Slim-down Saturday? Simplify Saturday? By whatever name, it was definitely the biggest landscape-altering Saturday of the season. Four of the AP Top 10 lost, including Georgia, one of the consensus top four teams in the country.
The most significant alteration is the bigger gap between the playoff favorites and their challengers. This means the top teams have greater margin for error – most could drop a game and still remain alive. This in turn means there are fewer slots available for other teams. For all the mayhem we saw Saturday, what we’re left with is greater order.
Two of the four playoff slots are practically wrapped up while another hinges on the Big Ten title race. All other contenders are fighting for one spot. There is plenty of drama left, but likely only in one corner of the playoff landscape.
Slot No. 1: Alabama (Playoff probability: 88 percent)
With five regular-season games remaining (plus almost certainly the SEC title game), it’s safe to pencil Alabama into a spot in the committee’s top four. Alabama has been simply dominant en route to a 7-0 start. The Tide have yet to play a meaningful second half snap the entire season, with an average lead of 32 points at the break. Their 39-10 pasting of No. 19 Missouri was the weekend’s top performance, the third time (!) in seven weeks they’ve topped our list.
While Alabama will probably win out (59 percent), their dominance means the luxury of a loss to give. Like last year, the Tide could get in without winning their conference: Lose the SEC championship game, and they are still 77 percent to make it; lose to LSU and fail to make the title game, and they’re 57 percent.
Slot No. 2: Clemson (Playoff probability: 90 percent)
Clemson hasn’t been as dominant as Alabama but our model pegs them as the most likely team to make the playoff. Why? You can be second to Alabama and still be quite good. While we’d make them a 4-point underdog to Alabama, we’d also make them a 5-point favorite over Georgia, 8 over Ohio State, and a whopping 14 over Notre Dame. We suspect this will be more clear after they host undefeated No. 22 North Carolina State this weekend.
Clemson also has the second-easiest remaining schedule of any contender, and will be a double digit favorite in the ACC title game. The Tigers can even drop the ACC title game and still have a 74 percent chance of making it, due to the mayhem in the Pac-12 and Big 12. Of course, more likely than not, Clemson makes things simple by winning out (65 percent).
Slot No. 3: Ohio State or Michigan (Playoff probability: 78 percent)
Ohio State is the favorite in a strong Big Ten, but they’re no longer the conference’s best team. After two straight subpar outings in wins against Indiana and Minnesota, the Buckeyes drop to No. 6 in our ratings, two spots below one-loss Michigan.
Michigan routed Wisconsin in one of the most anticipated matchups of the season, reasserting the dominance of the East and setting the stage for an epic showdown in Columbus next month. With Penn State dropping to Michigan State, the Big Ten’s playoff hopes mostly rest with these two rivals.
Ohio State is one of the few teams who can even afford a loss. If they trip up against, say, Purdue this weekend, we still see them in the playoff if they win out. And as with Alabama last year, they could beat everyone but Michigan, sit out the conference title game, and still get serious consideration from the committee. This is the benefit of the gap created when so many other contenders have fallen back.
Slot No. 4: Best of the Rest
This is largely a three-horse race between Notre Dame, Georgia and the Big 12 champ.
Notre Dame is the clear leader at the moment (49 percent), but more likely than not (68 percent) they don’t win out, and we get more suspense. If they can make it as close as they did against No. 52 Pitt, what will happen when they travel to No. 26 (and improving) USC?
If Georgia beats Alabama to win the SEC, they’re almost certainly in. That’s a tall order but also a long time from now. East division rivals Florida and Kentucky will make it interesting between now and then but we suspect the playoff conversation will include the Bulldogs up to the SEC title game.
The Big 12 is not out of it yet (48 percent to make the playoff). Despite the logjam at the top of the conference standings, we still make No. 5 Oklahoma the class of the conference and the clear favorite (57 percent). No. 16 Texas has beaten the Sooners once but will need to navigate a still-tricky conference schedule for the chance to do so again in the title game. Everyone’s favorite wild card, West Virginia, fell back to reality last weekend with a shockingly bad performance against Iowa State and is a distant third in our conference projections.
Want a darker horse? LSU (5 percent) and Florida (2 percent) could somehow keep their rolls going, or Washington (4 percent) could get help from around the country. But they are far down a long list of teams vying for, sadly for them, what looks like a single slot.
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