Bowl projections: USC enters College Football Playoff ahead of Clemson, Michigan as New Year’s Six shuffles


Nobody saw that coming, except maybe South Carolina. The Gamecocks obliterated Tennessee 63-38, and in doing so, snuffed out any chance the Volunteers had of earning a spot in the College Football Playoff. That may not have been the worst news for Tennessee, though, as Heisman Trophy contending quarterback Hendon Hooker left with a non-contact injury to his leg and did not return.

The Vols can still get into a New Year’s Six game; it depends how far they fall in this week’s CFP Rankings. Tennessee will likely remain ahead of Penn State and secure the last at-large spot in the Cotton Bowl, as long as it beats Vanderbilt this week.

One thing the CFP Selection Committee will not consider is how the injury to Hooker will impact Tennessee going forward. It is not the committee’s job to predict the future. Their job is to rank the teams based on what they have accomplished. The impact of Hooker’s absence will become more apparent as the Vols play without him, though that will be no more than one game before Selection Sunday.

Tennessee dropping out of the playoff projection means someone has to move up. That team is USC, projected to finish 12-1 and win the Pac-12.

The Ohio State-Michigan loser and Clemson, which is projected to win the ACC, are also under consideration for the spot. However, USC’s strength of schedule and the quality of its wins should give the Trojans an edge for No. 4.

Clemson’s CFP case was damaged by North Carolina’s home loss to Georgia Tech. That gives the Tar Heels two losses and could see them fall several spots in the week’s CFP Rankings. If Clemson wins the ACC, its best win will come over UNC in the conference championship game, assuming the Heels do not lose to NC State first. Clemson’s best win so far is over Florida State.

College Football Playoff

Jan. 9

National Championship
Inglewood, Calif.

Title game Semifinal winners

Dec. 31

Peach Bowl


(1) Georgia vs. (4) USC

Dec. 31

Fiesta Bowl
Glendale, Ariz.


(2) Ohio State vs. (3) TCU

Tennessee’s loss also creates a reordering of the SEC teams in New Year’s Six games. However, because the Vols are dropping to the bottom of that list of four, it does not change the bowl projections for LSU or Alabama. The Tigers are still expected to meet Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl, while Alabama remains in the Orange Bowl as the highest-ranked team remaining from the SEC, Big Ten or Notre Dame

With USC moving up, Oregon is now projected to go to the Rose Bowl to face Michigan.

There was another upset Saturday that impacted the New Year’s Six. UCF fell 17-14 at home to Navy, throwing away the ability to host the AAC Championship Game. Now, the winner of the Tulane at Cincinnati game will host the Knights. Cincinnati is now projected to win the league and the Group of Five berth in the Cotton Bowl.

If UCF wins the AAC title with three losses, it could bring Coastal Carolina and Boise State into play for the Group of Five spot, but the Knights would likely still get it because of the quality of their wins.

New Year’s Six bowl games

Some league title game matchups are already set. The Big Ten will not be decided in either division until after Week 13. The Ohio State-Michigan winner will most likely face Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game. Just a month ago, we were writing obituaries of the Hawkeyes season as they possessed one of the worst offenses in college football.

TCU is awaiting an opponent for the Big 12 Championship Game. That will be Kansas State if it beats Kansas, otherwise Texas if it defeats Baylor. The Longhorns hold the tiebreaker over the Wildcats.

USC’s win over UCLA put the Trojans in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Oregon will join them if it beats Oregon State or loses and finishes in a two- or three-way tie involving Utah. The Huskies win a two-way tie the Ducks.

Notre Dame is part of the ACC bowl structure if it is not in the New Year’s Six. The Fighting Irish will obviously be the most attractive team to any of the ACC bowls, and it is likely that Notre Dame can choose which game it prefers. However, the Irish are projected to finish 8-4 and cannot be chosen ahead of an ACC team with two more wins. That means that the Cheez-It Bowl will get expected 10-win North Carolina.

The options for Notre Dame after that are the Duke’s Mayo, Gator, Holiday, Pinstripe and Sun Bowls. The Duke’s Mayo and Pinstripe mean playing a mediocre Big Ten team, possibly in-state rival Purdue. Although, New York may have some appeal as a destination. The Holiday Bowl is in Southern California, which is where the Irish will have just played their final regular season game. The Sun Bowl is in Texas, which is fertile recruiting ground, but maybe not as much in El Paso. The Gator Bowl is also in fertile recruiting ground in Florida and would bring an SEC opponent. My projection has the Irish choosing the Sunshine State.

There are four teams in this week’s projection that are expected to finish 5-7. This is the last week of the regular season for teams chasing bowl eligibility. Last year at this time, the projection was that there would be a need for six 5-7 teams for the bowls, but there were a number of upsets in the final week and no 5-7 teams were ultimately necessary. Perhaps that will happen this time as well.

The winner of the Army-Navy Game could get a fifth win and become eligible under the five-win exception, but since that game is played a week after the bowl matchups are announced, it will be too late for the winner to go to a bowl.

Don’t see your team? Check out Jerry Palm’s updated bowl projections after Week 12 as well as the CBS Sports bowl eligibility tracker for updates on what your team needs to do in order to go bowling this season.

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