The chaos we always hope for in college football finally arrived last weekend. To make sense of the wreckage, we step back this week, drawing on the first half of the season to better understand what to expect from the second. Where has the landscape truly shifted and where is it merely on the brink? Here are five insights from crunching the mid-season numbers, one for each conference.
Ohio State is the class of the Big Ten.
Penn State is all the way up to No. 2 in both national polls, but our No. 2 is Ohio State. Since dropping their second game to Oklahoma, the Buckeyes have graded out among the top five performances every week, including No. 1 this week and last. We expect them to be favored by an average of 24 points (!) in their remaining games, including two-touchdown favorites against Penn State, Michigan and – in a conference title game we’re seeing in 82 percent of our simulations – Wisconsin. They are a huge favorite (67 percent) to win the Big Ten and one of two teams more likely than not (57 percent) to make the playoff. You can guess the other.
Oklahoma is more likely to win the Big 12 than TCU.
TCU has flown up to No. 4 in both polls on the strength of an undefeated record and a tough win against conference rival Oklahoma State. But our numbers make them a modest No. 12, more akin to No. 10 Oklahoma State than No. 3 Oklahoma. These three contenders will sort themselves the first two weeks of November when the Sooners travel to Stillwater and then host the Horned Frogs seven days later. With a game in-hand, TCU is a slight favorite over Oklahoma to finish No. 1 in the standings; but then there’s the title game. A TCU-Oklahoma matchup in the inaugural conference championship game is the most likely outcome (47 percent), and we’d make the Sooners a six-point favorite. Sadly for the Frogs, playing more games favors the better team. That means Oklahoma is the favorite (46 percent) to repeat as conference champ.
Miami is more likely to make the playoff than Clemson.
The most surprising mid-season number is that Miami is more likely to make the playoff than Clemson (32 percent vs. 29 percent). This isn’t because Clemson has faded badly: We still have the Tigers No. 4 even after their shocking loss at Syracuse. Nor is it because Miami is suddenly a juggernaut: The Hurricanes are “only” our No. 14. But the Hurricanes have an easy path to the ACC title game while Clemson, after a bye, faces No. 21 Georgia Tech, No. 20 North Carolina State and No. 9 Florida State in successive weeks. A Miami-Clemson title game remains the mostly likely matchup (44 percent), and we’d favor the Tigers by six. But Clemson must fend off North Carolina State to get there, and can’t take another loss and stay in the playoff picture. Miami has neither of those problems.
The Pac-12 is the conference mostly likely to be left out of the playoff.
After another week of upsets at the top, the Pac-12 finds itself without an undefeated team. That’s a big disadvantage nationally when all the other Power Five conferences still have an undefeated team, and the the Big Ten and SEC have them in both divisions. The path to the playoff is, after all, mostly a war of attrition. Producing a champ with fewer than two losses is a prerequisite for serious playoff consideration, and at this point we see Pac-12 doing that just 38 percent of the time. While Southern California is a virtual lock (85 percent) to win the South division, they must travel to South Bend for a near toss-up against the still-breathing Fighting Irish this weekend. Meantime, Washington, still No. 6 according to our numbers, is a much weaker favorite (55 percent) in the North and must travel to Palo Alto to face Stanford on Nov. 10. The Cardinal have two losses but are holding steady at No. 16 in our rankings and will be just a slight underdog in that game. A number of tight games left and little room for error is a bad playoff recipe for the Pac-12.
Auburn is still nationally relevant.
The SEC is the nation’s most boring conference. And we’re not (just) talking about their games. With Alabama and Georgia locked in for the title game (an astounding 80 percent likelihood), and no other team with an even remote chance of the playoff, there seems little reason to pay attention. But Auburn gives us a reason. Despite their loss to LSU last weekend, we still rank the Tigers eighth, and they happen to host both the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide over the last three weeks of the regular season. We expect Auburn to be about a 10-point underdog to Alabama, but a slight favorite against Georgia. Knocking off one or both of those teams likely won’t move the conference standings, but it would shift the national picture, bumping the SEC down a notch and, possibly, costing it a bid.
There are many more upsets to come this season. Hopefully these mid-season evaluations will better prepare you for them — chaos is even more fun when you’re the least surprised by it.