Predicting College Football's 2021-22 Bowl Games
There's one final hurdle we need to clear before the 2021 college football season gets underway: projected pairings for all 42 bowl games.
Yes, we're up to 42 bowls. It's a little ridiculous that roughly 65 percent of all FBS teams will earn spots in the postseason, but it's not my job to decide how many squads deserve to play an extra game. Rather, I'm here to project which teams will play in which bowls.
Will Alabama and Clemson make the College Football Playoff for what would be the seventh time in eight years?
Will Ohio State and Oklahoma get there for the fifth time?
Can anyone stop Cincinnati from representing the Group of Five in the New Year's Six yet again?
And with the addition of several new bowls, how many 5-7 teams will eke their way into the party?
We'll touch on those questions and plenty of others throughout the six tiers of this year's bowl games. Some commentary will be provided after each tier. And at the end, there's a breakdown of bowl representatives by conference.
Group of 5 Bowls
Bahamas (Dec. 17): Western Kentucky vs. Western Michigan
Cure (Dec. 17): Coastal Carolina vs. Houston
Boca Raton (Dec. 18): San Diego State vs. Tulane
Independence (Dec. 18): BYU vs. UAB
LendingTree (Dec. 18): Ohio vs. Troy
New Mexico (Dec. 18): Florida Atlantic vs. San Jose State
New Orleans (Dec. 18): Appalachian State vs. Marshall
Myrtle Beach (Dec. 20): Eastern Michigan vs. Nevada
Famous Idaho Potato (Dec. 21): Toledo vs. Wyoming
Frisco (Dec. 21): Fresno State vs. Louisiana Tech
Armed Forces (Dec. 22): Army vs. UTSA
Hawai'i (Dec. 24): Hawai'i vs. Tulsa
Camellia (Dec. 25): Buffalo vs. Louisiana
Arizona (Dec. 31): Air Force vs. Central Michigan
You can pencil it in now that the Cure Bowl, New Orleans Bowl and Camellia Bowl are going to be the three games from this tier that most appeal to a national audience. The top three teams from the Sun Belt are likely to draw a strong American Athletic foe (Cure), the best Conference USA has to offer (New Orleans) and the best the Mid-American has to offer (Camellia).
In some order, those top three teams figure to be preseason No. 22 Coastal Carolina, preseason No. 23 Louisiana and going-to-make-Associated-Press-voters-look-foolish-for-not-giving-it-a-single-vote Appalachian State. All three have an embarrassment of riches in terms of returning talent and would be great options for the Group of Five's spot in a New Year's Six bowl were it not for Cincinnati.
Of that trio, the Chanticleers are most likely to run the table. They have a tricky nonconference game at Buffalo and a tough road trip to Appalachian State, but 10 wins feels like the minimum.
What will be fun for the first two weeks of the season is seeing if the other top teams in the league can pull off significant upsets.
Louisiana—which you may remember from its 31-14 shellacking of Iowa State to open the 2020 season—starts out with another chance to embarrass the Big 12 in a road game against No. 21 Texas. Tom Herman's tenure with the Longhorns began with a bad home loss to Maryland. We'll see if Steve Sarkisian can avoid a similar fate.
And Appalachian State plays at Miami the following Saturday. The Mountaineers won road games against both North Carolina and South Carolina in 2019, almost won at No. 10 Penn State in 2018 and almost won at No. 9 Tennessee in 2016. You don't need to go all the way back to that 2007 win at Michigan to be reminded how dangerous this team can be.
Group of 5 vs. Power 5 or Pool Bowls
L.A. (Dec. 18): Boise State vs. Cal
Gasparilla* (Dec. 23): Liberty vs. Florida State
Military (Dec. 27): SMU vs. Wake Forest
Quick Lane (Dec. 27): Ball State vs. Illinois
Birmingham (Dec. 28): UCF vs. Arkansas
First Responder* (Dec. 28): Texas Tech vs. Stanford
Fenway (Dec. 29): Memphis vs. Boston College
*Pool bowls in which both Power Five and Group of Five conferences have potential affiliations.
I love this tier because it's often a 10-2 Group of Five team with a "nobody respects us" chip on its shoulder against some 6-6 Power Five team that underachieved or just barely made it because of three or four easy nonconference wins. Except this year, with several bowls added to the docket, it's much more likely to be 5-7 teams.
On that note, say hello to Arkansas, Florida State and Illinois. Finding six wins on any of their schedules was a stretch, but we have to get to 84 teams somehow.
The much more intriguing teams are Ball State, Boise State, Liberty and UCF, each of which received at least five votes in the preseason AP Top 25.
Ball State and UCF should have prolific passing attacks. Drew Plitt returns at quarterback for the Cardinals, while Dillon Gabriel will be back for the Knights, and both teams are loaded with proven veteran pass-catchers. UCF may well lead the nation in passing yards, and Ball State will surely rank among the best offenses in the Mid-American Conference.
Liberty is the one that could really make some noise, though.
The Flames bring back 20 starters from a team that went 10-1. Most notable among them is quarterback Malik Willis. The Auburn transfer is widely regarded as a first-round pick in the 2022 NFL draft, and he'll face a schedule that isn't all that daunting until consecutive games against Ole Miss and Louisiana in November. This team might be 9-0 and ranked heading into those contests, at which point there would be some rumbling about the possibility of a New Year's Six bowl.
Power 5 Bowls with Potential to Be Fun
Guaranteed Rate (Dec. 28): Indiana vs. TCU
Holiday (Dec. 28): Louisville vs. Utah
Liberty (Dec. 28): Kansas State vs. Tennessee
Pinstripe (Dec. 29): Northwestern vs. Virginia
Duke's Mayo (Dec. 30): Auburn vs. NC State
Music City (Dec. 30): Minnesota vs. Missouri
Sun (Dec. 31): UCLA vs. Virginia Tech
Texas (Jan. 4): Kentucky vs. West Virginia
Redbox (TBD): Arizona State vs. Nebraska
This tier typically ages like a fine wine throughout the course of the season.
Right now? Nothing jumps off the page. The Redbox Bowl would be a fun battle between dual-threat quarterbacks. The Texas Bowl would be one heck of a defensive clash. The Duke's Mayo Bowl would certainly draw a big crowd in Charlotte, North Carolina (let's hope for an actual mayo bath this year). But even the best matchup of this bunch would be only, say, the 12th-most anticipated game if it were on the Week 1 slate.
Just give it time, though, because these are the wild-card teams.
Can Indiana build on its 6-1 regular season and make another run at the Big Ten East title?
Is this the year TCU gets back to winning 10-plus games, or are the Horned Frogs headed for a fourth consecutive season of fifth place or worse in the Big 12?
What about UCLA, which finally had the offensive breakout in 2020 that was expected several years ago? Could the Bruins (or the Utes or the Sun Devils) keep USC from winning the Pac-12 South?
How will Auburn and Tennessee fare in their first years under new coaching regimes? Or can Nebraska and Virginia Tech win enough games to avoid coaching changes?
And that's just the tip of the iceberg of unanswered questions in this tier of 18 teams that all seem destined to win six to eight games.
Top Non-New Year's 6 Bowls
Alamo (Dec. 29): Oklahoma State vs. Washington
Cheez-It (Dec. 29): Miami vs. Texas
Las Vegas (Dec. 30): Michigan vs. USC
Gator (Dec. 31): Ole Miss vs. Pitt
Citrus (Jan. 1): LSU vs. Penn State
Outback (Jan. 1): Florida vs. Iowa
One fun side effect of "atypical" teams such as Cincinnati, Iowa State and North Carolina ranking in the Top 10 is that some of these non-New Year's Six bowls will feature brand name programs squaring off. In this projection, the Cheez-It, Las Vegas, Citrus and Outback Bowls would all be battles between teams that rank in the top 25 in wins since 2000.
Not only have they been good teams for the past two decades, but also their star power for this season is undeniable.
Miami quarterbacks D'Eriq King and USC quarterback Kedon Slovis rank among the top candidates to win the Heisman Trophy. Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral and Florida quarterback Emory Jones are in that mix, as well. Texas running back Bijan Robinson is the non-quarterback most likely to win the stiff-armed trophy. And LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. is the most or second-most (depending on how you feel about Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux) high-profile defensive player in the country.
Throw in the narratives of Miami and Texas forever trying to prove they're back, Michigan and USC having coaches on the hot seat for the umpteenth consecutive year and LSU wanting to bounce back from a dreadful title defense, and most of these matchups would be the most compelling of the non-CFP games.
Non-CFP New Year's 6 Bowls
To be clear, we're using the preseason AP rankings for the New Year's Six bowls. I don't personally believe North Carolina, Notre Dame or Texas A&M will be in these positions at the end of the year, but we might as well roll with the consensus opinion of 63 members of the national media as opposed to one person's gut.
Peach (Dec. 30): No. 6 Texas A&M vs. 9 Notre Dame
The reason I suspect both of these teams will finish outside the Top 12 is the difficulty of their schedules.
Notre Dame has to play No. 12 Wisconsin, No. 8 Cincinnati, No. 15 USC and No. 10 North Carolina in the span of 36 days, with a not-exactly-a-cake-walk road game against Virginia Tech in there, too. The Fighting Irish also have road games against Florida State, Virginia and Stanford. Getting to 10 wins is going to be mighty difficult for a team replacing its starting quarterback, four offensive lineman and an All-American linebacker.
Texas A&M, on the other hand, will face only two preseason AP Top 25 teams all season, and those challenges are separated by seven weeks. But if and when the Aggies lose those games to Alabama (home) and LSU (road), even a 10-0 record against the rest of the schedule might not be enough for a New Year's Six bowl.
But if I'm wrong, I will enjoy eating my crow while watching Isaiah Spiller and Kyren Williams try to out-rush each other in the Peach Bowl.
Fiesta (Jan. 1): No. 8 Cincinnati vs. No. 10 North Carolina
Would Sam Howell actually play in this game, or could he become the first player to opt out of bowl season prior to becoming the first pick in the NFL draft? If he does play, it would be against a tougher defense than anything he will face during the regular season. (Though the Tar Heels would presumably face a very good Clemson defense in the ACC Championship Game.) It could be an interesting final data point for the scout teams of whichever clubs do the best jobs of tanking this fall.
Regardless of Howell's status, this would be Cincinnati's third marquee game of the season, as the Bearcats will also face Indiana and Notre Dame during nonconference play. They are the first Group of Five team to open a season ranked in the AP Top 10 in the CFP era, and those two big road games might be just enough to push them into the playoff if they were to run the table. That, of course, depends on what happens in the Power Five, because Cincinnati isn't getting in if Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma all go undefeated, too. Still, this is the best opportunity the "little guys" have had to crash the playoff party.
Rose (Jan. 1): No. 11 Oregon vs. No. 12 Wisconsin
Both of these teams went 4-3 during the unprecedented 2020 season, and it feels like no one knows what to make of either because of that.
The Oregon defense took a huge step backward from the previous season, in large part because three of its best defensive backs opted out. The Wisconsin offense suffered a similar fate, not because of opt-outs but because it's kind of hard to replace one of the most productive running backs in FBS history, a unanimous All-American center, a starting quarterback and a top wide receiver during a pandemic.
Each team will be better, but to what degree? Placing them both just outside the Top 10 makes sense, but it wouldn't be a surprise if they both went 12-1 with a loss to Ohio State—Oregon's in Week 2, Wisconsin's in the Big Ten Championship Game—to finish just outside the CFP picture.
Sugar (Jan. 1): No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 7 Iowa State
This one has the potential to be awesome, because Georgia and Iowa State are two of the most balanced, experienced teams in the country. Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State will perhaps be better than the Bulldogs and Cyclones by year's end, but I would take either of these projected Sugar Bowl participants in a Week 1 game against any of those projected CFP squads. (So, yes, I'm picking Georgia to knock off Clemson.)
This would be one heck of a war in the trenches. Both teams should have great front sevens, Georgia always seems to have a solid offensive line, and Iowa State's O-line ought to be one of the best in the country. Would Georgia be able to protect JT Daniels? Would Iowa State be able to create lanes for Breece Hall? Whichever defense does a better job of getting into the opposing backfield would likely win the day.
College Football Playoff
Cotton (Dec. 31): No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State
Orange (Dec. 31): No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 3 Clemson
National Championship Game (Jan. 10): No. 1 Alabama over No. 2 Oklahoma
Yes, I know, preseason No. 1 over preseason No. 2 is a boring prediction. But in each of the past five years, the preseason No. 1 team made the College Football Playoff and the preseason No. 1 or preseason No. 2 (or both) played for the national championship.
In other words, there's a reason these teams are at the top of the polls.
That said, of these four, Clemson feels like the safest bet to the make the playoff.
The Tigers play only one game against a preseason Top 25 opponent, and even if they lose that opener to No. 5 Georgia, they should get in with room to spare if they run the table from there—provided the loss isn't embarrassing. Conversely, if they beat Georgia on Labor Day weekend, they'll probably enter the ACC title tilt with a 12-0 record and could even afford to lose to North Carolina or Miami and still get in.
Ohio State should also be in great shape, provided it can get through the first two weeks against Minnesota (road) and Oregon (home) unscathed. Those games might be interesting for a squad that's breaking in a quarterback with no collegiate experience, but it should be smooth sailing after that without a game against Iowa or Wisconsin and with the faceoff against Penn State taking place in Columbus.
But at least on paper, Alabama and Oklahoma look like the two best teams in the country.
Alabama has two first-team AP All-Americans (Will Anderson Jr. and Evan Neal) and three second-teamers (John Metchie III, Emil Ekiyor Jr. and Christian Harris), while Oklahoma has the first-team quarterback (Spencer Rattler), a first-team linebacker (Nik Bonitto) and a stockpile of players who were certainly at least considered for second-team honors.
If and when the former top-10 overall recruits—quarterback Bryce Young and running back Trey Sanders for Alabama, wide receiver Jadon Haselwood for Oklahoma—pick this year to start living up to the hype, this would turn into quite the star-studded showdown for the national title.
Bowl Games by Conference
Here is the 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 (7 teams): Cincinnati (Fiesta Bowl), Houston (Cure Bowl), Memphis (Fenway Bowl), SMU (Military Bowl), Tulane (Boca Raton Bowl), Tulsa (Hawai'i Bowl), UCF (Birmingham Bowl)
Atlantic Coast (11 teams): Boston College (Fenway Bowl), Clemson (Orange Bowl), Florida State (Gasparilla Bowl), Louisville (Holiday Bowl), Miami (Cheez-It Bowl), NC State (Duke's Mayo Bowl), North Carolina (Fiesta Bowl), Pitt (Gator Bowl), Virginia (Pinstripe Bowl), Virginia Tech (Sun Bowl), Wake Forest (Military Bowl)
Big 12 (8 teams): Iowa State (Sugar Bowl), Kansas State (Liberty Bowl), Oklahoma (Orange Bowl), Oklahoma State (Alamo Bowl), TCU (Guaranteed Rate Bowl), Texas (Cheez-It Bowl), Texas Tech (First Responder Bowl), West Virginia (Texas Bowl)
Big Ten (10 teams): Illinois (Quick Lane Bowl), Indiana (Guaranteed Rate Bowl), Iowa (Outback Bowl), Michigan (Las Vegas Bowl), Minnesota (Music City Bowl), Nebraska (Redbox Bowl), Northwestern (Pinstripe Bowl), Ohio State (Cotton Bowl), Penn State (Citrus Bowl), Wisconsin (Rose Bowl)
Conference USA (6 teams): Florida Atlantic (New Mexico Bowl), Louisiana Tech (Frisco Bowl), Marshall (New Orleans Bowl), UAB (Independence Bowl), UTSA (Armed Forces Bowl), Western Kentucky (Bahamas Bowl)
Independents (4 teams): Army (Armed Forces Bowl), BYU (Independence Bowl), Liberty (Gasparilla Bowl), Notre Dame (Peach Bowl)
Mid-American (7 teams): Ball State (Quick Lane Bowl), Buffalo (Camellia Bowl), Central Michigan (Arizona Bowl), Eastern Michigan (Myrtle Beach Bowl), Ohio (LendingTree Bowl), Toledo (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), Western Michigan (Bahamas Bowl)
Mountain West (8 teams): Air Force (Arizona Bowl), Boise State (L.A. Bowl), Fresno State (Frisco Bowl), Hawai'i (Hawai'i Bowl), Nevada (Myrtle Beach Bowl), San Diego State (Boca Raton Bowl), San Jose State (New Mexico Bowl), Wyoming (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl)
Pac-12 (8 teams): Arizona State (Redbox Bowl), Cal (L.A. Bowl), Oregon (Rose Bowl), Stanford (First Responder Bowl), UCLA (Sun Bowl), USC (Las Vegas Bowl), Utah (Holiday Bowl), Washington (Alamo Bowl)
Southeastern (11 teams): Alabama (Cotton Bowl), Arkansas (Birmingham Bowl), Auburn (Duke's Mayo Bowl), Florida (Outback Bowl), Georgia (Sugar Bowl), Kentucky (Texas Bowl), LSU (Citrus Bowl), Missouri (Music City Bowl), Ole Miss (Gator Bowl), Tennessee (Liberty Bowl), Texas A&M (Peach Bowl)
Sun Belt (4 teams): Appalachian State (New Orleans Bowl), Coastal Carolina (Cure Bowl), Louisiana (Camellia Bowl), Troy (LendingTree Bowl)
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.