Bowl Eligibility Breakdown: 2021 Edition

While the college football season winds down, there still remains plenty to play for. While some programs have their eyes on national and conference titles, no one can discount the positive energy a bowl game can bring to a program. The extra reps and team bonding these bowling programs benefit from works wonder for the season to come. Last year, I analyzed all 130 FBS teams’ bowl chances with two weeks to go. I’m running the exercise back in 2021. The tricky thing about bowl season, is that with a fixed number of bowl slots, it depends on the season on how many teams will be in fact, bowl eligible. Sometimes, 5-7 teams get invites. Sometimes, bowl eligible teams get left at home. This year, there are 84(!!) bowl spots available. Luckily, with no sanctions this year, everyone came in eligible. Let’s break this down by conference and see who has clinched a spot, who is eliminated, and who has work to do. (NOTE: The San Francisco Bowl (née Redbox Bowl) is still on in our simulated season. It was cancelled mostly in part of COVID-related reasons, so we will be including it in our COVID-free simulated reality.)

AAC

Bowl Eligible: (5) Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis, Tulane, UCF

Eliminated: (3) Navy, Temple, Tulsa

Work to Do: (3) East Carolina, SMU, South Florida

While the American was having a pretty great year given Cincinnati being a Top 10 team virtually all season, their upset loss last week put a damper on what could have been a conference with a playoff team. There is a quality bunch of teams behind Cincy, but none of them have gotten ranked at any point, which seems a bit rare for this league. This is most likely because the three bottom-feeders have all pulled an upset of a contender. The conference would love to get over half of its league in a bowl game. Let’s look at the bubble teams.

ECU (4-6): at Navy, Cincinnati

SMU (5-5): at Cincinnati, Tulsa

USF (5-5): at Tulane, at UCF

The Pirates missed a prime opportunity in Memphis last weekend, which means they’ll have to win out to go bowling. Navy is about as easy of a road conference game you’re going to get in the 2021 American. But Cincinnati is obviously the top dog. Not only that, but after losing last week, they’ll most likely be alert for any more upset bids. SMU is another bubble team that has the misfortune of playing the Bearcats, this time directly off a loss, and in the Queen City. Should the Mustangs drop that one, they’ll get a home date with Tulsa, who has been pretty disappointing this season. That being said, Tulsa has the defense that could potentially slow down this SMU offense, which has sputtered as of late. The Bulls put themselves in a great spot by upsetting Cincinnati last Friday, and now only need one win to get the job done. Unfortunately, USF has two road games to close out their regular season. Tulane has played very well as of late, so that game won’t be easy, as the Wave still have conference title hopes. The Knights have owned their rival as of late, and that’s another team that will need to win to get to the AAC Championship. PREDICTIONS: SMU reaches bowl; ECU and USF miss out

ACC

Bowl Eligible: (8) Clemson, Louisville, Miami, NC State, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest

Eliminated: (0)

Work to Do: (6) Boston College, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, Virginia

Well, it looked like this would be the year Clemson would have a legit challenger in the Coastal, and then UNC messed around and lost two in a row. Regardless, the ACC looks much, much deeper than it has in the last 3-4 years. There are plenty of solid teams, and the ACC could very well get double digit bowl teams, a fine feat. Five ranked teams at the moment is tied for first in the country.

BC (4-6): Florida State, Wake Forest

DUKE (4-6): Louisville, Miami

FSU (4-6): at Boston College, at Florida

GT (4-6): at Notre Dame, Georgia

SYR (4-6): at NC State, Pittsburgh

UVA (5-5): at Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech

While there aren’t any ACC teams mathematically eliminated from bowl contention, these are some pretty murky waters for these teams barely hanging on. Boston College will play FSU in an eliminator game next week, and then has a solid Wake team coming to Chestnut Hill. Duke has two tough home games against ranked teams, and has looked like the worst team in the ACC all year. Should the Noles survive their New England trip, they’ll have a brutal road test at a top 10 Florida team. Georgia Tech has two more ranked teams to play, and saying they are huge tests is putting it mildly. Syracuse has a road ranked game in Raleigh, and then Pitt comes to the Carrier Dome, who is good, but has been upset this season before. Virginia has the best chance of all these teams, given their record. However, their road is quite challenging too, as they have two solid tests, including their rival, who they’ve struggled mightily against. This week’s Virginia vs. Pitt game will prove huge for both sides, but more so for the Cavaliers. UVA needs to win both games, and they are both pretty challenging ones at that. If Pitt slips up, they should be able to handle Syracuse at home, but the Panthers are sliding. Wake Forest has an almost certain loss next, but BC should be beatable at home. Miami has two very winnable games, but also very losable games as well. The Canes should be talented enough. PREDICTIONS: UVA finds a way to squeak into a bowl; BC, Duke, Seminoles, Tech, and Orange all don’t

Big XII

Bowl Eligible: (5) Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas

Eliminated: (1) Kansas

Work to Do: (4) Baylor, Kansas State, Texas Tech, West Virginia

The Big XII has definitely a top tier of schools that have separated themselves from the rest of the conference. All five have had playoff expectations at some point in 2021, although two currently have the upper hand with two weeks left in Oklahoma and OK State. ISU seemed to be on in the top tier before being upset by Texas Tech last week. Kansas is at the bottom yet again, but there’s a lot of room for others to reach the postseason.

BAY (5-5): at Kansas State, Texas Tech

KSU (4-6): Baylor, at Texas

TTU (5-5): Oklahoma State, at Baylor

WVU (4-6): Texas, at Kansas

Baylor has a couple games against fellow bowl hopefuls, so those games are almost sure to be high-intensity. KSU has been pretty disappointing this year, but it is in on the road. BU has been skidding, so it’s no sure thing they get one. The Wildcats host Baylor, and have a pretty tough road trip to Austin. TTU had a massive upset last week over a top 10 Iowa State team. They’ll get another chance for a stunner this week as they host the #6 Cowboys. Should they lose, the BU-TT rivalry will most likely have awfully high stakes for postseason eligibility for both. West Virginia has been able to pull upsets at time, but they find themselves in between a rock and a hard place in order to play in a bowl. Morgantown is always a challenging place to play, but if they can upset the Horns there, a road trip to Kansas should be no problem. PREDICTIONS: Baylor, Tech return to a bowl game; K-State, Mountaineers can’t get the job done

Big Ten

Bowl Eligible: (8) Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin

Eliminated: (2) Illinois, Rutgers

Work to Do: (4) Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota

The Big Ten isn’t quite as deep in 2021, depending on your definition of deep. I do believe there are plenty of quality teams, but there aren’t as many great teams as usual. It’s looking there may be two playoff teams in the Big Ten, along with maybe even 10 or 11 bowl teams. That’s quite an accomplishment for the league, just in terms of currently competitive programs.

IU (5-5): Minnesota, at Purdue

IOWA (5-5): Illinois, at Nebraska

MD (4-6): Michigan, at Rutgers

MINN (5-5): at Indiana, Wisconsin

The Hoosiers have had a bit of a step back after a wonderful 2020 campaign, but there’s a big difference of how we view the season if IU can still reach a bowl. Minnesota vs. Indiana will be a winner-go-bowling game, meaning the B1G will at the very least get nine teams to the postseason. Should IU lose, that one, the Old Oaken Bucket will determine if they can get there. Iowa has a very winnable home game against the Illini, and if they can’t get that game, they don’t really deserve to play in December. A away visit to Lincoln could be tough following that one. Maryland has to win both games remaining, each very different in difficulty. They face an angry Wolverine team coming off an embarrassing loss in Week 12, before finishing the regular season in Piscataway against the conference’s punching bag. The Gophers are the B1G West’s Indiana, as they have that toss-up with the Hoosiers, before a challenging road rivalry game the following week. With how Wisconsin is rolling though, I think PJ Fleck should take care of business in Bloomington. PREDICTIONS: The West division gains two more bowl teams with Minny and the Hawks; The East teams of Indiana and Maryland head home early

Conference USA

Bowl Eligible: (5) Florida Atlantic, Marshall, North Texas, Southern Miss, UTSA

Eliminated: (5) Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion, Rice, UAB, UTEP

Work to Do: (4) Charlotte, FIU, Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky

This season seems to be the norm in C-USA. There are plenty of decent teams, but none of them have stood out from a national perspective. Marshall and FAU have been consistently solid, and 2021 is no exception. North Texas has been probably the most pleasant surprise of the year, but their success has come at the dispense of others’ disappointing seasons. Looking at you UAB. While there are some pretty woeful teams at the bottom of the league, some programs are still fighting for some bowl games, which are pretty rare for some of these teams.

CHAR (5-5): Marshall, at Old Dominion

FIU (5-5): North Texas, at Southern Miss

LTU (4-6): Southern Miss, at Rice

WKU (4-6): Florida Atlantic, at Marshall

Charlotte can reach their second bowl game ever with just one win in the final two games. Marshall will be a tough test, but it’s at home, and Marshall is eliminated from division contention. They might catch them sleeping. ODU should be pretty easy if they can’t beat the Herd. The Panthers will look to bowl for the fourth time under Butch Davis if they can pull off a victory. They host the aforementioned Mean Green, who are scorching hot. Another cross-divisional game lies ahead in a trip to Hattiesburg against a pretty good USM team. It won’t come easy for FIU. LA Tech has been mildly disappointing thus far, and now needs to win their last two to have a chance. They host Southern Miss, but this rivalry is usually close, so throw out the records in that one. A road tilt with Rice comes after, and that should be fairly winnable. WKU hasn’t lived up to preseason expectations at all, and if they even want to reach a bowl game, they have two very tough games ahead. They get FAU at home and Marshall in Huntington. The only chance the Tops have in my opinion, is if both teams sleepwalk through those games, as FAU has already wrapped up the division. PREDICTIONS: LTU defies odds, wins both in order to bowl, along with Charlotte; Panthers and Hilltoppers can’t reach 6 wins.

MAC

Bowl Eligible: (7) Ball State, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Ohio, Toledo, Western Michigan

Eliminated: (4) Akron, Bowling Green, Kent State, Miami (OH)

Work to Do: (1) Northern Illinois

The MAC has been known as maybe the worst FBS conference the last couple years.  However, I can’t say it’s the clear cellar dweller of 2021.  This is mostly due to one side of the conference.  The West division is absolutely stacked, with 5 bowl eligible teams already, and no clear bottom feeders.  The East is the exact opposite, having been dominated by Buffalo, and Ohio has picked up wins against the scraps.  8 teams bowling for the MAC is a great sign, though.

NIU (5-5): at Buffalo, Western Michigan

It’s hard to say how the Huskies’ opponents will fare in the upcoming weeks. UB is clearly a great team. But with the division locked up, will the Bulls be at full force? Also, Western is in thick of a division race, and should they find the odds stacked against them Week 14, they may not be up for this one. NIU just needs one, but they’ve struggled against quality teams all season. PREDICTION: NIU drops both, fails to bowl

Mountain West

Bowl Eligible: (4) Air Force, Fresno State, San Diego State, San Jose State

Eliminated: (2) New Mexico, UNLV

Work to Do: (6) Boise State, Colorado State, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah State, Wyoming

The Mountain West hasn’t really had a true New Year’s Six contender this season, which is a bit odd.  That might be masked by Cincinnati’s dominance over in the AAC, but I’m surprised no one has emerged in the rankings this season.  Air Force is the best bet, but the non-con schedule wasn’t great and they’ve been walking on thin ice all year long.  This is a bit of a “dog eat dog” conference this year, as many teams have ruined each other’s dream seasons.  Still, half the conference is playing for a bowl, which is shocking.

BSU (5-5): New Mexico, at San Diego State

CSU (5-5): at Hawaii, Nevada

HAW (5-6): Colorado State, at Wyoming

NEV (5-5): Air Force, at Colorado State

USU (4-6): Wyoming, at New Mexico

WYO (5-5): at Utah State, Hawaii

Boise State has the most losses in a season since 2013 already, as the transition from Bryan Harsin to Andy Avalos might be a little rockier than expected.  A big win over Wyoming last week put them in pretty good shape to reach a bowl, however.  As long as they can beat the lowly Lobos, they’ll bowl.  If not, a trip to face SDSU could prove challenging.  Steve Addazio has the Rams playing decent football in Year 2.  The Rams have to travel to the islands to face Hawaii, which should be a close game.  They then come home to face a fellow bowl hopeful in the Wolfpack.  They’ll be underdogs in both, most likely, but they just need one.  Hawaii plays 13 games, meaning that if they win 6 games, they’re still bowl eligible, but not guaranteed a bowl, especially with most teams being 6-6.  That means to be safe, the Bows should get to 7-6, but 6-7 will get the nod over 5-7 teams if not all slots are filled.  They face CSU, and then travel to Laramie in what could be a chilly game Thanksgiving weekend.  Nevada has shown flashes this year, but ultimately hasn’t lived up to the hype.  They might even struggle to get to a bowl, as they have Air Force coming to Reno, and then a road tilt against an equally desperate Rams team.  Utah State will have to win both of its remaining games, so if it can beat rival Wyoming, all that lies between the Aggies and a bowl is a trip to Albuquerque.  I’ve mentioned Wyoming twice, in probably toss-up games, as the Cowboys just need to get one. PREDICTIONS: Boise, Nevada, Wyoming all bowl; Aggies and Rams lose out; Warriors get one, meaning they bowl maybe?

Pac-12

Bowl Eligible: (6) Arizona State, California, Oregon, USC, Utah, Washington

Eliminated: (3) Arizona, Oregon State Washington State

Work to Do: (3) Colorado, Stanford, UCLA

I’ll admit that the Pac-12 has shown some marked improvement this season.  They’re fielding four ranked teams currently, and have for most of the season.  Unfortunately, any time a team has gotten some traction as a legitimate national title contender, they drop the ball and start to lose.  ASU was the latest, and now it’s time to see if Washington can keep winning, and put the pressure on the committee.  The league’s pretty balanced, and everyone has shown pulses at times except for Arizona.  Don’t be surprised to see more upsets down the stretch run.

COLO (5-5): Washington, at Utah

STAN (4-6): California, Notre Dame

UCLA (5-5): at USC, California

Had the Buffs not upset UCLA in the Rose Bowl last weekend, this uphill battle they face would look like Mount Everest, having to win against both #8 Washington, and on the road in Salt Lake City against a ranked Utah team.  Luckily, they only have to get one now, but that’s still no easy task.  Stanford has been pretty inconsistent this year, and they’ll have to string together four straight wins when it’s all said and done to get to a bowl game.  The two remaining games are at home against two rivals.  However, Cal is enjoying a solid season, and the Cardinal are nowhere near as talented as the Irish.  UCLA just needs one, as they missed a golden opportunity by dropping to CU last week.  Now, they’ll need to beat USC in the Coliseum, or against the Golden Bears in Week 13.  I don’t know if they’re going to get to six. PREDICTIONS: Bruins, Buffs, and Cardinal all miss out on postseason, leaving Pac-12 with 6 bowl teams

SEC

Bowl Eligible: (8) Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Missouri, Ole Miss, Texas A&M

Eliminated: (2) Mississippi State, Tennessee

Work to Do: (4) Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vanderbilt

The SEC has had a bit of a weird season of sorts.  There are plenty of ranked teams, but many of the top dogs suffered early losses, and some of them even multiple.  See Alabama, Georgia, LSU, etc.  A&M is the only true playoff favorite in the league, but some teams such as Georgia, Auburn, Alabama, and Florida are considered longshots.  The league’s top class has beat each other up a good deal, while in the middle class, certain teams have risen and fallen to the occasion. No one is terrible in the SEC this year, though, even Tennessee and Vandy have shown flashes.

ARK (4-6): at Alabama, Missouri

UK (5-5): New Mexico State, at Louisville

SCAR (5-5): Auburn, Clemson

VAN (4-6): at Ole Miss, at Tennessee

Given the Hogs have to win two games, they have their work cut out for them.  It’s difficult enough to beat the rival Mizzou Tigers, but Bama is rolling at the moment, and a trip to T-town sounds like roast pig to me.  Kentucky messed around and lost to Vanderbilt, who was winless in SEC play.  Thus, the Cats still haven’t gotten to six wins to clinch a bowl.  Fortunately, this week’s game against NMSU is about as easy as they come.  They follow that up with a trip to Louisville, where there’s lots of bad blood.  Carolina has been stuck at five wins for a month now, and these last two games will be even more challenging than their last three.  The task?  Just beat one of two top 10 teams.  Both Tiger teams come to Columbia, but that’s a tough ask for the Gamecocks.  Vandy is glad to keep their postseason hopes alive for one more week after beating UK in OT.  They have a slim chance in Oxford this weekend, and a marginally better chance in Knoxville.  Theoretically, they could win one, and I suppose they’re still alive for two. PREDICTIONS: Kentucky gets to six victories; Hogs, Cocks, and ‘Dores all spend Christmas at home

Sun Belt

Bowl Eligible: (4) Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, Troy

Eliminated: (1) Louisiana-Monroe

Work to Do: (5) Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, Louisiana, South Alabama, Texas State

You couldn’t make a more lopsided conference than the Sun Belt.  While most people felt the SBC was lopsided coming into 2021, the emergence of Georgia State and the complete faceplant of ULL has shifted the power in this league even more.  There’s a chance that the team reaching the conference championship game from the West may not even have six wins, which is just insanity.  The Sun Belt isn’t as successful as 2020, but don’t go blaming teams like App State and Coastal, even if they’ve taken small steps backward.

ARST (4-6): at Georgia State, Texas State

GASO (5-5): BYU, at Appalachian State

LA (5-5): at Liberty, Louisiana-Monroe

USA (4-6): at Tennessee, Coastal Carolina

TXST (4-6): at Coastal Carolina, at Arkansas State

Arkansas State looks like they might be the frontrunner to win the West, yet there’s a great possibility they don’t win their last two games.  At Georgia State will be tough, facing the surprise contender in the East, and although Texas State isn’t great, neither are the Red Wolves.  Georgia Southern is the only team out east not in conference title discussions, although I don’t think they’re bad by any stretch.  Unfortunately, they still have a tough non-con game with BYU, and a road rivalry spot against App State in Boone.  Those are challenging tests, but the Eagles only need one.  The Ragin’ Cajuns have disappointed mightily in 2021, and they’ll need help to win the division.  Like Southern, Louisiana has a tough independent remaining on the slate in Liberty.  They then host a dreadful ULM team.  South Alabama has pulled some upsets this year, but beating Tennessee and Coastal will be far more difficult then anything else they’ve accomplished.  Texas State has a trip to Conway, which might end their bowl hopes.  If the Bobcats win, they have a chance at a bowl and a division title with the previously mentioned showdown with Arky State.  PREDICTIONS: Louisiana comes through to reach bowl game; Red Wolves, Eagles, Jags, and Bobcats go home

Independents

Bowl Eligible: (2) Liberty, Notre Dame

Eliminated: (3) New Mexico State, UConn, UMass

Work to Do: (2) Army, BYU

Independents vary in terms of expectations.  The mega-brand Notre Dame has been good, not great.  Liberty is playing decent, but not living up to expectations.  The bottom-feeders of the FBS are eliminated, as expected.  BYU and Army have staved off some tough games on the schedule to give themselves a shot at the postseason.  

ARMY (5-4): UMass, at Liberty, vs. Navy

BYU (5-5): at Georgia Southern, at USC

Army still has three games remaining, due to the Army-Navy game being held Week 15 on an annual basis.  The Minutemen are on a two-game win streak, but the Knights should not have much trouble there.  They then have a tough road trip to Liberty before the big rivalry match in mid-December.  BYU has two challenging road games.  USC is the tougher get, but the Cougs should not sleep on a fellow bowl-seeking team in Georgia Southern. PREDICTIONS: Army and BYU take care of business, punches ticket to bowl game

So there you have it. Here is the current breakdown:

2020 Bowl Spots: 84

Current Bowl Eligible Teams: 62

Teams Eliminated from Postseason: 26

Teams with Work to Do: 42

Bowl Spots Remaining: 22

So we have 42 teams playing for 22 spots. Whatever happens, this should be right on the cut line one way or the other. For what it’s worth, my predictions say we will end up with 76 bowl teams, including Hawaii. This would mean it’s all coming down to APR scores, which could be good news for some, and horrible news for others. I will continue to keep an eye on this after this weekend, but there is so much intrigue heading into the the end of the regular season. As always, be sure to check our scores page for your team’s latest updates!

-Scott

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