Oklahoma defensive back Will Johnson, left, and safety Chanse Sylvie walk away after Iowa State’s go-ahead touchdown Saturday. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)

Cade Massey, a practice professor at the Wharton School, and Rufus Peabody, a Washington-based sports analyst, developed this ranking system for projecting future performance. Ratings represent a team’s predicted point differential against an average team on a neutral field. Current season statistics are adjusted for home field, opponent and game situation, blended with preseason expectations and weighted by their predictive ability.

After a pain-free start for college football’s elite, the autumn finally turned bitter for two members of the top 10, as Michigan and Oklahoma both suffered upsets Saturday. But the losses did more than just scramble the rankings; they revealed a cruel trait of the College Football Playoff winnowing process.

Some upsets barely nudge a team’s national playoff chances. Others can put an entire conference on the bubble.

The Wolverines have been overrated all season, according to our model, so their loss to Michigan State is little more than a reality check for those drinking the Kool-Aid in Ann Arbor. But the Sooners, by losing to Iowa State, cast a shadow across the entire Big 12.

Blame it on the simple calculus of the playoff selection criteria, which, in a less cold-hearted world, might somehow award a playoff spot to each of the Power 5 conferences. Our model suggests just a 21-percent chance of any conference getting more than one team into the playoff this year, so that means only one of the Power Five leagues will be shut out. The Big 12 may well be that conference.

We still have Oklahoma as the No. 4 team in the country and make them Sooners 13-point favorites against No. 23 Texas in the Red River Shootout next weekend. But with no room for error, a feisty Big 12 slate ahead, and a strong national field, the playoff deck is stacked against them.

Here’s a look at each of the Power Five’s best chances for a berth, and a little more context for why Oklahoma’s loss is virtually everyone else’s gain.


The SEC is the conference best positioned for the playoff. With undefeated and highly regarded teams in both divisions, they are up to a 92-percent chance to land at least one team in the final four. Top-ranked Alabama got more of a fight than expected against Texas A&M on Saturday, but the Crimson Tide reamins an odds-on bet to run the table (68 percent) as well as to win the conference (65 percent). Georgia rose two spots to No. 5 this week, and boasts the country’s No. 2 defense, but still would be a 10-point underdog to Alabama on a neutral field. What are the chances the Tide and Bulldogs both make the playoff? We make it 6 percent, the most likely conference twofer.


This year the ACC may finally top the SEC as the nation’s best conference. Miami’s last-second win over Florida State is great for the conference, as it puts the Hurricanes squarely in the national conversation. With a relatively weak schedule ahead, Miami has a 26-percent chance of finishing the regular season undefeated, and a 33-percent chance of making it through with only one loss. Either of those would make the ACC title game — presumably against Clemson, which has a 79% chance of winning the Atlantic Division — a de facto national quarterfinal. Right now we’d make the defending champs a six-point favorite in that game. We like Clemson to make the playoff (56 percent), but they are not the shoo-in many assume.

Big Ten

Ohio State continues to look like the machine expected before the season began. Their dismantling of Maryland was our top-graded game of the week and one of the top four of the season. We believe they are the second-best team in the country and the clear favorite (63 percent) to win the Big Ten. Wisconsin now has an absurd 97-percent chance to win the Big Ten West, but just a 25-percent to emerge conference champ. We forecast Penn State as having just a 10-percent chance to win the conference, but with a couple of backdoor routes, the Nittany Lions have an 18-percent chance to make the playoff.


Out west Washington continues to quietly impress. We have had them No. 5 or 6 the past three weeks, with top 10 units on both sides of the ball.  It says a lot about the conference that all eyes already are shifting to the Apple Cup against Washington State, though it’s still seven weeks away. We still feel Washington State is overrated as a top-10 team, but they jumped five spots in our rankings to No. 21 after crushing Oregon 33-10. Southern Cal, the Pac-12’s only other top-20 team (No. 12), is the overwhelming favorite in the Pac-12 South (82 percent), and a legitimate rival to Washington for the conference title (35 percent vs. 44 percent). But with only one team that is both undefeated and nationally competitive, the Pac-12 is in the second-most precarious position as a conference.

Big 12

Which brings us to the Big 12. The conference’s playoff chances have waxed and waned with the Sooners, beginning below 50-percent until Oklahoma knocked off Ohio State in Week 2. After spending the past three weeks in the neighborhood of a 75-percent chance of making the playoff, the Sooners are back below 50/50. That will rise as long as TCU stays undefeated, but we put the Frogs’ chances of pulling that off at just seven percent. They have a dangerous visit to Kansas State this week, where we favor them by just six. Almost all Big 12 conference games have defied expectations so far. It could be a year that conference fratricide leaves no one standing for playoff consideration. It’s painful, but it’s also one of the reasons we love the sport.

Oklahoma and the Big 12 aren’t out of it yet, by a long shot. But their suddenly-diminished chances create more space for everybody else in the race. Georgia tips their hat to you, Iowa State — as does Miami, Penn State and Wisconsin.

Bob Tedeschi contributed.

Team MP MP Rank E(Ws) E(Ls) P(L<2) Conf Champ Playoff
Alabama 34.23 1 11.6 0.4 96% 65% 72%
Clemson 25.99 3 11.3 0.7 83% 55% 56%
Ohio State 30.36 2 10.5 1.5 63% 63% 48%
Washington 23.22 6 11.0 1.0 75% 45% 47%
Miami (FL) 19.43 10 9.6 1.4 60% 29% 25%
Wisconsin 19.41 11 11.1 0.9 78% 26% 25%
Oklahoma 25.11 4 10.0 2.0 34% 49% 24%
Georgia 23.47 5 10.9 1.1 68% 23% 22%
Penn State 20.92 8 10.6 1.4 60% 10% 18%
TCU 16.69 15 9.9 2.1 34% 24% 15%
USC 18.82 12 9.7 2.3 23% 36% 12%
Washington State 12.99 21 9.5 2.5 22% 6% 6%
Auburn 21.85 7 9.0 3.0 8% 10% 5%
Oklahoma State 17.03 13 9.1 3.0 10% 13% 5%
UCF 11.78 25 9.0 1.0 74% 42% 4%
Virginia Tech 14.78 17 9.0 3.0 9% 5% 3%
San Diego State 7.30 34 11.3 0.7 85% 51% 3%
South Florida 9.39 31 9.6 1.4 60% 24% 2%
North Carolina State 12.44 24 8.4 3.6 3% 8% 2%
Notre Dame 17.01 14 8.8 3.2 7% 0% 2%

Read more coverage:

A barb from barry Switzer may be the best way to calibrate Iowa State’s ludicrous upset of Oklahoma

A Mike Leach team doing it with defense? It’s Washington State’s new winning formula

Feinstein: Navy and Air Force play a college football classic worthy of tears.