College Football Playoff Standings: Final Rankings and Bowl Game Projections
Barring an indefensible decision by the College Football Playoff selection committee, the 13-0 Cincinnati Bearcats—following a 35-20 victory over Houston in the AAC championship—will become the first Group of Five team with the opportunity to play for a national championship.
If our projections are correct, here's hoping Cincy wants Bama because the Bearcats appear to be on track to draw the Crimson Tide in the Orange Bowl after Alabama's 41-24 dismantling of Georgia in the SEC championship.
Elsewhere, Baylor knocked Oklahoma State out of the playoff conversation in the Big 12 title game, Utah crushed Oregon in the Pac-12 championship to secure its spot in the Rose Bowl and there were half a dozen other games to help shape our final rankings and bowl projections.
Just as a disclaimer: Our end-of-season Top 25—consisting of ballots from Bleacher Report's college football experts David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Morgan Moriarty and Brad Shepard—is not intended to be a projection of the final CFP Top 25. Ours is more of a power ranking of how teams look right now, though it shouldn't be all that different from what we see Sunday.
And in advance of what is sure to be a spirited debate about the No. 1 seed in the playoff, we were unable to decide.
Here is our end-of-season Top 25, followed by my projections for the full slate of bowl games:
1. (tie) Alabama
1. (tie) Michigan
5. Notre Dame
7. Ole Miss
8. Oklahoma State
9. Ohio State
11. Michigan State
18. (tie) UTSA
18. (tie) Wake Forest
20. NC State
25. San Diego State
Others receiving votes: Utah State, Tennessee, Texas A&M
Group of Five Bowls
Bahamas (Dec. 17): Middle Tennessee (6-6) vs. Toledo (7-5)
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 (12-1) vs. BYU (10-2)
LendingTree (Dec. 18): Eastern Michigan (7-5) vs. Liberty (7-5)
New Mexico (Dec. 18): Fresno State (9-3) vs. UAB (8-4)
New Orleans (Dec. 18): Coastal Carolina (10-2) vs. Western Kentucky (8-5)
Myrtle Beach (Dec. 20): Ball State (6-6) vs. Appalachian State (10-3)
Famous Idaho Potato (Dec. 21): Nevada (8-4) vs. Kent State (7-5)
Frisco (Dec. 21): UTEP (7-5) vs. Air Force (9-3)
Armed Forces (Dec. 22): Army (8-3) vs. Marshall (7-5)
Hawai'i (Dec. 24): Memphis (6-6) vs. Hawai'i (6-7)
Camellia (Dec. 25): Louisiana (12-1) vs. Western Michigan (7-5)
Arizona (Dec. 31): San Diego State (11-2) vs. Central Michigan (8-4)
TBD Texas Bowl (TBD): North Texas (6-6) vs. Miami (OH) (6-6)
The most noteworthy change to this tier from this past Tuesday was the addition of the name-to-be-determined 42nd bowl game in Texas. Rather than leave out one of the 6-6 teams—we previously had it projected to be North Texas—another game was added to the docket. Hawai'i (not previously considered eligible for a bowl), at 6-7, now slides into the Hawai'i Bowl to face Memphis, per Action Network's Brett McMurphy.
McMurphy also reported this week that Liberty accepted a spot in the LendingTree Bowl. We previously had the Flames in the Quick Lane Bowl (on the next tier), taking a spot that the Big Ten doesn't have enough bowl-eligible teams to fill. We now have Boise State projected for that spot, likely against MAC champion Northern Illinois, though we'll see how things shake out.
Beyond the minor shuffling that resulted from those bits of news, there were no significant changes on this tier. Rather, the biggest development was Western Kentucky's Bailey Zappe throwing for 577 yards and four touchdowns in the C-USA Championship. The Hilltoppers still lost that game to now 12-1 UTSA, but Zappe (5,545 yards and 56 touchdowns) is 288 yards away from tying B.J. Symons' FBS single-season record for passing yards and four touchdowns away from tying Joe Burrow's FBS single-season record for passing touchdowns.
If our projections are correct and the Tops face Coastal Carolina in the New Orleans Bowl, it's going to be tough for him to break those records, as the Chanticleers have a pretty stingy secondary. Here's hoping we can instead get Western Kentucky against a Kent State defense that entered championship week ranked 128th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game. Zappe might eclipse 6,000 yards if that matchup happens.
Last but not least, three cheers for Louisiana and its 24-16 win over Appalachian State in the Sun Belt championship. Billy Napier is on his way out the door to Florida, but not before putting the finishing touches on a 12-game winning streak.
Group of Five vs. Power Five or Pool Bowls
Los Angeles (Dec. 18): Utah State (10-3) 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): Boise State** (7-5) vs. Northern Illinois (9-4)
Birmingham (Dec. 28): Houston (11-2) 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.
**Boise State takes a spot in the Quick Lane Bowl if 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.
Northern Illinois jumped out to an early 17-0 lead over Kent State in the MAC championship, and it never looked back, cruising to a 41-23 victory. After a season in which all seven of their FBS wins were by a one-possession margin, it was a refreshing change of pace for the Huskies to not sweat one out all the way to the final whistle. The win completed an incredible turnaround for a team that went 0-6 last fall.
While the MAC's spot in the Quick Lane Bowl isn't necessarily reserved for the conference champion, that's the way we've been projecting it all year. Might as well stick with it now.
The MWC's spot in the L.A. Bowl does go to the conference champion, though, and Utah State rather surprisingly put a hurting on San Diego State for a 46-13 victory in that one. SDSU's punting aficionado Matt Araiza had two punts blocked, but the Aztecs offense never even showed a glimmer of life in that blowout.
Utah State's 2020 season was only marginally better than Northern Illinois', as the Aggies went 1-5 and were outscored by nearly 20 points per game. But what a difference a year made for those programs, going from a combined 1-11 to a combined 19-7 with two conference championships.
Also playing from this tier, Houston gave Cincinnati a good fight in the first half and trailed by just one at the intermission of the AAC championship. However, three Bearcats touchdowns in the span of five minutes in the third quarter ensured the Cougars wouldn't be crashing the New Year's Six party. Houston and head coach Dana Holgorsen bounced back nicely from a disappointing 3-5 record in 2020, though, which the many programs with head coaching vacancies surely noticed.
Non-New Year's Six Power Five Bowls
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)
Alamo (Dec. 29): Oklahoma (10-2) vs. Oregon (10-3)
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)
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)
Gator (Dec. 31): Wake Forest (10-3) vs. Arkansas (8-4)
Citrus (Jan. 1): Iowa (10-3) vs. Kentucky (9-3)
Outback (Jan. 1): Texas A&M (8-4) vs. Wisconsin (8-4)
Texas (Jan. 4): Kansas State (7-5) vs. Tennessee (7-5)
We usually break these bowls into two separate tiers. However, only three of these 28 teams played in championship week, so we're merging them together to save some space for higher-profile bowls.
One of those three teams in action was Oregon, although the Ducks certainly didn't put up much of a fight in the process of getting waxed 38-10 by Utah in the Pac-12 championship.
Oregon entered the week at No. 10 in the CFP Top 25, ranked one spot ahead of Michigan State. Had it been a close game, maybe the Ducks could've had an argument for staying put and keeping the Spartans out of the NY6 picture. But after getting destroyed by Utah for the second time in 13 days, it looks like Oregon will have to settle for the Alamo Bowl, likely against Bob Stoops and Oklahoma. (We shall wait and see if Oregon also has an interim coach for that game.)
One of the other teams from this tier playing this weekend was Wake Forest. And while the final margin of the ACC championship got out of hand, it was all sorts of entertaining early on, with Wake Forest taking a 21-14 lead just 12 minutes into the game. Out of nowhere, though, and for the first time all season, the Demon Deacons lost their ability to score, ultimately falling 45-21 to Pitt.
If we actually get Wake Forest-Arkansas in the Gator Bowl, though, get ready for that offense to resurface for possibly the highest-scoring game of bowl season. We might even get a repeat of the 55-52 game Wake Forest played against Texas A&M in the 2017 Belk Bowl.
And the third team was Iowa, though its matchup with Michigan went about as well as Oregon's Pac-12 championship game appearance.
When the Hawkeyes went 59 yards on their opening drive without scoring a point, it immediately felt like a fatal blow to their upset bid. And when Michigan followed that up with a pair of long touchdowns within the next three minutes, it was officially time to start thinking about working on CFP previews. Michigan eventually cruised to a 42-3 victory, securing its spot in the playoff.
Non-CFP New Year's Six Bowls
Peach (Dec. 30): Pittsburgh (11-2) vs. Notre Dame (11-1)
Fiesta (Jan. 1): Oklahoma State (11-2) vs. Michigan State (10-2)
Rose (Jan. 1): Ohio State (10-2) vs. Utah (10-3)
Sugar (Jan. 1): Ole Miss (10-2) vs. Baylor (11-2)
If Oklahoma State had been able to take care of business against Baylor, the CFP selection committee would have been faced with a very difficult decision between the 13-0 AAC champion and the 12-1 Big 12 champion for the final spot in the playoff.
Instead, the Cowboys fell behind 21-3 in the first half and came a few inches shy of completing the comeback when Dezmon Jackson just missed touching the pylon on 4th-and-goal at the end of a 21-16 Baylor win.
If things had broken just right in the later games, there was still a chance for two-loss Baylor to make it into the CFP. However, Alabama and Cincinnati both winning during the late-afternoon window put an end to that dream in a hurry.
Considering Baylor went 2-7 last season, though, the Bears have got to be pretty thrilled with winning the Big 12 and securing their spot in the Sugar Bowl, where it is all but certain they will face Ole Miss, which is now the highest-ranked non-playoff team out of the SEC.
The other spot we know for sure is Utah in the Rose Bowl for the first time in program history. It hardly seemed possible when the Utes opened the season 1-2 and made a quarterback change, but man, imagine if they had Cameron Rising starting from the outset. They probably would have beaten both BYU and San Diego State and would've had quite the case for the playoff.
And despite losing the Big 12 championship, Oklahoma State figures to still rank high enough for one of the three "wild-card" spots in the Peach and Fiesta Bowls. Hard to imagine the Pokes would drop from No. 5 to outside the top 10 for a close loss to another top-10 team.
College Football Playoff
Orange (Dec. 31): No. 1 Alabama (12-1) vs. No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0)
Cotton (Dec. 31): No. 2 Michigan (12-1) vs. No. 3 Georgia (12-1)
National Championship (Jan. 10): No. 1 Alabama over No. 3 Georgia
We usually spend the final hours before (and the days after) the final rankings reveal arguing over which team is most deserving of the No. 4 seed.
This year, though, championship week produced perhaps one of the most undebatable top Fours we've ever seen, and the conversation figures to instead center on who deserves to be the No. 1 seed.
One week ago, Michigan smoked previous No. 2 Ohio State 42-27 to vault ahead of Alabama in the CFP rankings. But after Alabama's 41-24 statement win over No. 1 Georgia—in Atlanta, no less—should the Crimson Tide leapfrog back ahead of the Wolverines for the top spot?
If they do, it should serve as a sobering reminder that no 2021 team can even hold a candle to how great Alabama was last year or how great LSU was the year before that.
Because, sure, Alabama looked incredible against Georgia, and Bryce Young all but clinched the Heisman Trophy with his performance against what previously looked like an impenetrable UGA defense. But Alabama also had close calls against a trio of 6-6 teams in Florida, LSU and Auburn and lost to 8-4 Texas A&M. Had they lost to the Bulldogs, there's a good chance they would have ended up ranked behind an 11-1 Notre Dame team that has a resume completely devoid of CFP Top 25 wins.
Plus, John Metchie III—otherwise known as one of just three Alabama players who entered this weekend with at least 350 total yards from scrimmage this season—went down with a non-contact leg injury in the second quarter. His status for the CFP has to be considered questionable at best until we hear otherwise. (Alabama head coach Nick Saban said after the game that Metchie is "probably going to be out," per Charlie Potter of 247Sports.)
In other words, yes, it's Bama, but it's not the usual freight train of a No. 1 seed we've grown accustomed to seeing in recent years. And after a few months of looking like a juggernaut, how could you not have concerns about Georgia after watching the SEC championship?
All I'm saying is maybe don't limit Cincinnati to a CFP participation trophy just yet. The only remaining undefeated team in the country and the first-ever Group of Five team to reach the playoff (presumably) might have a few more stunners up its sleeve.
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 (Fiesta), 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 (8 teams): Marshall (Armed Forces), Middle Tennessee (Bahamas), North Texas (TBD Texas), Old Dominion (Boca Raton), UAB (New Mexico), UTEP (Frisco), UTSA (Independence), Western Kentucky (New Orleans)
Independents (4 teams): Army (Armed Forces), BYU (Independence), Liberty (LendingTree), Notre Dame (Peach)
Mid-American (8 teams): Ball State (Myrtle Beach), Central Michigan (Arizona), Eastern Michigan (LendingTree), Kent State (Famous Idaho Potato), Miami (OH) (TBD Texas), Northern Illinois (Quick Lane), Toledo (Bahamas), Western Michigan (Camellia)
Mountain West (8 teams): Air Force (Frisco), Boise State (Quick Lane), Fresno State (New Mexico), Hawai'i (Hawai'i), Nevada (Famous Idaho Potato), San Diego State (Arizona), Utah State (L.A.), Wyoming (Boca Raton)
Pac-12 (6 teams): Arizona State (Las Vegas), Oregon (Alamo), Oregon State (Sun), UCLA (Holiday), Utah (Rose), Washington State (Los Angeles)
Southeastern (13 teams): Alabama (Orange), Arkansas (Gator), Auburn (Duke's Mayo), Florida (Gasparilla), Georgia (Cotton), Kentucky (Citrus), LSU (Birmingham), Mississippi State (Music City), Missouri (Liberty), Ole Miss (Sugar), South Carolina (First Responder), Tennessee (Texas), Texas A&M (Outback)
Sun Belt (4 teams): Appalachian State (Myrtle Beach), 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.