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.
The separation continues. This year’s “Big Five” teams — Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma — all scored solid wins to advance their College Football Playoff chances, and multiple contenders in the next tier took losses. Four of the Big Five are more likely to make the playoff than not, and even the least likely of them (Oklahoma) is a more than twice as likely to make it as the next team (Penn State).
It’s not that these five teams are that much better than the rest. Well, some of them are — we currently make Alabama an absurd two-touchdown favorite when hosting Auburn (which we rank as the sixth-best team) at the end of the season. No, the playoff lead for the Big Five is because of how good they are and whom they have to play. The weakest of the elite, Clemson and Oklahoma, have the least conference competition — they should be favored by at least 6.5 points in every remaining regular season game. The next-best teams in our rankings — Auburn, Michigan and Penn State — still have multiple games against top-10 teams.
Post-Week 3 playoff projection
Last weekend highlighted the challenge of a tough schedule. Three of those second-tier teams — Auburn, TCU and Wisconsin, all in our top 14 — took losses. Let’s walk through each to evaluate its impact on the college football landscape:
LSU 22, Auburn 21: In the biggest game of the weekend, LSU kicked a last-second field goal to drop Auburn on the road. Obviously the loss hurts Auburn’s prospects for the playoffs (now only 3 percent, despite being the sixth-best team in the country). It also introduces yet another SEC West team good enough to scramble the playoff picture. Five (!) of our top 11 teams are in the SEC West. In a fascinating midseason stretch, LSU will host Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama in consecutive games. Despite the potential for losses to be spread more evenly, the SEC still has a 44 percent chance of landing two teams in the playoff.
|Conference||Makes playoff||Multiple teams in playoff|
Ohio State 40, TCU 28: In the weekend’s other big game, TCU led for long stretches but couldn’t hold on against Ohio State. The win might help Ohio State down the road, but it definitely hurts TCU. The Big 12 is widely considered a weak Power Five conference, and any Big 12 team not named Oklahoma will struggle to secure a playoff invite. TCU has earned national respect in recent years, and we make it the second most likely team to win the conference. But with this loss, the Big 12’s chances of making the playoff drops to 58 percent.
BYU 24, Wisconsin 21: The losses by Auburn and TCU were understandable. Wisconsin’s loss to BYU was not. Coming into the weekend, we ranked Wisconsin 13th and BYU 77th. The Badgers’ performance was the 59th-best of the weekend, comparable to San Jose State’s loss to Oregon and Toledo’s loss to Miami. The defeat drops Wisconsin’s playoff chances to 1 percent. As the only team of any national regard in the Big Ten West (the next-best team in that division is Iowa at No. 35), the loss hurts both the Badgers’ ability to build a résumé and its conference’s ability to compete for a playoff spot. It’s early, but this is the kind of loss revisited often in playoff conversations.
Those three losses widen the gap between the Big Five and the next tier of contenders. Through three weeks, that has been college football’s dominant story line — the playoff favorites are unscathed, while the contenders are taking flak. Still, we expect only two (30 percent) or three (45 percent) of the Big Five teams to end up in the playoff. After all, play enough games, and even 80 percent favorites take some losses. The next most likely teams to secure playoff berths are Penn State (18 percent), Washington (18 percent) and Virginia Tech (15 percent), each of whom is a reasonable bet to shake things up.
If you want a real dark horse, consider Oklahoma State (at 7 percent, our 12th-most likely playoff team). The Cowboys turned in the weekend’s sixth-best performance, easily handling Group of Five darling Boise State. We give them a 13 percent chance of winning the Big 12. With a back-loaded schedule (they finish at Oklahoma, vs. West Virginia and at TCU), people probably will be talking about them for the next few months.
The top performance of the weekend, by a mile, was Alabama’s 62-7 shellacking of Ole Miss. The Tide is back on top of our rankings and, for the second time in three weeks, has jumped a full field goal ahead of the pack. We give Alabama a 56 percent chance to run the regular season table, an 80 percent chance to win the toughest division in college football, a 72 percent chance to make the playoff and a 33 percent chance to win its third title in four years. Forget the Big Five teams: If Alabama continues on this pace, we’ll soon be writing about the Big One.
The top Week 4 playoff-impact games
|Favorite||Underdog||Predicted difficulty||Win probability|
|@ Alabama||Texas A&M||20.9||92%|
|@ Washington||Arizona State||16.8||88%|
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