Another weekend of chalk and it’s easy to see the writing on the wall. The Big 5 — Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma — remained undefeated despite a couple of very close calls. The group of seeming inevitables has even expanded, with Notre Dame easily besting Stanford to open a clear path to the playoff. Surely the four College Football Playoff teams will come from among these juggernauts. They are so good — and their schedules are so easy.
Amos Tversky said people know only three probabilities — certain, impossible and 50-50. We’re here to tell you that very little is certain in college football, and that the impossible happens at least every other year. It’s way too early to be so sure who will make the playoff. History suggests some of today’s inevitables will be tomorrow’s afterthoughts, and a team long written-off could very well make it to the postseason.
We think the Big 6 teams are very strong — there’s not a pretender among them. And for some of them it’s hard to find a game they seem capable of losing. Even so, our simulations show the Big 6 providing all four playoff teams only 40 percent of the time. That means a team not on that list is more likely than not to sneak into the playoff. Let’s break it down to see why that’s the case.
The (Not So) Inevitables
The trick with the inevitables is that, though each is likely to remain a strong playoff contender, it unlikely that all will do so.
Alabama has been the most dominant team in college football, but even with its seeming invincibility, we still give the Crimson Tide a 28 percent chance of missing the playoff. What could go wrong? Starting quarterback and Heisman hopeful Tua Tagovailoa could get injured (though Jalen Hurts is not a big downgrade). The Tide could drop a road game at LSU (19 percent). It could easily drop a conference championship rematch against Georgia (35 percent). Even that may not be fatal unless, say, there is an abundance of deserving conference champs around the country. If you can see a way for Alabama to miss the playoff then you can see anything happening. Probability of fewer than 2 losses: 84 percent
Clemson’s road looks straightforward and its schedule is easy. But Trevor Lawrence’s injury this past week should remind us all how quickly things can change. The Tigers don’t have much left on their regular season schedule but we said the same before they lost to Syracuse last season. And we’d expect Miami to make a better showing (34 percent chance of winning) in a conference title game than it did in 2017. Probability of fewer than 2 losses: 84 percent
Ohio State withstood its toughest test last weekend but still has a gauntlet ahead of it. Given the Buckeyes' performance to date, and competition in the Big Ten, we believe they have a loss to give, provided they still win the conference. But if Michigan runs the table, a loss to the Wolverines in the season finale likely leaves the Buckeyes on the sideline. Probability of fewer than 2 losses: 78 percent
Notre Dame has the easiest remaining schedule, but is also worst of the bunch (No. 10), and is most likely of this group to miss the playoff. Not having a conference championship will help the Irish if they end the season unbeaten (22 percent), but should they drop a game, their resume (which includes narrow victories over Ball State and Vanderbilt) makes them a 2:1 underdog to get in. Probability of fewer than 2 losses: 58 percent
Georgia is quietly putting together the kind of season most expected. The surprise has been the rise of the SEC East around them. With Florida, Missouri and Kentucky (!) looking stouter than expected, the Bulldogs’ division schedule has gotten tricky. Add a cross-division trip to LSU (67 percent) and there are many ways Georgia’s season could be derailed. Probability of fewer than 2 losses: 54 percent
Oklahoma climbed back up two spots (No. 5) this week and faces its first real competition this weekend in Dallas against Texas (72 percent). We see the Sooners making it into the playoff even if they drop a game (73 percent) provided they win their conference. However, in a competitive Big 12, the Sooners are only a coin flip to make it through championship weekend with fewer than two losses. Probability of fewer than 2 losses: 51 percent
The (Seeming) Impossibles
As inevitable as the Big 6 seem, the next 6 seem impossible. After opening-weekend losses many teams were written out of the 2018 narrative. But we’ve often seen teams come from back-in-the-pack to land a playoff spot and there are a number of interesting possibilities. We make it even money that at least one of the following teams makes the playoff. Here are six rolls of the die — will one of them hit? Here’s how each could.
Washington is still in our Top 10 (No. 8) and, in a weak Pac-12, has a very reasonable chance of winning out (30 percent). The downside of that easier conference slate is less respect from the playoff committee, and we see the Huskies making the playoff only 58 percent of the time even if they do run the table. That means they’re dependent on a bit of carnage happening elsewhere. But isn’t that what college football specializes in? Probability of fewer than 2 losses: 30 percent
Penn State (No. 7) has an especially tough path to the playoff (6 percent) by virtue of a conference loss. The Nittany Lions will need to win out and hope for the right combination of losses elsewhere in the Big Ten East. But this is a good year to need help around that division. Probability of fewer than 2 losses: 18 percent
Michigan (No. 5) controls its own destiny. If the Wolverines win out and win the Big Ten title (10 percent), they’re almost certainly in. Easier said than done. They have a brutally tough remaining schedule, with No. 14 Wisconsin, No. 16 Michigan State, No. 7 Penn State, and No. 2 Ohio State left on the docket. But we’ve liked them all season, even after their loss to the Irish. Maybe they find themselves on the other side of a blocked punt or two this year? Probability of fewer than 2 losses: 10 percent
Miami’s sole loss came early and out-of-conference against a better-than-expected LSU. The No. 11 Canes will have to show up every week — we can imagine them dropping a road game to Virginia (24 percent), Georgia Tech (28 percent), or Boston College (30 percent) — but they should be favored in every game the rest of the way, including vs. No. 20 Virginia Tech (69 percent). If Miami can run the table and somehow knock off Clemson, it likely is in (71%). Probability of fewer than 2 losses: 7 percent
LSU (No. 12) and West Virginia (No. 19) have crashed the undefeated party . . . so far. LSU has arguably the best wins of any team this season, beating Miami and Auburn, but faces the toughest remaining schedule of any Top 25 team. The good news is that LSU is in the enviable position of having a loss to give, provided it is not to Alabama in their Nov. 3 showdown. A one-loss SEC champion is a virtual lock to make the playoff. Probability of fewer than 2 losses: 9 percent
West Virginia’s start is largely a product of its schedule (No. 40 Texas Tech has been its toughest foe to date). However, the Mountaineers have one of the few offenses in the country (No. 8) explosive enough to hang with Oklahoma’s (No. 1). If they can navigate the rest of their schedule with only one loss, plus win the Big 12 championship game, they’re likely in (59 percent). Probability of fewer than 2 losses: 10 percent
It’s still early in the season. Good time of year to remember that one loss usually doesn’t disqualify a team, and that even four-game winning streaks are unlikely to last. Don’t think in terms of certainties and impossibilities, especially in college football. Of course all of the Big 6 could make it through the conference championships with fewer than two losses. But, at 7.8 percent, that chalky outcome would be the strangest of all.
* Through the conference championships.
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.