Down the stretch we come: college football’s final three weeks. And what a wild stretch it will be; the next few weeks will determine exactly who will make the College Football Playoff.
There are literally dozens of possibilities, but my projections are based on the following: Auburn (11-2) winning the SEC, Oklahoma (12-1) winning the Big 12, Clemson (12-1) winning the ACC, and Ohio State (11-2) winning the Big Ten. If – or I should say, when – these all occur, this is how the selection committee will select the playoff field.
Again, this is how the selection committee will select the playoff field based on the above conference champions, not necessarily how I would pick the four-team field.
(Teams that have accepted bowl invitations are listed in bold type.)
College Football Playoff
|Championship Bowl (Atlanta)||Jan. 8||CFP semifinal winners|
Projection: Auburn vs. Ohio State
I might be the only person on the face of the Earth projecting an Auburn-Ohio State title game. To get this matchup, Auburn will have had to close with wins vs. Georgia, Alabama, and Georgia again in the SEC title game. For Ohio State to get into the playoff, it will need big wins vs. Michigan and Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. If you don’t agree with this projection, take a number and get in line. I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.
|Rose Bowl (Pasadena)||Jan. 1||CFP semifinal|
Projection: Clemson (CFP No. 2) vs. Auburn (CFP No. 3)
Yes, this would be a regular-season rematch between the Tigers. The worst part about my projected final four teams is that it would mean two regular-season rematches. But, the selection committee will not rearrange the rankings to avoid these games; so based on Clemson and Auburn winning their league titles, they’ll meet again in Pasadena.
|Sugar Bowl (New Orleans)||Jan. 1||CFP semifinal|
Projection: Oklahoma (CFP No. 1) vs. Ohio State (CFP No. 4)
Yes, this also would be a regular-season rematch between the Sooners and Buckeyes. And like the Clemson-Auburn rematch, Oklahoma and Ohio State also played their first game on Sept. 9. I ultimately went with these four teams, because they all will have more top-25 wins than 11-1 Alabama and 12-1 Wisconsin and the selection committee has never chosen a team in the field that lost its last game.
New Year’s Six bowls
|Peach Bowl (Atlanta)||Jan. 1||at-large vs. Group of 5*|
Projection: Notre Dame vs. UCF
An Orlando bar has offered free beer during UCF games as long as Scott Frost remains the Knights’ coach. UCF has scored at least 30 points in nine consecutive games, the nation’s longest streak. UCF has also topped 60 points three times this season, compared to only five times in its first 21 FBS campaigns.
|Fiesta Bowl (Glendale)||Dec. 30||at-large vs. at-large|
Projection: USC vs. Wisconsin
Wisconsin’s victory vs. Iowa gave the Badgers their first 10-0 start in school history and their fourth consecutive season with at least 10 victories. Wisconsin had never before accomplished four consecutive double-digit win seasons.
|Orange Bowl (Miami Gardens)||Dec. 30||ACC vs. Big Ten/SEC/ND|
Projection: Miami vs. Alabama
Miami’s win vs. Notre Dame on Saturday marked the Hurricanes’ first victory against the Fighting Irish since 1989 – the last time the Hurricanes won the national title. To win another national title, the Hurricanes, who own the nation’s longest streak at 14 games, must win out vs. Virginia, Pitt, and Clemson in the ACC title game.
|Cotton Bowl (Arlington)||Dec. 29||at-large vs. at-large|
Projection: Georgia vs. Penn State
Georgia running back Nick Chubb only managed 27 yards in Saturday’s loss at Auburn, but still moved past Auburn’s Bo Jackson into fourth place on the SEC’s all-time rushing list. Chubb has 4,318 yards and Jackson 4,303. Chubb could pass Arkansas’ Darren McFadden (4,590) and LSU’s Kevin Faulk (4,557) into second place, but he’s nearly 1,000 yards behind Herschel Walker’s SEC and Georgia record of 5,259.
|Citrus Bowl (Orlando)||Jan. 1||ACC/Big Ten vs. SEC|
Projection: Northwestern vs. Mississippi State
Mississippi State nearly knocked off Alabama last week, but ultimately fell to 1-9 all-time against teams ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll. The Bulldogs only have one top-25 win this year (vs. LSU), but there’s no shame in losing to Alabama, Georgia, and Auburn.
|Outback Bowl (Tampa)||Jan. 1||Big Ten vs. SEC|
Projection: Michigan State vs. LSU
LSU, which finishes with Tennessee and Texas A&M, is only one win shy of winning at least eight games for a school-record 18th consecutive season. That’s also the longest current streak among Power 5 conference schools.
|Liberty Bowl (Memphis)||Dec. 30||Big 12 vs. SEC|
Projection: Iowa State vs. Texas A&M
The Kevin Sumlin watch enters the homestretch. Texas A&M has games remaining at Ole Miss and at LSU. The Aggies became bowl eligible Saturday, which earned athletic director Scott Woodward a $50,000 bonus. So, if Woodward does fire Sumlin after the season, maybe he’ll have the decency of adding $50,000 to Sumlin’s buyout for the bowl bonus Sumlin earned for him.
|TaxSlayer Bowl (Jacksonville)||Dec. 30||ACC/Big Ten vs. SEC|
Projection: Utah** vs. South Carolina
South Carolina’s Will Muschamp probably won’t win the SEC’s Coach of the Year, but he should be given serious consideration. Despite losing wide receiver Deebo Samuel to a broken leg in Week 3, the Gamecocks are 7-3. Samuel, USC’s only offensive playmaker, has played just 11 quarters and has missed the last 29 quarters, but still leads the Gamecocks with six touchdowns.
|Arizona Bowl (Tucson)||Dec. 29||MWC vs. Sun Belt|
Projection: San Diego State vs. New Mexico State
New Mexico State, led by quarterback Tyler Rogers, needs wins in two of the Aggies’ final three games to get to a bowl for the first time since 1960. Rogers is averaging 354 yards passing per game, ranking third nationally, and has thrown 23 touchdowns with 15 interceptions.
|Belk Bowl (Charlotte)||Dec. 29||ACC vs. SEC|
Projection: Boston College vs. Kentucky
Boston College suffered a huge loss in Saturday’s defeat to NC State. Redshirt freshman quarterback Anthony Brown went down with a season-ending leg injury. Brown had started all 10 games for the Eagles and was among the top five freshmen signal-callers in passing yards (1,367) and passing TDs (11).
|Music City Bowl (Nashville)||Dec. 29||ACC/Big Ten vs. SEC|
Projection: Wake Forest vs. Missouri
Wake Forest’s offense has been on fire lately. In their last three games, the Demon Deacons are averaging 649 yards and 48 points per contest. Those numbers are even more impressive considering they lost leading wide receiver Greg Dortch to a season-ending injury three weeks ago against Louisville.
|Sun Bowl (El Paso)||Dec. 29||ACC vs. Pac-12|
Projection: Virginia Tech vs. Washington
Any concern about how Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson would perform in his first season is a distant memory. Jackson has thrown for 2,382 yards and 17 touchdowns, the most for a Hokies freshman. Jackson’s numbers also are the best among the nation’s freshmen pass-throwers.
|Alamo Bowl (San Antonio)||Dec. 28||Big 12 vs. Pac-12|
Projection: Oklahoma State vs. Washington State
Oklahoma State rebounded from its loss to Oklahoma by outlasting Iowa State 49-42 on Saturday. For the Cowboys to get a rematch vs. the Sooners in the Big 12 title game, they need to win out against Kansas State and Kansas and also need TCU to lose one of its final two games to either Texas Tech or Baylor.
|Camping World Bowl (Orlando)||Dec. 28||ACC vs. Big 12|
Projection: NC State vs. TCU
TCU lost at Oklahoma on Saturday, but if the Horned Frogs win out at Texas Tech and vs. Baylor they can get a rematch with the Sooners in the Big 12 title game. TCU likely is out of the running for the College Football Playoff but a win in the Big 12 title game would guarantee a New Year’s Six bowl bid, most likely the Cotton Bowl.
|Holiday Bowl (San Diego)||Dec. 28||Big Ten vs. Pac-12|
Projection: Michigan vs. Arizona
Oh, the storylines for this game. Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez is facing Michigan, where he coached from 2008-10 and Michigan’s defense is getting a shot at corralling Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate. The Wildcats, who visit Oregon on Saturday, have scored at least 35 points in six consecutive Pac-12 games, the longest active streak for any team against Power 5 opponents.
|Military Bowl (Annapolis)||Dec. 28||ACC vs. American|
Projection: Georgia Tech vs. Navy
Having clinched bowl eligibility last week, Navy meets Notre Dame on Saturday. It’s the 91st consecutive season in which the schools have met, the longest continuous intersectional rivalry in college football. A victory against the Irish would give the Midshipmen a win over a top-25 opponent for a third consecutive season, the first time since 1941-45 Navy has done so.
|Foster Farms Bowl (Santa Clara)||Dec. 27||Big Ten vs. Pac-12|
Projection: Iowa vs. Stanford
Stanford running bayck Bryce Love won’t win the Heisman this year, continuing what is an incredible – and frustrating – run for the Cardinal. Love, who clearly wasn’t at 100 percent, still led the Cardinal to an upset against Washington. It won’t be enough to derail Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield for the Heisman, but if he finishes second, it will mark the fifth time in the past nine years Stanford has had the Heisman runner-up.
|Independence Bowl (Shreveport)||Dec. 27||ACC vs. SEC|
Projection: Florida State vs. Louisiana Tech**
Louisiana Tech (4-6) needs to win out vs. UTEP and UTSA to get bowl eligible. Here’s hoping the Bulldogs do it, because they deserve it. The Bulldogs might be the nation’s most cursed team. They have lost three games by 1 point (South Carolina 17-16, UAB 23-22, North Texas 24-23) and another by 7 points (Southern Miss 34-27).
|Pinstripe Bowl (Bronx)||Dec. 27||ACC vs. Big Ten|
Projection: Louisville vs. Oregon**
Before Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert suffered a broken collarbone, the Ducks were off to a 4-1 start. Without Herbert, the Ducks have lost four of five. Oregon hosts Arizona on Saturday and is hoping Herbert can return. It would be a huge boost to an offense that averaged 49.6 points per game with Herbert, compared to 15 points per contest without him.
|Texas Bowl (Houston)||Dec. 27||Big 12 vs. SEC|
Projection: West Virginia vs. UNLV
I haven’t given up on UNLV – yet. The Rebels (4-6) wasted early scoring opportunities in last week’s loss to BYU, but can still get to a bowl by winning out at New Mexico and Nevada. New Mexico (3-7) has lost five consecutive games, while Nevada is playing out the string on a 1-9 season.
|Cactus Bowl (Phoenix)||Dec. 26||Big 12 vs. Pac-12|
Projection: Texas vs. Arizona State
For this projected matchup to occur, both Texas and Arizona State still need one win to become bowl eligible. Texas (5-5) finishes at West Virginia and home vs. Texas Tech, while Arizona State (5-5) visits Oregon State and hosts Arizona. Getting to a bowl could be a boost for Arizona State coach Todd Graham, who is squarely on the proverbial hot seat.
|Heart of Dallas Bowl (Dallas)||Dec. 26||Big Ten vs. Big 12|
Projection: Utah State** vs. Kansas State
Kansas State (5-5) is one win from becoming bowl eligible for an eighth consecutive season, but needs to win against either ranked Oklahoma State Saturday or Iowa State on Nov. 25. The Wildcats are 0-3 this season against ranked opponents. With KSU’s next win, Coach Bill Snyder will move into sole possession of 20th place in all-time coaching wins (208) in FBS history and second place in Big 12 history with 122 wins.
|Quick Lane Bowl (Detroit)||Dec. 26||ACC vs. Big Ten|
Projection: Virginia vs. Western Michigan**
Virginia visits Miami on Saturday – will the Hurricanes come in flat after consecutive emotional wins against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame? The No. 2-ranked Hurricanes will be the highest-ranked team that Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall has faced in his 13 years as a head coach. The previous highest came in 1989 when Mendenhall’s BYU upset No. 3 Oklahoma.
|Hawaii Bowl (Honolulu)||Dec. 24||American vs. MWC|
Projection: Memphis vs. Wyoming
Wyoming hosts Fresno State on Saturday and Cowboys quarterback Josh Allen is questionable with a shoulder injury. According to Allen’s mother, Allen suffered an AC joint sprain last week against Air Force. Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said Monday that Allen should be cleared to practice “sometime during the course of this week” and is a game-time decision.
|Armed Forces Bowl (Fort Worth)||Dec. 23||C-USA vs. Army|
Projection: Marshall vs. Army
Army upset Duke on Saturday, marking the second year in a row that the Black Knights have beaten a Power 5 conference school. Army’s current six-game winning streak is its longest since 1996.
|Birmingham Bowl (Birmingham)||Dec. 23||American vs. SEC|
Projection: Temple vs. Western Kentucky**
Under first-year coach Mike Sanford, Western Kentucky needs one win in its final two games against Middle Tennessee or FIU to reach bowl eligibility for its eighth consecutive season. The Hilltoppers’ streak is the longest current run in Conference USA.
|Dollar General Bowl (Mobile)||Dec. 23||MAC vs. Sun Belt|
Projection: Toledo vs. Arkansas State
Toledo visits Bowling Green on Wednesday in the Battle of I-75. It’s the 82nd meeting between the rivals, with the Rockets having won the last seven editions. Toledo can capture the MAC West Division title by defeating Bowling Green and Western Michigan, which would give Toledo its first appearance in the MAC title game since 2004.
|Bahamas Bowl (Nassau)||Dec. 22||C-USA vs. MAC|
Projection: FIU vs. Ohio
Under head coach Frank Solich, Ohio has won at least eight games for the third year running and eighth time in 12 years. By comparison, Ohio had only one eight-win season in the previous 35 years. One significant reason for the Bobcats’ success is the fact that Ohio is the nation’s only program to have had the same head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator for the past dozen years.
|Idaho Potato Bowl (Boise)||Dec. 22||MAC vs. MWC|
Projection: Central Michigan vs. Fresno State
Coming off last year’s 1-11 season, first-year Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford has his team bowl eligible at 7-3. The Bulldogs, who visit Wyoming on Saturday, have the nation’s best win improvement (+6) and can clinch a spot in the Mountain West title game with either a win at Wyoming or Nov. 25 vs. Boise State.
|Gasparilla Bowl (St. Petersburg)||Dec. 21||American vs. C-USA|
Projection: USF vs. Florida Atlantic
Florida Atlantic’s first season under Lane Kiffin has been a huge success. The Owls have clinched the Conference USA East Division title and have scored at least 30 points in eight consecutive games, the nation’s second-longest streak.
|Frisco Bowl (Frisco)||Dec. 20||American vs. MAC/MWC|
Projection: SMU vs. Akron
SMU visits Memphis on Saturday with the Mustangs needing only two points to set the school’s single-season scoring record. I’m guessing that shouldn’t be a problem. SMU is averaging 39 points a game, with Memphis averaging 42 points per game. The contest will feature a pair of imposing wide receivers – SMU’s Courtland Sutton and Memphis’ Anthony Miller. Each boast 11 touchdown receptions, second nationally to West Virginia’s David Sills (18).
|Boca Raton Bowl (Boca Raton)||Dec. 19||American vs. C-USA|
Projection: Houston vs. UAB
Replacing Tom Herman was not expected to be an easy task for Houston head coach Major Applewhite, especially with an unsettled quarterback position. The Cougars have started three signal-callers – Kyle Allen, Kyle Postma, and, most recently, D’Eriq King. King is expected to get his second consecutive start Saturday at Tulane after leading the Cougars to a season-high 52 points in his first start vs. East Carolina on Nov. 4.
|Camellia Bowl (Montgomery)||Dec. 16||MAC vs. Sun Belt|
Projection: Northern Illinois vs. Troy
Northern Illinois remains in contention for the MAC West title, but must win out and needs Toledo to lose once more. Last week against Ball State, NIU senior safety Jackson Abresch became just the third player in FBS history to score two touchdowns on blocked punts in the same game. NIU has blocked four punts in the last three games.
|Cure Bowl (Orlando)||Dec. 16||American vs. Sun Belt|
Projection: North Texas** vs. Georgia State
Georgia State has earned bowl eligibility for the second time in three seasons. A big reason has been the Panthers’ success on the road. Georgia State has won five consecutive road games and is one of only three FBS teams with five or more road wins this year. The others: Oklahoma State (6) and San Diego State (5).
|Las Vegas Bowl (Las Vegas)||Dec. 16||MWC vs. Pac-12|
Projection: Boise State vs. UCLA
UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen returned last week to lead the Bruins past Arizona State, and it came just in time to keep the Bruins’ bowl hopes alive. Rosen suffered a concussion Oct. 28 at Washington and missed UCLA’s next game with Utah. In his return against ASU, he threw for 381 yards and a touchdown in the 44-37 win. UCLA needs one win against either USC on Saturday or Cal the following week to get bowl eligible.
|New Mexico Bowl (Albuquerque)||Dec. 16||C-USA vs. MWC|
Projection: Middle Tennessee vs. Colorado State
Colorado State pass-thrower Nick Stevens set the school record Saturday for most career passing touchdowns with 65. Stevens has thrown 24 TD passes this season, including two vs. Boise State on Saturday, but it wasn’t enough as the Rams blew a 52-38 point lead in the final three minutes in a 59-52 overtime loss to the Broncos.
|New Orleans Bowl (New Orleans)||Dec. 16||C-USA vs. Sun Belt|
Projection: Southern Miss vs. Appalachian State
Southern Miss became bowl eligible Saturday for the third straight season and the 21st time in the past 24 years. The Golden Eagles’ win at Rice was the school’s 100th Conference USA victory. In 22 seasons in C-USA, Southern Miss is 100-63 with five conference titles.
*The highest-rated champion from the Group of 5 conferences (American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, and Sun Belt) will be selected to play in either the Cotton, Fiesta, or Peach Bowl.
**Replaces team from league that can’t fill bowl.
Brett McMurphy has been a college football reporter for nearly 30 years. He is a longtime voter in The Associated Press poll as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. Find him on Twitter @brett_mcmurphy or Facebook here.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)
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