In just over two weeks we’ll have our first look at the College Football Playoff rankings, which will set the stage for the remainder of the regular season and the push toward playing for a national title. Until then, it’s still nothing but guesswork as to who is in line to make the semifinals.
This past weekend didn’t do much to clear up the playoff picture, as all 11 unbeaten teams either won or were on a bye. We did see a few schools that were already facing an uphill battle toward reaching the playoffs fall by the wayside, however, as potential contenders Tennessee and Wisconsin came up short in clashes with other Top 10 teams.
All told, 13 schools have officially become eligible for bowl games by reaching the requisite six victories, while another 18 are within a game of doing so. You’ll see all of those schools represented in our latest bowl projections, which start with the big ones:
Much as it was a week ago, we’re looking at the same schools jostling for position at the top of the rankings. And though none of them lost, one did slightly damage its resume due to a far-from-impressive victory and thus made its potential road to a national championship much harder.
Clemson needed overtime to hold off North Carolina State at home, its 24-17 victory the product of some good fortune (and a badly missed 33-yard field goal by the Wolfpack at the end of regulation). That dipped the Tigers from second to fourth in our projections, which puts them on a collision course with defending national champion Alabama in a rematch of last year’s title game.
Though the matchup is less desirable than before, at least Clemson would be playing close to home in Atlanta instead of serving as the higher-seeded team who ends up being “rewarded” by getting shipped out west to play in the Fiesta Bowl. That honor now goes to Ohio State, albeit against a Pac-12 school in Pac-12 territory.
Washington looks to have the clearest path to the playoffs of any top contender. Its remaining schedule features only one ranked opponent, Utah, in two weeks, while it gets USC and Arizona State at home in November before finishing with a trip to rival Washington State.
Alabama still has three games left against ranked opponents, while Ohio State has two. Clemson has only one, but its next contest Oct. 29 is against a rising Florida State team that could play spoiler in the ACC.
Sitting just outside the playoffs are Michigan and Texas A&M, though the latter could soar into the top four if it can knock off Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. Michigan won’t have an opportunity to pad its resume until November, when two of its final three are at Iowa and Ohio State.
It’s not just the playoff pairings that are being hotly contested. The same goes for being included in one of the other “New Year’s Six” games that bring with them great prestige (not to mention a healthy paycheck for the respective teams’ conferences). These spots are even more wide open than those for the semifinals, though some possible qualifiers fell back in the race this past weekend.
Tennessee’s 49-10 loss to Alabama and Wisconsin’s overtime setback against Ohio State put each in the two-loss category, which for now renders them ineligible to get a big bowl invite. Four of these spots eventually went to two-loss schools a year ago, but as of now there are too many teams with one or zero losses to give those others a sniff.
The Tennessee loss hurts the SEC’s chances of getting three schools into the New Year’s Six, though, while Wisconsin has taken itself out of the running. The Big Ten still has three unbeaten teams and thus is trending toward not just having a playoff participant but also ones competing in the traditional Rose Bowl slot and the Cotton Bowl. If that third school finishes higher in the final playoff rankings than the second-best non-playoff SEC school, the Big Ten would send a team to the Orange Bowl instead of the Cotton.
The Pac-12 has had a rough year but can still get two major bowl spots if Washington makes the playoffs since the league would then send its next highest-rated team (currently Utah) to the Rose Bowl. If the Huskies fall out of the top four, though, they figure to be the only Pac-12 school playing in the New Year’s Six much like Stanford was a year ago.
Boise State remains on pace to grab the Group of Five bowl spot since it’s the highest-ranked team from a non-power conference that’s in line to win its league. Though the Broncos are ranked behind Houston in the latest Associated Press poll, Houston trails Navy in the American Athletic Conference’s West Division standings and thus wouldn’t be eligible for a major bowl.
With four non-power schools (Boise, Houston, Navy and Western Michigan) in the latest AP poll, we could have a fun race for that bid. Western Michigan’s case can be enhanced if Illinois and Northwestern, the Big Ten teams it knocked off in September, win a few more games, while the same goes for Boise’s Pac-12 victims (Oregon State and Washington State).
Some notable developments involving the non-New Year’s Six bowl games:
* All 128 schools remain technically alive for bowl eligibility, but for a few dozen it’s just a matter of time before their already small chance is eradicated. Eight schools enter Week 8 with six losses and another 10 have lost five times, including Notre Dame, which is off this week but would then need to beat at least four of its remaining five opponents (Miami, Navy, Army, Virginia Tech and USC) to lock up a seventh straight bid. Considering that quintet has a combined record of 20-10, the odds aren’t in the Fighting Irish’s favor.
* We’ve got too many games left to start worrying about whether bowls will need to offer invitations to seven-loss schools like three did last season, but the struggles of some power-conference schools that normally go bowling (Arizona, Michigan State, Mississippi State, Oregon and UCLA) is making it look likely that some leagues won’t be able to honor all of their commitments. That would open the door for at-large schools to grab an invite that they otherwise wouldn’t have received, such as Army, which at 4-2 is working toward its first winning season since 2010. The Black Knights normally have a prearranged deal with a bowl game to play in it, if eligible, but don’t for 2016.
* Army is one of 15 schools listed in our latest projections, including 15 teams that did go bowling a year ago, a sign of the parity in college football—particularly when it comes to teams from outside the top tier. Eight of these schools haven’t been bowling since at least 2011, including Colorado, whose last appearance was a 2007 Independence Bowl loss to Alabama, and Eastern Michigan, which last bowled in 1987 in the now-defunct California Bowl. There are also two projected first-time bowl participants in Conference USA schools Old Dominion and UTSA, both of whom have previously had bowl-worthy records but weren’t eligible at the time as transitioning FBS members.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.
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Source: Bleacher Report-CFB News