Sure, the four-team College Football Playoff has been fun and made the chase for college football’s top prize more inclusive. But let’s liven up the party and expand the field to 64 teams.
Here’s the format: We’ve seeded the teams 1 through 64, and the seeds are based on ESPN’s latest Football Power Index entering the 2020 season. The FPI’s top four teams are Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Alabama, and with the Crimson Tide being the fourth No. 1 seed, that means they will travel to the West Region.
There’s no First Four in this tournament, and don’t get too caught up in the seeds. Just like the hoops tournament, there are always upsets, especially in the early rounds. And to keep things interesting, a few of the first-round matchups include compelling storylines.
Just like nobody second-guesses the CFP selection committee, I’m sure there won’t be any second-guessing our picks and which teams advance. Keep in mind that there’s a lot of projection involved and maybe even a touch of fantasy, too.
Today, we’ll take a look at the field and work our way through the first two rounds of the tournament, narrowing the pool from 64 to 16. We’ll then play the rest of the games and crown the 2020 national champion to the familiar tune of “One Shining Moment.”
1-seeds: Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Alabama
2-seeds: Penn State, Wisconsin, Texas, Texas A&M
3-seeds: Notre Dame, Georgia, Florida, LSU
4-seeds: Oregon, USC, Auburn, Michigan
5-seeds: Oklahoma State, North Carolina, Tennessee, Minnesota
6-seeds: UCF, Nebraska, Florida State, Utah
7-seeds: Virginia Tech, Indiana, Iowa, Stanford
8-seeds: Washington, Cal, Iowa State, TCU
9-seeds: Kentucky, South Carolina, Louisville, Purdue
10-seeds: Northwestern, Miami, Cincinnati, Mississippi State
11-seeds: Arizona State, Pittsburgh, Ole Miss, Baylor
12-seeds: Houston, Texas Tech, Virginia, West Virginia
13-seeds: UCLA, Kansas State, Boise State, Navy
14-seeds: Missouri, Washington State, Georgia Tech, Colorado
15-seeds: Michigan State, Memphis, North Carolina State, SMU
16-seeds: BYU, Arizona, Duke, Louisiana
First four out: Illinois, Arkansas, Oregon State, Wake Forest
EAST REGION FIRST ROUND
(1) Clemson 48, (16) Louisiana 13: At 29 years old, Billy Napier was appointed by Dabo Swinney to be Clemson’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach midway through the 2008 season, but Swinney parted ways with Napier following the 2010 season. Napier is now running his own shop at Louisiana and has done a terrific job with the Ragin’ Cajuns, but they don’t have enough firepower to stay with the Tigers.
(2) Texas A&M 38, (15) SMU 17: It’s a Lone Star State showdown and the first time these two teams have met since 2014. Sonny Dykes’ Mustangs hang in there for a while, but all those talented recruiting classes Jimbo Fisher has reeled in the past few years are the difference in the second half.
(3) LSU 31, (14) Colorado 17: LSU lost a ton from last season’s national championship team, both players and coaches. But it still has All-American receiver Ja’Marr Chase, and his three touchdown catches help the Tigers break open a close game.
(4) Michigan 31, (13) Navy 30: In one of the more entertaining games of the first round, Michigan finds a way to escape after trailing by two touchdowns in the first half. The Wolverines never panic (even though Jim Harbaugh’s khaki pants are a bit wrinkled by game’s end) and lean on a bruising running game to take control of the line of scrimmage and advance to the second round.
(5) Minnesota 27, (12) West Virginia 24: Yes, the Golden Gophers lost a bunch on defense, but they just keep on “rowing the boat” under P.J. Fleck, this time in thrilling fashion, as Tanner Morgan connects with Rashod Bateman on a fourth-and-goal touchdown pass in the final seconds to send the Mountaineers to a heartbreaking first-round defeat.
(11) Baylor 24, (6) Utah 22: A year ago, Dave Aranda was helping to steer LSU to a national championship as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. Now, he’s got Baylor in the second round of the NCAA tournament in his first season as the Bears’ head coach.
(10) Mississippi State 34, (7) Stanford 28: Mike Leach left the Pac-12 for the SEC, and so did grad transfer quarterback K.J. Costello. After starting parts of three seasons for Stanford, Costello joins forces with Leach in Starkville and sends his former team packing in the first round with a 300-yard passing performance, including a key fourth-quarter touchdown pass.
(8) TCU 28, (9) Purdue 24: We know this about Gary Patterson. When his Horned Frogs have a losing season, you don’t want any part of them the next season. They responded with 11 wins in 2017 after going 6-7 in 2016. They had 12 wins in 2014 after going 4-8 in 2013. So after going 5-7 a year ago, you knew a bounce-back season was in store for TCU this season, and the Frogs come up with a clutch fourth-down stop to hold off Purdue in the first round.
(1) Clemson 31, (8) TCU 21: Gary Patterson’s TCU defense makes it hard on Trevor Lawrence in the first half, but it’s Travis Etienne‘s show in the second half. He had 64 plays of 10 yards or longer from scrimmage a year ago and rips off six of those in the second half alone against the Horned Frogs.
(2) Texas A&M 37, (10) Mississippi State 23: The Aggies brought in Jimbo Fisher (and paid him a ton of money) to win championships. They move a step closer by advancing to the Sweet 16 with quarterback Kellen Mond finding his groove at just the right time.
(11) Baylor 30, (3) LSU 24: Dave Aranda does it again, and this time over his former team and defending national champion LSU. Aranda’s knowledge of LSU’s personnel and its tendencies keeps the Tigers off balance offensively all game, and the Bears pull off one of the most surprising upsets of the tournament.
(4) Michigan 24, (5) Minnesota 20: Give Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines credit. They’ve figured out this whole “survive and advance” deal. Once again, they’re not spectacular in any area, but they come up with enough key stops on defense to move on to the Sweet 16.
(1) Clemson vs. (4) Michigan
(2) Texas A&M vs. (11) Baylor
MIDWEST REGION FIRST ROUND
(1) Ohio State 42, (16) Duke 21: Sort of weird to see Duke as a No. 16 seed, but, alas, this is football, not basketball. David Cutcliffe’s club makes it close for a while, but Justin Fields is still Justin Fields and accounts for five of the Buckeyes’ six touchdowns.
(2) Texas 34, (15) North Carolina State 14: Even though the Wolfpack played a ton of young players a year ago and that led to some valuable experience, that added experience is no match for a Texas football team hellbent on proving that it genuinely is “back” in Tom Herman’s fourth season on the 40 Acres.
(3) Florida 37, (14) Georgia Tech 14: Remember when Dan Mullen called it a “lateral move” after Geoff Collins left as Mullen’s defensive coordinator at Mississippi State to be the defensive coordinator at Florida? Mullen has always been pretty crafty when it comes to throwing shade. He’s also pretty crafty at putting together an explosive offense, and the Gators make quick work of the Yellow Jackets.
(4) Auburn 35, (13) Boise State 24: Sneaky tough first-round matchup for Auburn, which lost a wealth of defensive talent from a year ago. But new offensive coordinator Chad Morris and sophomore quarterback Bo Nix rev things up on the offensive end for the Tigers, who mix the run and the pass perfectly to get the win.
(12) Virginia 33, (5) Tennessee 28: Remember when Tennessee would always run up against Virginia and Ralph Sampson in the hoops tournament? This time, it’s football, and the dreaded 5 vs. 12 matchup trips up the Vols, who keep coming up empty in the red zone.
(11) Ole Miss 31, (6) Florida State 28: In a matchup of new head coaches, Lane Kiffin pulls the upset over Mike Norvell and the Seminoles and immediately sets Twitter ablaze. But it’s not Kiffin tooting his own horn, but rather pointing out how sophomore quarterback John Rhys Plumlee made every key adjustment at the line of scrimmage in the second half.
(10) Cincinnati 28, (7) Iowa 27: Luke Fickell has built quite the program at Cincinnati and takes down the dean of Big Ten coaches in Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz to ensure the Bearcats’ third straight 11-win season. These are precisely the kinds of moments Fickell envisioned when he turned down Michigan State during the offseason.
(9) Louisville 23, (8) Iowa State 21: Gotta like this matchup of teams coached by guys who are fixtures on other athletic directors’ proverbial short lists — Matt Campbell at Iowa State and Scott Satterfield at Louisville. The difference in this game is the passing and running of Louisville quarterback Micale Cunningham.
(1) Ohio State 42, (9) Louisville 14: The hard-fought and physical win against Iowa State in the first round catches up with Louisville, which has no answers for an Ohio State team that jumps out to a four-touchdown lead in the first half and never looks back. Once again, Fields is spectacular for the Buckeyes.
(2) Texas 37, (10) Cincinnati 21: Few quarterbacks in college football have improved as much as Sam Ehlinger has from his true freshman season, and there’s nothing like having a senior quarterback leading your team in the postseason. Ehlinger lights a fire under the Longhorns with touchdown passes on back-to-back possessions to open the second half, and they join the Field of 16.
(3) Florida 38, (11) Ole Miss 23: It doesn’t have quite the sting as it did when he was the head coach at Mississippi State, but not only does Dan Mullen rub it in by punching in a late touchdown, he also refuses to refer to Ole Miss by name after the game and suggests that the “school up north” was fortunate to even be in the NCAA tournament. You can take the coach out of the Egg Bowl, but you can’t take the Egg Bowl out of the coach.
(4) Auburn 38, (12) Virginia 17: Sure, it’s hard to believe, but Gus Malzahn was on the hot seat entering the NCAA tournament. But, then, when has he not been on the hot seat at Auburn? And for that matter, when has any head football coach on the Plains not been on the hot seat? A trip to the Sweet 16 should calm things down (for now), especially with Bo Nix playing like a seasoned veteran.
(1) Ohio State vs. (4) Auburn
(2) Texas vs. (3) Florida
SOUTH REGION FIRST ROUND
(1) Oklahoma 51, (16) Arizona 17: Kevin Sumlin’s Wildcats simply don’t have enough playmakers on either side of the ball to keep pace with the school he once coached at for five seasons as an assistant, the last two as co-offensive coordinator. And no matter who plays quarterback for Lincoln Riley, the results are the same — lots of points.
(2) Wisconsin 37, (15) Memphis 13: The Badgers have yet to make the four-team College Football Playoff, although they were swimming in those waters in 2017. They look every bit the part of a No. 2 seed in their first-round game against a Memphis team that simply can’t match Wisconsin’s strength and depth in the trenches.
(3) Georgia 41, (14) Washington State 10: Kirby Smart was hoping to be more explosive on offense and brought in Todd Monken from the NFL to be his offensive coordinator. Monken’s impact has been noticeable, but so has the impact of Wake Forest grad transfer quarterback Jamie Newman, who torches the Cougars with five touchdowns — three passing and two running.
(4) USC 34, (13) Kansas State 24: Chris Klieman’s track record speaks for itself. He will get Kansas State to a point where the Wildcats are winning these games. But it’s a case of too much Kedon Slovis for K-State. The USC sophomore quarterback turns in a pinpoint passing performance to ease the restlessness among the USC fans and send the Trojans into the second round.
(12) Texas Tech 30, (5) North Carolina 27: Just like Tennessee, North Carolina falls victim to the dreaded 5 vs. 12 curse after an impressive regular season for Mack Brown’s club. But at least the Tar Heels did something in football they didn’t do in basketball, and that’s make the NCAA tournament.
(11) Pittsburgh 20, (6) Nebraska 17: The Panthers pull off the upset thanks to four forced turnovers and a defensive line that is dominant in the second half. Get used to seeing Pitt’s Jaylen Twyman in headlines in 2020. He’s one of the top returning interior defensive linemen in college football.
(10) Miami 30, (7) Indiana 21: It’s not exactly a revelation, but coach Manny Diaz needs a big season in 2020 at The U. He gets a big win in the first round behind a big game from Houston grad transfer quarterback D’Eriq King. This quarterback/transfer thing in the postseason is starting to have a familiar ring to it.
(8) Cal 28, (9) South Carolina 21: This one won’t sit well in Columbia, South Carolina, with a fan base that was already growing increasingly antsy about the direction of the program under Will Muschamp. On the flip side, it’s a huge win for Justin Wilcox in his fourth season as the Golden Bears’ head coach.
(1) Oklahoma 45, (8) Cal 16: For the second straight round, Lincoln Riley’s offense rolls up big numbers. But the real difference in this Oklahoma team is a defense in its second season under coordinator Alex Grinch that is starting to play at a championship-caliber level. The Golden Bears find out the hard way.
(10) Miami 21, (2) Wisconsin 17: No defense in the country can match Miami’s production at defensive end, and the trio of Greg Rousseau, Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips makes life miserable for Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz and sacks him seven times in a second straight upset win for the Hurricanes.
(3) Georgia 24, (11) Pittsburgh 6: The Dawgs aren’t as explosive on offense in their second-round win, but Kirby Smart has been around long enough to know that you still better be disruptive on defense if you want to win it all. Azeez Ojulari, Monty Rice, Richard LeCounte & Co. deliver a suffocating and swarming defensive performance in keeping the Panthers out of the end zone.
(4) USC 38, (12) Texas Tech 20: The Trojans make it 3-for-4 in terms of the top four seeds in the South advancing to the Sweet 16. Clay Helton sure needed a big season, and Slovis comes up big for the second straight game to get USC to 11 wins and keep its championship hopes alive.
(1) Oklahoma vs. (4) USC
(3) Georgia vs. (10) Miami
WEST REGION FIRST ROUND
(1) Alabama 45, (16) BYU 7: The Crimson Tide go old school in their first-round game and limit the Cougars to fewer than 150 total yards. Having Dylan Moses back in the middle at linebacker makes a huge difference for that Alabama defense.
(2) Penn State 35, (15) Michigan State 17: It’s a made-for-TV first-round matchup between two Big Ten rivals and a rematch, no less, from the regular season. The Nittany Lions ride their experienced, bruising offensive line to take down Sparty for a second time in 2020 in a game that’s never really in doubt. Afterward, Michigan State first-year coach Mel Tucker shuts off his phone and doesn’t take any calls from other athletic directors.
(3) Notre Dame 28, (14) Missouri 14: Senior quarterbacks are always a commodity when the postseason arrives, and Ian Book takes a new collection of pass-catchers under his wing and throws touchdown passes to three different players in a game Notre Dame leads from start to finish.
(4) Oregon 52, (13) UCLA 14: Ouch. The Ducks really put it on their old coach, Chip Kelly, who led them to the national championship game a decade ago, and they don’t show any mercy in continuing to pile on the points in the fourth quarter. As well as Oregon plays on offense, it’s equally menacing on defense. One of UCLA’s touchdowns comes late during garbage time.
(5) Oklahoma State 41, (12) Houston 28: It’s Gundy vs. Holgo, just like the Big 12 days when Dana Holgorsen was coaching at West Virginia. But the Cowboys have too much offense for the Cougars to keep pace. Chuba Hubbard rips off a pair of touchdown runs of 50-plus yards, and Oklahoma State breaks the game open in the second half.
(11) Arizona State 27, (6) UCF 24: As Arizona State coach Herm Edwards once famously said, “You play to win the game,” and that’s exactly what the Sun Devils do in sprinting out to a big lead early and then holding on for the kind of win Arizona State fans were hoping for when Edwards returned to coaching in 2018.
(10) Northwestern 26, (7) Virginia Tech 23: Northwestern obviously likes the postseason. Pat Fitzgerald’s club had won three straight bowl games coming into the 2020 season and once again gets it done with the format shifting to an NCAA tournament hoops look. Indiana transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey scores the winning touchdown on a 6-yard run inside the final minute.
(8) Washington 27, (9) Kentucky 23: A lot of eyes were on Jimmy Lake this season as he stepped in for Chris Petersen as Washington’s head coach. But he has the Huskies playing with confidence and purpose, and they come up big in the red zone on defense to stave off a pair of Kentucky scoring threats in the fourth quarter.
(1) Alabama 38, (8) Washington 17: For all the talk about Alabama’s talented receiving corps a year ago and the challenge of replacing Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs, it was easy to forget that returnees DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle combined to catch 20 touchdown passes. They combine to catch four more against the Huskies in a runaway win for the Tide.
(2) Penn State 23, (10) Northwestern 10: The Nittany Lions experience their share of hiccups and are anything but great on offense in this game, but they don’t need to be. Not when you hold a team to zero offensive touchdowns. The Wildcats’ only touchdown in the game comes on a blocked punt, and James Franklin’s bunch is on to the Sweet 16.
(3) Notre Dame 28, (11) Arizona State 20: The Sun Devils find ways to stay in this game with forced turnovers and key plays on special teams, but Ian Book makes some clutch throws on third down on two different scoring drives in the second half to help the Irish survive.
(5) Oklahoma State 31, (4) Oregon 30: The Ducks’ heralded offensive line, led by tackle Penei Sewell, is too much for the Cowboys to handle. That is, until Tylan Wallace makes a pair of leaping circus catches on a pivotal third-quarter scoring drive to swing the momentum into Oklahoma State’s favor in a thrilling comeback win for the Cowboys.
(1) Alabama vs. (5) Oklahoma State
(2) Penn State vs. (3) Notre Dame