College Football Playoff Projections: Week 14 Rankings and Bowl Forecast
After 48 hours of coaching carousel anarchy, Tuesday night's College Football Playoff Top 25 rankings served as a good reminder that, hey, there's still football to be played this season.
If the playoff began today, it would be No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 4 Cincinnati (presumably in the Orange Bowl) and No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Alabama (presumably in the Cotton Bowl). But there's still a whole weekend of championship week battle to potentially throw a wrench or five into the equation. At the very least, No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 3 Alabama in the SEC championship is going to change something before Selection Sunday.
Of particular note in this week's Top 25, Oklahoma State's win over Oklahoma in Bedlam was enough for the Cowboys to leapfrog from No. 7 to No. 5. They will face No. 9 Baylor in the Big 12 championship while No. 4 Cincinnati takes on No. 21 Houston in the AAC championship. If both of those teams win, the Pokes might do a little more leapfrogging before all is said and done.
It's hard to imagine anyone outside the Top Six sneaking into the playoff at this point, though. We'll discuss the various possible scenarios later, and if there's complete chaos, maybe Baylor could vault all the way to No. 4 by winning the Big 12. But No. 7 Ohio State and No. 8 Ole Miss are both idle and neither No. 10 Oregon nor No. 13 Iowa has any realistic hope of making that big of a jump.
As we wait for those final data points, though, what does the overall bowl picture look like?
The 41 bowls have been broken into six tiers and are presented in ascending order of magnitude.
Championship Week Projections and Bowl Math
If Championship Week plays out anything like Rivalry Week did, these bowl projections are going to need a serious makeover next Saturday night. But these are the assumptions we're making for the 10 conference championship games.
AAC: Cincinnati over Houston
C-USA: Western Kentucky over UTSA
MAC: Northern Illinois over Kent State
MWC: San Diego State over Utah State
Sun Belt: Louisiana-Lafayette over Appalachian State
ACC: Pittsburgh over Wake Forest
Big 12: Oklahoma State over Baylor
Big Ten: Michigan over Iowa
Pac-12: Utah over Oregon
SEC: Georgia over Alabama
By no small margin, the four most important championship games are the AAC, Big 12, Big Ten and SEC. But we'll discuss the potential ramifications of those games later. Just know that Notre Dame is ready and waiting for some chaos to unfold.
As far as bowl math goes, thanks to Week 13 upsets by North Texas, Tulsa, Virginia Tech and LSU, we have incredibly ended up with more bowl-eligible teams (83) than spots to fill (82).
It won't be a Power Five team missing the cut. And given the minimal number of bowl-eligible teams out of both the AAC and the Sun Belt, it will almost certainly be one of the 6-6 teams from Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference or the Mountain West. I quite literally threw a dart and ended up with North Texas as the team getting left out, but we'll be keeping an ear to the ground and a close eye on Brett McMurphy's Twitter feed for the next few days to find out which Group of Five teams are headed where.
Group of Five Bowls
Bahamas (Dec. 17): Middle Tennessee (6-6) vs. Toledo (7-5) (matchup set, per the Action Network's Brett McMurphy)
Cure (Dec. 17): Georgia State (7-5) vs. Tulsa (6-6)
Boca Raton (Dec. 18): Old Dominion (6-6) vs. Wyoming (6-6)
Independence (Dec. 18): UTSA (11-1) vs. BYU (10-2)
LendingTree (Dec. 18): Eastern Michigan (7-5) vs. Appalachian State (10-2)
New Mexico (Dec. 18): Fresno State (9-3) vs. UAB (8-4)
New Orleans (Dec. 18): Coastal Carolina (10-2) vs. Western Kentucky (8-4)
Myrtle Beach (Dec. 20): Miami (OH) (6-6) vs. UTEP* (7-5)
Famous Idaho Potato (Dec. 21): Nevada (8-4) vs. Kent State (7-5)
Frisco (Dec. 21): Boise State (7-5) vs. Ball State (6-6)
Armed Forces (Dec. 22): Army (8-3) vs. Marshall (7-5)
Hawai'i (Dec. 24): Memphis (6-6) vs. Utah State (9-3)
Camellia (Dec. 25): Louisiana (11-1) vs. Western Michigan (7-5)
Arizona (Dec. 31): Air Force (9-3) vs. Central Michigan (8-4)
*UTEP takes a spot in the Myrtle Beach Bowl that neither the AAC nor the Sun Belt can fill.
Here's a conference-by-conference breakdown of noteworthy Week 13 developments and Championship Week projections in the Group of Five.
AAC: Memphis got an expected sixth win over Tulane, and Tulsa pulled off an upset of SMU to become bowl-eligible, bringing the AAC's count from five teams to seven. Cincinnati and Houston rather effortlessly took care of their competition, keeping the former in the hunt for the College Football Playoff and the latter in the CFP Top 25 heading into the conference title game.
C-USA: North Texas put an end to UTSA's quest for perfection and made its way to bowl eligibility in the process, joining Old Dominion and Middle Tennessee, who both won battles of 5-6 teams this week. Western Kentucky scored 47 second-half points to win at Marshall and set up a championship showdown with UTSA. The Roadrunners were the most recent team to defeat the Hilltoppers in a 52-46 shootout on Oct. 9, so that should be a highly entertaining game this Friday night.
MAC: The biggest development by far was Kent State's 48-47 overtime victory over Miami (Ohio) when the RedHawks failed in their attempt to win on a two-point conversion. As a result, the Golden Flashes claimed the MAC East and will play Northern Illinois for the conference title and a presumed spot in the Quick Lane Bowl. Moreover, the loss leaves Miami at risk of becoming the lone bowl-eligible team left out of the postseason.
MWC: San Diego State rallied from an early 16-3 deficit with 24 unanswered points to beat Boise State and secure its spot in the MWC championship. SDSU will face Utah State to determine who plays in the LA Bowl. Then again, if SDSU wins and Cincinnati loses, it just might end up in the Fiesta Bowl as the highest-ranked Group of Five team. (However, it's likely Houston would leapfrog SDSU for that honor if it defeats the Bearcats. We'll pull at that thread a little more later.)
Sun Belt: South Alabama lost to Coastal Carolina in overtime, and Troy got stomped by Georgia State, leaving the Sun Belt with just four bowl-eligible teams. Three of the four won 10 games, though. Louisiana-Lafayette is entering the conference championship on an 11-game winning streak, including a 41-13 game against Appalachian State for which the Mountaineers would love to exact some revenge.
Group of Five vs. Power Five or Pool Bowls
LA (Dec. 18): San Diego State (11-1) vs. Washington State (7-5)
Gasparilla* (Dec. 23): Virginia Tech (6-6) vs. Florida (6-6)
Military (Dec. 27): East Carolina^ (7-5) vs. Boston College (6-6)
Quick Lane (Dec. 27): Liberty** (7-5) vs. Northern Illinois (8-4)
Birmingham (Dec. 28): Houston (11-1) vs. LSU (6-6)
First Responder* (Dec. 28): UCF (8-4) vs. South Carolina*** (6-6)
Fenway (Dec. 29): Louisville (6-6) vs. SMU (8-4)
*Pool bowls in which both Power Five and Group of Five conferences have potential affiliations.
**Liberty takes a spot in the Quick Lane Bowl the Big Ten is unable to fill.
***South Carolina takes a spot in the First Responder Bowl to accommodate the 13 bowl-eligible SEC teams.
^East Carolina has accepted an invitation to the Military Bowl, per McMurphy.
They aren't the most high-profile games, but the Power Five/Group of Five showdowns usually deliver the goods. Most games of this ilk got nixed for COVID-19 reasons last year. But in the 20 P5 vs. G5 matchups during the 2017-19 bowl seasons, each side won 10 times, and there were a bunch of highly entertaining affairs. The Birmingham Bowl in particular has produced some real gems in recent years.
So, which bottom-tier Power Five teams and top-tiered Group of Five teams are most likely to provide this year's entertainment?
Despite each finishing just .500, Florida, Louisville and LSU are all fun teams capable of putting many points on the board while liable to allow a ton on defense. If they were to face the AAC's East Carolina, Houston and SMU, you could be looking at a trio of games in which the average total eclipses 80 points.
It's much different story for San Diego State, which thrives on defense and special teams. But after winning nonconference games against Utah and Arizona, SDSU figures to be able to handle whatever the Pac-12 throws its way in the LA Bowl—provided it is able to beat Utah State in the MWC championship to secure that spot.
And though we have Northern Illinois projected to face Liberty, here's hoping the Huskies draw a Power Five team and produce what would be their 10th (or maybe 11th, MAC title game pending) game decided by eight points or fewer.
Power Five Bowls with Potential to Be Fun
Guaranteed Rate (Dec. 28): Maryland (6-6) vs. Texas Tech (6-6)
Holiday (Dec. 28): Virginia (6-6) vs. UCLA (8-4)
Liberty (Dec. 28): Missouri (6-6) vs. West Virginia (6-6)
Pinstripe (Dec. 29): Miami (Fla.) (7-5) vs. Minnesota (8-4)
Duke's Mayo (Dec. 30): Auburn (6-6) vs. NC State (9-3)
Music City (Dec. 30): Mississippi State (7-5) vs. Purdue (8-4)
Sun (Dec. 31): North Carolina (6-6) vs. Oregon State (7-5)
Texas (Jan. 4): Kansas State (7-5) vs. Tennessee (7-5)
Even if these games aren't individually "fun," this is when bowl season starts cooking with gas.
From Dec. 19 to 27, there will be nine bowl games played in the span of nine days, each of which hails from one of the previous two tiers. Compared to that, five games on the 28th and four more on each of the 29th and 30th is a midweek smorgasbord of entertainment.
Maybe a Maryland-Texas Tech Guaranteed Rate Bowl doesn't pique your interest now, but just wait until Taulia Tagovailoa and Donovan Smith are exchanging deep bombs until 2 a.m. on the East Coast as the fifth and final game of a jam-packed Tuesday slate.
Or how about Miami against Minnesota at Yankee Stadium for a 2:15 p.m. ET start on a Wednesday? For the people stuck working the week between Christmas and New Year's, firing that game up on the second monitor or the cellphone could be a life-saver. Same goes for an Auburn-NC State Duke's Mayo Bowl at 11 a.m. ET the following morning. (Please "douse" the winning coach in mayonnaise this year, thanks.)
But the Texas Bowl is my favorite, as it just pops up out of nowhere on a Tuesday night as the only game being played between the New Year's Day extravaganza and the national championship on Jan. 10. It's sort of like bowl season's version of the NFL's Pro Bowl in that no one really wants to watch it, but we all end up watching it anyway because it makes the gap between the national semifinals and the national championship not feel quite so long. Just a little hit of Kansas State-Tennessee to help with the withdrawal.
Top Non-New Year's Six Bowls
Alamo (Dec. 29): Oklahoma (10-2) vs. Oregon (10-2)
Cheez-It (Dec. 29): Iowa State (7-5) vs. Clemson (9-3)
Las Vegas (Dec. 30): Arizona State (8-4) vs. Penn State (7-5)
Gator (Dec. 31): Wake Forest (10-2) vs. Arkansas (8-4)
Citrus (Jan. 1): Iowa (10-2) vs. Kentucky (9-3)
Outback (Jan. 1): Texas A&M (8-4) vs. Wisconsin (8-4)
It would be premature to start breaking down any of these potential matchups, especially considering Oregon, Wake Forest and Iowa all still have a chance to play their way into a New Year's Six bowl.
All the same, it'd be hard to come up with an unintriguing matchup on this tier.
The Citrus Bowl and Outback Bowl probably won't be the most aesthetically pleasing games of all time, but those New Year's Day clashes between the Big Ten and SEC are shaping up to be defensive wars. Same goes for a potential Clemson-Iowa State Cheez-It Bowl showdown. Even though both of those offenses have been respectable as of late, that one could be a race to 20 points.
A Gator Bowl between Arkansas and Wake Forest, though? How high would Vegas need to set the total in that one to scare you away from betting the over? That game has "52-45 barnburner" written all over it, and an Oklahoma-Oregon Alamo Bowl might not be far behind it. Although, nobody quite knows what we should expect from Bob Stoops as the pinch-hitting head coach for the Sooners in that one.
Non-CFP New Year's Six Bowls
Peach (Dec. 30): Pittsburgh (10-2) vs. Ole Miss (10-2)
Fiesta (Jan. 1): Notre Dame (11-1) vs. Michigan State (10-2)
Rose (Jan. 1): Ohio State (10-2) vs. Utah (9-3)
Sugar (Jan. 1): Alabama (11-1) vs. Baylor (10-2)
What do we know for sure here, regardless of what happens in Championship Week?
For starters, the Rose Bowl is going to be the Oregon-Utah winner against either Ohio State or Iowa, depending on whether the Hawkeyes can beat Michigan. The Pittsburgh-Wake Forest victor will play in either the Peach or Fiesta Bowl. And the ACC and Pac-12 will each send one team to a New Year's Six bowl.
Alabama is headed for no worse than the Sugar Bowl, but Ole Miss would take the SEC's spot in that one if the Crimson Tide are able to join Georgia in the College Football Playoff. And Baylor is likely headed to the Sugar Bowl, either as the Big 12 champion with a win over Oklahoma State or as the highest-ranked non-CFP Big 12 team if the Cowboys win.
Here's one interesting NY6 curveball to consider, though: What happens if Houston beats Cincinnati?
The primary domino to fall in that scenario is that the Bearcats would definitely drop out of the CFP Top Four, opening the door for two-loss Alabama, idle Notre Dame or two-loss Big 12 champion Baylor to move up from this tier and into a chance at a national championship.
But would that one loss be enough to knock Cincinnati all the way down to No. 10 in the final CFP rankings, or would we get two Group of Five teams in the New Year's Six?
As previously mentioned, a win of that magnitude would presumably vault the Cougars ahead of San Diego State and into the Fiesta Bowl as the highest-ranked Group of Five team. But if Cincinnati ends up still ranked ahead of Michigan State, the Bearcats would go to the Peach Bowl, while the Spartans would slide to either the Citrus or Outback.
College Football Playoff
Orange (Dec. 31): No. 1 Georgia (12-0) vs. No. 4 Cincinnati (12-0)
Cotton (Dec. 31): No. 2 Michigan (11-1) vs. No. 3 Oklahoma State (11-1)
National Championship (Jan. 10): No. 1 Georgia over No. 2 Michigan
Michigan's 42-27 win over Ohio State was a stunner, but it wasn't a "shake the CFP rankings to their very core" type of result. The Wolverines aren't the Big Ten champions we had been expecting for the past few weeks; however, it had long been assumed that the No. 2 seed would go to whichever contender survived the Big Ten East gauntlet. Michigan merely swaps spots with Ohio State in our new projections.
If all four of the above teams win their conference championships, this should be a cut-and-dry Top Four.
There will inevitably be some arguments for Alabama if the SEC championship is a close contest, but the Crimson Tide have now had three close calls against teams that finished 6-6 (Auburn, Florida and LSU) in addition to the loss to Texas A&M. It's difficult to believe that an 11-2 Alabama would end up ranked ahead of either an undefeated Cincinnati or a 12-1 Oklahoma State.
There will also be arguments for Notre Dame, but the head-to-head loss to Cincinnati (at home), the lack of a conference championship and the lack of marquee wins would almost certainly leave the Fighting Irish on the outside looking in.
What if things don't play to form, though?
With apologies to my editors, here is how I believe the Top Five would shake out based on each of the 16 possible scenarios. I've labeled them each with letters to make it easier for you to discuss the most intriguing and most nightmarish ones.
The scenarios are presented in no particular order, but the order of the possible conference champions will be SEC, AAC, Big Ten and Big 12 for each one. Let's all have fun crossing off half of the remaining scenarios as each game goes final Saturday.
A. Alabama, Cincinnati, Michigan and Oklahoma State win: 1. Michigan, 2. Alabama, 3. Georgia, 4. Oklahoma State, 5. Cincinnati
B. Alabama, Cincinnati, Michigan and Baylor win: 1. Michigan, 2. Alabama, 3. Georgia, 4. Cincinnati, 5. Notre Dame
C. Alabama, Cincinnati, Iowa and Oklahoma State win: 1. Alabama, 2. Georgia, 3. Oklahoma State, 4. Cincinnati, 5. Notre Dame
D. Alabama, Cincinnati, Iowa and Baylor win: 1. Alabama, 2. Georgia, 3. Cincinnati, 4. Notre Dame, 5. Baylor
E. Alabama, Houston, Michigan and Oklahoma State win: 1. Michigan, 2. Alabama, 3. Georgia, 4. Oklahoma State, 5. Notre Dame
F. Alabama, Houston, Michigan and Baylor win: 1. Michigan, 2. Alabama, 3. Georgia, 4. Notre Dame, 5. Baylor
G. Alabama, Houston, Iowa and Oklahoma State win: 1. Alabama, 2. Georgia, 3. Oklahoma State, 4. Notre Dame, 5. Ohio State
H. Alabama, Houston, Iowa and Baylor win: 1. Alabama, 2. Georgia, 3. Notre Dame, 4. Baylor, 5. Ohio State
I. Georgia, Cincinnati, Michigan and Oklahoma State win: 1. Georgia, 2. Michigan, 3. Oklahoma State, 4. Cincinnati, 5. Notre Dame
J. Georgia, Cincinnati, Michigan and Baylor win: 1. Georgia, 2. Michigan, 3. Cincinnati, 4. Notre Dame, 5. Alabama
K. Georgia, Cincinnati, Iowa and Oklahoma State win: 1. Georgia, 2. Oklahoma State, 3. Cincinnati, 4. Notre Dame, 5. Alabama
L. Georgia, Cincinnati, Iowa and Baylor win: 1. Georgia, 2. Cincinnati, 3. Notre Dame, 4. Alabama, 5. Baylor
M. Georgia, Houston, Michigan and Oklahoma State win: 1. Georgia, 2. Michigan, 3. Oklahoma State, 4. Notre Dame, 5. Alabama
N. Georgia, Houston, Michigan and Baylor win: 1. Georgia, 2. Michigan, 3. Notre Dame, 4. Alabama, 5. Baylor
O. Georgia, Houston, Iowa and Oklahoma State win: 1. Georgia, 2. Oklahoma State, 3. Notre Dame, 4. Alabama, 5. Ohio State
P. Georgia, Houston, Iowa and Baylor win: 1. Georgia, 2. Notre Dame, 3. Alabama, 4. Baylor, 5. Ohio State
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 (7 teams): Cincinnati (Orange), East Carolina (Military), Houston (Birmingham), Memphis (Hawai'i), SMU (Fenway), Tulsa (Cure), UCF (First Responder)
Atlantic Coast (10 teams): Boston College (Military), Clemson (Cheez-It), Louisville (Fenway), Miami (Pinstripe), North Carolina (Sun), NC State (Duke's Mayo), Pittsburgh (Peach), Virginia (Holiday), Virginia Tech (Gasparilla), Wake Forest (Gator)
Big 12 (7 teams): Baylor (Sugar), Iowa State (Cheez-It), Kansas State (Texas), Oklahoma (Alamo), Oklahoma State (Cotton), Texas Tech (Guaranteed Rate), West Virginia (Liberty)
Big Ten (9 teams): Iowa (Citrus), Maryland (Guaranteed Rate), Michigan (Cotton), Michigan State (Fiesta), Minnesota (Pinstripe), Ohio State (Rose), Penn State (Las Vegas), Purdue (Music City), Wisconsin (Outback)
Conference USA (7 teams): Marshall (Armed Forces), Middle Tennessee (Bahamas), Old Dominion (Boca Raton), UAB (New Mexico), UTEP (Myrtle Beach), UTSA (Independence), Western Kentucky (New Orleans)
Independents (4 teams): Army (Armed Forces), BYU (Independence), Liberty (Quick Lane), Notre Dame (Fiesta)
Mid-American (8 teams): Ball State (Frisco), Central Michigan (Arizona), Eastern Michigan (LendingTree), Kent State (Famous Idaho Potato), Miami (OH) (Myrtle Beach), Northern Illinois (Quick Lane), Toledo (Bahamas), 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 (Boca Raton)
Pac-12 (6 teams): Arizona State (Las Vegas), Oregon (Alamo), Oregon State (Sun), UCLA (Holiday), Utah (Rose), Washington State (LA)
Southeastern (13 teams): Alabama (Sugar), Arkansas (Gator), Auburn (Duke's Mayo), Florida (Gasparilla), Georgia (Orange), Kentucky (Citrus), LSU (Birmingham), Mississippi State (Music City), Missouri (Liberty), Ole Miss (Peach), South Carolina (First Responder), Tennessee (Texas), Texas A&M (Outback)
Sun Belt (4 teams): Appalachian State (LendingTree), Coastal Carolina (New Orleans), Georgia State (Cure), Louisiana (Camellia)
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.