and he might ride off into the sunset with another such outing. Or maybe he comes back for a fifth season either way. Who knows? It's going to be an absolutely chaotic month or so of figuring out rosters during a year in which all seniors are eligible to return.
And even though the SEC's middle tier leaves something to be desired this year, both Iowa-Auburn and NC State-Ole Miss would be entertaining—albeit very stylistically different—affairs.
Non-CFP New Year's Six Bowls
Cotton (Dec. 30): Iowa State (8-2) vs. Texas A&M (7-1)
Peach (Jan. 1): Cincinnati (8-0) vs. Georgia (7-2)
Fiesta (Jan. 2): Oklahoma (7-2) vs. USC (5-0)
Orange (Jan. 2): North Carolina (8-3) vs. Florida (8-2)
Assuming a top four of Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Ohio State, this tier must include: some ACC team in the Orange Bowl (North Carolina after leapfrogging Miami), the Big 12 champion (Oklahoma), the Pac-12 champion (USC), the highest-ranked Group of Five champion (Cincinnati) and Georgia (unless the Bulldogs inexplicably drop multiple spots without playing a game).
This tier will also almost certainly include Texas A&M unless it suffers an unforgivable loss to Tennessee. But even that probably wouldn't be enough to knock the Aggies out of the Top 12.
That leaves two spots up for grabs, and that leads us to your College Football Playoff selection committee history lesson of the day: Top 10 teams that lose their conference championships typically don't get harshly penalized. In fact, there are only four examples of such a team dropping more than two spots in the final rankings. Those were:
- Arizona falling from No. 7 to No. 10 in 2014 after losing 51-13 to Oregon
- Miami falling from No. 7 to No. 10 in 2017 after losing 38-3 to Clemson
- Auburn falling from No. 2 to No. 7 in 2017 after losing 28-7 to Georgia
- Utah falling from No. 5 to No. 11 in 2019 after losing 37-15 to Oregon
The Auburn one was a bit harsh, though it was the Tigers' third loss of the season. The committee probably just convinced itself it couldn't keep a three-loss non-champion in the top six even though it proclaimed the Tigers the second-best team in the country just one week prior. And with the Pac-12 one last year, they basically just swapped Utah and Oregon in the rankings and called it a day.
The Arizona and Miami examples are the more pertinent ones for today's discussion because even getting destroyed wasn't enough to knock them out of the New Year's Six picture. That means even if Oklahoma easily takes care of business against No. 6 Iowa State in the Big 12 championship, the Cyclones should still hang onto a spot in this tier. (We're anticipating a close game, for what it's worth.)
Florida's situation is a bit more precarious after LSU's upset dropped the Gators from No. 6 to No. 7. As long as they don't get completely embarrassed by Alabama, though, they should remain ranked ahead of the likes of Indiana, Iowa and Coastal Carolina for that final spot.
By the way, if Iowa State loses, Coastal Carolina wins and the Cyclones still end up ranked ahead of the Chanticleers, I'm going to have a conniption. ISU would be 8-3 with one of those losses coming by 17 at home against Louisiana, while CCU would be 12-0 with two wins over Louisiana. I fully expect the selection committee to do something like that, but I don't agree with it in the slightest.
College Football Playoff
Rose: No. 2 Ohio State (5-0) vs. No. 3 Clemson (9-1)
Sugar: No. 1 Alabama (10-0) vs. No. 4 Notre Dame (10-0)
National Championship: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 Clemson
Naturally assuming neither Alabama nor Florida would lose to sub-.500 foes this past weekend, I took an early dive into the possible College Football Playoff scenarios that would result from the eight possible combinations of the ACC, Big Ten and SEC championships.
Florida's loss to LSU changed things slightly, though not as much as you might think.
While a two-loss team has never made it to the CFP before, if Florida finishes 9-2 with an SEC championship, it's going to have an extremely strong case. If Florida wins and either Ohio State or Clemson loses, I'm fairly confident the Gators would vault back into the Top Four.
The biggest change I would make if re-writing that piece today would be Scenario E, which was: Florida, Ohio State and Clemson all win. Before Florida's loss to LSU, my assumption was that Notre Dame would be the hard-luck team finishing at No. 5. Now, my guess is that the Gators would get left out, but it would still be a tough call for the committee.
Of course, we're talking about a scenario in which undefeated offensive juggernaut Alabama loses to a team that has been just plain bad on defense against opponents with competent quarterbacks. Anything's possible in this sport, but we're not too worried about that happening.
Also worth noting from those scenarios: Ohio State is 100 percent in the playoff if it beats Northwestern and 100 percent out if it doesn't. And I would dare say Ohio State is more of a sure thing as Big Ten champion than Alabama is as SEC champion.
The real variable is the ACC championship.
If Clemson wins, this should be your Top Four, albeit possibly with Ohio State and Clemson flipped at Nos. 2 and 3.
If Notre Dame wins, Clemson will almost certainly drop out of the Top Four, likely to be replaced by Texas A&M. Maybe Iowa State could leapfrog the Aggies if it convincingly beats Oklahoma, but I just refuse to believe the selection committee is honestly going to omit a team whose only loss was a road game against Alabama in favor of a team that lost at home by 17 the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns.
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), Houston (New Mexico Bowl), Memphis (Montgomery Bowl), Tulane (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), Tulsa (Birmingham Bowl), UCF (Boca Raton Bowl)
Atlantic Coast (7 teams): Clemson (Rose Bowl), Miami (Cheez-It Bowl), NC State (Gator Bowl), North Carolina (Orange Bowl), Notre Dame (Sugar Bowl), Virginia Tech (Birmingham Bowl), Wake Forest (Duke's Mayo Bowl) [Boston College, Georgia Tech, Pitt and Virginia have opted out of bowl season]
Big 12 (7 teams): Iowa State (Cotton Bowl), Kansas State (Liberty Bowl), Oklahoma (Fiesta Bowl), Oklahoma State (Cheez-It Bowl), TCU (Texas Bowl), Texas (Alamo Bowl), West Virginia (Guaranteed Rate Bowl)
Big Ten (6 teams): Indiana (Outback Bowl), Iowa (Citrus Bowl), Minnesota (Music City Bowl), Northwestern (Guaranteed Rate Bowl), Ohio State (Rose Bowl), Penn State (Duke's Mayo Bowl)
Conference USA (7 teams): Florida Atlantic (Montgomery Bowl), Louisiana Tech (New Orleans Bowl), Marshall (Cure Bowl), North Texas (Myrtle Beach Bowl), UAB (Military Bowl), UTSA (First Responder Bowl), Western Kentucky (LendingTree Bowl)
Independents (3 teams): Army (Independence Bowl), BYU (Boca Raton Bowl), Liberty (Military Bowl)
Mid-American (4 teams): Ball State (Camellia Bowl), Buffalo (Arizona Bowl), Toledo (Gasparilla Bowl), Western Michigan (First Responder Bowl)
Mountain West (4 teams): Boise State (Arizona Bowl), Hawaii (New Mexico Bowl), Nevada (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), San Jose State (Gasparilla Bowl)
Pac-12 (4 teams): Colorado (Independence Bowl), Oregon (Armed Forces Bowl), USC (Fiesta Bowl), Washington (Alamo Bowl) [Stanford has opted out of bowl season]
Southeastern (11 teams): Alabama (Sugar Bowl), Arkansas (Liberty Bowl), Auburn (Citrus Bowl), Florida (Orange Bowl), Georgia (Peach Bowl), Kentucky (Armed Forces Bowl), Mississippi State (Music City Bowl), Missouri (Outback Bowl), Ole Miss (Gator Bowl), Tennessee (Texas Bowl), Texas A&M (Cotton Bowl) [LSU has self-imposed a postseason ban]
Sun Belt (5 teams): Appalachian State (Myrtle Beach Bowl), Coastal Carolina (Cure Bowl), Georgia Southern (New Orleans Bowl), Georgia State (LendingTree Bowl), Louisiana (Camellia Bowl)
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.