We are just a fortnight away from championship weekend, and most of the teams in the FBS ranks have played 11 of the 12 games on their regular schedules. Thanksgiving weekend is all that stands between now and either the offseason or the postseason for the majority of teams. 71 of 127 full FBS members have already notched their sixth wins of the season to become eligible for bowl selection. 18 more teams have a chance of reaching bowl eligibility at this point, with records varying between 4-6, 5-6, and 5-5. Of course, the expansion to 40 bowl games opens the door for all but the 47 worst teams to play in some kind of honorary exhibition.
Under the new system, these games have varying degrees of relevance and significance. At the apex of the hierarchy is the College Football Playoff, with its plus-one model adding a 41st game to the postseason in the form of a championship. This year the Orange Bowl and the Cotton Bowl serve as semifinal games, and the championship will take place between those winners in Glendale, Arizona on January 11.
Below those three games, a quartet of remaining elite bowls provide room for eight teams that had exemplary seasons to show off before a national audience. Lumped together under the banner of the New Year’s Six with the two semifinal sites, this tier is the consolation prize for those teams left out of the top-four bracket. These games include both historic stalwarts like the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl as well as second-wave creations of the late 1960s and early 1970s like the Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl. For mid-majors, this is about as far as they can dream that we have yet seen, though one of the eight spots is guaranteed to the best Group of Five conference champion.
On a third tier, providing games that are likely to still interest most college football fans but that are also often skipped over during the long push toward the end of the year and into the next, are the bowls that are awesome relics of history in their own right and which actually make the trip worth a team’s time and effort with a solid payout that doesn’t put the schools in a deficit in terms of travel costs. This would include those bowls that have more than two decades of continuous operation and a payout north of $2 million per team. Only eight make the cut: the Citrus, Gator (TaxSlayer), Outback, Cactus, Alamo, Russell Athletic, Holiday, and Sun Bowls.
There are 11 bowls that pay out between $1 million and $1.85 million per team, constituting a fourth tier within the postseason hierarchy. And then there are the made-for-TV bowl games at that bottom of the list, 15 bowls (and counting, with new bowls proposed from Dublin to Dubai) that bring teams neither monetary solvency nor much in the way of tradition.
Two-thirds of FBS schools will go somewhere to play in a playoff contest. Where they will go is beginning to become clearer… so this week we will evaluate the Pigskin Rating System numbers to determine where teams are likely to go bowling within the top three tiers of the hierarchy.
Tier 1: College Football Playoff
- #1 Oklahoma v. #4 Ohio State (Cotton Bowl)
- #2 Alabama v. #3 Baylor (Orange Bowl)
There are several things that instantly have me skeptical about this. First of all, Ohio State is still rated incredibly highly for a team that just lost at home; that spot could easily be Michigan State’s or Iowa’s to lose now in the Big Ten. The Big 12 is unlikely to have two teams in the hunt this season, and it would be absurd for Clemson to be left out as an undefeated ACC champion. But Oklahoma and Alabama are almost certain to get the benefit of the doubt, as will the Tigers if they keep winning out east. The Big Ten champion has a better shot than the imploding Pac-12 at landing the last spot, but Ohio State needs major help outside of its control to get back into that mix.
Tier 2: New Year’s Six
- North Carolina v. Houston (Fiesta Bowl)
- Ole Miss v. Oklahoma State (Sugar Bowl)
- Michigan v. Stanford (Rose Bowl)
- Clemson v. Notre Dame (Peach Bowl)
Houston would get in under the current rankings as the top Group of Five team, though they still aren’t guaranteed to win the AAC championship after falling to UConn on Saturday. Navy could just as easily snag this spot, or Temple, or even a team from another conference like Western Kentucky or Air Force. We’d get to see classic conference matchups staged in the Sugar and Rose Bowls, along with a traditional independent in the mix. Teams like TCU, Southern Cal, Florida State, and Florida could ostensibly also be in the mix for one of these berths.
Tier 3: Traditional Fixtures
- Iowa v. Florida (Citrus Bowl)
- Michigan State v. Mississippi State (TaxSlayer Bowl)
- Wisconsin v. Texas A&M (Outback Bowl)
- TCU v. USC (Cactus Bowl)
- West Virginia v. UCLA (Alamo Bowl)
- Florida State v. Texas Tech (Russell Athletic Bowl)
- Penn State v. Washington (Holiday Bowl)
- NC State v. Oregon (Sun Bowl)
What the playoff and even the BCS showed is that conference-affiliated bowl games often interfere with the ability to put together the best matchups down the line. Obviously some of these teams are more likely to be locked into higher-tier bowls, and others will probably slip into the fourth tier. While the selections are solid, they are hardly the most intriguing storylines that could possibly be put together.
Beyond this, everything else is a total crapshoot in terms of predicting where teams will end up. The College Football Playoff, in its subjective glory, will settle in on different teams than the PRS has throughout the year. Bowl games aren’t obligated to select teams based on their records, only their conference affiliation and the ability to set up a good ticket-selling showdown.
So we’ll see how this all plays out in the last two weeks of the regular season. With teams falling by the wayside left and right, we could see a completely different picture before championships even begin to play out. You can scroll through the full rankings below, including the breakdown of each category calculated in the Pigskin Rating System. To brush up on the methodology used in the rankings, click here.