College Football Playoff Projections: Week 7 Rankings and Bowl Forecast
Alabama was our projected No. 1 seed and projected national champion prior to its Week 6 visit to previously unranked Texas A&M.
Following that stunning loss to the Aggies, are the Crimson Tide even in the College Football Playoff picture anymore?
If not, who takes their spot?
We still need to wait until Nov. 2 before the CFP selection committee begins the weekly installments of its Top 25 rankings, but as far as the latest AP poll is concerned, Alabama is just outside the Top Four (while Texas A&M is now just outside the Top 20).
The Aggies were the only new team to join the rankings (replacing Auburn) following a week in which there were only two significant upsets. The other was Boise State going on the road and knocking off No. 10 BYU, dropping the Cougars down nine rungs to No. 19.
One noteworthy riser was still-undefeated Kentucky, which climbed from No. 16 to No. 11 after its convincing win over LSU. The Wildcats have a likely loss at Georgia coming up this weekend, but their remaining schedule (at Mississippi State, vs. Tennessee, at Vanderbilt, vs. New Mexico State, at Louisville) is about as easy of a five-week stretch as you could imagine for an SEC team. We have UK projected for a New Year's Six Bowl, as there's a reasonable chance it'll finish in the Top 10 with an 11-1 record.
And with that brief recap of the recent past, let's dive into the future with another batch of bowl projections.
Bowls are broken into six tiers and listed in ascending order of magnitude.
Group of 5 Bowls
Bahamas (Dec. 17): Charlotte (4-2) vs. Western Michigan (4-2)
Cure (Dec. 17): Coastal Carolina (6-0) vs. Memphis (3-3)
Boca Raton (Dec. 18): Florida Atlantic (3-3) vs. Wyoming (4-1)
Independence (Dec. 18): BYU (5-1) vs. UTSA (6-0)
LendingTree (Dec. 18): Northern Illinois (4-2) vs. South Alabama (3-2)
New Mexico (Dec. 18): Fresno State (4-2) vs. Marshall (3-3)
New Orleans (Dec. 18): Louisiana (4-1) vs. UAB (4-2)
Myrtle Beach (Dec. 20): Appalachian State (4-1) vs. East Carolina (3-3)
Famous Idaho Potato (Dec. 21): Nevada (4-1) vs. Toledo (3-3)
Frisco (Dec. 21): Boise State (3-3) vs. Central Michigan (3-3)
Armed Forces (Dec. 22): Army (4-1) vs. UTEP (5-1)
Hawai'i (Dec. 24): Temple (3-3) vs. Utah State (3-2)
Camellia (Dec. 25): Kent State (3-3) vs. Troy (3-3)
Arizona (Dec. 31): Air Force (5-1) vs. Ball State (3-3)
One significant development on this tier is the re-introduction of BYU to the mix.
Unless they rank high enough to qualify for a New Year's Six bowl, the Cougars will be playing in this year's Independence Bowl. (Same goes for Army in the Armed Forces Bowl. Always nice to have a couple of freebies when trying to project where more than 80 teams will land.) But heading into Week 6, I had the then-No.-10-in-the-AP-Poll Cougars penciled in for a Fiesta Bowl showdown with Wake Forest.
However, following a fumble-filled meltdown in a 26-17 loss to Boise State, that's no longer the case.
BYU's NY6 dream isn't dead yet, though. The Cougars are still ranked in the Top 20 with plenty of significant tests/opportunities remaining, starting this weekend with a road game against 5-1 Baylor. With three wins (two home, one neutral site) over Pac-12 opponents already to their credit, a road win over the Bears could vault the Cougars right back onto the fringe of that Top 12 mix.
Also in this tier is 3-3 Memphis, which, much like Oklahoma, only seems to know how to take FBS opponents right down to the wire. The Tigers have played in five consecutive games decided by six points or fewer, losing each of the past three. This past week's loss to Tulsa was especially painful, as the Tigers had more than 600 yards of total offense but missed three field goals and an extra point and committed three back-breaking turnovers.
Memphis will host 1-4 Navy on Thursday night in a game that could make or break the Tigers' dreams of playing in a bowl game for an eighth consecutive season. After this week, they still play at UCF and Houston and host SMU, which would make it hard to get to six wins if they drop this one.
Provided Memphis eventually plays in a bowl game, though, it might be the highest-scoring of them all—especially if this projection holds true and the Tigers draw Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl. That matchup would have a score like 63-52 written all over it.
Group of 5 vs. Power 5 or Pool Bowls
L.A. (Dec. 18): San Diego State (5-0) vs. USC (3-3)
Gasparilla* (Dec. 23): Liberty (5-1) vs. Oregon State (4-2)
Military (Dec. 27): UCF (3-2) vs. Virginia (4-2)
Quick Lane (Dec. 27): Eastern Michigan (4-2) vs. Rutgers (3-3)
Birmingham (Dec. 28): LSU (3-3) vs. SMU (6-0)
First Responder* (Dec. 28): Kansas State (3-2) vs. Miami-Florida (2-3)
Fenway (Dec. 29): Houston (5-1) vs. North Carolina (3-3)
*Pool bowls in which both Power Five and Group of Five conferences have potential affiliations.
Would you get a load of all these preseason contenders who have had to shift their goalposts from "Win the CFP" to "Try to Win Six Games."
From the preseason AP Top 25, we've got No. 10 North Carolina, No. 14 Miami, No. 15 USC and No. 16 LSU all here with three losses each. (No. 17 Indiana and No. 20 Washington are also sitting at 2-3 and don't even make the cut as projected bowl teams anymore.)
Miami and North Carolina are also squaring off in Week 7 in what sure looks like a must-win game for the Tar Heels. They still play at Notre Dame, at NC State and at Pitt, plus they have a home game against undefeated Wake Forest. Even with a win over the 'Canes, getting to 6-6 will be an uphill battle. Lose this weekend and they're most likely going to finish with a sub-.500 record.
Anyone know the last time a top-five draft pick came from a team with a losing record? Asking for my friend Sam Howell, as well as for my friend Derek Stingley Jr., whose LSU Tigers are even less likely to get to 6-6 (in part because Stingley hasn't played in three weeks and is now out indefinitely following foot surgery).
Let's go ahead and call the Nov. 20 home game against Louisiana-Monroe a W for LSU, but each of the other five remaining games on this schedule is against a ranked team. The Tigers do at least get each of Florida, Arkansas and Texas A&M at home. It's likely they'll win at least one of those games. But can they win two of them? Or knock off Ole Miss or Alabama on the road? If not, it'll be back-to-back bowl-less years in the bayou, and probably bye-bye to Ed Orgeron.
On a more positive note, San Diego State and SMU both made it through another week with a zero in the loss column and look poised to earn two of the higher-profile bowl invitations that will be extended to Group of Five teams. The Mustangs are idle this weekend, but the Aztecs should improve to 6-0 with a Friday night win over San Jose State.
Power 5 Bowls with Potential to Be Fun
Guaranteed Rate (Dec. 28): Nebraska (3-4) vs. TCU (3-2)
Holiday (Dec. 28): Pitt (4-1) vs. UCLA (4-2)
Liberty (Dec. 28): Tennessee (4-2) vs. Texas Tech (4-2)
Pinstripe (Dec. 29): Boston College (4-1) vs. Purdue (3-2)
Duke's Mayo (Dec. 30): Arkansas (4-2) vs. NC State (4-1)
Music City (Dec. 30): Maryland (4-2) vs. Mississippi State (3-2)
Sun (Dec. 31): Stanford (3-3) vs. Virginia Tech (3-2)
Texas (Jan. 4): Auburn (4-2) vs. Iowa State (3-2)
There are several very interesting teams on this tier, at least from the perspective of Bill Connelly's latest SP+ rankings.
In theory, this tier should primarily consist of teams ranked in the Nos. 25-40 range. Obviously, there are conference affiliation considerations that keep that from being realistic, but you certainly wouldn't expect to find three top-15 teams this far down the bowl pecking order, right?
Well, Pitt is at No. 10, Iowa State is at No. 11 and Tennessee is at No. 14 in those SP+ rankings.
Pitt I can somewhat understand. The Panthers got a nice road win over Tennessee, they're leading the nation in scoring at 52.4 points per game, and they have an average scoring margin of nearly 30 points. They might be the best team in the ACC's Coastal Division, and it's not just because no one else seems interested in wearing that crown this year.
It's hard to comprehend what Iowa State and Tennessee have done to earn that ranking, though.
The Cyclones entered the season as an AP Top 10 team, but they have yet to beat an opponent that has beaten an FBS opponent. The Volunteers were nowhere near as highly regarded in the preseason, and they have zero wins against opponents who currently have a winning record.
But keep a close eye on those potential spoilers. Iowa State still faces Oklahoma State, Texas and Oklahoma, while Tennessee's next four games come against Ole Miss, Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia. Will either one be able to back up that thumbs up from the analytics with an upset or two?
Speaking of spoilers, Nebraska and Virginia Tech both fell just shy of picking up big Week 6 upsets in dueling 32-29 games against Michigan and Notre Dame, respectively.
Virginia Tech still has plenty of time and a favorable enough schedule to get to six wins, but Nebraska's back is officially up against the wall now. The Cornhuskers already have four losses and still have games remaining against Ohio State and Iowa. If they lose at Minnesota this weekend, there's very little hope of finishing at .500 or better. But it's not beyond the realm of possibility, and with four Big Ten teams projected for New Year's Six bowls, it's slim pickings on the list of "regular" bowls reserved for the Big Ten.
Top Non-New Year's 6 Bowls
Alamo (Dec. 29): Arizona State (5-1) vs. Texas (4-2)
Cheez-It (Dec. 29): Baylor (5-1) vs. Notre Dame (5-1)
Las Vegas (Dec. 30): Utah (3-2) vs. Wisconsin (2-3)
Gator (Dec. 31): Clemson (3-2) vs. Florida (4-2)
Citrus (Jan. 1): Michigan State (6-0) vs. Ole Miss (4-1)
Outback (Jan. 1): Minnesota (3-2) vs. Texas A&M (4-2)
As just touched on in the previous tier, the Big Ten goes from "title contender" to "might not win six games" in the blink of an eye.
The top five teams in this league rank in the Top 10 in the nation, but I guess the sixth-best team is Minnesota? And I suppose Wisconsin still has a good enough defense to belong in that conversation? Maryland looked like the sixth-best team until it ran into Iowa and Ohio State for consecutive losses by a combined score of 117-31.
At this point, I'd even be willing to consider the possibility that Rutgers is the sixth-best team in this conference. The Scarlet Knights stomped Temple and shut down what has otherwise been a pretty solid Syracuse offense prior to opening B1G play with three straight against Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. They lost all three, but they put up a good fight against both the Wolverines and the Spartans. But I'd like to at least see them win at Northwestern this weekend before I tug too hard on that thread.
Moving on from the Big Ten, there are a bunch of intriguing one-loss teams in this tier, perhaps none more so than Arizona State.
The Sun Devils took their L at BYU, but they have otherwise won each game this season by at least an 18-point margin. The first few victories over Southern Utah, UNLV and Colorado were hardly worth noting, but beating both UCLA and Stanford by three-score margins was something. If they can keep that momentum going with a road win over Utah this weekend, they would take a commanding lead in the race for the Pac-12 South's spot in the conference championship.
Given the general mediocrity of the Pac-12, even if Arizona State wins out, it's probably not sniffing the College Football Playoff field. However, fans of the Sun Devils would likely be more than content with playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time since January 1997. If it ends up being ASU-Oregon in the P12 title game, it should be a great one.
Non-CFP New Year's 6 Bowls
Peach (Dec. 30): Penn State (5-1) vs. Wake Forest (6-0)
Fiesta (Jan. 1): Michigan (6-0) vs. Kentucky (6-0)
Rose (Jan. 1): Ohio State (5-1) vs. Oregon (4-1)
Sugar (Jan. 1): Alabama (5-1) vs. Oklahoma State (5-0)
Speaking purely from a "bowl projections" perspective, the *best* part of Alabama's Week 6 loss to Texas A&M is that it came against a team that has already suffered two conference losses. That means we cannot possibly have a repeat of the 2017 farce in which the Crimson Tide didn't have to play in the SEC championship and still earned a spot in the CFP semifinals.
If they finish 11-1, they will play in the SEC Championship Game. And given the remaining schedule devoid of opponents currently ranked in the Top 15, you kind of have to like their chances of pulling that off.
However, contrary to one week ago when it felt like we were destined for 12-0 Alabama against 12-0 Georgia in a battle for CFP seeding, the Crimson Tide now almost certainly will need to win that game against the Bulldogs (assuming the Dawgs beat Kentucky this weekend and go on to run the table) to secure their spot in the playoff.
Given how poorly they blocked against Texas A&M's blitz packages, I am at least temporarily skeptical they'll be able to get into any sort of offensive rhythm against the defense that leads the nation in both points allowed (5.5) and total yards allowed (203.5). Thus, Alabama slips out of the projected CFP top four and into the Sugar Bowl.
Also of particular note in this tier, Wake Forest improved to 6-0 with a second consecutive last-second victory over an opponent not projected for a bowl game. The Demon Deacons moved up three spots to No. 16 in the latest AP poll, but even if they win out, I'm not convinced they would make it all the way into the top four.
It does seem likely that we'll be spending a fair amount of time talking about this team's bowl ceiling for the next few weeks, though. Wake Forest is idle in Week 7 before finishing out October with games against Army and Duke. We're already down to 13 undefeated teams, and the Demon Deacons may well enter November as one of the final few standing.
However, that November schedule (at UNC, vs. NCST, at Clemson, at BC) will almost certainly saddle them with at least one loss, so let's at least make sure they get through the Black Knights and the Blue Devils before we start questioning whether 13-0 Cincinnati or 13-0 Wake Forest would be held in higher regard by the selection committee.
College Football Playoff
Cotton (Dec. 31): No. 1 Georgia (6-0) vs. No. 4 Cincinnati (5-0)
Orange (Dec. 31): No. 2 Iowa (6-0) vs. No. 3 Oklahoma (6-0)
National Championship Game (Jan. 10): No. 1 Georgia over No. 2 Iowa
One quarter into their respective Week 6 games, Oklahoma trailed Texas 28-7 and Iowa was down 14-3 at home against Penn State. Both projected CFP participants spent the vast majority of the first 3.5 quarters on the wrong end of the win probability models before both flipping the script with around eight minutes left to play.
So, no, we're nowhere near convinced either of those teams is truly second-best or third-best in the country. However, as things stand, the playoff is shaping up to be Georgia in the No. 1 seed, the Big Ten and Big 12 champs dueling in the Orange Bowl and then a wild-card team in the No. 4 seed.
For now, Iowa and Oklahoma are those projected conference champions—though you could very easily sell us on Iowa losing to any of Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State or Penn State in the B1G title game. You probably shouldn't count on either of those projected champions changing any time soon, either. Iowa's remaining six games are against the rest of the not-very-good Big Ten West, while Oklahoma should cruise into mid-November with a 9-0 record against an upcoming slate of: vs. TCU, at Kansas, vs. Texas Tech.
That's enough dancing around the real story here, which is Cincinnati jumping up to replace Alabama in the projected playoff.
For the Bearcats to ultimately land in the CFP, an awful lot of things need to go just right. First and foremost, they need to run the table, preferably in consistently convincing fashion. They also need Alabama to lose again. They most likely need Oregon to lose again, too. And, ideally, the Big Ten East will cannibalize itself a bit before producing a one-or-more-loss champ that loses to Iowa in the conference championship.
The first half of the season has gone about as well as Cincinnati could have dreamed of, though, to the point where you don't need to squint all that much to see this team making the cut.
Would the Bearcats get eviscerated by Georgia in the Cotton Bowl? Yeah, probably. But if they win out, it would be awesome to at least see them given a chance.
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 (Cotton), East Carolina (Myrtle Beach), Houston (Fenway), Memphis (Cure), SMU (Birmingham), Temple (Hawai'i), UCF (Military)
Atlantic Coast (9 teams): Boston College (Pinstripe), Clemson (Gator), Miami (First Responder), North Carolina (Fenway), North Carolina State (Duke's Mayo), Pittsburgh (Holiday), Virginia (Military), Virginia Tech (Sun), Wake Forest (Peach)
Big 12 (8 teams): Baylor (Cheez-It), Iowa State (Texas), Kansas State (First Responder), Oklahoma (Orange), Oklahoma State (Sugar), TCU (Guaranteed Rate), Texas (Alamo), Texas Tech (Liberty)
Big Ten (11 teams): Iowa (Orange), Maryland (Music City), Michigan (Fiesta), Michigan State (Citrus), Minnesota (Outback), Nebraska (Guaranteed Rate), Ohio State (Rose), Penn State (Peach), Purdue (Pinstripe), Rutgers (Quick Lane), Wisconsin (Las Vegas)
Conference USA (6 teams): Charlotte (Bahamas), Florida Atlantic (Boca Raton), Marshall (New Mexico), UAB (New Orleans), UTEP (Armed Forces), UTSA (Independence)
Independents (4 teams): Army (Armed Forces), BYU (Independence), Liberty (Gasparilla), Notre Dame (Cheez-It)
Mid-American (7 teams): Ball State (Arizona), Central Michigan (Frisco), Eastern Michigan (Quick Lane), Kent State (Camellia), Northern Illinois (Lending Tree), Toledo (Famous Idaho Potato), Western Michigan (Bahamas)
Mountain West (7 teams): Air Force (Arizona), Boise State (Frisco), Fresno State (New Mexico), Nevada (Famous Idaho Potato), San Diego State (LA), Utah State (Hawai'i), Wyoming (Boca Raton)
Pac-12 (7 teams): Arizona State (Alamo), Oregon (Rose), Oregon State (Gasparilla), Stanford (Sun), UCLA (Holiday), USC (LA), Utah (Las Vegas)
Southeastern (11 teams): Alabama (Sugar), Arkansas (Duke's Mayo), Auburn (Texas), Florida (Gator), Georgia (Cotton), Kentucky (Fiesta), LSU (Birmingham), Mississippi State (Music City), Ole Miss (Citrus), Tennessee (Liberty), Texas A&M (Outback)
Sun Belt (5 teams): Appalachian State (Myrtle Beach), Coastal Carolina (Cure), 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.