Year 3 of the College Football Playoff era is here.
While there has been much complaining about the playoff selection process and the logistics of the games, there hasn't been much to argue about in terms of the actual final on-field results each of the past two years. Ohio State deserved the national championship in 2014, just as Alabama did last year.
So how will the 2016 College Football Playoff race shape up? Throughout August, we've been breaking down every team in the country, conference by conference:
As part of the process for making conference predictions, we went through the schedule and picked each result, game by game, to come up with projected records. Those records are used in the projected standings in each of the above conference previews, and the projected standings are used to formulate predictions for college football's postseason: the four-team playoff field and the 40 bowl games total.
Below is our guess as to how the 2016-17 college football postseason will shape up.
The Playoff Race By Conference
Conferences ranked in order of likelihood of getting a team into the playoff.
1. SEC. At this point, it's hard to ever imagine a College Football Playoff without the SEC. It has won eight of the past 10 national championships, and while the gap is not insurmountable, it is still the best, deepest and most talented conference in the nation. It is the most likely conference to get a playoff team because it may produce either a playoff-caliber Alabama or a champion that beat Alabama. Three SEC teams finish with double-digit wins in our projections: Alabama, LSU and Tennessee. Alabama, as always, is a great playoff contender and is the safest bet entering the season, and if LSU finally ends its five-game losing streak to the Crimson Tide, it will be in the playoff mix. It wouldn't be impossible for two teams from the SEC West to get in.
2. ACC. North Carolina and Louisville are both good teams that have sleeper top-10 potential, but ultimately it comes down to two heavyweights, both in the Atlantic Division: Florida State and Clemson. In terms of recruiting, the Seminoles and Tigers have been far ahead of the rest of the ACC, and it's shown. Florida State won the last BCS title and appeared in the first playoff, and Clemson lost the national title game last year. The winner of Clemson at Florida State on Oct. 29 has a great chance of getting to the playoff, and the loser's chances can't be dismissed, either.
3. Big Ten. It's not hard to envision a scenario in which the Big Ten gets left out. Ohio State and Michigan State both lost a ton of NFL talent, Iowa is unlikely to duplicate its undefeated 2015 regular season and Michigan, while clearly on the rise, has to find another quarterback and actually beat its rivals. But Ohio State still has J.T. Barrett and continues to dominate the recruiting trail, and Jim Harbaugh has quickly reshaped Michigan into a force, particularly on defense. A playoff bid may be on the line when Michigan travels to Columbus on Nov. 26, perhaps making for the biggest Michigan-Ohio State game since 2006's No. 1 vs. 2 showdown.
4. Big 12. The Big 12 went into panic mode after getting left out of the first playoff, and it could happen again. In that case, TCU and Baylor tied in the standings -- although Baylor won the head-to-head matchup -- and both were left out after every other contender played in an extra game because of conference championships. The Big 12 won't add a conference title game until next year, and expansion remains an open-ended question. For now, it's still a 10-team league with a nine-game round-robin schedule, and everyone will play 12 games total. Oklahoma, not surprisingly, is the choice of many to get back to the playoff with Baker Mayfield, Samaje Perine and several other key players back. TCU's chances of winning the Big 12 can't be discounted, however, especially with what should be a much-improved defense. Both favorites have plenty of landmines on that nine-game conference schedule, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Big 12 champion finish with two losses.
5. Pac-12. Is there a great team in the Pac-12 this year? The conference got left out last year, thanks to Stanford's two losses to Northwestern and Oregon. The Cardinal have Heisman candidate Chrsitian McCaffrey back, along with what should be an improved defense, but they have a brutal schedule. USC somehow has an even more difficult schedule. The playoff is supposed to reward tough schedules, but the Pac-12 appears to be a conference with a deep roster of good teams playing nine-game conference schedules (10 games, for the division winners) that may beat up on each other and thus eliminate the league's champion from the playoff again. Stanford, Oregon, USC, UCLA and Washington could all makes runs, but this looks like a conference with a bunch of top-30 teams rather than a couple top-five contenders.
6. Notre Dame. BYU is good but is not playoff-good, and quite obviously UMass and Army are not playoff-worthy. Notre Dame, then, is the one team that could make a playoff case without having even a chance to win a conference championship. How the selection committee handles Notre Dame's candidacy is a question it hasn't had to deal with yet (although it nearly did last year). The Fighting Irish have the talent and a navigable enough schedule to be a threat, but holes to fill at receiver and on defense could hold them back.
7. Group of Five. There is some hope. Houston plays Oklahoma and Louisville, and if it manages to beat both and run the table in the American, an undefeated record would give the Cougars an argument for a playoff bid. But that undefeated scenario is also unlikely. This conversation is still mostly about who will get the Group of Five's major bowl bid, which will be to the Cotton Bowl this year. Houston, Boise State, Western Michigan, Southern Mississippi and Appalachian State are our five projected conference winners, so those would be the teams under consideration for that major bowl spot.
College Football Playoff Projections
Ultimately, our projections ended up fairly neat and tidy, with four teams picked to finish the season with one loss. The only messy part is that one of them, Clemson, is not predicted to wins its conference (let alone its division), but given that its only loss is to a top-two team, the Tigers can get in the field over a two-loss Pac-12 champion UCLA and two-loss Big 12 champion TCU. Saying that, we can also acknowledge that the playoff is bound for a mess at some point in which the choices aren't so easy, and there would surely be plenty of complaining about this situation in which two conferences are left out. But based on attempting to predict the result of every game before the season begins, here is our projection for the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year's Eve, plus the other major bowls:
Peach Bowl: No. 1 LSU over No. 4 Clemson
The two Tigers met in the Peach Bowl in 2012, with Clemson beating LSU 25-24. The stakes are higher this time around, with a trip to Tampa for the national championship on the line. It's a matchup of two Heisman Trophy frontrunners, Leonard Fournette and Deshaun Watson, with Clemson boasting one of the nation's top offenses and LSU having one of the nation's top defenses. LSU gets a bid after beating Alabama in the regular season and Tennessee in the SEC title game; Clemson gets in after losing to Florida State but dominating the rest of its schedule, earning two playoff spots for the ACC.
Fiesta Bowl: No. 2 Florida State over No. 3 Michigan
Both teams have to prove themselves at quarterback, as Florida State is turning to redshirt freshman Deondre Francois and Michigan will likely go with either junior Wilton Speight or Houston transfer John O'Korn. Both teams have exceptional defenses and coaching staffs, and Florida State's Dalvin Cook stands a good chance of being getting to New York for the Heisman ceremony. If the projections hold true, the Seminoles and Wolverines are both obvious choices as the one-loss winners of the ACC and Big Ten, respectively.
National Championship Game: LSU vs. Florida State
The prediction is for the Tigers and the Seminoles to meet in Tampa on Jan. 9. Click here for Sports on Earth's breakdown of the national championship race.
Major Bowl Games
Rose Bowl: Ohio State vs. UCLA
With Michigan in the playoff, the Big Ten's next best team goes to the Rose Bowl. That's Ohio State, which has played in 11 major bowl games since 2002 but only two Rose Bowls, for various reasons. This would be the Buckeyes' first trip since 2009, when they beat Oregon. Meanwhile, as Pac-12 champion, UCLA would get to play in the Rose Bowl on its home field for the first time since 1998, ending the Bruins' largest Rose Bowl drought since their first appearance in 1942.
Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs. TCU
The Sugar Bowl hosts the top non-playoff teams from the SEC and Big 12. In this case, the SEC's representative could also be East champion Tennessee, but Alabama gets the slight edge and meets TCU. Our projections have the Horned Frogs tying Oklahoma for the Big 12 title but winning the head-to-head matchup, sending them to New Orleans for the first time since 1938.
Cotton Bowl: Boise State vs. Oklahoma
It's only fitting, right? This season marks the 10th anniversary of one of the greatest games ever, when Boise State stunned Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 2006 season. Our projections have Boise State at 11-2, including the Mountain West title game, giving it the edge on 10-3 Houston for the Group of Five's major bowl bid. Oklahoma grabs an at-large spot at 10-2.
Orange Bowl: North Carolina vs. Tennessee
The Orange Bowl's tie-ins dictate that the ACC's best non-playoff team meets either Notre Dame or a team from the Big Ten or SEC. With Florida State and Clemson in the projected playoff field, the ACC spot goes to Coastal champion North Carolina, picked to finish 10-2 in the regular season before losing the ACC title game. (UNC just edges Louisville for the spot.) The Tar Heels meet another conference title game loser in the Volunteers, who are also picked to go 10-2 before falling in the SEC championship.
One again, the bowl lineup features 40 games, plus the national championship. That means 80 teams can earn postseason spots. Last year, three 5-7 teams were needed to fill out the bowl field. This year, our projections have 83 teams achieving bowl eligibility, meaning three eligible teams -- sorry, New Mexico, Akron and Ohio -- have to be left out. A handful of teams are also featured in games not tied to their conferences because some conferences can't fill out their roster of bowl tie-ins.