Now that’s the college football chaos to which we’ve grown accustomed. Ohio State’s pounding at the hands of Purdue is the kind of unexpected outcome we’ve come to expect in October. As much fun as it was, the loss didn’t actually change the playoff picture much. The same top seven teams control the table. Sifting through our numbers suggests those teams fall into distinct tiers, ranging from near locks, to the most viable outside challengers.
Tier 1: Clemson (93 percent to make to the playoff), Alabama (91 percent)
Alabama has been as dominant as any team the past decade. In fact, their current rating (+35.8) is the highest our system has ever ranked a team, going all the way back to 2007. While there’s plenty of football to be played, it’s hard to imagine Alabama playing a competitive game, let alone losing one. Of course Coach Orgeron and the LSU Tigers will spend this week imagining just that.
We’d make Alabama a double-digit favorite over even our No. 3 team Michigan. No. 2 Clemson (+31.1) is much closer to the Tide and, by blowing out previously undefeated North Carolina State, removed some of the doubt lingering over the program. With no ranked teams left on their schedule and a less stressful conference championship game, Clemson has the easier path to the playoff.
Both Clemson and Alabama have a loss to give, and are equally highly unlikely (5 percent) to lose more than that.
Tier 2: Notre Dame (51 percent), Michigan (48 percent), Oklahoma (47 percent)
Despite sitting in a three-way tie for second place in the Big 12, No. 5 Oklahoma is far and away the best team in the conference. The Sooners outplayed first-place Texas (MP No. 19) in their lone loss -- a 48-45 thriller -- outgaining the Longhorns by 2.5 yards per play, but losing the turnover battle 3-0. Were the two teams to meet again in the Big 12 title game, we’d make the Sooners a 10.5-point favorite.
Ohio State’s loss helps Oklahoma significantly. Even if Ohio State wins out, we think a one-loss OU is a favorite to slot ahead of the Buckeyes, who’ve played a weaker schedule.
Michigan (MP No. 3) delivered the No. 2 performance of Week 8, beating No. 24 Michigan State 21-7. Michigan’s playoff hopes ride on their season finale against Ohio State, a game in which we make the Wolverines a slight favorite (58 percent).
No. 10 Notre Dame should roll Navy (98 percent) coming off a bye week, but they’re still unlikely (35 percent) to win out. Should the Irish lose a game, they’ll need some help; we project that they’d slot below a one-loss Big Ten and Big 12 winner. Notre Dame simply has not been dominant this season, with four of their seven wins coming by one score.
The five brackets we are seeing most often, by far, are Alabama and Clemson plus all combinations of these three teams.
Tier 3: Georgia (24 percent), Ohio State (17 percent)
These early-season darlings have stumbled lately but still control their own destiny. The issue? Tough remaining schedules. Ohio State needs to avoid any more Purdues and then to beat Michigan in the regular season finale. Georgia must survive a more-difficult-than-expected SEC-East schedule and then knock off Alabama in the SEC title game.
In our simulations, the four playoff teams come from the seven teams in these three tiers 72 percent of the time. That means there is about a one-in-four chance that somebody makes an unexpected late-season run from back in the pack, and/or gets help from a bit of chaos. So we need to dig a little deeper to round out the pool.
Tier 4: Texas (8 percent), LSU (6 percent)
We make Texas only the 19th best team in the country, but with a clear path to the Big 12 title they are the eighth most likely team to make the playoffs. The trick is walking that path unscathed. The Longhorns face a “Raid Bros” gauntlet of Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas Tech the next three weeks and, of course, a likely rematch with Oklahoma in the title game. Odds are against the Longhorns winning out.
No. 9 LSU will have two weeks to prepare for the biggest game of Coach Orgeron’s tenure in Baton Rouge. Home field advantage plus their No. 6 defense might keep the Tigers in this game against the ridiculous No. 1 'Bama offense. But can their No. 25 offense move the ball against the Tide’s No. 3 defense? We make them a steep underdog. If they pull it off they have a couple of easy weeks before ending the regular season at Texas A&M.
Tier 5: Everybody else
Deep long shots all. However, there are a lot of them and, throw enough darts, they add up. No. 8 Washington (4 percent) leads the pack. Like No. 17 Utah (1.5 percent), the Huskies will need a lot of help from around the country to squeeze in as a two-loss team. No. 14 Florida (2 percent) and No. 25 West Virginia (1.5 percent) control their own destinies, though that seems rather theoretical given the hurdles they face. No. 20 Iowa (2 percent) just keeps marching on. They face a strong test in Happy Valley Saturday and are down a tie-break to Wisconsin for the Big Ten West.
The board has been pretty steady the last few weeks, and we expect that to continue another week. But two huge matchups loom on the horizon, which have the potential to shake things up.
LSU hosts Alabama (15 percent) and has the last real chance to take down the Tide during the regular season, and Michigan hosts Penn State (75 percent) in (another) must-win.
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.