College Football Playoff Projections: Week 12 Rankings and Bowl Forecast
After a week of college football almost entirely devoid of significant upsets, the updated College Football Playoff Top 25 was also lacking in major surprises. The top seven remains unchanged from one week ago as we venture into the penultimate week of the regular season.
In most weeks, this introductory space is reserved as a soap box to complain about some ridiculous swap the CFP selection committee made in its most recent batch of rankings. However, this Top 25 actually makes sense for a change.
Maybe dropping Texas A&M five spots from No. 11 to No. 16 for a competitive road loss to then-No. 15 Ole Miss was a bit harsh. Same goes for Oklahoma falling five spots from No. 8 to No. 13 after its loss at Baylor. But that's really splitting hairs.
The only team that landed more than two spots away from projections I jotted down Tuesday morning was Arkansas landing at No. 21, climbing four places after an overtime win over LSU. I had the Razorbacks at No. 24, which, again, is splitting hairs.
But the good news is there's still a whole lot of football left to be played before we reach the finish line, including the colossal Big Ten clash between No. 7 Michigan State and No. 4 Ohio State, as well as No. 23 Utah at No. 3 Oregon in a game with massive CFP implications.
One final rankings thought before we move on to bowl projections: Houston finally entered the Top 25 at No. 24. The Cougars locked up their spot in the AAC championship game last weekend and could really shake up the New Year's Six picture if they were to upset No. 5 Cincinnati in that game. Not only would that certainly knock the Bearcats out of the running for the CFP, but it would open the door for Houston, No. 19 San Diego State or No. 22 UTSA to snag the New Year's Six spot reserved for the highest-ranking Group of Five champion.
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, because Cincinnati (vs. SMU) and UTSA (vs. UAB) both face major tests in Week 12.
Let's move on from the latest Top 25 and shift our focus to our latest bowl projections, which are broken into six tiers and presented in ascending order of magnitude.
Group of Five Bowls
Bahamas (Dec. 17): Middle Tennessee (5-5) vs. Kent State (5-5)
Cure (Dec. 17): Georgia State (5-5) vs. East Carolina (6-4)
Boca Raton (Dec. 18): Florida Atlantic (5-5) vs. Miami (Ohio) (5-5)
Independence (Dec. 18): BYU (8-2) vs. UAB (7-3)
LendingTree (Dec. 18): Eastern Michigan (6-4) vs. Appalachian State (8-2)
New Mexico (Dec. 18): Fresno State (8-3) vs. Marshall (6-4)
New Orleans (Dec. 18): Coastal Carolina (8-2) vs. Western Kentucky (6-4)
Myrtle Beach (Dec. 20): Central Michigan (6-4) vs. Wyoming^ (5-5)
Famous Idaho Potato (Dec. 21): Nevada (7-3) vs. Toledo (5-5)
Frisco (Dec. 21): Boise State (6-4) vs. Charlotte (5-5)
Armed Forces (Dec. 22): Army (6-3) vs. UTEP (6-4)
Hawai'i (Dec. 24): Memphis (5-5) vs. Utah State (8-2)
Camellia (Dec. 25): Troy (5-5) vs. Western Michigan (6-4)
Arizona (Dec. 31): Air Force (7-3) vs. Ball State (5-5)
^Wyoming takes a spot the AAC and Sun Belt are unable to fill.
Here's a conference-by-conference breakdown of noteworthy Week 11 developments in the Group of Five.
AAC: East Carolina knocked off Memphis 30-29 in overtime when the Tigers failed in their would-be game-winning two-point attempt, locking ECU into bowl season while leaving Memphis one win away from doing the same. Memphis will probably lose at Houston on Friday but should win the season finale at home against 1-9 Tulane.
C-USA: UTSA got an unexpected scare from Southern Miss but still improved to 10-0. Florida Atlantic (at Old Dominion) and Charlotte (at Louisiana Tech) both failed in their attempts at a sixth win, but Western Kentucky (at Rice) was successful, pushing its winning streak to five games. The Hilltoppers are alone in first place in the C-USA East but with games remaining against Florida Atlantic and Marshall. Neither spot in the conference championship has been decided, and UAB-UTSA looms large this weekend.
MAC: The MAC is looking good for eight bowl-eligible teams, though only four have gotten there. Central Michigan and Western Michigan both clinched bowls last week, and after Week 11 wins to improve to 5-5, both Toledo and Miami (Ohio) have a good chance in Week 12. The MAC championship is looking like Northern Illinois against the winner of the Week 13 showdown between Miami and Kent State.
MWC: San Diego State clipped Nevada 23-21 on a late Matt Araiza field goal to improve to 9-1 and remain on the fringe of the New Year's Six conversation (should Cincinnati lose in the AAC championship to open that door). Utah State won its fifth consecutive game, blowing out San Jose State 48-17 to remain in first place in the Mountain Division. Win remaining games against Wyoming and New Mexico and they'll get to play for a Mountain West title, likely against SDSU.
Sun Belt: Big shake-up as Georgia State took advantage of Grayson McCall's absence in a 42-40 road win over Coastal Carolina. Not only did it improve the Panthers to 5-5 and put them in great position for a bowl, but it also virtually guarantees an Appalachian State-Louisiana rematch in the Sun Belt championship, provided the Mountaineers don't lose both of their remaining games against Troy and Georgia Southern.
Group of Five vs. Power Five or Pool Bowls
LA (Dec. 18): San Diego State (9-1) vs. USC (4-5)
Gasparilla* (Dec. 23): Louisiana (9-1) vs. Washington (4-6)
Military (Dec. 27): UCF (6-4) vs. Boston College (6-4)
Quick Lane (Dec. 27): Liberty^ (7-3) vs. Northern Illinois (7-3)
Birmingham (Dec. 28): Virginia Tech (5-5) vs. SMU (8-2)
First Responder* (Dec. 28): UTSA (10-0) vs. West Virginia (4-6)
Fenway (Dec. 29): Houston (9-1) vs. Louisville (5-5)
*Pool bowls in which both Power Five and Group of Five conferences have potential affiliations.
^Liberty takes a spot the Big Ten is unable to fill.
The path to 82 bowl-eligible teams is looking bleaker by the day. I'll spare you the math lesson, but we're at 60 teams with at least six wins, and ESPN's Football Power Index suggests only 19 other teams have even a 50 percent chance of getting to six wins.
We're forced to pull in a couple of 4-6 teams like Washington and West Virginia, even though it's unlikely they get to six wins. More likely, a couple of 5-7 teams get in because of their academic progress rate. (Washington had the highest academic progress rate score heading into last season, per College Football News, so the Huskies should be in decent shape if they can win one of their two remaining games.)
These things happen when 4-5 Texas loses to 1-8 Kansas, 4-6 Hawai'i loses to 1-8 UNLV and more than half of the SEC East is sitting at 5-5.
West Virginia and Texas will square off this weekend in what amounts to a bowl season elimination game. Considering the Longhorns have lost five in a row and are the road team, the Mountaineers—who will then face Kansas in Week 13—get the nod as a projected bowl team. But there's a better than zero chance that both of those Big 12 teams fail to make the cut.
Unrelated, but if I'm right about the four teams in the Gasparilla and First Responder Bowls, here's hoping I'm wrong about how they're paired up. UTSA vs. Louisiana would be way more enjoyable than watching each of those projected Group of Five champions face some 5-7 or 6-6 team that doesn't want to be there.
Power Five Bowls with Potential to Be Fun
Guaranteed Rate (Dec. 28): Rutgers (5-5) vs. Texas Tech (6-4)
Holiday (Dec. 28): Virginia (6-4) vs. Washington State (5-5)
Liberty (Dec. 28): Florida (5-5) vs. Iowa State (6-4)
Pinstripe (Dec. 29): Miami (5-5) vs. Minnesota (6-4)
Duke's Mayo (Dec. 30): Auburn (6-4) vs. NC State (7-3)
Music City (Dec. 30): Mississippi State (6-4) vs. Purdue (6-4)
Sun (Dec. 31): North Carolina (5-5) vs. Oregon State (6-4)
Texas (Jan. 4): Kansas State (7-3) vs. Tennessee (5-5)
Since both teams are on this tier, let's be sure to point out the incredible ending to the Iowa State-Texas Tech game last weekend.
The Cyclones fell behind by three touchdowns in the first half, but they clawed all the way back with 24 points in the game's final 19 minutes to tie the score at 38-38 with 60 seconds to go. However, that allowed the Red Raiders to set up Jonathan Garibay for a game-winning, bowl-season-clinching 62-yard field goal as time expired. His previous career long was 48 yards, but that thing might have been good from 68.
Mississippi State also took a circuitous path to its sixth win, falling behind Auburn 28-3 in the first half before reeling off 40 unanswered points for a 43-34 victory. MSU quarterback Will Rogers struggled for the first 25 minutes or so, but he ended up with 415 yards and six touchdowns after lighting up Arkansas for 417 yards and four scores one week ago.
Oregon State also punched its ticket to Bowl City this week, albeit in much less dramatic fashion, pummeling Stanford 35-14.
The next most noteworthy Week 11 development involving one of these 16 teams was that Florida improved to 5-5 with a 70-52 win over Samford—not far off from the 79-54 score when those programs met in men's college basketball in 2006. Samford led 42-28 late in the first half before the Gators defense finally got a few stops. It was hardly an encouraging win, but it ended Florida's three-game losing streak. One win over Missouri or Florida State will get the Gators to a bowl game. Who coaches that theoretical bowl game is another story.
Top Non-New Year's Six Bowls
Alamo (Dec. 29): Oklahoma (9-1) vs. Arizona State (7-3)
Cheez-It (Dec. 29): Baylor (8-2) vs. Pittsburgh (8-2)
Las Vegas (Dec. 30): UCLA (6-4) vs. Penn State (6-4)
Gator (Dec. 31): Clemson (7-3) vs. Arkansas (7-3)
Citrus (Jan. 1): Wisconsin (7-3) vs. Texas A&M (7-3)
Outback (Jan. 1): Iowa (8-2) vs. Kentucky (7-3)
Could Oklahoma's loss to Baylor leave the Big 12 with just one team in the New Year's Six?
Prior to that slight upset, we projected the Sooners to run the table and land in the College Football Playoff, leaving Oklahoma State to take the Big 12's reserved spot in the Sugar Bowl. But now that Oregon slides into the CFP to replace Oklahoma, the ripple effect is Utah jumps into the Rose Bowl while Baylor and Oklahoma get squeezed out of the "at-large" spots by Notre Dame, Ole Miss and Michigan State.
A lot is up in the air with two regular-season weeks and conference championship week still to come, but the selection committee wasn't expressing much confidence in the Big 12 in the first place. After Bedlam and the Big 12 championship, at least two of those top three teams in the league will be saddled with another loss, likely meaning only the conference champion ends up in NY6 position.
If that champion is 12-1 Oklahoma, could the Sooners still land in the Top Four?
If Oregon or Cincinnati slips up while both Georgia and Ohio State win out, Oklahoma in the CFP seems like the only logical conclusion, unless the committee is ready to leave out a one-loss Power Five champion in favor of a two-loss non-champion.
Still, the Sooners need a significant amount of help in that scenario, and they would need to look good against quality competition for a change. And we're projecting Oklahoma to lose at Oklahoma State, so we don't expect the Sooners to pull it off. They do have a playoff pulse, though, which is more than can be said for any other team on this tier.
One note on the other Big conference before we move on: Wisconsin picked up its sixth consecutive win and is two wins over Nebraska and Minnesota away from securing an opportunity to mess things up for the Big Ten's East Division champion. Perhaps they can return the favor to Ohio State from four years ago, when the two-loss Buckeyes beat the undefeated Badgers in the Big Ten title game, keeping both teams out of the College Football Playoff.
Non-CFP New Year's Six Bowls
Peach (Dec. 30): Michigan State (9-1) vs. Wake Forest (9-1)
Fiesta (Jan. 1): Notre Dame (9-1) vs. Ole Miss (8-2)
Rose (Jan. 1): Michigan (9-1) vs. Utah (7-3)
Sugar (Jan. 1): Alabama (9-1) vs. Oklahoma State (9-1)
Only one change from last week, and that previously mentioned shake-up is that Utah takes the Pac-12's spot in the Rose Bowl, which became available when Oregon replaced Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff picture.
All eight teams on this tier won in Week 11.
Alabama (vs. New Mexico State), Oklahoma State (vs. TCU), Notre Dame (at Virginia) and Michigan State (vs. Maryland) did so in convincing fashion, but the most impressive victory came from the two-loss team in this bunch.
Oft-maligned as not being good on defense, Ole Miss was uncommonly dominant on that side of the ball in a 29-19 victory over Texas A&M. The Rebels led 15-0 at halftime, though it felt like they should've been up by 40. Even when the Aggies rallied in the second half, the defense won the day with two huge fourth-quarter interceptions that led to touchdowns.
Barring a chaotic finish in which Alabama loses to both Arkansas and Auburn, Ole Miss has no chance to play for the SEC championship. But with games remaining against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, the Rebels could get to 10 regular-season wins for the first time in program history. If that happens, they have a good chance to end the year ranked ninth or higher in the AP poll for the first time since 1969.
Michigan also had a great defensive day in a 21-17 road win over Penn State. The Wolverines kept Jahan Dotson under wraps (nine receptions for 61 yards), keeping the Nittany Lions from getting in an offensive rhythm. Tight end Erick All got the glory for the game-winning 47-yard touchdown in the closing minutes, but that defense was huge in making sure the dream of "Michigan vs. Ohio State for the division title Nov. 27" remains in play.
College Football Playoff
Orange (Dec. 31): No. 1 Georgia (10-0) vs. No. 4 Cincinnati (10-0)
Cotton (Dec. 31): No. 2 Ohio State (9-1) vs. No. 3 Oregon (9-1)
National Championship (Jan. 10): No. 1 Georgia over No. 2 Ohio State
First, a reminder that these are projections for what the College Football Playoff will be rather than a snapshot of the current situation. We still assume Georgia will beat Alabama in the SEC championship and that the loss would knock the Crimson Tide out of the Top Four.
Second, I'm well aware Oregon won at Ohio State this season and that the selection committee has consistently ranked the Ducks one spot ahead of the Buckeyes. But while Oregon wraps things up against Utah, Oregon State and likely Utah again in the Pac-12 championship, Ohio State needs to go through Michigan State, Michigan and likely Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship. Head-to-head result be darned, Ohio State will have the much better resume and will be ranked ahead of Oregon if they both win out.
Third, Oklahoma's loss to Baylor was just what the doctor ordered for Cincinnati.
This is our sixth consecutive week with the Bearcats as the projected No. 4 seed, but we previously projected Oklahoma to go undefeated and finish at No. 3 while assuming Oregon would lose one of its remaining games against Utah. With the Sooners (at least temporarily) out of the picture, we have room to give projected playoff spots to both Oregon and Cincinnati—even though I'm skeptical Oregon will win out.
Cincinnati does need external help. Even if it gets to 13-0, it would almost certainly finish behind 12-1 Alabama, 12-1 Georgia, 12-1 Ohio State/Michigan/Michigan State and 12-1 Oregon—possibly behind 12-1 Oklahoma/Oklahoma State, too.
But it's not like the Bearcats need a series of wild upsets. If they win out and at least two of these four things happen, they're golden:
- Georgia wins SEC championship (likely)
- Oregon loses a game (likely)
- Big 12 produces a two-loss champion (plausible)
- Wisconsin or Iowa wins the Big Ten championship (stranger things have happened)
Heck, if all four of those things happen, it's conceivable Cincinnati could end up as the No. 2 seed—although it would be nice to see the Bearcats comfortably win a game for a change. Maybe they've been saving their energy for this week against SMU and the AAC championship game against Houston.
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 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): Boston College (Military), Clemson (Gator), Louisville (Fenway), Miami (Pinstripe), North Carolina (Sun), NC State (Duke's Mayo), Pittsburgh (Cheez-It), Virginia (Holiday), Virginia Tech (Birmingham), Wake Forest (Peach)
Big 12 (7 teams): Baylor (Cheez-It), Iowa State (Liberty), Kansas State (Texas), Oklahoma (Alamo), Oklahoma State (Sugar), Texas Tech (Guaranteed Rate), West Virginia (First Responder)
Big Ten (9 teams): Iowa (Outback), Michigan (Rose), Michigan State (Peach), Minnesota (Pinstripe), Ohio State (Cotton), Penn State (Las Vegas), Purdue (Music City), Rutgers (Guaranteed Rate), Wisconsin (Citrus)
Conference USA (8 teams): Charlotte (Frisco), Florida Atlantic (Boca Raton), Marshall (New Mexico), Middle Tennessee (Bahamas), 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), Central Michigan (Myrtle Beach), Eastern Michigan (LendingTree), Kent State (Bahamas), Miami (Ohio) (Boca Raton), Northern Illinois (Quick Lane), Toledo (Famous Idaho Potato), Western Michigan (Camellia)
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 (Myrtle Beach)
Pac-12 (8 teams): Arizona State (Alamo), Oregon (Cotton), Oregon State (Sun), UCLA (Las Vegas), USC (LA), Utah (Rose), Washington (Gasparilla), Washington State (Holiday)
Southeastern (10 teams): Alabama (Sugar), Arkansas (Gator), Auburn (Duke's Mayo), Florida (Liberty), Georgia (Orange), Kentucky (Outback), Mississippi State (Music City), Ole Miss (Fiesta), Tennessee (Texas), Texas A&M (Citrus)
Sun Belt (5 teams): Appalachian State (LendingTree), Coastal Carolina (New Orleans), Georgia State (Cure), Louisiana (Gasparilla), Troy (Camellia)
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.