Cade Massey, Practice Professor at the Wharton School, and Rufus Peabody, a sports analyst, developed this ranking system for projecting future performance. Using their predictive ratings and accounting for dynamic uncertainty, they simulate the rest of the season (plus the playoff committee’s selection process) 20,000 times.
Pro tip: If a college football pundit sounds confident in their playoff predictions this week, don’t buy it.
Sometimes the best thing a model can do is point out moments of high uncertainty, and according to our numbers, that’s exactly where we stand. Washington and Notre Dame dropped critical games this weekend, winnowing the field of College Football Playoff hopefuls to nine teams (all others have less than a 1 percent chance of making the four-team field) and virtually ensuring the Pac-12 will be left out (2 percent). But with just a few teams in favorable positions, and all facing substantial tests, almost anything can happen with those nine.
They are a tightly bunched group. To find the differences, we take a look at the field through the lens of “destiny control,” listed with where we project the committee will rank each this week and our view of its chances of making the playoff:
Alabama [Current projection: No. 1. Playoff chance: 91 percent]: Alabama is (predictably) as close to a sure thing as there is right now. While the Crimson Tide is just 50-50 to win out – it still must beat Auburn and Georgia – we believe it likely will make the playoff even with one loss. That possibility has ramifications for the rest of the field, because a second SEC team would squeeze out one of the remaining contenders.
Six teams behind Alabama control their destiny, but two of them have easier paths than the others, giving them a more-likely-than-not chance of making the playoff.
Clemson [Current projection: No. 3. Playoff chance: 70 percent]: This weekend’s carnage doesn’t change much for Clemson, the fourth-ranked team in our power ratings. If the Tigers run the table and beat Miami in the ACC championship game Dec. 2 — we peg them as a touchdown favorite — they are in. Lose to Miami, and they are on the outside looking in.
Oklahoma [Current projection: No. 5. Playoff chance: 59 percent]: It would take a freakish combination of events to keep a 12-1 Big 12 champ Oklahoma out of the playoff: If the Sooners win out, they have a 95 percent chance of making it. But they still have to get there. We have them as 40-point favorites over Kansas and 19-point favorites over West Virginia, but the real test is a rematch with TCU in the Big 12 championship game. Oklahoma’s case is the simplest on the board: Win and you’re in; lose and go home.
Middling but resourceful
In the middle of the pack are three teams that control their destiny but face difficult paths. Lucky for them, all three have additional routes to the playoff.
Georgia [Current projection: No. 4. Playoff chance: 45 percent]: Georgia’s humiliation in Auburn on Saturday bumped the Bulldogs from an almost sure thing to on the fence. If they win the SEC, they will be in, but that requires beating either Alabama or Auburn in a rematch. A loss in Atlanta would drop Georgia’s playoff chances to just 1 in 3, and they would need to look much better in defeat than they did last weekend.
Miami [Current projection: No. 2. Playoff chance: 40 percent]: We know one thing for certain: If Miami wins out (25 percent chance), they are in. The Hurricanes’ blowout of Notre Dame gets them closer, and it also gives them some margin for error. If Miami happens to slip up against Virginia or Pittsburgh but beats Clemson for the ACC championship, it still has a 78 percent chance of making the playoff. Even with a title-game loss to Clemson, the Canes remain in the conversation, with a 21 percent chance, if the right combination of other results end up playing out.
Wisconsin [Current projection: No. 6. Playoff chance: 33 percent]: Like Miami, Wisconsin is in if it wins out, but it has just a 20 percent chance of doing so. But even if the Badgers lose to Michigan or Minnesota in the season’s closing weeks, they still would have a 61 percent chance of making the playoff if they beat Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. Alas, we’d make the Buckeyes nine-point favorites in such a scenario.
The long shots
The final group has the longest odds, but for different reasons: Two need help, while one has an especially tough hill to climb.
Ohio State [Current projection: No. 9. Playoff chance: 25 percent]: The Buckeyes’ 48-3 drubbing of Michigan State ranks as the second-best single-game performance of the entire season. We see them as the second-best team in the country, but they must win their final two regular-season games and knock off Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. We give them a 61 percent chance of doing so, but even then, because of a weak strength of schedule [55th] and strength of record [currently 19th], they’d have just a 41 percent chance of convincing the committee.
Auburn [Current projection: No. 7. Playoff chance: 21 percent]: Auburn has by far the most impressive résumé of a two-loss team. A 40-17 win over Georgia – the second-best performance of last week – vaulted the Tigers to No. 3 in our power rankings. Despite two losses, the Tigers most likely [90 percent] control their own fate. But the road ahead is brutal: They must beat Alabama and Georgia (again).
TCU [Current projection: No. 11. Playoff chance: 11 percent]: While Washington and Notre Dame also picked up second losses last weekend, TCU’s wasn’t as damaging. The Horned Frogs still have a path to the conference title if they win out [31 percent], albeit one that runs through Oklahoma. Where would a two-loss TCU sit at the end-of-season pecking order? That’s open for debate, but we show it sandwiched between two-loss Georgia and one-loss ACC runner-up Miami, with just a one-in-three chance of getting the call from the committee.
There is ample uncertainty left, both on the football field and in the committee room. All four playoff contenders favored to win their conferences – Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Clemson – are merely coin flips [50 to 60 percent] to win out. And it’s not just if you lose, but how you lose that can sway the whims of the 12 men tasked with setting the bracket.
Of course the favorites could win out and keep things relatively simple. Intuition might even suggest that is likely. But the numbers say it’s only an 11 percent likelihood. So check those feelings — and the pundits. And get something done this sleepy weekend, because the next two will be eventful.
— Bob Tedeschi contributed
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