The Reshuffled College Football Landscape & New Year’s Six Bowl Projections

The college football season saw its first significant reshuffle of the deck on Saturday, as the favorites fell. The most significant loss was Georgia getting pounded at LSU, creating the first crack in our Playoff projections. Other games up and down the card, most notably West Virginia losing decisively to Iowa State, created more fluidity in the race for spots in the marquee New Year’s Six bowls. As the dust settles, here’s how I see the basic landscape of the season…

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THE POWER TRIO: Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson
These teams are going to the College Football Playoff. I’m not saying they’ll all be undefeated or even that any of them will. But all are loaded with talent, coaching and all quite likely have a loss to give.

CHASING THE FOURTH SPOT: Notre Dame, LSU, Michigan, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma
Notre Dame is the clear choice to be ranked #4 right now, with their 7-0 record. But the Irish, with their narrow escapes against Ball State, Vanderbilt and Pitt aren’t exactly unbeatable. LSU has a serious schedule problem—namely that Alabama is on it. The Tigers have to find some way to beat the Tide and then win a likely rematch with Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Or, figure out a way to lose competitively to ‘Bama and slip into the 4-spot at 10-2.

As for the Bulldogs, they’ve used up the loss they had to give, but would still almost certainly make the Playoff if they win out and take home another SEC title. But the prospect of facing Alabama and not having a loss to give is a precarious spot to be in. Michigan is playing some good football, but still has to deal with Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State. Texas and Oklahoma are each playing elimination games the rest of the way as far as their Playoff hopes are concerned.

What all of these teams have in common—besides their pursuit of the Playoff—is that they are all very comfortable choices for the New Year’s Six bowl projections.

THE FINAL TWO BIDS: I’m keeping Penn State and Washington in my major bowl projections, even after their close losses. But the upstarts are coming on strong, led by N.C. State and Oregon. If we actually had to pick the bowl spots today, the latter two would deserve the nod over the Nittany Lions and Huskies.

But in the big picture, the reason I still stick with Penn State is that they lost two absolute heartbreakers to Ohio State and Michigan State, the latter quite likely resulting in an emotional hangover from the former. The Lions are still good enough to win out and given that there’s usually a 9-3 team sliding into one of the last spots, could perhaps afford a loss at Michigan.

Oregon got the head-to-head win over Washington on Saturday, but remember that the Ducks also lost to Stanford. The Oregon win, along with USC beating Colorado in the South Division, had the effect of hitting the reset button on the Pac-12 race. No fewer than six teams are legitimate contenders. I still think Washington, whose only losses are close ones in a road-neutral game against Auburn and a true road game at Oregon, is the best team in the conference.

THE 12th: Central Florida
The Knights survived a hair-raising game at Memphis, but the operative word here is “survived.” UCF remains unbeaten and ranked 10th in the current AP poll. As long as they win American Conference, they can afford a loss and still get the mid-major spot in the New Year’s Six.

That landscape shakes into these projected bowl matchups:

Cotton (College Football Playoff): Alabama-Notre Dame
Orange (College Football Playoff): Ohio State-Clemson
Rose: Michigan-Washington
Sugar: LSU-Texas
Fiesta: Oklahoma-Penn State
Peach: Georgia-Central Florida