The College Football Playoff is not expanding. For now.
Even if the CFP grows, it’s likely eight teams will be the limit. The field will be bigger and possibly better, but certainly nothing like what they have in college basketball.
March Madness is here, as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament begins with the First Four on Tuesday and Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, followed by the first- and second-round matchups at sites around the country. It’s time to revisit one of our favorite hypotheticals: What would a 64-team college football field look like in 2019?
Here’s how the process works: Using ESPN’s preseason Football Power Index, teams are seeded 1 through 64. This year, FPI’s top four seeds — Clemson, Alabama, Georgia and LSU — all occupy the same general area, so I had to be a bit creative about which team headlines each region. Since LSU is No. 4, the Tigers will have to win in the west to reach their first football Final Four.
There’s no First Four in this tournament, but the round-by-round matchups will play out until a national champion is crowned.
Expect drama and upsets. FPI might think it has the sport figured out, but not every higher-seeded team will advance. Matchups matter, and some teams are under-seeded or over-seeded. And, like the basketball selection committee, I create some pairings based on intriguing storylines.
Today, let’s take a look at the field and the first two rounds of matchups, as we narrow the pool from 64 to 16. On Wednesday, we’ll play the rest of the games.
1-seeds: Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, LSU
2-seeds: Michigan, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Florida
3-seeds: Auburn, Oregon, Texas A&M, Penn State
4-seeds: Ohio State, Michigan State, Tennessee, Mississippi State
5-seeds: Washington, Utah, South Carolina, Missouri
6-seeds: UCLA, Florida State, Wisconsin, Stanford
7-seeds: Iowa, Texas, USC, Minnesota
8-seeds: Iowa State, Kentucky, Baylor, Miami
9-seeds: Washington State, Arizona State, Nebraska, Virginia Tech
10-seeds: UCF, TCU, Oklahoma State, Cincinnati
11-seeds: Ole Miss, Boise State, Virginia, BYU
12-seeds: North Carolina, Texas Tech, NC State, Indiana
13-seeds: Pitt, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Arizona
14-seeds: Northwestern, Memphis, Cal, Duke
15-seeds: Kansas State, Arkansas, Western Michigan, Purdue
16-seeds: Maryland, Colorado, Appalachian State, West Virginia
First four out: Boston College, Wake Forest, Louisville, Army
(1) Clemson 41, (16) West Virginia 17: Neal Brown gets a tough draw in his WVU postseason coaching debut, and it’s likely the Mountaineers will be rebuilding this season. Trevor Lawrence records more touchdown passes (4) than incompletions (3) as the Clemson offense rolls to the next round.
(2) Notre Dame 34, (15) Purdue 21: The bracket loves to revive rivalries, and the Irish and Boilermakers haven’t played since 2014 after meeting annually every previous year since 1946. Rondale Moore makes some dazzling plays for Purdue, but Notre Dame retains the Shillelagh Trophy thanks to the Ian Book–Chase Claypool connection.
(3) Auburn 28, (14) Duke 13: David Cutcliffe returns to his SEC roots as he leads Duke to face Auburn for the first time since 1980. Both teams are replacing NFL-caliber quarterbacks, but Auburn’s dominant defensive line will be the difference as the Tigers pull away in the second half.
(13) Arizona 28, (4) Mississippi State 27: Here’s the first upset of the region, as Arizona’s offensive backfield of quarterback Khalil Tate and running back J.J. Taylor capitalize on a Mississippi State defensive front that is going through significant transition. The Bulldogs get a big game from Kylin Hill, but Tate shines late.
(5) Missouri 34, (12) NC State 27: Missouri’s postseason ban doesn’t carry over to this tournament, and quarterback transfer Kelly Bryant immediately gets a shot at an ACC defense he knows well. Bryant accounts for three touchdowns, NC State’s offense struggles in the fourth quarter and Barry Odom’s team advances.
(6) Wisconsin 27, (11) BYU 20: The Cougars stunned the Badgers in Madison last September, setting off what would be a disappointing season for Paul Chryst’s team. Wisconsin bounces back this time behind Jonathan Taylor (150 rush yards, two touchdowns) and true freshman quarterback Graham Mertz, who throws a late touchdown pass.
(10) Cincinnati 30, (7) USC 20: Anyone who watched these two teams play in 2018 wouldn’t seed Cincinnati higher than USC. These programs are heading in opposite directions. Luke Fickell’s team scores the “upset” behind dynamic quarterback Desmond Ridder and a stingy defense. USC’s JT Daniels and his receivers never find a sustained rhythm.
(9) Arizona State 33, (8) Baylor 31: This will be one of the more entertaining first-round matchups. Baylor has a slight quarterback edge with Charlie Brewer, who throws two touchdown passes, but Arizona State uses its QB options and the best player on the field — running back Eno Benjamin — to mount a big second-half surge. Benjamin runs for 150 against a Baylor defense that struggled against the run in 2018.
(1) Clemson 38, (9) Arizona State 17: The score would be much closer if Herm Edwards and Dabo Swinney competed in a locker-room speech-off. Unfortunately for Edwards and the Sun Devils, they don’t have enough to slow down Lawrence, Travis Etienne, Tee Higgins and the defending champs.
(2) Notre Dame 23, (10) Cincinnati 17: Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly faces his former team, which is rolling along like it was when Kelly left for South Bend. Expect both defenses to control play, but Notre Dame’s offensive line imposes its will on a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
(6) Wisconsin 21, (3) Auburn 20: It will be a frustrating game to watch for offensive-minded head coaches Paul Chryst (Wisconsin) and Gus Malzahn (Auburn). Derrick Brown and the Tigers’ defense help their team to an early lead, but the Taylor-Mertz combination comes alive for Wisconsin in the fourth quarter.
(5) Missouri 38, (13) Arizona 30: Bryant and Tate set up an exciting quarterback matchup, and both deliver in a high-scoring game. Missouri’s defense makes a few more plays, though, and Bryant and star tight end Albert Okwuegbunam connect for two touchdowns to help the Tigers advance.
(1) Clemson vs. (5) Missouri
(2) Notre Dame vs. (6) Wisconsin
(1) Alabama 38, (16) Appalachian State 13: New coach Eli Drinkwitz takes over an Appalachian State program that has 41 wins in the past four seasons, but his postseason debut won’t be much fun. Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy and the rest of the Tide will be extra-motivated to win a championship after flopping on the big stage last year.
(2) Florida 35, (15) Kansas State 13: Chris Klieman will have K-State pulling off upsets soon enough, but the roster needs some work. Florida, meanwhile, continues to build on offense behind running back Lamical Perine and a deep group of receivers. A fast Gators defense holds Kansas State scoreless in the second half, and Florida advances.
(3) Texas A&M 37, (14) Memphis 24: There’s a mini-reunion in this one, as Aggies offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey came to A&M from Memphis. Both teams have firepower on offense, but the Aggies’ defense is the difference in this one as the group takes a big step under second-year coordinator Mike Elko.
(13) Syracuse 33, (4) Tennessee 27: Here’s another matchup in which the seeds don’t really match up, given each program’s trajectory. Tennessee will be better in Year 2 under Jeremy Pruitt, but Dino Babers will have the Orange’s offense clicking again behind quarterback Tommy DeVito. An orange team will prevail, and it will be the one from upstate New York.
(5) Utah 35, (12) Texas Tech 24: The two teams don’t know one another, but the coaching staffs certainly do, as new Texas Tech boss Matt Wells twice faced Utah while leading Utah State. Wells inherits some talent in Lubbock, but Utah isn’t going to stumble in back-to-back postseason games after its second-half collapse against Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl.
(11) Boise State 30, (6) UCLA 24: LeGarrette Blount does the coin toss wearing boxing gloves, and Chip Kelly, who dropped his head-coaching debut at Oregon to Boise State back in 2007, falls to the Broncos yet again. UCLA will be better this year, but the Broncos’ defense and run game proves to be too much.
(7) Texas 37, (10) UCF 28: Every NCAA tournament bracket has a matchup that should occur in the later rounds. This is the college football version, as both teams seem under-seeded. Texas has the better quarterback situation and defense, though, and Sam Ehlinger accounts for four touchdowns in the win.
(9) Nebraska 38, (8) Miami 30: A Huskers-Hurricanes matchup, even in the first round, is too compelling to pass up. Both teams are generating buzz for the future, but Nebraska gets the edge here because of quarterback Adrian Martinez and an offense that will be tough to slow down.
(1) Alabama 44, (9) Nebraska 21: Martinez is the type of quarterback who gives Alabama problems, and he’ll produce some highlights. But Nebraska’s defense is nowhere near good enough to slow down Tagovailoa, Jeudy, Najee Harris and an Alabama attack that racks up 31 first-half points.
(7) Texas 29, (2) Florida 27: Two traditional college football heavyweights trying to return to the top weight class meet in an exciting second-round matchup. Ehlinger recovers from an early pick-six and rallies his team late, setting up Dicker the Kicker — Cameron Dicker that is, of 2018 Red River Showdown fame — for the winning field goal.
(3) Texas A&M 31, (11) Boise State 21: Although Boise State built its rep on beating programs such as Texas A&M, the Broncos will be rebuilding a bit on offense. The Aggies, meanwhile, have a centerpiece in quarterback Kellen Mond, as well as a defense that will hold up better against the pass. The Aggies move on to face You Know Who.
(5) Utah 27, (13) Syracuse 24: The fast-paced Orange stress Jaylon Johnson and Utah’s secondary, but the Utes make some smart in-game adjustments and take over with their run game, propelled by Zack Moss and Armand Shyne. Utah racks up 250 rush yards and three touchdowns in the win.
(1) Alabama vs. (5) Utah
(7) Texas vs. (3) Texas A&M
(1) Georgia 41, (16) Colorado 17: It’s the Mel Tucker Bowl as Tucker makes his postseason coaching debut against a Bulldogs defense he coordinated for the past three seasons. Colorado’s Laviska Shenault gets free for two touchdowns before Georgia’s defense tightens and quarterback Jake Fromm surges in the second half.
(2) Michigan 45, (15) Western Michigan 10: There’s some Harbaugh history here as Jack Harbaugh coached Western Michigan from 1982 to 1986, while son Jim was playing quarterback down I-94 at Michigan. This shouldn’t be much of a game as Michigan’s improved passing game shines behind current QB Shea Patterson.
(3) Penn State 24, (14) Cal 13: The main connection here is Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour, who came to PSU after a decade leading Cal’s department. Cal’s talented defense will keep this one interesting, but there’s not much to get excited about with the Bears’ offense. Tommy Stevens throws a touchdown pass and runs for another score as the Lions move on.
(13) Pitt 20, (4) Michigan State 17: The NCAA tournament selection committee loves mentor-protégé coaching matchups in the first round, so let’s play along. MSU’s Mark Dantonio and Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi both know defense, so expect points to be at a premium in this one. Pitt scores three more as Narduzzi beats his longtime boss and friend.
(5) South Carolina 41, (12) North Carolina 21: The Battle of the Carolinas should be fun for both fan bases, especially with Mack Brown back on the UNC sideline. But South Carolina is simply a much stronger team right now, and quarterback Jake Bentley has a big day against a Tar Heels defense that needs a lot of work.
(6) Florida State 38, (11) Ole Miss 35: Remember the 2016 season opener, when these two programs shared the national stage in Orlando? It feels like decades ago, as both teams seem to be slipping. The matchup of new offensive coordinators — Kendal Briles (FSU) and Rich Rodriguez (Ole Miss) — should be interesting, as both teams put up points. FSU and Cam Akers put up three more.
(7) Iowa 26, (10) TCU 20: College football’s longest-tenured coaches — Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (1999) and TCU’s Gary Patterson (2000) — meet in what should be one of the better first-round matchups. The Hawkeyes have fewer questions at quarterback with Nathan Stanley, and A.J. Epenesa and their defensive line will be the difference.
(9) Kentucky 34, (8) Washington State 28: Hal Mumme should toss the coin for this one, as the former Kentucky coach (1997-2000) will watch protégé Mike Leach take on his old team. Gabe Gubrud, Washington State’s latest quarterback transfer, puts the Cougs ahead but Terry Wilson rallies Kentucky with two late touchdown runs.
(1) Georgia 28, (9) Kentucky 17: It’s an SEC East reunion as Kentucky, which ended 31-game losing streak to Florida, aims to snap a nine-game slide against Georgia. Mark Stoops’ defense comes to play but Georgia eventually overwhelms the Wildcats at the line of scrimmage.
(2) Michigan 26, (7) Iowa 21: Michigan’s struggles against archrival Ohio State get more attention, but the Wolverines also hasn’t fared well lately against Iowa, dropping five of the past six meetings, including a brutal 14-13 setback in 2016 at Kinnick Stadium. Both of these defenses should be excellent, but Patterson and his wide receivers make some plays late to win this Big Ten battle.
(3) Penn State 33, (6) Florida State 17: After a favorable seed and first-round draw, FSU’s good fortune runs out. The rematch of the 2006 Orange Bowl — Joe Paterno vs. Bobby Bowden — goes Penn State’s way again in definitive fashion, as Tommy Stevens accounts for three touchdowns in the win.
(13) Pitt 31, (5) South Carolina 28: Narduzzi’s team ensures its in-state rival isn’t the only Pennsylvania team in the Sweet 16. Pickett continues his superb play in coordinator Mark Whipple’s offense, which builds a double-digit lead and allows the Panthers to hold off Bentley and the Gamecocks down the stretch.
(1) Georgia vs. (13) Pitt
(2) Michigan vs. (3) Penn State
(1) LSU 35, (16) Maryland 13: New Terrapins coach Mike Locksley got the best of LSU while working on Alabama’s staff. He’ll find things tougher now, especially against a talent-stocked Tigers defense led by safety Grant Delpit, who records a pick-six against the Terrapins. Quarterback Joe Burrow throws two touchdown passes for Coach O’s Tigahs.
(2) Oklahoma 45, (15) Arkansas 24: It’s a bit surprising to see Arkansas in the field after a 2-10 clunker in 2018. At least the Razorbacks and Sooners will meet for the first time since 2012 and just the second time since 1978. Jalen Hurts‘ familiarity with the Hogs should help OU, which rides Hurts, wide receiver CeeDee Lamb and an improved defense to an easy win.
(3) Oregon 27, (14) Northwestern 23: The Wildcats seem ridiculously under-seeded, after a division championship and with quarterback Hunter Johnson eligible. Will they pull off the upset? Almost. Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert is the difference, along with a solid defense, as the Ducks survive and advance.
(4) Ohio State 37, (13) Vanderbilt 20: The Buckeyes’ preseason FPI seed (No. 13 overall) will fuel them throughout this tournament. Georgia quarterback transfer Justin Fields gets another opportunity against an SEC East opponent as the Buckeyes surrender some early points before dominating the second half.
(5) Washington 31, (12) Indiana 20: The defending Pac-12 champion Huskies begin their postseason push with a new quarterback, most likely Georgia transfer Jacob Eason, as well as other key newcomers on both sides of the ball. But Washington’s talent edge, especially on defense, is too much to cause a first-round slip. Running back Salvon Ahmed racks up 150 yards on the ground as UW moves on.
(11) Virginia 23, (6) Stanford 21: This region has been chalk-heavy so far, so it’s time to shake things up. I like Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello, but other areas of the team seem a bit shaky. Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins builds off of a strong 2018 season with two touchdown passes, and the Hoos defense holds Stanford’s run game in check.
(10) Oklahoma State 32, (7) Minnesota 31: A tough decision here as Minnesota is trending upward with a deep group of running backs, while Oklahoma State once again will have a new starting quarterback. But in a matchup of elite receivers, the Pokes’ Tylan Wallace edges the Gophers’ Tyler Johnson, making a leaping touchdown grab in the final minute.
(8) Iowa State 30, (9) Virginia Tech 17: These programs seem to be headed in opposite directions despite highly regarded coaches on both sides. There are far more assurances with the Cyclones, who boast dynamic quarterback Brock Purdy and a sound defense that almost always gives opponents fits. Virginia Tech makes an early exit.
(1) LSU 24, (8) Iowa State 20: Matt Campbell’s crew gives LSU all it can handle in a back-and-forth game. Burrow, sensing a rematch with Ohio State in the Sweet 16, finds a rhythm with a mix of runs and passes as the Tigers hold off Purdy and the Cyclones on a late drive.
(2) Oklahoma 41, (10) Oklahoma State 30: Bedlam in the postseason? Yes, please. Mike Gundy and the Pokes haven’t beaten OU since the Tyreek Hill punt return in 2014. They keep waiting for a breakthrough despite a solid offensive performance. Hurts runs for two scores and throws a touchdown in the Sooners’ win.
(11) Virginia 28, (3) Oregon 26: Perkins outplays Herbert in an exciting quarterback matchup and the Cavaliers continue to surprise under third-year coach Bronco Mendenhall. An underrated Virginia defense forces several short field-goal attempts and blocks one to pull off another upset.
(4) Ohio State 34, (5) Washington 28: It’s a Rose Bowl rematch, except without Urban Meyer on the Buckeyes’ sidelines or quarterbacks Dwayne Haskins Jr. and Jake Browning. Eason attacks the Buckeyes early, but Dobbins breaks off two long touchdown runs in the second half to propel Ohio State forward.
(1) LSU vs. (4) Ohio State
(2) Oklahoma vs. (11) Virginia