What the numbers say about the College Football Playoff Big 3 and the race for fourth place

What the numbers say about the College Football Playoff Big 3 and the race for fourth place

The college football playoff race looks chalky at the top.

So much so that the Allstate Playoff Predictor has never been more confident in Week 3 about the top three teams’ individual chances of earning a playoff berth.

Never in the five-year history of the model have there been three teams with at least a 70% chance each of reaching the playoffs before Week 3 as it currently does with Alabama (84%) , Ohio State (80%) and Georgia (70%). And the 233% cumulative odds are also better than the top three teams at this point since and including 2018, when the Allstate Playoff Predictor began. And that’s even with a tight Crimson Tide breakaway against Texas last weekend!

And there is an incredibly high 43% chance that these three teams will reach the CFP. Considering all that can happen between now and the end of the conference championships – and that two of the three teams are in the same conference (!) – that’s pretty remarkable.

One way I like to visualize the race for the playoffs is to look at the best possible combinations of playoff teams. The table below shows the 10 four-team groups most likely to reach the playoffs, in any seeding order.

Looking at it this way, we can again see that Crimson Tide, Buckeyes and Bulldogs still dominate: the top four most likely playoff combinations feature them all. And there’s no single combination with more than a 3% chance of coming true that doesn’t have them all.

That’s not to say there’s a guarantee on the current Big 3: 43% is 43%, and that more than likely means at least one will miss the playoffs, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor.

But where I think this table is particularly interesting is if we lock down the top three for now, looking at who that fourth team coming in might be.

Clemson Tigers

Chance of play-off: 46%

Clemson sits firmly in its own tier: nowhere as close to playoff probability as Alabama, Ohio State or Georgia, but well above long shots and semi-long shots below.

The Tigers are the fourth-best college football team, per FPI. In the past, there have been questions about whether a one-loss conference champion, Clemson, would have the resume to make the playoffs and the Predictor hasn’t always been so sure. In this case though, with teams like Notre Dame and Miami on Clemson’s schedule, the model is confident the Tigers get 91% of the time when they lose to the Fighting Irish but win the rest of their slate.

Michigan Wolverines

Chance of play-off: 26%

The second-likeliest playoff combination features two SEC teams and two Big Ten teams (with Michigan joining the top three) — perhaps a glimpse of what college football would soon have looked like if the playoff expansion was not on the horizon.

Michigan could just win and have a direct race to the playoffs, of course. But a statistically more likely path to the playoffs, according to the Predictor, is to finish 11-1 with a loss to Ohio State and still enter the playoffs. If the first game happens – only losing to the Buckeyes and missing the Big Ten championship game – the model predicts a 67% playoff chance for the Wolverines.

USC Trojans

Chance of play-off: 20%

The FPI and Allstate Playoff Predictor moved far and fast on USC. At the start of the season, the models couldn’t stand the Trojans — at least by consensus — but now USC suddenly finds itself with a 1-of-5 playoff shot in the third playoff overall. most likely.

An asset for Trojans? Their schedule remains easy. USC has the 57th-toughest schedule remaining among FBS teams and will be favored in all but one of the remaining scheduled contests — the Trojans have a 41% chance of winning at Utah, per FPI.

Texas Longhorns

Chance of play-off: 19%

The Alabama game was a brutal missed opportunity, but the (slight) silver lining for Longhorns fans is that it at least bolstered Texas’ game predictions going forward (even in the event of a loss, a team’s FPI rating can increase, just as it did for Texas in this case).

Winning would result in a secure playoff berth, but would be difficult to pull off. It is a possibility though. Also possible: Texas could lose to, say, Oklahoma, but then win the Big 12 (perhaps with a rematch victory over Oklahoma again in the Big 12 championship game). In this scenario — regardless of their opponent in this conference championship game — Texas would have a 59% chance of reaching the playoffs as the 11-2 conference champion.

Tennessee Volunteers

Chance of play-off: 11%

FPI is a Vols fan after escaping their overtime contest against Pitt with a win. The model believes they are the seventh-best team going forward, one spot ahead of USC.

The problem, of course, is the schedule: Road contests in Georgia and LSU plus a home game against Alabama mean the Volunteers would need big upheavals, plural. If they somehow managed to pull off an 11-1 season with a loss to Georgia, missing the SEC Championship Game, they would have better than a three-in-four chance in the playoffs. due to the difficulty of their schedule (sixth most difficult among FBS teams).


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