The first College Football Playoff rankings of the 2017 season are less than two weeks away, set to be released on Halloween. With the season at its midpoint and seven weeks of football left to be played, it's time to use what we've learned so far and make an educated guess as to how the postseason race will play out, before the actual rankings begin.
Let's break down the playoff race by conference, then project all 39 bowl matchups, including the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl playoff semifinals.
The Playoff Race By Conference
Conferences ranked in order of likelihood of getting a team into the playoff.
Undefeated: Alabama, Georgia
One loss: Kentucky
Barring a strange miracle in which Auburn, Texas A&M or LSU -- all of whom have two losses overall and one in the SEC -- somehow runs the table and wins the SEC, the conference has two remaining playoff contenders: Alabama in the West and Georgia in the East. Apologies to Kentucky, but its biggest margin of victory was 11 points over Eastern Kentucky; it's going to stumble multiple times. Thus, it's a two-team race for the playoff in the SEC, and it's even possible that both could get in if they reach the SEC title game undefeated and then play a relatively close game in Atlanta and get some help from other conferences that produce multi-loss champions.
Before then, the biggest remaining games are Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech for Georgia and LSU and Auburn for Alabama. Although there are only two legitimate candidates left, the SEC is in the best position because it's hard to envision its champion having more than one loss, and a one- or no-loss SEC champion is a playoff lock. Alabama and Georgia have both played like top-four teams this season, and they may both be rewarded as such.
2. Big Ten
Undefeated: Penn State, Wisconsin
One loss: Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State
The Big Ten is the only conference that has multiple undefeated teams and multiple one-loss teams, but the playoff likely comes down to three teams: Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. Neither Michigan nor Michigan State is strong enough offensively to win out, especially given that Michigan still has to play Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, and Michigan State has to play Penn State and Ohio State. In the Big Ten West, Wisconsin has a wide-open path to the Big Ten title game. It is undefeated with no truly impressive wins, and the only top-25 win it could earn in the regular season is Michigan, unless Iowa goes on a run. An undefeated Wisconsin that won the Big Ten would be a sure playoff bet, but it needs to beat Michigan on Nov. 18.
In the East, Penn State is entering its key stretch of the season: Michigan, at Ohio State, at Michigan State in back-to-back-to-back weeks. Ohio State has been on fire against lesser competition since losing to Oklahoma. Progress from Michigan can't be ruled out, and neither can a Michigan State upset of either the Buckeyes or Nittany Lions. But if Penn State beats Michigan at home this Saturday, there's a good chance that the Lions' visit to Columbus on Oct. 28 will decide the Big Ten East, the Big Ten overall and a playoff bid.
One loss: Clemson, N.C. State, Virginia, Virginia Tech
After last-minute heroics each of the past two games against Florida State and Georgia Tech, 5-0 Miami stands alone as the ACC's only undefeated team. In its quest for its first-ever ACC Coastal title, Miami has some tough games left -- headlined by Virginia Tech and Notre Dame -- but it's only road trips are to UNC and Pitt. The schedule sets up favorably, and the Hurricanes rank eighth in yards per play on offense and 22nd on defense. The ACC's other obvious contender is defending national champion Clemson. Yes, the Tigers lost to Syracuse, but they're talented enough to bounce back and run the table, although their remaining schedule includes tricky games against Georgia Tech, N.C. State, Florida State and South Carolina.
N.C. State would have to beat Notre Dame and Clemson in back-to-back weeks coming up, Virginia Tech would have to beat Miami and Georgia Tech on the road in back-to-back weeks and, well, Virginia isn't a realistic contender. Both N.C. State and Virginia Tech are clear contenders in their respective divisions, but it's also not hard to envision a scenario in which Miami and Clemson meet in the ACC title game in what amounts to a playoff play-in game.
4. Big 12
One loss: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State
TCU has assembled an impressive resume, winning at Oklahoma State, beating West Virginia at home, winning at Arkansas in nonconference play and easily taking care of a trap road game at Kansas State. The Horned Frogs still have to play road games at Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas Tech, in addition to hosting Texas and possibly playing in the Big 12 title game, but with a fairly complete team and that perfect record, they're the Big 12's best bet right now.
Before the season, Bedlam was the story in the Big 12, but Oklahoma (vs. Iowa State) and Oklahoma State (vs. TCU) both took first-half home losses in the conference, erasing their margin for error going forward. Remember, with the return of the conference title game, each would likely have to go 9-1 in the Big 12 to make the playoff. Even with TCU's 6-0 record, there's a decent chance the Big 12 champion finishes with multiple losses. If the Big 12 finds itself in an argument for a spot, the best hope is Oklahoma because of its resume-boosting nonconference win at Ohio State.
One loss: USC, Washington, Washington State
Last week was a nightmare for the Pac-12, as Washington (at Arizona State) and Washington State (at California) both played horrible games to suffer upset losses and ruin perfect seasons. That's after USC lost at Washington State a few weeks ago, and that's after Stanford lost to both USC and San Diego State in September. It would be foolish to dismiss a one-loss team, and even Stanford, with Heisman candidate tailback Bryce Love, may still be alive if it can run the table and rack up wins over Washington State, Washington, Notre Dame and the Pac-12 South champion. But that's likely asking too much, as is asking Washington State to run the table.
The two best hopes in the Pac-12 are 6-1 USC, which already beat Stanford, Texas and Utah and can get another big win at Notre Dame this week, and 6-1 Washington, which still plays Stanford, Utah, Washington State and potentially the Pac-12 South champion. Both have playoff potential -- USC hasn't had a smooth season but it's loaded with talent, and Washington went to the playoff last year -- but as we saw last weekend, the Pac-12 is looking deep enough to eliminate itself from the playoff. And given that it's the only Power Five league without an undefeated team, it has the worst chance of getting to the playoff right now.
One loss: Notre Dame
Notre Dame is clearly improved, owner of an excellent offensive line and running game and a rising defense. Its only loss was by one point to undefeated Georgia. If Notre Dame runs the table, it will be close to a playoff lock despite not being able to win a conference title. The problem is that winning out is too difficult of a proposition. The remaining Notre Dame schedule? USC, N.C. State, Wake Forest, at Miami, Navy and Stanford. None of those games are guaranteed wins, with four ranked in the AP top 25.
7. Group of Five conferences
Undefeated: UCF, USF
One loss: Marshall, Memphis, Navy, San Diego State, Toledo
There would need to be a ridiculous amount of chaos for a Group of Five team to make the playoff. It's not going to happen, especially because USF's schedule is so weak this year.
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College Football Playoff Projections
Based on how I think the rest of the season may play out -- after the chaos of Week 7, it's hard to be confidence in much of anything -- what follows are projections for the two playoff games in New Orleans and Pasadena, then for the other four major bowl games.
Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1): No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Miami
The Crimson Tide and Hurricanes haven't met since the 1993 Sugar Bowl, which decided the national championship. Alabama won 34-13. The prediction here is that Alabama runs the table and enters the playoff with a perfect 13-0 record, the No. 1 ranking and an SEC championship. The other prediction is murkier: Miami is awfully close to being 3-2 rather than 5-0, and although its remaining schedule is favorable, there are several potential losses. Still, this is a talented defense with enough weapons on offense, and if it can get to the ACC title game, neither Clemson nor N.C. State is unbeatable.
Of course, if Miami did get here, Alabama would probably win by four touchdowns, because that's what Alabama does.
Rose Bowl (Jan. 1): No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Georgia
A lot could go wrong to derail this prediction. Ohio State likely needs to win out, which would include beating Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Georgia needs to either win the SEC championship or go 12-0 in the regular season and play a tight game against Alabama in Atlanta … and get some help. But, hey, why not? Ohio State gets the Nittany Lions at home and is better than the rest of the Big Ten. Georgia has one of the nation's best defenses and a great running game, and it has played like a playoff contender all year. One conference is bound to get two teams in the playoff at some point, and this season gives it a reasonable chance of happening in either the SEC or Big Ten.
New Year's Six
Cotton Bowl (Dec. 29): Notre Dame vs. TCU
If Notre Dame goes 10-2, it's a New Year's Six lock. With a difficult schedule, even a 9-3 Notre Dame would have a chance, depending on how things break elsewhere. Meanwhile, TCU is a solid bet for double-digit wins, whether it wins the Big 12 or not.
Fiesta Bowl (Dec. 30): USC vs. Oklahoma
USC is the projected Pac-12 champion. It has a clear path to the Pac-12 title game out of the South Division and should reach double-digit wins. Oklahoma is the projected Big 12 champion, but I'll also predict that it drops one more game to knock it out of the playoff. If this is a bowl matchup, let's just hope it's better than their last meeting: USC's blowout win over the Sooners for the 2004 national title.
Orange Bowl (Dec. 30): Clemson vs. Penn State
The Orange Bowl matches the top ACC team not in the playoff and the top Big Ten or SEC team (or Notre Dame) not in the playoff. If Clemson goes to the playoff, swap Miami into the ACC spot. Georgia, Ohio State and Notre Dame are also possibilities for the other spot, but this assumes a Penn State loss in Columbus and a Georgia playoff trip.
Peach Bowl (Jan. 1): Wisconsin vs. UCF
It would be the second straight matchup with a Group of Five team in a major bowl for Wisconsin. The Badgers got a good game from Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl last year, and UCF appears even more capable of putting up a fight.
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Bowl projections are based on 2017-18 conference tie-ins. The selection process is not as structured as it used to be: While some bowls are given selection preference, many matchups are now decided based on a variety of factors, including geography and whether a team has already played in a particular bowl recently.
Based on where things stand at the midpoint of the season and how the rest of the season may play out, here are projections for the 33 non-New Year's Six bowls:
New Orleans Bowl (Dec. 16): Appalachian State vs. UAB
Cure Bowl (Dec. 16): Akron vs. New Mexico State
Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 16): Arizona State vs. Boise State
New Mexico Bowl (Dec. 16): San Diego State vs. Western Kentucky
Camellia Bowl (Dec. 16): Troy vs. Northern Illinois
Boca Raton Bowl (Dec. 19): Florida Atlantic vs. Tulane
Frisco Bowl (Dec. 20): Houston vs. North Texas
Gasparilla Bowl (Dec. 21): South Florida vs. Southern Miss
Bahamas Bowl (Dec. 22): Ohio vs. Marshall
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Dec. 22): Wyoming vs. Western Michigan
Birmingham Bowl (Dec. 23): Tennessee vs. Memphis
Armed Forces Bowl (Dec. 23): Army vs. UTSA
Dollar General Bowl (Dec. 23): Arkansas State vs. Toledo
Hawaii Bowl (Dec. 24): SMU vs. Colorado State
Quick Lane Bowl (Dec. 26): Indiana vs. Syracuse
Heart of Dallas Bowl (Dec. 26): California vs. Iowa State
Cactus Bowl (Dec. 26): Oregon vs. Kansas State
Independence Bowl (Dec. 27): Wake Forest vs. Louisiana Tech
Pinstripe Bowl (Dec. 27): Iowa vs. Louisville
Foster Farms Bowl (Dec. 27): Northwestern vs. Washington State
Texas Bowl (Dec. 27): Mississippi State vs. West Virginia
Military Bowl (Dec. 28): Duke vs. Navy
Camping World Bowl (Dec. 28): Texas Tech vs. N.C. State
Holiday Bowl (Dec. 28): Michigan vs. Stanford
Alamo Bowl (Dec. 28): Washington vs. Oklahoma State
Belk Bowl (Dec. 29): Florida vs. Virginia
Sun Bowl (Dec. 29): Utah vs. Georgia Tech
Music City Bowl (Dec. 29): Purdue vs. Kentucky
TaxSlayer Bowl (Dec. 30): Florida State vs. South Carolina
Liberty Bowl (Dec. 30): Texas vs. LSU
Arizona Bowl (Dec. 30): Fresno State vs. Arizona
Outback Bowl (Jan. 1): Michigan State vs. Auburn
Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1): Texas A&M vs. Virginia Tech