Projecting a Hypothetical 12-Team College Football Playoff for 2021-22 Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystAugust 24, 2021

Projecting a Hypothetical 12-Team College Football Playoff for 2021-22 Season

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    Alabama's John Metchie III
    Alabama's John Metchie IIIRon Jenkins/Associated Press

    While the College Football Playoff is still a four-team tournament for the foreseeable future, the proposed 12-team format is likely to be a reality within the next few years. The current CFP contract runs through 2025, and the original belief was that the format would change then, but this whole "Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC" situation might throw a wrench into that timeline.

    For the time being, all we can do is dream about what it will look like when the 12-team format arrives. And using the preseason AP Top 25, that's exactly what we did.

    In the proposal, it's the six highest-ranked conference champions, plus the six highest-ranked at-large teams. The four highest-ranked conference champions receive a bye, while Nos. 5-8 play a first-round home game against teams Nos. 9-12.

    As it turns out, the AP rankings work out perfectly for that proposal, with the six highest-ranked projected conference champions at Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 8 and 11 in the poll.

    So, how would that tournament actually play out?

    Glad you asked. (And hopefully you like a lot of chalk.)

First-Round Game 1: No. 12 Wisconsin Badgers at No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs

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    Georgia's JT Daniels
    Georgia's JT DanielsBrynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Even at No. 12 in the initial AP Top 25 rankings, Wisconsin is being slept on by the majority of voters.

    The Badgers offense had a rough go of it in the middle of their seven-game season, but let's not forget they had a redshirt freshman at quarterback and a true freshman at running back, had to replace several key wide receivers and lost a 2019 unanimous All-American center (Tyler Biadasz), all while trying to navigate a pandemic that caused several of their games to be canceled.

    As troubling as it was to watch them get held to seven points or fewer in three consecutive losses, offensive struggles were to be expected. Wisconsin's offense should be considerably better in 2021, and its always-solid defense figures to rank among the best in the nation. Taking the schedule into consideration, this looks like an 11-win team destined for a date with Ohio State in the Big Ten championship.

    But Wisconsin is not as good as Georgia, which is probably also a little bit undervalued at No. 5 in the preseason polls. If QB JT Daniels is as good for a full season as he was for that four-game audition last fall, this might be the team to beat this season.

    The only major question mark with the Bulldogs is the secondary, where they need to replace just about everybody from last season. But they went out and got Derion Kendrick (Clemson) and Tykee Smith* (West Virginia) from the transfer portal, and they have a star waiting in the wings in redshirt freshman Kelee Ringo. So, a bunch of new guys, but also a lot of good ones.

    *Smith is out indefinitely with a foot injury and might miss the opener against Clemson, but we assume he will be healthy in time for this hypothetical 12-team playoff.

    Georgia has had one of the best rush defenses in the nation over the past several years, and we all know Wisconsin loves the ground-and-pound approach. Factor in the home-field advantage for the Dawgs, and this one could get a little ugly.

    Projection: Georgia 35, Wisconsin 24

First-Round Game 2: No. 11 Oregon Ducks at No. 6 Texas A&M Aggies

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    Oregon's Noah Sewell
    Oregon's Noah SewellRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    What a fun little battle between two teams with colossal question marks at quarterback.

    It looked like the Ducks had found a pretty good solution to life after Justin Herbert when Tyler Shough led the offense through the truncated 2020 season. However, he transferred to Texas Tech, leaving Mario Cristobal to choose between former Boston College transfer Anthony Brown or one of a trio of freshman quarterbacks.

    At least Brown would bring quite a bit of experience to the table if and when the Ducks decide to roll with the fifth-year senior with more than 700 career pass attempts. Jimbo Fisher is in a much tougher spot sans four-year starter Kellen Mond, now forced to hope either Zach Calzada (24 career pass attempts) or Haynes King (four career pass attempts) can lead this team to what would be its first 10-win season since 2012.

    But here's why I'm picking the upset: edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and linebacker Noah Sewell against an A&M offensive line replacing four starters.

    Between the strength of the O-line and the elusiveness of Mond, A&M was one of the most sack-averse teams last season. The Aggies only lost 39 yards on seven sacks while every other SEC team allowed at least 16 sacks. Assuming they regress in light of all those roster changes, that's going to be a problem against an Oregon defense that might have the best front seven in the country.

    A&M is also more than capable of bringing some pain on defense, and having checkdown options like RB/WR Ainias Smith and TE Jalen Wydermyer might be enough for the Aggies to neutralize that pass rush. However, I really like this Oregon team and think it could make a run at a spot in the CFP if Brown (or a TBD freshman QB) can keep back-breaking mistakes to a minimum.

    Projection: Oregon 31, Texas A&M 27

First-Round Game 3: No. 10 North Carolina Tar Heels at No. 7 Iowa State Cyclones

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    Iowa State's Breece Hall
    Iowa State's Breece HallEric Gay/Associated Press

    If every AP voter was forced to pick an upset in one of these four theoretical first-round pairings, this is probably the one that would get the most votes, even though Cincinnati and Notre Dame are only separated by five votes in the preseason poll. There has been a lot of discussion over the past few months about North Carolina maybe being the team that can put an end to Clemson's six-year run of ACC championships, while Iowa State has become the semi-forgotten-about Top 10 team as a result of all that conference realignment banter.

    In my eyes, though, this is the game where the home team is most likely to win in a landslide.

    Iowa State is a legitimate national championship contender. The Cyclones bring back 19 starters from a team that finished at No. 9 in the AP poll. They might have the best running back in the country in Breece Hall. They also might have the best tight end in the country in Charlie Kolar. And if this team doesn't have the best linebacker corps in the nationMike Rose, Jake Hummel and O'Rien Vanceit's certainly in the top five.

    They also bring back Brock Purdy, who has made 33 mostly efficient starts over the past three seasons. He completed more than 65 percent of his pass attempts in all three years and also had a better than 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio each year. If he manages to improve as a senior, it's hard to envision this team losing any game outside of the road trip to Oklahoma.

    North Carolina, on the other hand, has a super talented quarterback (Sam Howell) surrounded by a cast of players who might be good but haven't done much yet at the collegiate level. Between projected starters Beau Corrales, Khafre Brown, Josh Downs and Garrett Walston, the Tar Heels have three wide receivers and a tight end who have scored fewer career touchdowns (20) than Javonte Williams scored last year alone (22).

    The bigger problem, though, is the defense. The Tar Heels allowed at least 21 points in 10 of 12 games last season, and the two exceptions were against 1-10 Syracuse and FCS school Western Carolina. Even including those two contests, they allowed more than 400 total yards per game. If they are unable to improve considerably on that end of the field, they won't live up to this hype as a preseason Top 10 team, and there would be virtually no chance of winning this road game against Iowa State.

    Projection: Iowa State 38, North Carolina 23

First-Round Game 4: No. 9 Notre Dame Fighting Irish at No. 8 Cincinnati Bearcats

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    Cincinnat's Myjai Sanders
    Cincinnat's Myjai SandersBenjamin Solomon/Getty Images

    If this one came to fruition, it would be a rematch of a regular-season clashalbeit in the opposite venue—as Cincinnati will travel to Notre Dame on Oct. 2 for a showdown that figures to effectively knock one of these Top 10 teams out of the running for the four-team College Football Playoff.

    Notre Dame will almost certainly be favored for the matchup in South Bend, but run it back in Cincinnati and you've got yourself a coin-flip game.

    The big unknown with Notre Dame is how well it will handle needing to replace not only a three-year starter at quarterback (Ian Book) but also four starting offensive linemen, three of whom were deemed talented enough to be taken within the first three rounds of the 2021 NFL draft. It'd be one thing if the Irish were just dropping Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan onto the field behind the same O-line as last season, but that's a lot of changes for an offense that only had 15 passing touchdowns in 12 games.

    And if there's any trouble in that department, Cincinnati is equipped to pounce on it. The Bearcats defense had 16 interceptions against just seven passing touchdowns allowed last season, and edge-rusher Myjai Sanders could make Coan's day a miserable one.

    Notre Dame's defense should also be excellent despite losing star linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah to the NFL, but I like the Bearcats in what would likely be the lowest-scoring of the first-round affairs.

    Projection: Cincinnati 24, Notre Dame 20

Quarterfinal 1: No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs

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    Ohio State's Chris Olave
    Ohio State's Chris OlaveJay LaPrete/Associated Press

    One thing's for certain: SEC fans would never let Big Ten fans hear the end of it if Georgia completely eliminated the conference before the semifinals even begin.

    Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, their biggest weakness plays right into the wheelhouse of the Buckeyes.

    As previously mentioned, that likely weakness is Georgia's secondary. And while there are colossal question marks about Ohio State's quarterback situation, this team has the best receiving corps in the country, and it's not even all that close.

    Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson will once again be the best one-two punch in the country at wide receiver. Jaxon Smith-Njigba and/or Julian Fleming figures to step up in his second year in this receiving group. True freshmen Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka probably won't be needed much, but they are plenty talented enough to fit into whatever role is needed. And then there's Jeremy Ruckert at tight end, just to make matters even more impossible for opposing defenses.

    Elite secondaries are going to have a hard time containing this group, much less secondaries made up largely of guys who either weren't on that roster or never saw the field last season.

    To be clear, I don't think Georgia's secondary will be bad this season. They might get smoked a bit in the opener against Clemson, but they should be average to above-average in due time. That's just unlikely to cut it against Ohio State's offense.

    Now, Georgia will be able to score in its own right, and secondary play was a major problem for Ohio State last season. This could turn into a repeat of the 2018 Rose Bowl, in which Georgia allowed 48 points against Oklahoma but still managed to win by scoring 54 of its own. Gotta give the edge to the Buckeyes, though.

    Projection: Ohio State 42, Georgia 37

Quarterfinal 2: No. 3 Clemson Tigers vs. No. 11 Oregon Ducks

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    Clemson's Justyn Ross
    Clemson's Justyn RossRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Unfortunately for the early Cinderella story of the tournament, Quarterfinal No. 2 sees an underdog facing the exact same uphill battle as in Quarterfinal No. 1.

    Aside from making sure to pick the right starting quarterback, secondary play is easily the biggest concern for Oregon heading into 2021. Defensive backs Jevon Holland, Brady Breeze and Thomas Graham Jr. all opted out of the 2020 season and entered the draft. Deommodore Lenoir also left to become a fifth-round pick.

    Because those three guys opted out, at least their replacements got a jump start in their new roles. However, two of those replacementsJamal Hill and DJ Jameshave been suspended indefinitely for an airsoft rifle incident. At this point, the depth chart is basically Mykael Wright at cornerback, Verone McKinley III at safety and a bunch of who the heck knows. It could work out nicely, but experience is not on their side.

    Conversely, assuming Justyn Ross is good to go after missing this past season with a career-threatening spinal issue, Clemson's receiving group might be the top challenger to Ohio State's.

    Both Joe Ngata and Frank Ladson Jr. were top-10 wide receivers in the 2019 recruiting class. E.J. Williams wasn't quite that highly rated in the 2020 class, but he had some mighty impressive moments late last season and has breakout potential written all over him. Ajou Ajou is another breakout candidate. And tight end Braden Galloway Jr. is back for a fourth season.

    And while we assume Ohio State's receivers will be in good hands with C.J. Stroud at quarterback, we already know signal-caller D.J. Uiagalelei can excel at this level for Clemson. He made two excellent starts this past season while "pinch hitting" for Trevor Lawrence. Provided that wasn't fool's gold, it's hard to imagine Oregon slowing down Clemson's pass attack, unless Kayvon Thibodeaux is able to create enough pressure to compensate for the secondary.

    If either defensive line is going to be the key to victory, though, it's much more likely to be Clemson's.

    Projection: Clemson 35, Oregon 19

Quarterfinal 3: No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners vs. No. 7 Iowa State Cyclones

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    Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler
    Oklahoma's Spencer RattlerMichael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Wouldn't it be something if these teams met for a third Big 12 clash?

    Iowa State travels to Oklahoma on Nov. 20 for what may well be a battle between 10-0 teams. Regardless of how that one plays out, there's a good chance they'd be running it back in the Big 12 championship two weeks later. And then this quarterfinal clash would be three meetings in the span of, what, six weeks?

    What a way to finish what may or may not be Oklahoma's final season in this conference.

    We've already discussed Iowa State's national championship potential, but Oklahoma's is a little greater.

    Spencer Rattler figures to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country after a redshirt-freshman season in which he threw for over 3,000 yards with a 172.6 passer efficiency rating, the highest PER by a freshman at a Power Five program since Florida State's Jameis Winston in 2013.

    As is the case at Ohio State and Clemson, Rattler has no shortage of quality options in the receiving game. Theo Wease, Marvin Mims and tight end Austin Stogner had a combined 1,562 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, ranking top three on the team in both receptions and yards. And if he's finally healthy, Jadon Haselwood should be the best of the bunch.

    Transfers Wanya Morris (Tennessee) and Robert Congel (Arizona) should help immensely on the offensive line. Kennedy Brooks returning from an opt-out year and Eric Gray transferring in from Tennessee should ensure yet another great year of running the ball. And the defense should be in good shape, despite losing lineman Ronnie Perkins and defensive backs Tre Brown and Tre Norwood to the NFL.

    It's hard to find a weakness on either of these teams, but I suspect the biggest, most important difference will be Oklahoma's explosiveness on offense. Iowa State only had one passing play of 50 or more yards last season, while Oklahoma had six passing plays of 50-plus and 13 that went for at least 40 yards. If either team is going to capitalize on a momentum-shifting back-breaker, it's probably the Sooners.

    Projection: Oklahoma 38, Iowa State 35

Quarterfinal 4: No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 8 Cincinnati Bearcats

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    Alabama's Will Anderson Jr.
    Alabama's Will Anderson Jr.Collegiate Images/Getty Images

    After years of people clamoring for more inclusivity in terms of the Group of Five actually having an opportunity to play for a national championship, Cincinnati is projected for one heck of a painful welcome to the playoff party in this quarterfinal pairing.

    The Bearcats should be a very good team, quite possibly the best Group of Five team of the past decade. And no, I haven't forgotten about UCF, Boise State or either of the years that Houston won 13 games. Cincinnati was a legitimate Top 10 team this past fall, and it brings back 16 of the primary starters from that squad. The Bearcats probably won't run the table on account of their back-to-back road games against Indiana and Notre Dame, but it almost feels like a foregone conclusion that they will be playing in a New Year's Six Bowl.

    This is Alabama we're talking about, though.

    Cincinnati has some Group of Five stars, but the Crimson Tide has quite the group of 5-star talent.

    Bryce Young will likely ensure that Alabama's quarterback finishes top 10 in the Heisman vote for a fourth consecutive year. Trey Sanders might finally be healthy enough to make a major impact at running back. Will Anderson Jr. will be one of the best individual defenders in the nation. Chris Braswell might also be a breakout defensive star. And, just in case, Nick Saban signed seven more 5-star recruits and a total of 16 top-100 recruits in the 2021 class.

    If this game were to happen in the College Football Playoff, it would be perhaps the biggest David vs. Goliath matchup in college athletics since Duke and Butler met in the 2010 men's basketball national championship.

    That hoops battle did come right down to the buzzer, so never say never, I suppose. But this one has "Alabama blowout" written all over it.

    Projection: Alabama 42, Cincinnati 17

Semifinals and Championship

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    Alabama's Nick Saban
    Alabama's Nick SabanLynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Because this is the generally accepted projected four-team College Football Playoff, because the intent of this piece is to explore what the extra rounds of the 12-team format would look like. Because we've already discussed each of the teams still standing and because we're now three layers deep into a hypothetical tournament, we're taking a more terse approach to these final two rounds.


    Semifinal 1: No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes

    It's a rematch of last year's national championship, in which Ohio State had no answer whatsoever for DeVonta Smith or Najee Harris. Even though those Crimson Tide stars are now in the NFL, a whole new batch of Heisman candidates will have emerged by the time this game happens. And if there's one defense capable of stifling Ohio State's litany of receiving stars, it's Alabama.

    Projection: Alabama 35, Ohio State 27


    Semifinal 2: No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners vs. No. 3 Clemson Tigers

    This could be one of the greatest College Football Playoff matchups to date. Two Heisman-caliber quarterbacks. Two elite receiving corps. Two outstanding defensive lines. It's really just a question of which slightly reconstructed secondary can get a stop or two in a great head-to-head battle. Maybe this is the year Oklahoma finally wins a CFP semifinal, though. 

    Projection: Oklahoma 41, Clemson 37


    Championship: No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners

    Oklahoma's defense has been gradually improving over the past few seasons and should continue along that positive trajectory in 2021. However, I remain far from convinced the Sooners defense is good enough to hold its own against the best team in the SEC, considering they allowed an average of 54.0 points in prior CFP games against Alabama, Georgia and LSU.

    Maybe they improve enough to limit the Crimson Tide to something like 38 points, but scoring 40-plus against Alabama's defense won't be easy in the slightest. Alabama repeats as national champion.

    Projection: Alabama 38, Oklahoma 31