College Football Playoff Projections: Week 9 Rankings and Bowl Forecast
Another week of the 2021 college football season has come and gone, and the trend of ranked teams losing to unranked teams has continued. Summarily, bowl projections look quite different from one week ago.
By far the most shocking result was No. 7 Penn State falling at home to Illinois in nine overtimes. The Nittany Lions were favored by more than three touchdowns, but quarterback Sean Clifford didn't look right, the run defense had one of its worst days in decades and maybe they got caught peeking ahead to the Week 9 showdown with Ohio State.
Regardless, that loss knocked Penn State out of the College Football Playoff conversation for good, and out of the New Year's Six mix for now.
No. 8 Oklahoma State lost to Iowa State, although the Cowboys were actually the underdog for that road game. They still appear to be in good shape for the Sugar Bowl, although we'll see if any Big 12 tiebreakers are necessary five weeks from now.
Coastal Carolina, NC State and Purdue also lost. The latter two fell out of the AP Top 25, making space for Iowa State and BYU to jump back in.
However, there's only one more week before we can stop worrying about the AP poll and start focusing on the College Football Playoff rankings. The first edition of that Top 25 will be released on Tuesday, Nov. 2.
Until that time, we've got another batch of bowl projections, broken into six tiers and presented in ascending order of magnitude.
Group of Five Bowls
Bahamas (Dec. 17): Buffalo (4-4) vs. Charlotte (4-3)
Cure (Dec. 17): Coastal Carolina (6-1) vs. East Carolina (3-4)
Boca Raton (Dec. 18): Florida Atlantic (4-3) vs. Wyoming (4-3)
Independence (Dec. 18): BYU (6-2) vs. UAB (5-3)
LendingTree (Dec. 18): Northern Illinois (6-2) vs. South Alabama (4-3)
New Mexico (Dec. 18): Fresno State (6-2) vs. Marshall (4-3)
New Orleans (Dec. 18): Louisiana (6-1) vs. Western Kentucky (3-4)
Myrtle Beach (Dec. 20): Kent State (4-4) vs. Appalachian State (5-2)
Famous Idaho Potato (Dec. 21): Nevada (5-2) vs. Toledo (4-4)
Frisco (Dec. 21): Boise State (3-4) vs. Miami-Ohio (4-4)
Armed Forces (Dec. 22): Army (4-3) vs. UTEP (6-1)
Hawai'i (Dec. 24): Tulsa (3-4) vs. Utah State (5-2)
Camellia (Dec. 25): Troy (4-3) vs. Eastern Michigan (5-3)
Arizona (Dec. 31): Air Force (6-2) vs. Ball State (4-4)
Not much changes from week to week in this grouping. The only considerable development is still-undefeated UTSA climbing out of this tier and into the next one. That resulted in some shuffling within Conference USA, as well as a bonus spot to be filled by the MAC, which seems committed to having as many 6-6 teams as possible.
Here are some quick thoughts on Week 8 for each Group of Five league.
AAC—Following losses by both ECU and Temple, it is quickly becoming a possibility that not a single AAC team lands in this tier. Cincinnati seems bound for no worse than a New Year's Six bowl while SMU, Houston, UCF and Memphis are looking good for spots in the next tier. And that might be it from this league, where everyone else is currently below .500 and projected for 5.5 or fewer wins. ECU better beat South Florida on Thursday if it wants to remain in these projections.
C-USA—UAB losing at home to Rice as a 24-point favorite was right up there with Illinois over Penn State for the biggest upset of the week, but it neither dropped the Blazers out of the bowl picture nor vaulted the 3-4 Owls into it. Western Kentucky's quest to rally from a 1-4 start to six wins continued with a 34-19 road win over FIU. The Hilltoppers should also win home games against Charlotte and MTSU in the next two weeks.
MAC—No significant upsets here, though Miami-Ohio's road win over Ball State does put the RedHawks into the mix. There are now nine Mid-American teams sitting at 4-4 or better, and per ESPN's FPI projections, the MAC has eight teams projected for between 6.5 and 7.9 wins. The odd man out in that group is 4-4 Central Michigan, projected for just 1.7 wins the rest of the way. Don't expect any changes here next week, though, as the only MAC game taking place this week is Bowling Green at Buffalo, which Buffalo should win comfortably. Everyone else is gearing up for the shift to Tuesday/Wednesday games starting Nov. 2.
MWC—San Diego State won the headliner against Air Force to improve to 7-0, New Mexico stunned Wyoming on the road and both Fresno State and Utah State won by a deuce on games that came down to the final seconds. In the grand scheme of bowl projections, though, nothing changed here. Wyoming, which hasn't scored a touchdown in the past 10 quarters, may now have a tougher path to six wins, making its upcoming game at San Jose State a big one. If the Cowboys lose that one, the Spartans (who would then be 5-4 with three tough games remaining) would take their spot in the Boca Raton bowl.
Sun Belt—Some might say the biggest story was Appalachian State's win over Coastal Carolina, but how about Louisiana-Monroe winning as a double-digit underdog for a second successive week? The Warhawks shocked Liberty in Week 7 and knocked off South Alabama 41-31 this week to improve to 4-3. They still have road games remaining against App State, LSU and Louisiana, so they pretty much have to beat Texas State and Arkansas State to get to six wins. Even if they fall short, though, what a turnaround for a team that went 0-10 and wasn't even remotely competitive in nine of those games last year.
Group of Five vs. Power Five or Pool Bowls
L.A. (Dec. 18): San Diego State (7-0) vs. USC (3-4)
Gasparilla* (Dec. 23): Virginia Tech (3-4) vs. Washington (3-4)
Military (Dec. 27): UCF (4-3) vs. Boston College (4-3)
Quick Lane (Dec. 27): Liberty (6-2) vs. Western Michigan (5-3)
Birmingham (Dec. 28): Mississippi State (4-3) vs. SMU (7-0)
First Responder* (Dec. 28): UTSA (8-0) vs. Memphis (4-4)
Fenway (Dec. 29): Houston (6-1) vs. Miami-Florida (3-4)
*Pool bowls in which both Power Five and Group of Five conferences have potential affiliations.
USC has played in 55 bowl games in program history, good for fourth-most all-time. Miami is top-20 with 41 bowl games. Washington (38) and Virginia Tech (33) aren't far behind.
But all four of those programs are sitting at 3-4 with considerable work to be done just to secure a spot in one of these likely matchups with a 10-win Group of Five foe.
Of the bunch, Virginia Tech appears to be in the most trouble following a home loss to Syracuse. The Hokies should win their home game against Duke on Nov. 13, but the rest of their slate consists of four road games against Georgia Tech, Boston College, Miami and Virginia. If they don't beat the Yellow Jackets this weekend, they're almost certainly headed for a losing record for the third time in four seasons.
USC isn't in much better shape after consecutive losses to Utah and Notre Dame. The Trojans do have the closest thing to a free W in the form of a home game against 0-7 Arizona this coming week, but they'll need to win at Cal and steal at least one of the other three (at Arizona State, vs. UCLA, vs. BYU) to get to six wins. That is, at best, a 50/50 proposition.
This year's Apple Cup may well be a bowl season play-in game with Washington and Washington State likely to enter final week of the season with matching 5-6 records. Considering the Huskies have won seven straight by double digits in that series and are the home team this year, they should be able to get the job done.
Compared to those three, Miami's odds look pretty good. Fresh off a 31-30 win over No. 18 NC State, the Hurricanes will draw an even tougher Week 9 game at Pittsburgh. But after that, they might be favored in each of their final four games: vs. Georgia Tech, at Florida State, vs. Virginia Tech, at Duke.
Power Five Bowls with Potential to Be Fun
Guaranteed Rate (Dec. 28): Maryland (4-3) vs. Texas Tech (5-3)
Holiday (Dec. 28): Clemson (4-3) vs. UCLA (5-3)
Liberty (Dec. 28): Tennessee (4-4) vs. Kansas State (4-3)
Pinstripe (Dec. 29): Louisville (4-3) vs. Purdue (4-3)
Duke's Mayo (Dec. 30): Arkansas (5-3) vs. NC State (5-2)
Music City (Dec. 30): LSU (4-4) vs. Minnesota (5-2)
Sun (Dec. 31): North Carolina (4-3) vs. Utah (4-3)
Texas (Jan. 4): Florida (4-3) vs. Texas (4-3)
There was quite a bit of carnage in this tier this week, much of it coming in head-to-head fashion.
Kansas State rallied from an early 14-0 deficit for a one-point road win over Texas Tech, snapping its 0-3 start to Big 12 play. A loss in that game would've made for a photo finish for the Wildcats, but they should get to six wins in the next three weeks against TCU, Kansas and West Virginia.
Minnesota comfortably won at home against Maryland in a battle between 4-2 teams from the Big Ten's might-be-good-but-not-ranked club. Pretty incredible that the Golden Gophers were able to rush for 326 yards in that game after losing running backs Mohamed Ibrahim and Trey Potts to injuries earlier in the year. P.J. Fleck has some magic working once again.
And then Louisville's 28-14 win over Boston College brought the Cardinals up to this tier while relegating the Eagles to the Military Bowl.
Aside from those games and Arkansas' win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff, though, you're looking at nothing but teams who either lost in Week 8 or were idle.
All of those were either coin-flip games or expected losses, although it definitely still feels weird to have Clemson at Pitt in that group. The Tigers were, once again, dreadful on offense as they were held below 20 points in regulation by an FBS opponent for the sixth consecutive time this season. They should still at least get to six wins with some room to spare, what with games remaining against Florida State, Connecticut and South Carolina. But they are well on their way to their worst season since going 6-7 in 2010.
Top Non-New Year's Six Bowls
Alamo (Dec. 29): Oregon State (5-2) vs. Baylor (6-1)
Cheez-It (Dec. 29): Iowa State (5-2) vs. Pittsburgh (6-1)
Las Vegas (Dec. 30): Arizona State (5-2) vs. Wisconsin (4-3)
Gator (Dec. 31): Virginia (6-2) vs. Auburn (5-2)
Citrus (Jan. 1): Iowa (6-1) vs. Kentucky (6-1)
Outback (Jan. 1): Penn State (5-2) vs. Texas A&M (6-2)
That nine-overtime anti-classic between Illinois and Penn State was the most unforgettable thing to happen during Week 8. And we owe the Nittany Lions a debt of gratitude for losing that disaster, because now they fall down to this tier and we no longer need to try to justify having an undefeated Michigan State not even projected for a New Year's Six bowl.
Penn State is also very likely going to lose at Ohio State this coming weekend and still has difficult games remaining against Michigan (home) and Michigan State (road). Even though we had the Nittany Lions projected for the Rose Bowl just a few weeks ago, it's feasible they finish at 7-5 and slide all the way down to the Pinstripe Bowl before this is all over.
For everyone else in this tier, though, thumbs up for a job well done in Week 8 (if they played).
Texas A&M predictably dismantled South Carolina, darn near holding the Gamecocks to zero total yards through the first three quarters. Wisconsin did hold Purdue to negative-13 rushing yards and won that road game by three scores. And while the final margin was only 10 points, Pitt made things look pretty easy in a 27-17 win over Clemson.
Elsewhere, Virginia (48-40 vs. Georgia Tech) and Oregon State (42-34 vs. Utah) both won high-scoring affairs and finally got some votes in the AP poll. It wasn't enough for either to jump into the Top 25, though Virginia could change that next week if Brennan Armstrong does his thing on the road against No. 25 BYU. What a crucial homecoming for UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who has not faced BYU since leaving that program after the 2015 season.
But the biggest win of the bunch belongs to Iowa State, which knocked off previously unbeaten Oklahoma State by a score of 24-21 and vaulted back into the AP poll at No. 22.
Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Baylor are now each 3-1 in Big 12 play, each with a 1-1 record against the other members of the trio and each with a game remaining against Oklahoma.
Not to put the cart before the horse, but if they all go 4-1 the rest of the way with the losses coming against Oklahoma, I'm relatively sure Iowa State would win the tiebreaker for the second spot in the Big 12 championship. Cumulative scoring differential in the three head-to-head games would be used to eliminate Baylor (negative-8) from the mix, and then because Cyclones beat the Cowboys, they would win that two-team tiebreaker.
If that's the case, the Cyclones would probably take the Big 12's spot in the Sugar Bowl, provided Oklahoma plays in the CFP. But, again, let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Non-CFP New Year's Six Bowls
Peach (Dec. 30): Michigan State (7-0) vs. Wake Forest (7-0)
Fiesta (Jan. 1): Notre Dame (6-1) vs. Ole Miss (6-1)
Rose (Jan. 1): Michigan (7-0) vs. Oregon (6-1)
Sugar (Jan. 1): Alabama (7-1) vs. Oklahoma State (6-1)
Aside from updating the records, the only change here from one week ago is Michigan State replacing Penn State in the Peach Bowl.
And in Week 9, Michigan and Michigan State may well be battling for the Big Ten's spot in the Rose Bowl. Only once in the past 17 meetings have these teams squared off while ranked in the top 15, and that was the outrageous 2015 game that ended with Michigan State blocking a punt for a walk-off touchdown. We'll take something similarly dramatic this year, please and thanks.
Michigan State was the only team in this tier that was idle in Week 8, though Wake Forest, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Michigan and Alabama each flexed their muscles with wins by at least 14 points.
Oregon had an impressive come-from-behind win at UCLA. The Ducks were down 14-0 early, but Travis Dye scored on four consecutive possessions while the Bruins repeatedly shot themselves in the foot. It's still a long shot, but the Pac-12's only possible hope of a College Football Playoff participant stayed alive with a 34-31 win. Perhaps the Ducks will finally get an easy W in this week's home game against Colorado.
As previously mentioned, Oklahoma State fell a field goal shy of winning at Iowa State. The Cowboys missed a pair of field goals in that game, too, and held a lead in all four quarters. But if they win out—which means beating Oklahoma in the regular-season finale and winning the Big 12 championship—the Cowboys might still have a shot at the playoff. Even in that scenario, though, they're going to need some external help.
College Football Playoff
Orange (Dec. 31): No. 1 Georgia (7-0) vs. No. 4 Cincinnati (7-0)
Cotton (Dec. 31): No. 2 Oklahoma (8-0) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (6-1)
National Championship Game (Jan. 10): No. 1 Georgia over No. 3 Ohio State
Even though Alabama is up to No. 3 in the AP rankings, the Crimson Tide are still on the outside looking in.
That's because we are still projecting a Georgia-over-Alabama SEC championship. But if Alabama wins that game and they both finish 12-1, they'll both be in the College Football Playoff, regardless of how good Cincinnati looks the rest of the way. (Sorry, Bearcats. You deserve better.)
Neither Cincinnati nor Oklahoma looked good in Week 8, though.
At least the Bearcats led for the entire second half and things only got interesting when Navy drove 90 yards for a touchdown and subsequently recovered an onside kick with an opportunity to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. The Sooners, on the other hand, were down 10-0 at halftime and were somehow out-gained 412-398 by Kansas, which hasn't beaten an FBS opponent since October 2019.
Playing down to the level of the competition has become the irritating par for the course for the Sooners this season. They barely won the opener against a Tulane team that is currently 1-6. A 23-16 win over Nebraska was way too close for comfort, as was the 16-13 game against West Virginia that the Sooners won on a last-second field goal. And who can forget needing to rally from a 28-7 first-quarter deficit in the Red River Rivalry?
I made this comparison probably a month ago now, but this Oklahoma team feels so very much like the 2014 Florida State squad that eked out lucky win after nail-biting victory before finally getting demolished 59-20 by the No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff.
Given the way Ohio State's offense has been humming along all season—averaging 49.3 points and gaining at least 495 yards in each game—a repeat of that biggest margin of victory in CFP history could be in the cards.
And if that happens and we ultimately end up with Georgia's elite defense against Ohio State's elite offense in the national championship, giddy up.
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 (Orange), East Carolina (Cure), Houston (Fenway), Memphis (First Responder), SMU (Birmingham), Tulsa (Hawai'i), UCF (Military)
Atlantic Coast (10 teams): Boston College (Military), Clemson (Holiday), Louisville (Pinstripe), Miami (Fenway), North Carolina (Sun), North Carolina State (Duke's Mayo), Pittsburgh (Cheez-It), Virginia (Gator), Virginia Tech (Gasparilla), Wake Forest (Peach)
Big 12 (7 teams): Baylor (Alamo), Iowa State (Cheez-It), Kansas State (Liberty), Oklahoma (Cotton), Oklahoma State (Sugar), Texas (Texas), Texas Tech (Guaranteed Rate)
Big Ten (9 teams): Iowa (Citrus), Maryland (Guaranteed Rate), Michigan (Rose), Michigan State (Peach), Minnesota (Music City), Ohio State (Cotton), Penn State (Outback), Purdue (Pinstripe), Wisconsin (Las Vegas)
Conference USA (7 teams): Charlotte (Bahamas), Florida Atlantic (Boca Raton), Marshall (New Mexico), UAB (Independence), UTEP (Armed Forces), UTSA (First Responder), Western Kentucky (New Orleans)
Independents (4 teams): Army (Armed Forces), BYU (Independence), Liberty (Quick Lane), Notre Dame (Fiesta)
Mid-American (8 teams): Ball State (Arizona), Buffalo (Bahamas), Eastern Michigan (Camellia), Kent State (Myrtle Beach), Miami-Ohio (Frisco), Northern Illinois (Lending Tree), Toledo (Famous Idaho Potato), Western Michigan (Quick Lane)
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 (Las Vegas), Oregon (Rose), Oregon State (Alamo), UCLA (Holiday), USC (LA), Utah (Sun), Washington (Gasparilla)
Southeastern (11 teams): Alabama (Sugar), Arkansas (Duke's Mayo), Auburn (Gator), Florida (Texas), Georgia (Orange), Kentucky (Citrus), LSU (Music City), Mississippi State (Birmingham), Ole Miss (Fiesta), 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.