It’s OK to admit it.
Like most Americans, you will immerse yourself in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament during the next three weeks. But college football is never far from your thoughts.
You are not alone. In fact, many of you, while filling out basketball brackets this week, will wonder what it would be like if college football had a 64-team field.
We’ve got you covered. And Mike Leach receives no royalties for the idea.
Here’s how it works: Teams are seeded 1 through 64 according to ESPN’s preseason FPI rankings for 2018. The top four seeds — Clemson, Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State — will headline geographic regions. Round-by-round matchups for the 2018 postseason will play out (sorry, no First Four here) until a national champion is crowned.
Just as in the NCAA hoops tournament, there will be upsets. This is all about matchups and projections. Just because FPI likes a team doesn’t mean it will advance.
So let’s take a look at the field and the first two rounds of matchups as we narrow the pool to the Sweet 16.
1-seeds: Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State
2-seeds: Notre Dame, Washington, Auburn, Penn State
3-seeds: Oklahoma, Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin
4-seeds: Stanford, Miami, USC, Mississippi State
5-seeds: Texas, Florida State, Oregon, Texas A&M
6-seeds: Oklahoma State, Florida, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech
7-seeds: Iowa, LSU, Cal, South Carolina
8-seeds: Missouri, Duke, West Virginia, Northwestern
9-seeds: Utah, TCU, Louisville, Boston College
10-seeds: Boise State, Texas Tech, Wake Forest, Baylor
11-seeds: Iowa State, Arizona, NC State, Kansas State
12-seeds: Ole Miss, Memphis, North Carolina, Purdue
13-seeds: UCLA, Nebraska, Arizona State, Tennessee
14-seeds: UCF, Arkansas, Syracuse, Kentucky
15-seeds: Pitt, San Diego State, Minnesota, Maryland
16-seeds: Washington State, Houston, Fresno State, South Florida
(1) Clemson 45, (16) South Florida 17: The Tigers can’t discount South Florida’s athleticism, which coaches say is on par with that of many Power 5 teams. But without quarterback Quinton Flowers or running backs Darius Tice and D’Ernest Johnson, USF won’t have enough power to penetrate the giant orange wall that is Clemson’s defensive line.
(2) Penn State 35, (15) Pitt 27: The basketball tournament selection committee loves first-round matchups with some rivalry juice, and Penn State-Pitt will not disappoint. It’s a rematch of a Week 2 game that will leave Pat Narduzzi and the Panthers especially bitter. Panthers sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett shines, but Trace McSorley prevents the upset with some fourth-quarter magic.
(3) Michigan State 41, (14) Arkansas 20: FPI finally showed MSU a little love in the preseason rankings, slotting the Spartans at No. 10 overall. Quarterback Brian Lewerke leads an offense that returns 10 starters, including several dynamic receivers who light up an Arkansas team that remains in transition under first-year coach Chad Morris.
(4) Miami 39, (13) UCLA 27: By this point in the season, Chip Kelly’s offense should be not only watchable but really fun. Still, Miami’s defense is far too talented to cave in, especially up front. The Canes use last year’s poor finish as fuel and get big lifts from quarterback N’Kosi Perry and wideout Ahmmon Richards.
(12) Ole Miss 38, (5) Florida State 32: The 5-12 upset carries over to the football bracket, where Ole Miss, despite a postseason ban, is eligible for this tournament. Florida State is still sorting out its defensive issues under a new staff, and Rebels wide receiver A.J. Brown has a big performance in a rematch of the 2016 season opener.
(11) Kansas State 33, (6) Florida 27: An 11-seed is kind of perfect for Bill Snyder, isn’t it? A coach who has led underdogs and overachievers throughout his career takes a dangerous team into the tournament. Behind quarterbacks Skylar Thompson and Alex Delton, K-State beats an overseeded Florida team that shows improvement on offense under Dan Mullen.
(7) LSU 23, (10) Boise State 20: One of the more intriguing first-round matchups features two stout defenses that build on their 2017 performances. In the end, LSU gets “greedy” as Andraez “Greedy” Williams picks off quarterback Brett Rypien deep in Tigers territory to secure an important win for second-year coach Ed Orgeron.
(9) TCU 40, (8) Missouri 34: This tournament features several No. 9 seeds no one will want to play, and TCU might be the most dangerous of the bunch. This should be one of Gary Patterson’s most talented offensive teams, and the Frogs will need points to outlast Drew Lock and a dynamic Missouri offense in a Big 12-like contest.
(1) Clemson 37, (9) TCU 27: The Tigers get their first test of the tournament as TCU sophomore quarterback Shawn Robinson and a fast group of receivers, led by KaVontae Turpin, challenge the secondary. But Clemson’s defense clamps down in the fourth quarter, and Travis Etienne puts the game away with a 60-yard touchdown run.
(7) LSU 24, (2) Penn State 23: By this point in the season, LSU’s defense, under the direction of $2.5 million-per-year coordinator Dave Aranda, will be one of the nation’s best. The Tigers harass McSorley, control the line of scrimmage and get just enough offense from Myles Brennan to advance.
(3) Michigan State 35, (11) Kansas State 28: Snyder’s team gives the Spartans all they can handle, but Lewerke and wideout Felton Davis prove unstoppable in the second half. Kansas State’s offense comes out hot, but Mark Dantonio’s halftime adjustments click as the Spartans tighten up and march on.
(4) Miami 41, (12) Ole Miss 24: Unlike in 2017, Miami begins to hit its stride down the stretch in 2018. Jaquan Johnson, Shaquille Quarterman and the rest of the Hurricanes’ defense subdues Brown and a potent Rebels offense, while Perry fires three touchdown passes and Travis Homer rushes for two more.
(1) Clemson vs. (4) Miami
(7) LSU vs. (3) Michigan State
(1) Alabama 41, (16) Fresno State 17: These teams played in Tuscaloosa last season, and Alabama started quickly behind Jalen Hurts. Fresno State is an ascending program under Jeff Tedford and will hang around a bit longer in this one before Alabama pulls away behind Damien Harris, Najee Harris and the running game.
(2) Auburn 38, (15) Minnesota 10: Behind quarterback Jarrett Stidham, Auburn should generate points and yards for most of 2018. Minnesota is upgrading its talent under second-year coach P.J. Fleck, but quarterback remains a major issue. Auburn’s defense bottles up Minnesota’s run game and keeps the Gophers out of the end zone until the closing minutes.
(14) UCF 44, (3) Oklahoma 42: Josh Heupel will cherish this one. The first-year UCF coach, dumped by Oklahoma after the 2015 season, will hand his alma mater a painful first-round exit. McKenzie Milton and Kyler Murray deliver in a wildly entertaining shootout, but UCF prevails thanks to a late Sooners turnover.
(4) Mississippi State 38, (13) Arizona State 27: The Joe Moorhead-coached Bulldogs should be a dangerous team in this tournament because of what they bring back on offense, led by quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. I’m going with Moor Cowbell over Forks Up in this one as Herm Edwards’ team fights hard but can’t make enough stops in the second half.
(5) Texas 38, (12) North Carolina 24: Tom Herman’s team avoids the dreaded 5-12 upset thanks to an offense that shows clear improvement in his second season at the helm. North Carolina will be better, too, especially on the health front, but the Heels don’t have enough on defense to slow down Texas’ run game.
(11) Arizona 37, (6) Georgia Tech 31: If you haven’t figured it out yet, I love the No. 11 seeds in this tournament. Georgia Tech seems significantly overseeded here, and while the triple option gives Arizona fits at times, Khalil Tate will take over this game down the stretch. Expect a very quick contest — both teams love to run the ball — but Kevin Sumlin’s Wildcats survive and advance.
(10) Wake Forest 34, (7) Cal 30: The Demon Deacons broke through on offense last year and seem unlikely to backslide too much, even after losing quarterback John Wolford. Cal is still building depth under Justin Wilcox and seems a bit overseeded after a 5-7 season in 2017. Wake Forest advances behind Kendall Hinton‘s legs and arm.
(8) West Virginia 45, (9) Louisville 33: It feels like the Mountaineers are seeded too low after returning 3,500-yard passer Will Grier and one of the nation’s best receiver groups. FPI doesn’t love WVU’s defense, but Tony Gibson typically gets a lot out of his group, which is led by linebacker David Long. Louisville’s defense won’t have enough answers in this one.
(1) Alabama 35, (8) West Virginia 23: This is a good matchup for Alabama, which will win the line of scrimmage and pull away behind Tua Tagovailoa. Grier and T.J. Simmons (a transfer from Alabama) give the Tide some early trouble before Bama tighten things up to reach the Sweet 16.
(2) Auburn 34, (10) Wake Forest 19: Kevin Steele’s defense rises to the challenge again as Wake Forest can’t quite get going offensively. Although Wake will be improved on defense in 2018, Stidham and his wide receivers show up big in the fourth quarter as Auburn continues to pace its archrival in the bracket.
(11) Arizona 49, (10) UCF 46: This one will be really fun. Tate and Milton trade touchdowns throughout the game as neither defense has many answers. After Adrian Killins Jr. puts UCF up six in the final minute, Tate leads the winning drive and scores with five seconds to play as Arizona pushes forward.
(5) Texas 28, (4) Mississippi State 24: Despite Texas’ middling 2017 season, coaches raved about the team’s defensive improvement under coordinator Todd Orlando. Defense carries the day for the Longhorns here as they fluster Nick Fitzgerald down the stretch and get two late touchdown passes from Sam Ehlinger.
(1) Alabama vs. (5) Texas
(2) Auburn vs. (11) Arizona
(1) Georgia 41, (16) Washington State 17: Despite falling just short of a national title last year, Georgia will continue to rise behind talented young offensive skill players and improved lines. Washington State will be rebuilding a bit in 2018, especially on offense. Kirby Smart’s team opens with an easy win.
(2) Notre Dame 31, (15) Maryland 23: The Irish are a surprising 2-seed, given their questions at quarterback and elsewhere on offense. But the defense can carry them a long way, and a stout front seven steps up against Kasim Hill and Maryland’s improved offense. Running back Dexter Williams puts the win away with a late touchdown.
(3) Michigan 30, (14) Kentucky 21: Mark Stoops should have his most talented UK team, especially on defense, and Michigan will have to scrap its way out of the first round. Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, ruled eligible for the 2018 season, provides a much-needed spark for the Wolverines’ offense, which gets its running game going in the second half.
(4) USC 41, (13) Tennessee 24: The Tee Martin Bowl will go to Martin’s current team, not his alma mater, as USC’s growing pains on offense should be gone by this point in the season. Freshman sensation J.T. Daniels and running back Stephen Carr both have big days against Jeremy Pruitt’s work-in-progress defense as the Trojans fight on.
(12) Purdue 38, (5) Oregon 36: For the second straight year, Purdue records a postseason upset of a Pac-12 team led by an excellent quarterback. While Ducks star Justin Herbert makes several big plays, the Boilers ride a strong second half from their run game to advance.
(11) NC State 37, (6) Oklahoma State 31: Mike Gundy should have Oklahoma State’s offense moving well by the postseason, but it’s hard to pick against a proven senior quarterback in Ryan Finley. Although new Cowboys defensive coordinator Jim Knowles knows the Wolfpack from his Duke days, his unit doesn’t have quite enough answers to stop Finley.
(7) Iowa 36, (10) Texas Tech 33: Kliff Kingsbury’s defense is no longer a joke, but Iowa has the more complete team and the quarterback edge with Nathan Stanley, who throws three touchdowns in the second half to rally the Hawkeyes into the second round. Phil Parker’s defense limits wide receiver T.J. Vasher and a revamped Texas Tech offense.
(9) Utah 27, (8) Duke 24: Utes coach Kyle Whittingham is 11-1 in bowls, and he’ll continue his postseason mastery here. Decorated freshman Jack Tuttle will be Utah’s starting quarterback by this point, and he’ll step up with two touchdown passes and no turnovers. Duke’s Daniel Jones plays well, too, but Utah’s always-stingy defense prevails.
(1) Georgia 27, (9) Utah 17: This will be one of the more physical matchups in the entire tournament as both teams bring it at the line of scrimmage. Georgia’s superior offensive skill ultimately wins out as D’Andre Swift plows across the goal line in the closing minutes. Georgia’s experience scrapping in the SEC will pay off.
(2) Notre Dame 30, (7) Iowa 23: Once again, Notre Dame’s defense rises up against Stanley and the Hawkeyes, who struggle to reach the end zone for three quarters. Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec relieves Brandon Wimbush and throws two touchdowns as Notre Dame moves on to the Sweet 16.
(11) NC State 27, (3) Michigan 24: It’s an early exit for the Fightin’ Harbaughs as Finley and the NC State offense make a few more plays against Michigan’s stout defense. The Wolverines’ offense never truly comes out of its shell as NC State marches on.
(4) USC 37, (12) Purdue 24: Clay Helton’s team starts to hit its stride behind its young quarterback and a defense that records three takeaways. USC’s speed on the perimeter and an improved offensive line show up in the second half as the Trojans head into a showdown with Georgia.
(1) Georgia vs. (4) USC
(2) Notre Dame vs. (11) NC State
(1) Ohio State 41, (16) Houston 21: Dwayne Haskins and the Buckeyes’ offense surge to victory in the final game for reigning Outland Trophy winner Ed Oliver, who helps Houston with two tackles for loss. Ohio State jumps out to a comfortable lead before turning things over to its defense, led by Nick Bosa.
(2) Washington 31, (15) San Diego State 27: Washington is well aware of what San Diego State does to Pac-12 teams, but Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin and the other Huskies veterans aren’t going out easily in this tournament. Browning and Gaskin both account for fourth-quarter touchdowns as Washington survives a tricky opener.
(3) Wisconsin 45, (14) Syracuse 27: Dino Babers’ offense provides a good early challenge for T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly and a strong Wisconsin defense. But the Orange have no answer for sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor, who eclipses 200 yards on the ground as the Badgers run away to victory.
(4) Stanford 34, (13) Nebraska 17: New Huskers coach Scott Frost might be a bit fired up as he started his college career at Stanford before returning home to Nebraska. Frost’s team hangs around for a bit but doesn’t have enough on defense to slow down Bryce Love, K.J. Costello and the Cardinal.
(5) Texas A&M 31, (12) Memphis 27: The FPI placed Texas A&M in the top 25 nationally for both offense and defense despite some question marks on both sides. But Mike Elko worked magic at Notre Dame in 2017 and will boost Texas A&M’s defense, which holds a high-powered Memphis offense at bay down the stretch. Jimbo Fisher advances in his first postseason game leading the Aggies.
(6) Virginia Tech 30, (11) Iowa State 20: Both defenses should be very good again, and Virginia Tech’s offense should have some key answers by this point in the season. The Hokies advance behind Josh Jackson and Sean Savoy, and they limit the damage from Iowa State’s potent run game.
(10) Baylor 33, (7) South Carolina 31: Expect Baylor to take a significant jump in Matt Rhule’s second season. Quarterback Charlie Brewer builds on his finish to the end of 2017 and performs well against South Carolina’s speedy defense. Former Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd scores a late touchdown to give the Bears the win.
(9) Boston College 28, (8) Northwestern 23: Both teams can mix it up on defense, but Boston College’s A.J. Dillon is the best skill threat on the field and shows it. Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson is back from his knee injury but can’t rally his team to the second round.
(1) Ohio State 34, (9) Boston College 17: Urban Meyer faces former assistant and close friend Steve Addazio, whose team hangs around for a half. But the Buckeyes have too much talent on both sides of the ball and break through with two touchdown runs from J.K. Dobbins.
(2) Washington 41, (10) Baylor 13: A bit of a reality check here for Baylor as Washington shows it means business in this tournament. Browning throws for three touchdowns and Jimmy Lake’s defense records a score of its own as the Huskies march on.
(6) Virginia Tech 20, (3) Wisconsin 17: No Virginia Tech tournament run is complete without a Bud Foster masterpiece. A revamped Hokies defense comes together at the perfect time to stifle Jonathan Taylor and force a late interception from Alex Hornibrook. Justin Fuente’s team moves on to the Sweet 16.
(4) Stanford 33, (5) Texas A&M 21: Stanford is the more complete team and controls the line on both sides. An improving Cardinal defense limits Trayveon Williams and Bryce Love seals it with a long touchdown run.
(1) Ohio State vs. (4) Stanford
(2) Washington vs. (6) Virginia Tech