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Fancy Stats | Analysis

If you think the College Football Playoff race is wide open, you are wrong

September 11, 2018 at 7:35 AM

Jake Fromm’s Georgia Bulldogs are among five teams in prime playoff position already. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Cade Massey (a Wharton professor) and Rufus Peabody (a professional sports bettor) are co-founders of Massey-Peabody Analytics, which produces proprietary quantitative college football ratings. Each week, they simulate the rest of the college football season and the playoff committee’s selection process 20,000 times and explore some of the most interesting outcomes.

While Week 1 of the NFL season brought some surprises, there has been nary a hint of carnage in college football through two weeks. You know it was a slow Saturday when the most prominent upset was No. 13 Michigan State losing as a four-point favorite at Arizona State. Chalk was the order of the day.

Only six teams that were ranked in the AP Top 25 to begin the year have lost, and four of those losses were against other Top 25 teams. With so many good teams undefeated, it might seem the playoff race is wide open, but the elite teams have actually managed to distance themselves from the pack already.

Related: [Football betting trends and takeaways and a bad beat seven hours in the making]

Ohio State graded out as our top team of the weekend, registering 579 yards of total offense while giving up a paltry 134 in a 52-3 trouncing of Rutgers. Georgia was not far behind, handily winning a true road game against a ranked SEC team, South Carolina. And, ho-hum, Alabama beat an inferior team by 50 points.

There is a clear Big Five right now — Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma — that have separated themselves from the pack, and all have between a 61 percent chance (Georgia) and 44 percent chance (Oklahoma) of making the playoff. The next best: Penn State at 15 percent.

Post-Week 2 playoff projection

Out of the “long shots,” Penn State did the most to improve its chances last weekend, jumping from 7 percent to 15 percent. After squeaking by Big Ten nemesis Appalachian State in Week 1, the Nittany Lions registered the third-best performance of Week 2, blowing out Pitt on the road in what was expected to be a tight game. Penn State (our No. 10 team) is still undefeated but has the misfortune of playing in the tough Big Ten East with Ohio State (No. 3) and Michigan (No. 7). Penn State’s formula is simple but difficult. Win the Big Ten, and it’s almost certainly in. Even with one loss, if Penn State wins the Big Ten, it has an 85 percent chance of getting in.

College football isn’t fair. Conference affiliation and politics do matter. While many think the SEC gets too much credit nationally, playing in the SEC can be a big disadvantage. Take Auburn, the No. 6 team in our weekly rankings. Less than one-tenth of a point separates Auburn from Oklahoma, yet Auburn only has a 14 percent chance of making the playoff, while Oklahoma is nearly a coin flip.

Related: [College football winners and losers: Arizona and Kevin Sumlin are a mess]

Auburn plays in the brutally difficult SEC West, and the scheduling gods have conspired against them. After road tests against Mississippi State (No. 10) and Georgia (No. 1), Auburn almost certainly has to beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa (24 percent chance) to make the SEC championship game, and likely the playoff. If the Sooners had the same road as the Tigers, they’d be just as unlikely to get in.

It’s early, but one thing is almost certain: There will be surprises. There’s only a 15 percent chance that all four playoff teams come from our Big Five, and there is still a 10 percent chance that only one of those five schools gets in. The Big Five haven’t faced any real tests yet (our apologies, Texas A&M; fans), and things can and do change quickly in college football.

The top Week 3 playoff-impact games

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