The top college football teams took care of business in convincing fashion this weekend. Clemson was, of course, supposed to beat Wake Forest, but we made their 63-3 annihilation the top performance in CFB this year. Alabama turned in the second-best performance of the weekend and Georgia (6th best) and Notre Dame (8th) weren’t far behind. Even Ohio State, in a sleepy outing, managed to beat Indiana by 23.
Of course Oklahoma did not take care of business. In the biggest game of the weekend -- and the biggest Red River Rivalry game in the last 10 years -- OU’s huge fourth-quarter comeback against Texas fell a field goal short. That has big ramifications for the Big 12 and the playoff picture. Everyone is now wondering whether this means Texas is actually back, if West Virginia can take advantage of an easier path to the conference title, or if the Sooners can rebound from an early-season loss for the fourth year in a row.
While the Big 12 race is cloudy, the rest of the landscape seems crystal clear. Narratives are firming up and confidence growing in what the balance of the season will bring. In fact, the narratives are so firm and confidence so strong it’s easy to forget we’re only at the season’s halfway mark. Our numbers suggest there are a few important misconceptions out there. Here are three common forecasts we believe college football followers are treating as certainties. They instead should pump the brakes.
This reminds us of the way too many people reason about March Madness. The best team in the tourney, no matter how good, is still more likely to lose than win it all. As with the basketball tourney, there are six (plus) games to play and a host of rivals. Alabama is head-and-shoulders above the field right now. But while we’d make them a whopping touchdown favorite over Georgia and Ohio State, Clemson has narrowed the gap to a field goal. We’re still learning about these teams and they’re still evolving - before this week Clemson had spent most the season at No. 4, for example. With seven weeks to go before we even hit conference championships we’ll inevitably see more movement.
They also have to play the games. Seven-point favorites lose all the time. Well, they lose 30 percent of the time. Even with their cush regular season schedule (No. 69 strength of schedule in the country so far), Alabama will have to win two playoff games as, likely, 7-point favorites, in addition to a similar SEC title matchup that could be an elimination game. Even 30 percent hurdles add up after awhile. Our numbers tell us Alabama is 34 percent likely to win the national title, about half as likely as the field. At this point in the season that is extraordinarily high. But it’s a far cry from the 50 percent or higher many (including the betting markets) are making them out to be.
Misconception No. 2: Notre Dame will win out (36 percent)
Under new quarterback Ian Book, the Irish have looked like a new team. With an offense (No. 14) increasingly well matched to a Top-10 defense (No. 7), many think they will run the table -- and with good reason. Of our Top-25 teams, Notre Dame has the second-easiest schedule, behind only Central Florida. But we’re not yet sold on Notre Dame.
Despite the hype, we rank them as only the No. 8 team in the country. Our numbers are diluted by the Wimbush era -- the last three games with Book have all been at least 90th percentile, whereas the first three under Wimbush were 40th - 60th. That’s a big change, but in-line with our expectations. We had Notre Dame No. 6 preseason before dropping as low as No. 19 two weeks ago. We should see them rise some yet, but we doubt the model is drastically off.
The challenge is simply the number of games left. People are rightfully pointing to Notre Dame’s last game, at USC, as their most likely loss (34 percent). But they play five more before their trip out west and most have an upset story you could sell. Florida State gave a heckuva scare this week to No. 11 Miami, a team squarely in Notre Dame’s neighborhood. Northwestern has been scaring every team they play this season, and has the benefit of hosting the Irish. And of course Syracuse came within seconds of taking down Clemson, a team we’d favor by 10 points over Notre Dame. Even if any one of those doesn’t worry you, the collective should.
Misconception No. 3: Ohio State will win the Big Ten (53 percent)
After escaping Happy Valley with a win, the narrative is that Ohio State will cruise the rest of the way. The remaining schedule is not terribly difficult -- they avoid Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern in their interdivisional games -- and should the Buckeyes trip up in their next five games, they still likely control their own destiny.
But the Buckeyes need to beat No. 5 Michigan in their Nov. 24 matchup. Forget the loss at Notre Dame and the narrow escape vs. Northwestern. This is Michigan’s best team in the Jim Harbaugh era. It would not be a shock if Michigan knocked off the Buckeyes, even in Columbus (34 percent). Were that to happen, Michigan would need to lose two additional games for Ohio State to win the Big Ten East. If Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State each end the regular season with one conference loss, we have to move all the way down to tiebreaker No. 5: best cumulative conference winning percentage of non-divisional opponents. Now there’s something the rest of us can pull for: the soft bottom of the Big Ten West takes down Ohio State, despite gifting them three Ws.
It’s not that we don’t believe in anything. We believe the SEC is a lock to make the playoff (98 percent). We believe people are sleeping on Clemson, which is now the single team most likely to make the playoff (85 percent). And, reluctantly, we agree it is more likely than not (56 percent) that both the Pac-12 and Big 12 get left out of the post-season party.
You’ve got to know what you don’t know. And while we’ve learned a lot over the first half of the season, we still know less than it feels like we do.
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.
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