College Football Playoff Projections: Week 6 Rankings and Bowl Forecast
Nine AP Top 25 teams suffered a loss in Week 5, but there's no time like the present to start trying to figure out what the 41-game slate of bowl games will look like in a couple months.
I put together some bowl guesses back in late August, but this marks the beginning of our weekly updates to these projections. And for this initial installment, we'll be focusing primarily on the teams where expectations and reality proved to be quite divergent through the first five weeks of the season.
Some (Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, SMU, etc.) have differed in a good way.
Others (Clemson, Wisconsin, Boise State, Texas A&M, etc.) not so much.
We don't have College Football Playoff Top 25 rankings yet, but we do still have the AP poll to hold us over for a few more weeks. Alabama and Georgia have gotten mighty comfortable at the top. They'll both play a moderately challenging road game (Alabama at Texas A&M; Georgia at Auburn) this coming weekend, though most of us expect those two games to reinforce the notion that they will eventually meet in both the SEC championship and national championship.
Beyond that top tier, you've got Iowa, Penn State, Cincinnati and Oklahoma on the list of teams most legitimately in the hunt for the other two spots in the CFP, though either Iowa or Penn State is going to knock the other down a peg in their head-to-head Week 6 clash.
After that, there are about 20 teams who all look capable of reaching a New Year's Six bowl.
In other words, save for Alabama and Georgia, there isn't a whole lot of separation yet. With each passing week, however, the bowl picture will become a little clearer. And I'll be here for the next two months to try to make sense of it all.
Bowls are broken into six tiers in ascending order of magnitude.
Group of 5 Bowls
Bahamas (Dec. 17): Florida Atlantic (3-2) vs. Western Michigan (4-1)
Cure (Dec. 17): Appalachian State (4-1) vs. Temple (3-2)
Boca Raton (Dec. 18): Fresno State (4-2) vs. Marshall (2-3)
Independence (Dec. 18): Nevada (3-1) vs. UAB (3-2)
LendingTree (Dec. 18): Central Michigan (2-3) vs. South Alabama (3-1)
New Mexico (Dec. 18): UTEP (4-1) vs. Wyoming (4-0)
New Orleans (Dec. 18): Charlotte (3-2) vs. Louisiana (4-1)
Myrtle Beach (Dec. 20): Coastal Carolina (5-0) vs. Liberty (4-1)
Famous Idaho Potato (Dec. 21): Boise State (2-3) vs. Eastern Michigan (3-2)
Frisco (Dec. 21): Air Force (4-1) vs. Louisiana Tech (2-3)
Armed Forces (Dec. 22): Army (4-1) vs. UTSA (5-0)
Hawai'i (Dec. 24): East Carolina (3-2) vs. Hawai'i (3-3)
Camellia (Dec. 25): Northern Illinois (3-2) vs. Troy (2-3)
Arizona (Dec. 31): Buffalo (2-3) vs. Utah State (3-2)
There are a bunch of pleasant surprises in this 28-team tier.
South Alabama has gotten out to a nice start in its quest for its first winning season since joining the FBS ranks in 2012. Northern Illinois has emerged as an extremely unexpected contender in the MAC. Even though UTSA was one of the preseason favorites in Conference USA, good luck finding anyone who thought the Roadrunners would be 5-0 with road wins over Illinois and Memphis.
But the most stunning development has to be UTEP sitting at 4-1 after the Miners put together a combined 2-38 record against FBS opponents over the previous four seasons.
UTEP did get destroyed at Boise State (54-13) in its only game against a competent opponent thus far, but even games against New Mexico, New Mexico State, Old Dominion and Bethune-Cookman would've been the furthest thing from guaranteed wins in recent years.
Pretty much everyone in the business of periodically ranking all 130 FBS teams had UTEP pegged as a bottom-10, if not bottom-five team in the preseason.
Despite the hot start, getting to six wins will not be easy. The Miners have a home game against Rice on Nov. 20 they should probably win, and this week's road game against 1-4 Southern Miss is a coin flip as far as Vegas is concerned. They might need to win that one, though, if they want to play in a bowl game for the first time since 2014, with hopes of winning a bowl game for what would be the first time since 1967.
At the other end of the surprising spectrum, yikes to Boise State sitting at 2-3 with losses to UCF, Oklahoma State and Nevada. It has been a tough schedule, but that's nothing out of the ordinary for the Broncos. They have won at least 61 percent of games played in 22 consecutive seasons, but just getting to .500 is going to be a challenge with road games remaining against BYU (this week), Fresno State (Nov. 6) and San Diego State (Nov. 26). They also still have home games against undefeated Wyoming and one-loss Air Force.
Group of 5 vs. Power 5 or Pool Bowls
L.A. (Dec. 18): San Diego State (4-0) vs. USC (3-2)
Gasparilla* (Dec. 23): Miami (2-3) vs. Memphis (3-2)
Military (Dec. 27): Houston (3-2) vs. Louisville (3-2)
Quick Lane (Dec. 27): Toledo (3-2) vs. Wisconsin (1-3)
Birmingham (Dec. 28): SMU (5-0) vs. Tennessee (3-2)
First Responder* (Dec. 28): Stanford (3-2) vs. Virginia (3-2)
Fenway (Dec. 29): Boston College (4-1) vs. UCF (2-2)
*Pool bowls in which both Power Five and Group of Five conferences have potential affiliations.
Let's start out at the bottom of the pile with Wisconsin, which simultaneously feels like an unredeemable mess and the best 1-3 team of all time.
On the mess side of things, the Badgers have committed at least three turnovers in each of their three losses and have a minus-9 turnover margin on the season. Their QB situation went from bad to worse when Graham Mertz (chest injury) was replaced by Chase Wolf in the Week 5 loss to Michigan. Mertz has struggled, for sure, but Wolf has thrown four interceptions in 20 career pass attempts, which is why he never took over for Mertz during a disastrous performance the previous week against Notre Dame.
And yet, Wisconsin has the best rush defense in the nation and has out-gained its competition by more than 100 total yards per game, so we're almost forced to believe the Badgers will turn a corner now that the schedule is relenting a bit. They're the only team with fewer than two wins currently projected for a bowl, because it's not difficult to see them getting to 8-4 against their remaining slate.
The fun thing about this tier, though, is seeing sub-.500 Wisconsin and Miami juxtaposed with undefeated San Diego State and SMU, each of whom made their 2021 debut in the AP Top 25 this week.
For San Diego State, it's all about dominating the run game. The Aztecs have rushed for at least 200 yards in each game this season, and they have yet to allow an opponent to rush for more than 70. They already scored an impressive, triple-overtime win over Utah, so they might be able to run rampant through the Mountain West Conference.
SMU is preposterously fun to watch with Tanner Mordecai tossing touchdown after touchdown. He's already up to 24 through five games, which puts him on pace for 67-plus, depending on whether the Mustangs play a "bonus" game in the AAC Championship. Though Ulysses Bentley IV missed this past week's game against South Florida with an undisclosed injury, SMU also has one heck of a rushing attack, averaging better than 220 yards per game on the ground.
This team is no joke, and we're already looking forward to the marquee showdown with Cincinnati on Nov. 20.
Power 5 Bowls with Potential to Be Fun
Guaranteed Rate (Dec. 28): Kansas State (3-2) vs. Purdue (3-2)
Holiday (Dec. 28): Oregon State (4-1) vs. Pittsburgh (4-1)
Liberty (Dec. 28): LSU (3-2) vs. Texas Tech (4-1)
Pinstripe (Dec. 29): Maryland (4-1) vs. Virginia Tech (3-1)
Duke's Mayo (Dec. 30): Auburn (4-1) vs. Clemson (3-2)
Music City (Dec. 30): Nebraska (3-3) vs. Texas A&M (3-2)
Sun (Dec. 31): North Carolina (3-2) vs. UCLA (3-2)
Texas (Jan. 4): Baylor (4-1) vs. Mississippi State (3-2)
The biggest positive surprise of this tier is either Oregon State or Pittsburgh, and it's purely coincidental that those 4-1 squads are projected to square off in bowl season.
Pitt has been a juggernaut on offense, scoring at least 41 points in each game this season and leading the nation in scoring offense at 52.4 points per game. After four straight years of what could best be described as game-managerial work, Kenny Pickett has emerged as a shockingly legitimate Heisman candidate with 19 passing touchdowns against just one interception. The Panthers are idle this weekend before a Week 7 clash with Virginia Tech that may well determine who wins the ACC Coastal Division.
Speaking of unexpected division leaders, who had Oregon State alone atop the Pac-12 North one month into the year? The Beavers lost their season opener at Purdue, but they have won four straight since, including a convincing road win over USC and a last-second victory over Washington this past weekend. If Oregon State can win at Washington State this weekend, it might jump into the AP Top 25 for the first time since losing to Eastern Washington at the start of the 2013 campaign.
The biggest negative surprise is also a two-team toss-up here between Clemson and Texas A&M.
The Tigers opened the season at No. 3 in the AP poll. The Aggies weren't far behind at No. 6. But they are both already unranked thanks to two losses each and mutually atrocious offensive execution. In seven combined games against Power Five opponents, Clemson and Texas A&M have averaged 14.1 points and 282.0 yards of total offense.
Clemson should still be fine to reach a bowl game given the overall state of the ACC. We'll see about A&M, though. The Aggies host Alabama this weekend and still have tough games remaining against Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss.
Top Non-New Year's 6 Bowls
Alamo (Dec. 29): Arizona State (4-1) vs. Texas (4-1)
Cheez-It (Dec. 29): Iowa State (3-2) vs. NC State (4-1)
Las Vegas (Dec. 30): Minnesota (3-2) vs. Utah (2-2)
Gator (Dec. 31): Notre Dame (4-1) vs. Ole Miss (3-1)
Citrus (Jan. 1): Kentucky (5-0) vs. Michigan (5-0)
Outback (Jan. 1): Florida (3-2) vs. Michigan State (5-0)
Kentucky, Michigan and Michigan State all opened the season as unranked teams. Neither Kentucky nor Michigan State received a single vote in that preseason AP poll. I didn't even have the Spartans projected for a bowl game in August.
Yet, here those teams are in early October with a combined 15-0 record, each ranked in the top 16 of the AP poll.
Of the three, I'm still least convinced that Michigan State is a legitimate contender for a New Year's Six bowl, largely because of its mediocre defense. In all four games against FBS opponents, the Spartans have allowed at least 400 yards of total offense. Kenneth Walker III has been a godsend at running back, but the defense desperately needs to improve if the Spartans hope to win any of the still-to-come games (let alone all of them) against Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
Kentucky also seems to be winning with smoke and mirrors. The Wildcats have a minus-9 turnover margin, and they were just out-gained by more than 150 yards against Florida, but they have eked out four consecutive wins by seven points or fewer. Still, a Week 7 visit to Georgia is Kentucky's only remaining game against a currently ranked team, so a 10-win regular season definitely remains in play.
But Michigan is, of course, the biggest story here.
After rushing for at least 335 yards in each of their three nonconference games, the Wolverines' ground game was held in check by both Rutgers and Wisconsin. But Michigan has held each of its opponents to 17 points or fewer and has only committed one turnover thus far this season. That combination of defense and ball security will at least give Michigan a chance in colossal games at Penn State (Nov. 13) and vs. Ohio State (Nov. 27).
Prior to those likely top-10 showdowns, though, Michigan will draw Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan State and Indiana for a good chance to improve to 9-0 and at least temporarily sneak into the College Football Playoff conversation.
Non-CFP New Year's 6 Bowls
Peach (Dec. 30): Penn State (5-0) vs. Cincinnati (4-0)
Fiesta (Jan. 1): Wake Forest (5-0) vs. BYU (5-0)
Rose (Jan. 1): Ohio State (4-1) vs. Oregon (4-1)
Sugar (Jan. 1): Arkansas (4-1) vs. Oklahoma State (5-0)
To be clear, I don't (yet, at least) believe that Wake Forest is one of the 12 best teams in the country. However, someone from the ACC has to play in a New Year's Six bowl, and the Demon Deacons make as much sense as any other option at the moment.
That said, Wake Forest has been impressive on offense, scoring at least 35 points in each of its five wins. But we'll see how that lackluster defense (more than 500 total yards allowed in back-to-back games) holds up against a schedule in which all seven remaining opponents have winning records.
Much more intriguing than the ACC's representative in this tier are the two non-Power Five schools: BYU and Cincinnati.
You've no doubt already heard all about Cincinnati's increasingly viable quest for the College Football Playoff following its Week 5 road win over Notre Dame. But if both of these teams win out, would the Bearcats be able to finish ahead of the Cougars?
It's probably a pointless conversation with two full months left to be played, but it's a debate worth having all the same.
BYU already has wins over Utah and Arizona State, and it still has games remaining against Boise State, Baylor, Washington State, Virginia and USC. There's not an individual game on that slate that can quite hold a candle to Cincinnati's best win, but an undefeated BYU would have a collection of seven wins that look a whole lot better than Cincinnati's seven best wins.
As things currently stand, neither one would get in. Alabama and Georgia are clearly the two best teams in the country, and undefeated Big Ten and Big 12 champions would rank ahead of both Cincinnati and BYU. But I will venture a way-too-early guess that the CFP selection committee would rank BYU ahead of Cincinnati if they both run the table.
In all honesty, though, I just hope we're still having that debate throughout November.
College Football Playoff
Cotton (Dec. 31): No. 1 Alabama (5-0) vs. No. 4 Oklahoma (5-0)
Orange (Dec. 31): No. 2 Iowa (5-0) vs. No. 3 Georgia (5-0)
National Championship Game (Jan. 10): No. 1 Alabama over No. 3 Georgia
If these projections were based solely on current resumes and ignored the fact that either Alabama or Georgia will eventually lose at least one game since they are on a collision course for the SEC championship, then, yes, of course, Georgia deserves the No. 2 seed in the Orange Bowl instead of Iowa.
But if the Hawkeyes are able to win the monumental showdown with Penn State this coming weekend, there's a good chance—with no currently ranked teams remaining on their schedule—they'll enter the Big Ten championship with a 12-0 record. Win that 13th game, and they would at least finish ahead of the SEC runner-up and get to be the "home" team for one of the national semifinals.
If these end up being the final four teams, though, there is no question Iowa has the most questionable offense.
The Hawkeyes did just put up 51 points in a statement road win over Maryland, but that was primarily the byproduct of a very good defense forcing seven turnovers. It was a similar story in the road win over Iowa State earlier this season, a game in which Iowa was held to 173 yards of total offense yet won by 10 thanks to a plus-4 turnover margin.
Even against Colorado State, three of Iowa's scoring drives started in Rams territory.
Maybe those opportunistic ways will be enough for them to get to 13-0, but I find it extremely difficult to believe Iowa's offense can win a game against Georgia's defense.
And yet, I believe in Iowa considerably more than I believe in Oklahoma, which has yet to defeat an FBS opponent by more than seven points. If the Sooners were facing Alabama on a neutral field tomorrow, they would probably be 17-point underdogs, and I'd still be betting on the Crimson Tide without much hesitation.
But let's be real: Put anyone other than Alabama or Georgia on the field against Alabama or Georgia right now and you're expecting a blowout. There's plenty of season left for those SEC juggernauts to develop an Achilles' heel or for a team like Iowa or Oklahoma to go on a tear of dominance and at least make a spirited push toward that top tier. However, there's a reason all 62 AP voters had either Alabama-Georgia or Georgia-Alabama in the top two spots of their ballots this week.
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 (Peach), East Carolina (Hawai'i), Houston (Military), Memphis (Gasparilla), SMU (Birmingham), Temple (Cure), UCF (Fenway)
Atlantic Coast (10 teams): Boston College (Fenway), Clemson (Duke's Mayo), Louisville (Military), Miami (Gasparilla), North Carolina (Sun), North Carolina State (Cheez-It), Pittsburgh (Holiday), Virginia (First Responder), Virginia Tech (Pinstripe), Wake Forest (Fiesta)
Big 12 (7 teams): Baylor (Texas), Iowa State (Cheez-It), Kansas State (Guaranteed Rate), Oklahoma (Cotton), Oklahoma State (Sugar), Texas (Alamo), Texas Tech (Liberty)
Big Ten (10 teams): Iowa (Orange), Maryland (Pinstripe), Michigan (Citrus), Michigan State (Outback), Minnesota (Las Vegas), Nebraska (Music City), Ohio State (Rose), Penn State (Peach), Purdue (Guaranteed Rate), Wisconsin (Quick Lane)
Conference USA (7 teams): Charlotte (New Orleans), Florida Atlantic (Bahamas), Louisiana Tech (Frisco), Marshall (Boca Raton), UAB (Independence), UTEP (New Mexico), UTSA (Armed Forces)
Independents (4 teams): Army (Armed Forces), BYU (Fiesta), Liberty (Myrtle Beach), Notre Dame (Gator)
Mid-American (6 teams): Buffalo (Arizona), Central Michigan (Lending Tree), Eastern Michigan (Famous Idaho Potato), Northern Illinois (Camellia), Toledo (Quick Lane), Western Michigan (Bahamas)
Mountain West (8 teams): Air Force (Frisco), Boise State (Famous Idaho Potato), Fresno State (Boca Raton), Hawai'i (Hawai'i), Nevada (Independence), San Diego State (LA), Utah State (Arizona), Wyoming (New Mexico)
Pac-12 (7 teams): Arizona State (Alamo), Oregon (Rose), Oregon State (Holiday), Stanford (First Responder), UCLA (Sun), USC (LA), Utah (Las Vegas)
Southeastern (11 teams): Alabama (Cotton), Arkansas (Sugar), Auburn (Duke's Mayo), Florida (Outback), Georgia (Orange), Kentucky (Citrus), LSU (Liberty), Mississippi State (Texas), Ole Miss (Gator), Tennessee (Birmingham), Texas A&M (Music City)
Sun Belt (5 teams): Appalachian State (Cure), Coastal Carolina (Myrtle Beach), Louisiana (New Orleans), South Alabama (Lending Tree), Troy (Camellia)
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.