College Football Playoff Projections: Week 10 Rankings and Bowl Forecast
The first College Football Playoff Top 25 of the season is out, and what a feather in the cap for anyone who has ever argued about the importance of a singular head-to-head result.
The big one near the top of the rankings is No. 4 Oregon checking in just above No. 5 Ohio State, even though everyone seems to be in agreement that Ohio State would win a neutral-site rematch played today. Elsewhere, Oklahoma State is at No. 11, one spot ahead of a Baylor team they beat in Week 5. And then the other three were Week 9 results: Mississippi State one spot ahead of Kentucky at 17-18, Wisconsin one spot ahead of Iowa at 21-22 and Fresno State one spot ahead of San Diego State at 23-24.
Will those head-to-head results still hold a lot of water a month from now when each resume has 12 or 13 data points as opposed to the current eight or nine? We'll have to wait and see, but it was clearly a big talking point for the committee.
The biggest surprise, though, was 9-0 Oklahoma debuting at No. 8, behind four teams that have already suffered a loss.
In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter. Oklahoma would still easily finish in the Top 4 if it wins out, given the strength of its remaining schedule and the number of head-to-head matches upcoming within the Top 7. But in this initial Top 25, the selection committee certainly sent a message about the importance of style points and not getting shutout by Kansas for an entire half of football.
Cincinnati at No. 6 was both an historic moment for the Group of Five, and also a reminder that the AP rankings meant nothing. This was the highest ranking a Group of Five team has ever received, but it's four spots behind where the Bearcats have been in the AP rankings for the past few weeks. They could still get into the playoff, but it's clear at this point that they would finish the year behind Oregon if both teams win out.
To make up for putting Cincinnati at No. 6, though, a whole bunch of other Group of Five teams were left out. AP Nos. 16 UTSA, 20 Houston, 21 Coastal Carolina, 23 SMU and 24 Louisiana were all omitted from this initial Top 25. And that's especially a shame for undefeated UTSA in advance of a big nationally-televised matchup with UTEP on Saturday night.
That's enough on the current rankings, because we all know they're going to change substantially, and we're more interested in trying to project what things will look like a month from now.
Our latest batch of bowl projections has been broken into six tiers and presented in ascending order of magnitude.
Group of Five Bowls
Bahamas (Dec. 17): UAB (5-3) vs. Miami-Ohio (4-4)
Cure (Dec. 17): Coastal Carolina (7-1) vs. East Carolina (4-4)
Boca Raton (Dec. 18): Florida Atlantic (5-3) vs. San Jose State (5-4)
Independence (Dec. 18): BYU (7-2) vs. UTEP (6-2)
LendingTree (Dec. 18): Northern Illinois (6-2) vs. South Alabama (5-3)
New Mexico (Dec. 18): San Diego State (7-1) vs. Marshall (5-3)
New Orleans (Dec. 18): Louisiana (7-1) vs. Western Kentucky (4-4)
Myrtle Beach (Dec. 20): Kent State (4-4) vs. Appalachian State (6-2)
Famous Idaho Potato (Dec. 21): Nevada (6-2) vs. Toledo (4-4)
Frisco (Dec. 21): Boise State (4-4) vs. Middle Tennessee (4-4)
Armed Forces (Dec. 22): Army (4-3) vs. UTSA (8-0)
Hawai'i (Dec. 24): Memphis (4-4) vs. Utah State (6-2)
Camellia (Dec. 25): Troy (4-4) vs. Eastern Michigan (5-3)
Arizona (Dec. 31): Air Force (6-2) vs. Ball State (4-4)
Here's a conference-by-conference breakdown of noteworthy Week 9 developments in the Group of Five.
AAC: East Carolina picked up an important Thursday win over South Florida to improve to 4-4, remaining very much in the mix for six wins. Tulsa, however, lost at home to Navy, leaving the AAC looking like a six-bowl league, at best. But in a game between teams definitely going bowling, Houston picked up a 44-37 win over SMU on a kickoff-return touchdown in the final 30 seconds. Not only did that loss end SMU's dream of an undefeated season, but with Houston at 5-0 and Cincinnati at 4-0 in league play, the Mustangs basically need to win out—which includes a Week 12 road game against Cincinnati—in order to play for the AAC crown.
C-USA: Florida Atlantic, Marshall and Western Kentucky all won to improve to 3-1 in league play and to keep the race for who faces UTSA in the C-USA championship a tight one. MTSU also improved to 4-4 overall with a 35-10 win over Southern Miss. With home games remaining against 1-7 FIU and 2-6 ODU, there's a decent chance the Blue Raiders get to 6-6. They slide into this week's bowl projections, replacing Charlotte after the 49ers were blown out for a second straight week.
MAC: Only one Week 9 game in the MAC and, wouldn't you know it, it was a significant upset. Bowling Green went on the road and dropped 56 points on Buffalo to drop the Bulls to 4-5 overall. They are now 0-5 against FBS teams who currently have at least three wins, so we are less than optimistic they'll be able to take two out of three down the stretch against Miami-Ohio, Northern Illinois and Ball State.
MWC: Big week in the Mountain West, headlined by Fresno State upsetting previously undefeated San Diego State. The Bulldogs are now in the driver's seat in the MWC West Division with games remaining against Boise State, New Mexico and San Jose State. Elsewhere, Nevada and Utah State both picked up their sixth wins of the year, Boise State won at Colorado State in what was more or less a bowl-season elimination game and San Jose State knocked off Wyoming, subsequently replacing the Cowboys in our projection for the Boca Raton Bowl. Wyoming has lost four straight and needs a serious facelift on offense if it wants to avoid extending that to eight losses in a row.
Sun Belt: Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Louisiana all won, but there is not currently another Sun Belt team projected for six wins. South Alabama could get there with a road win over Troy next weekend, but if the Jaguars lose that game, it's unlikely they'll beat App State, Coastal or Tennessee down the stretch. And even if Troy wins on Saturday, the Trojans also have a tough walk to the finish line hosting App State and Louisiana before a road game against Georgia State. There should eventually be a fourth Sun Belt team with six wins, but five or more teams is looking less likely by the week.
Group of Five vs. Power Five or Pool Bowls
L.A. (Dec. 18): Fresno State (7-2) vs. USC (4-4)
Gasparilla* (Dec. 23): Syracuse (5-4) vs. Washington (4-4)
Military (Dec. 27): UCF (5-3) vs. Virginia Tech (4-4)
Quick Lane (Dec. 27): Liberty (7-2) vs. Western Michigan (5-3)
Birmingham (Dec. 28): LSU (4-4) vs. SMU (7-1)
First Responder* (Dec. 28): Texas Tech (5-4) vs. Washington State (5-4)
Fenway (Dec. 29): Houston (7-1) vs. Louisville (4-4)
*Pool bowls in which both Power Five and Group of Five conferences have potential affiliations.
I didn't notice this until putting Texas Tech and Washington State against one another in the projected First Responder Bowl, but this tier is flooded with interim head coaches. In addition to the Red Raiders and the Cougars, we've also got USC and LSU. And while Virginia Tech hasn't made a move yet, Justin Fuente is certainly at or near the top of the list of guys most likely to get the next pink slip.
That has no bearing on whether these teams would be eligible for bowl season, but it'll be interesting to see which of those 4-4 or 5-4 teams can do enough down the stretch to salvage a season that has essentially already been declared a failure.
Washington State certainly should get to six wins after its unexpected 34-21 victory over Arizona State. The Cougars forced five Sun Devils turnovers, which they converted into 24 points. They're idle this week and will return in Week 11 to a likely road loss to Oregon, but the subsequent home game against Arizona ought to do the trick.
Washington was also opportunistic in a big road win, forcing three turnovers and scoring the game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds at Stanford. It has been a mighty disappointing year for a Huskies team that opened the season ranked 20th in the AP poll, but that victory significantly improved their chances of getting to six wins. They'll likely need to win the Apple Cup on Thanksgiving weekend to get there, but that hasn't been much of a problem in recent years.
One other will they/won't they team of note here is Louisville, which allowed NC State to score 21 points in the fourth quarter of a 28-13 come-from-behind victory for the Wolfpack. The Cardinals have now lost three of their last four and still have tough home games remaining against Clemson, Syracuse and Kentucky, as well as a road game against Duke that they should win. Might be a photo finish.
Power Five Bowls with Potential to Be Fun
Guaranteed Rate (Dec. 28): Maryland (5-3) vs. West Virginia (4-4)
Holiday (Dec. 28): Clemson (5-3) vs. UCLA (5-4)
Liberty (Dec. 28): Florida (4-4) vs. Texas (4-4)
Pinstripe (Dec. 29): Miami-Florida (4-4) vs. Purdue (5-3)
Duke's Mayo (Dec. 30): Arkansas (5-3) vs. Virginia (6-3)
Music City (Dec. 30): Mississippi State (5-3) vs. Minnesota (6-2)
Sun (Dec. 31): North Carolina (4-4) vs. Oregon State (5-3)
Texas (Jan. 4): Kansas State (5-3) vs. Tennessee (4-4)
It was quite the week for a number of quarterbacks on this tier, led by Mississippi State's Will Rogers.
Will Rogers was flawless against Kentucky, completing 36-of-39 pass attempts for 344 yards and a touchdown in a 31-17 victory. The Bulldogs were a great big "maybe" in the bowl picture heading into Week 9, but at 5-3 with a gimme remaining against Tennessee State, they're going to at least get to six wins.
Miami's Tyler Van Dyke was equally impressive in out-dueling Pitt's Kenny Pickett for a 38-34 victory. Van Dyke threw for 426 yards and three touchdowns as the Hurricanes upset a Top 20 ACC opponent for the second consecutive Saturday (NC State last week).
Like Mississippi State, Miami was on the bowl fence prior to that result, but the 'Canes should be able to win at least two of their remaining games against Georgia Tech, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Duke. Heck, they might even win all four of those and sneak into the ACC championship if Pitt slips up once more down the stretch.
After three straight rough performances, "Good Taulia Tagovailoa" was back this week for Maryland for 419 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-35 win over Indiana.
Last but not least, West Virginia's Jarret Doege went for 370 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in a surprising 38-31 win over then-No. 22 Iowa State. One of those picks did get taken back for a Cyclones touchdown, but Doege responded quite well by leading the Mountaineers on three consecutive touchdown drives of at least 75 yards each after that blunder.
Top Non-New Year's Six Bowls
Alamo (Dec. 29): Utah (5-3) vs. Baylor (7-1)
Cheez-It (Dec. 29): Iowa State (5-3) vs. Pittsburgh (6-2)
Las Vegas (Dec. 30): Arizona State (5-3) vs. Penn State (5-3)
Gator (Dec. 31): North Carolina State (6-2) vs. Auburn (6-2)
Citrus (Jan. 1): Iowa (6-2) vs. Kentucky (6-2)
Outback (Jan. 1): Wisconsin (5-3) vs. Texas A&M (6-2)
For the teams projected for the Cheez-It, Las Vegas and Citrus Bowls, Week 9 was a rough one.
Iowa was No. 9 in last week's AP poll. Kentucky was ranked 12th, Pittsburgh was at 17th and Iowa State was in 22nd. But all four of them lost to unranked opponents.
In particular, Iowa had a dreadful performance, held to 156 total yards with three turnovers in a 27-7 loss to Wisconsin. We wondered throughout the first half of the season what would happen if and when Iowa's turnover luck ran out. As it turns out, the Hawkeyes offense is basically incapable of scoring if it needs to go more than 40 yards. But if they're able to win at least two of their remaining games against Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska, they'll likely still end up in a bowl on this tier.
At least Iowa has only lost two in a row, though. Penn State is now on a three-game losing streak after failing to capitalize on Ohio State's many shortcomings in the red zone. The Nittany Lions are now 5-3 with tough games still to come against Michigan (home) and Michigan State (road). They should be able to win at least one of the other two games against Maryland and Rutgers in order to become bowl-eligible, but they also should've been able to beat Illinois.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Baylor erased a 21-10 deficit in the final 20 minutes against Texas to improve to 7-1. The Bears now have wins over Iowa State, BYU and the Longhorns and still rank among the viable candidates to reach the College Football Playoff. They'll need to win the home game against Oklahoma in Week 11 and win the Big 12 championship—presumably against the winner of the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State clash in Week 13—but that's at least remotely feasible for a team with a solid defense and a great run game.
Non-CFP New Year's Six Bowls
Peach (Dec. 30): Michigan (7-1) vs. Wake Forest (8-0)
Fiesta (Jan. 1): Notre Dame (7-1) vs. Ole Miss (6-2)
Rose (Jan. 1): Michigan State (8-0) vs. Oregon (7-1)
Sugar (Jan. 1): Alabama (7-1) vs. Oklahoma State (7-1)
When Iowa lost to Purdue three Saturdays ago and I moved Notre Dame up to this tier to replace the Hawkeyes, it wasn't so much a vote of confidence in the Fighting Irish as it was a requirement to come up with some 12th team temporarily respectable enough for a New Year's Six bowl.
But after relatively convincing wins over USC and North Carolina in the past two weeks, not only is Notre Dame quite firmly in the projected New Year's Six picture, but it's starting to re-emerge as a sleeper candidate for the College Football Playoff.
The Irish don't belong in the Top Four at this point, but they do have six wins over teams who are .500 or better. And if they continue to win, there's a good chance they'll end up with a resume either clearly better or at least arguably on par with the best ACC team, the best Pac-12 team and the second-best teams out of the Big 12, Big Ten and SEC. However, they would likely need Cincinnati to suffer at least one loss since they do have that head-to-head loss to the Bearcats.
The team currently in the "Well, we need a 12th team" slot is Ole Miss following its loss to Auburn. There's a four-way SEC logjam involving Ole Miss, Auburn, Kentucky and Texas A&M for that spot. Baylor is in that mix, as well. But the Rebels are the team from that bunch most likely to both win out and pick up at least one more quality win along the way. Given their current ranking, that would presumably be enough to land somewhere in the Nos. 10-12 range of the final rankings.
However, the biggest Week 9 development was Michigan State getting five rushing touchdowns from Kenneth Walker III to knock off Michigan, thus becoming the Big Ten's top challenger to Ohio State and its projected participant in the Rose Bowl. The Spartans are still expected to lose their road game against the Buckeyes on Nov. 20, but an 11-1 record and just the second trip to the granddaddy of them all in the past three-plus decades is well within the realm of possibility.
College Football Playoff
Orange (Dec. 31): No. 1 Georgia (8-0) vs. No. 4 Cincinnati (8-0)
Cotton (Dec. 31): No. 2 Ohio State (7-1) vs. No. 3 Oklahoma (9-0)
National Championship Game (Jan. 10): No. 1 Georgia over No. 2 Ohio State
As a reminder, our goal is to project the final rankings, not merely regurgitate the current rankings. So even though we now know where the selection committee stands on the Top 25 teams for the first time this season, our projected College Football Playoff picture remains the same for a third consecutive week.
At this point, it's hard to imagine the national semifinals taking place without Georgia. Not only have the Bulldogs been outrageously dominant on defense all season long, but their remaining schedule (vs. Missouri, at Tennessee, vs. Charleston Southern, at Georgia Tech) is, uh, not exactly a gauntlet. They just won four in a row by at least 24 points each against Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Florida, and they may well put together a plus-160 scoring margin in those final four games. And if that happens, even if they were to lose to Alabama in the SEC championship, they'd most likely still finish in the Top 4.
Beyond that, though, there's still a ton up in the air here.
That's particularly true for Oklahoma, which debuted at No. 8 in the CFP rankings, but which has games remaining against Baylor, Iowa State and Oklahoma State before (presumably) facing one of those teams for a second time in the Big 12 championship. Even though they've played much better in five of their past six halves of football than they played in their first six games, the Sooners could easily lose multiple games down the stretch if they let their guard down.
And neither Ohio State nor Cincinnati looked great in Week 9, even though it never felt like either team was in serious danger of losing. But both should cruise to victory in the next two weeks—Ohio State against Nebraska and Purdue; Cincinnati against Tulsa and South Florida—before things maybe get a little interesting in the home stretch.
One big note here, though, is that both Ole Miss and Kentucky were effectively eliminated from the conversation with their Week 9 losses to Auburn and Mississippi State, respectively. If the Rebels had finished 11-1 with a road loss to Alabama or if the Wildcats had finished 11-1 with a road loss to Georgia, they would have presented a compelling "didn't even win their division" case nearly identical to the one Texas A&M brought to the table one year ago.
Nothing against Ole Miss or Kentucky, but it would be nice to not need to argue over that type of resume this year. At this point, Michigan, Michigan State, Wake Forest and Independent Notre Dame are the only Power Five teams left that could go 11-1 without playing for a conference championship.
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 (6 teams): Cincinnati (Orange), East Carolina (Cure), Houston (Fenway), Memphis (Hawai'i), SMU (Birmingham), UCF (Military)
Atlantic Coast (10 teams): Clemson (Holiday), Louisville (Fenway), Miami (Pinstripe), North Carolina (Sun), North Carolina State (Gator), Pittsburgh (Cheez-It), Syracuse (Gasparilla), Virginia (Duke's Mayo), Virginia Tech (Military), Wake Forest (Peach)
Big 12 (8 teams): Baylor (Alamo), Iowa State (Cheez-It), Kansas State (Texas), Oklahoma (Cotton), Oklahoma State (Sugar), Texas (Liberty), Texas Tech (First Responder), West Virginia (Guaranteed Rate)
Big Ten (9 teams): Iowa (Citrus), Maryland (Guaranteed Rate), Michigan (Peach), Michigan State (Rose), Minnesota (Music City), Ohio State (Cotton), Penn State (Las Vegas), Purdue (Pinstripe), Wisconsin (Outback)
Conference USA (7 teams): Florida Atlantic (Boca Raton), Marshall (New Mexico), Middle Tennessee (Frisco), UAB (Bahamas), UTEP (Independence), UTSA (Armed Forces), Western Kentucky (New Orleans)
Independents (4 teams): Army (Armed Forces), BYU (Independence), Liberty (Quick Lane), Notre Dame (Fiesta)
Mid-American (7 teams): Ball State (Arizona), Eastern Michigan (Camellia), Kent State (Myrtle Beach), Miami-Ohio (Bahamas), Northern Illinois (Lending Tree), Toledo (Famous Idaho Potato), Western Michigan (Quick Lane)
Mountain West (7 teams): Air Force (Arizona), Boise State (Frisco), Fresno State (LA), Nevada (Famous Idaho Potato), San Diego State (New Mexico), San Jose State (Boca Raton), Utah State (Hawai'i)
Pac-12 (8 teams): Arizona State (Las Vegas), Oregon (Rose), Oregon State (Sun), UCLA (Holiday), USC (LA), Utah (Alamo), Washington (Gasparilla), Washington State (First Responder)
Southeastern (11 teams): Alabama (Sugar), Arkansas (Duke's Mayo), Auburn (Gator), Florida (Liberty), Georgia (Orange), Kentucky (Citrus), LSU (Birmingham), Mississippi State (Music City), Ole Miss (Fiesta), Tennessee (Texas), 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.