Tuesday, April 23, 2024

2024 NCAA bracket, college football edition: Projecting who would win March Madness from the 68-team field

The release of the 2024 NCAA Tournament matchups gives fans everywhere several different ways to participate in our national pastime of filling out a bracket. You could pick teams according to their color, which mascot would win in a fight or any other range of nonsensical parameters to game out all 63 selections needed to crown a champion. 

For us college football experts on the Cover 3 Podcast, an annual tradition during the Monday after Selection Sunday is to play the bracket out with a simple premise: What if these were the college football teams of each school?

We go through each game and determine who would win if the college football teams from each school were battling it out instead of the basketball squads. It’s generally done through the lens of the upcoming season, but with such an abstract activity, we try not to get too scientific. There’s more vibes than depth charts with these picks as well as plenty of conversation reacting to the unique and perhaps unexpected matchups as teams advance deeper in the tournament. 

It’s not March without brackets. Get your bracket pools ready now and join our men’s and women’s challenges for the chance to win big-time prizes! 

We’ve detailed the results of this year’s bracket with analysis from beginning to end. Be sure to listen to the full episode below where the Cover 3 Podcast crew breaks down the following projections. 

East Region

The Fighting Jim Moras were able to represent the success of UConn’s men’s basketball team well in the first round with a win over FCS Stetson but saw their tournament run come to an end at the hands of Northwestern in the second round. Other intriguing early matchups included San Diego State, now led by Sean Lewis, clashing with Trent Dilfer’s UAB and Iowa State going head-to-head with South Dakota State, a series that has some history and was supposed to be played as recently as 2018. The game was canceled due to a 2 1/2 hour lightning delay, however. 

Things got spicy in the second round giving the edge to Auburn over San Diego State, Iowa State over Washington State and narrowly moving Illinois ahead of BYU. That produced a Sweet 16 with Auburn facing Northwestern, a game that looks like an Outback Bowl matchup, and Illinois taking on Iowa State. Picking between Illinois and Iowa State in the Sweet 16 produced the most consternation in the process, which brought out some excitement since that matchup would also be excellent and unpredictable if it happens in the 2024 NCAA Tournament. 

Ultimately, it was Auburn over Illinois in our Elite Eight, which also doesn’t look that far off from what we could see play out in March Madness. 

First round

No. 1 UConn def. No. 16 Stetson
No. 9 Northwestern def. No. 8 FAU
No. 5 San Diego State def. No. 12 UAB
No. 4 Auburn def. No. 13 Yale
No. 6 BYU def. No. 11 Duquesne
No. 3 Illinois def. No. 14 Morehead State
No. 7 Washington State def. No. 10 Drake
No. 2 Iowa State def. No. 15 South Dakota State 

Second round

No. 9 Northwestern def. No. 1 UConn
No. 4 Auburn def. No. 5 San Diego State
No. 3 Illinois def. No. 6 BYU
No. 2 Iowa State def. No. 7 Washington State 

Sweet 16

No. 4 Auburn def. No. 9 Northwestern
No. 3 Illinois def. No. 2 Iowa State 

Elite Eight

No. 4 Auburn def. No. 3 Illinois 

West Region

What does the post-Drake Maye era look like for North Carolina? According to our projections, not good enough to get past a Jonathan Smith-led Michigan State team in a simulated second-round matchup. The West Region provided some of our greatest disparity in the early rounds as seven of the 16 seeds were occupied by teams that do not compete at the FBS level, while more than one included no organized school-sponsored team. A first-round matchup between Michigan State and Mississippi State received the most attention, and then things got a little bit more interesting once we picked the Spartans and advanced to the second round. 

The West Region is, after all, filled with schools with College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six appearances. Of the nine seeds that do have an FBS program, seven have made it at least to a New Year’s Six bowl game since 2014, and two of them (Alabama and Clemson) were among the winningest programs of the four-team playoff era. Once we settled on the Tigers getting past Baylor and Michigan State over North Carolina in the second round, we were left with an enticing regional that featured Alabama over Michigan State and Clemson over Arizona in the Sweet 16. From there, choosing the Final Four representative came down to certainty over ceiling, picking the high-floor Tigers over the Crimson Tide’s question marks. Dabo Swinney and his team advances as champs of the West Region. 

First round

No. 1 North Carolina def. No. 16 Howard
No. 9 Michigan State def. No. 8 Mississippi State
No. 12 Grand Canyon def. No. 5 Saint Mary’s
No. 4 Alabama def. No. 13 Charleston
No. 6 Clemson def. No. 11 New Mexico
No. 3 Baylor def. No. 14 Colgate
No. 10 Nevada def. No. 7 Dayton
No. 2 Arizona def. No. 15 Longwood 

Second round

No. 9 Michigan State def. No. 1 North Carolina
No. 4 Alabama def. No. 12 Grand Canyon
No. 6 Clemson def. No. 3 Baylor
No. 2 Arizona def. No.10 Nevada 

Sweet 16

No. 4 Alabama def. No. 9 Michigan State
No. 6 Clemson def. No. 2 Arizona 

Elite Eight

No. 6 Clemson def. No. 4 Alabama  

South Region 

The conversation had to start with the Dayton game in the South Region, which features Boise State and Colorado. No disrespect to Spencer Danielson and the Broncos, but this is an entertainment exercise, so we chose Deion Sanders and Colorado as our representative for the No. 10 seed. After giving Coach Prime, Shedeur Sanders and the Buffaloes the win, they follow that up with a first-round win against Florida. Elsewhere in the first round were tough calls between Texas A&M and Nebraska in the 8-9 game and Texas Tech against NC State, a game the two teams played in 2022 (a Wolfpack victory) and will play again in 2027. 

The second round saw the top seed fall as Texas A&M advanced over Houston in an in-state showdown and Wisconsin, which we narrowly gave the edge too over James Madison in part because of the coaching change, keep it rolling with a win over Duke. NC State took out Duke in the Devin Leary Bowl, and Colorado kept cruising as the Buffs faced Western Kentucky, not Marquette, as the Golden Eagles have not had a football team since 1960. With Texas A&M and NC State advancing to the Elite Eight, it was Mike Elko’s Aggies that earned the Final Four nod. 

First round

No. 1 Houston def. No. 16 Longwood
No. 9 Texas A&M def. No. 8 Nebraska
No. 5 Wisconsin def. No. 12 James Madison
No. 4 Duke def. No. 13 Vermont
No. 11 NC State def. No. 6 Texas Tech
No. 3 Kentucky def. No. 14 Oakland
No. 10 Colorado def. No. 7 Florida
No. 15 Western Kentucky def. No. 2 Marquette

Second round

No. 9 Texas A&M def. No. 1 Houston
No. 5 Wisconsin def. No. 4 Duke
No. 11 NC State def. No. 3 Kentucky
No. 10 Colorado def. No. 15 Western Kentucky 

Sweet 16

No. 9 Texas A&M def. No. 5 Wisconsin
No. 11 NC State def. No. 10 Colorado 

Elite Eight

No. 9 Texas A&M def. No. 11 NC State 

Midwest Region

While Bill Self is dealing with a Kansas men’s basketball team that’s limping into the 2024 NCAA Tournament, Lance Leipold as a Big 12 title contender arrived ready to make some noise in the Midwest. It’s a region with a half-dozen seeds that don’t play football at the FBS level, though FCS McNeese did make it through to the second round as a result of its matchup with Gonzaga, which has not fielded football since World War II. The most interesting second-round games included top two seeds — we gave the nod to TCU over Purdue and very narrowly picked Texas over Tennessee. 

That matchup between the Volunteers and the Longhorns, who are now SEC rivals, seemed to carry the title for “best matchup that we could also see in the 12-team playoff” until we got to the very next round. Oregon, which had a win over South Carolina in the first round and Akron in the second round, making the Sweet 16 to square off with Texas would be an absolute delight in football. It came down to a Quinn Ewers vs. Dillon Gabriel debate, but considerations were also put in place for which team was able to close the season the best in 2023. So, the Longhorns got the nod. In the Elite Eight, Texas ran into a Kansas team fresh off an All-Big 12 Sweet 16 showdown with TCU, and just like the on-field results in 2022 and 2023, it was the Longhorns that were determined to be victorious. 

First round

No. 1 Purdue def. No. 16 Montana State
No. 9 TCU def. No. 8 Utah State
No. 12 McNeese def. No. 5 Gonzaga
No. 4 Kansas def. No. 13 Samford
No. 11 Oregon def. No. 6 South Carolina
No. 14 Akron def. No. 3 Creighton
No. 7 Texas def. No. 10 Virginia
No. 2 Tennessee def. No. 15 Saint Peter’s 

Second round

No. 9 TCU def. No. 1 Purdue
No. 4 Kansas def. No. 12 McNeese
No. 11 Oregon def. No. 14 Akron
No. 7 Texas def. No. 2 Tennessee 

Sweet 16

No. 4 Kansas def. No. 9 TCU
No. 7 Texas def. No. 11 Oregon 

Elite Eight

No. 7 Texas def. No. 4 Kansas 

Final Four

A Final Four of Auburn, Clemson, Texas A&M and Texas delivered pretty much what we were looking for when we started this exercise. All of those schools believe themselves to be contenders in a 12-team or 14-team playoff format, and our haphazard simulation saw them all emerge from their respective regions. Ultimately, we picked Texas over Clemson in the national championship game, setting the combined final score tiebreaker at 63. If Texas and Clemson actually make it to the title game in the 2024 NCAA Tournament, it will be stunning but not unrealistic. If they do and combine for just 63 points across 40 minutes of basketball, THAT would be historic 

National semifinal

No. 6 Clemson def. No. 4 Auburn
No. 7 Texas def. No. 9 Texas A&M

National championship

No. 7 Texas def. No. 6 Clemson   

If you think your actual 2024 NCAA Tournament men’s basketball picks are going to be better than these simulations, then come go toe-to-toe with the football bracket in the Cover 3 Bracket Games Challenge.

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