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How Conference Championship Weekend Will Affect The College Football Playoff

Heading into the final week before college football’s conference championships, all eyes were on Columbus, Ohio, for the epic Michigan-Ohio State duel. And they should have been: It ended up being a double-overtime classic, with the Buckeyes pulling out the 30-27 victory when Curtis Samuel scampered 15 yards for a walk-off touchdown. With few upsets elsewhere in the college universe — aside from Michigan, the highest-ranking team in the College Football Playoff rankings to lose was No. 11 Louisville — this week’s committee rankings were fairly predictable. Alabama checked in at No. 1 with Ohio State second, while Clemson and Washington moved up to accommodate Michigan’s slide to No. 5.

All of this has brought a little more clarity to FiveThirtyEight’s CFP predictions. Last week, our model was pretty certain that Alabama would make the committee’s final top four, and reasonably sure about Clemson, as well. But it also knew the Ohio State-Michigan outcome would have far-reaching implications about the playoff picture as a whole, and that was a game between two evenly matched teams that ended up going down to the wire. Now that it’s over, and we’re mere days away from Selection Sunday, the model has less uncertainty about how things will play out. Here’s how the predictions changed since last week:

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MAKES PLAYOFF WINS NAT’L TITLE
TEAM CONFERENCE PROB CHANGE PROB CHANGE
Ohio State Big Ten 92% +31 26% +7
Washington Pac-12 66 +30 13 +6
Penn State Big Ten 21 +6 2 +2
Alabama SEC 92 +2 37 +1
Clemson ACC 80 +2 18 +1
Wisconsin Big Ten 30 0 2 -1
Virginia Tech ACC <1 <1
Wash. State Pac-12 <1 <1
Auburn SEC <1 <1
Nebraska Big Ten <1 <1
Florida SEC <1 -1 <1
USC Pac-12 <1 -2 <1
Okla. State Big 12 1 -5 <1
Colorado Pac-12 10 -6 <1 -2
Oklahoma Big 12 6 -22 <1 -4
Michigan Big Ten 1 -36 <1 -11
2016 College Football Playoff predictions update, Nov. 30

Changes in FiveThirtyEight’s CFP prediction model are since last week. Changes for teams that already had a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoff or winning the national title are negligible and not precisely calculated.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

That’s not to say there’s nothing left riding on this weekend’s conference championship games, however. Let’s work out a few of the scenarios that could happen:

    • The Big Ten winner might get left out in the cold. Because of the Big Ten’s head-to-head tie-breaking procedure — Ohio State’s only loss came against division-rival Penn State — the Buckeyes will not be playing in the conference’s championship game, despite ranking No. 2 in the country according to the CFP committee. And although they’ve made counterintuitive choices before, it’s difficult to envision the committee turning around and booting the one-loss Buckeyes out of the final top four in favor of a two-loss Big Ten champ. So if the other favorites — Alabama, Clemson and Washington — win their respective conferences, our model sees little chance (a maximum of 23 percent, if Wisconsin beats Penn State) of the Big Ten champ making the playoff. Then again, those odds shoot up to 80 percent or better if any of the other top teams lose. So there’s still a chance, but the Big Ten winner probably needs some kind of help in order to get in.

VIDEO: Ohio State’s chances are better than most


 

  • Ohio State is probably a lock, no matter what. In some sense, you’d rather be in Ohio State’s position (and not play for your conference’s title) than that of any other team in the country right now, except maybe Alabama. After beating Michigan, the Buckeyes rank second in the CFP rankings and have no other on-field hurdles to clear. Even in a worst-case scenario — say, if all of the other top-four teams win (thereby reducing the number of safe landing spots for the committee to slot Ohio State into) and Wisconsin wins the Big Ten — our model says the Buckeyes’ odds of making the playoff dip no lower than 83 percent. Unless the committee does something truly unexpected, Ohio State is probably in.
  • Alabama would have roughly a coin-flip’s chance even if it loses the SEC. Nick Saban doesn’t want to entertain this thought, but his Alabama team is so good that it might be able to survive a loss in the SEC title game and still make the playoff. In the unlikely event that Bama falls to Florida (ESPN’s Football Power Index1 gives this a 14 percent chance of happening), our model says they’d have a 44 percent playoff probability — though that also accounts for the uncertainty of the weekend’s other games. If Clemson and Washington both win, Alabama’s CFP odds would fall somewhere between 30 and 40 percent, depending on who wins the Big Ten. So the Tide would probably need some help, whether in the form of another top team also losing, or some favorable treatment from the committee. But between those factors, there’s a very real possibility that Bama could afford to lose and still sneak into the CFP.
  • The outsiders need a ton of help. Most of the season’s home stretch has been building toward a clear top four — Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Washington — with some small consideration building for the Big Ten champ once it became clear that might not be either Ohio State or Michigan. But what about the rest of the field? Colorado leads that bunch with a 10 percent CFP probability, a number that would jump to 32 percent if they upset Washington for the Pac-12 title. But even in that event, the Buffs probably don’t have as good a case for No. 4 as the Big Ten champ would, so Colorado would probably also need either Alabama or (especially) Clemson to lose in order to solidify their chances. Meanwhile, Oklahoma, currently at 6 percent, could also see their odds rise as high as 56 percent if: a) they win Bedlam; b) Florida upsets Alabama; c) Virginia Tech upsets Clemson; c) Colorado upsets Washington; and d) Penn State upsets Wisconsin. That’s a lot of “ifs,” though, and even then they’d only have the fifth-best CFP odds of any team, so they’d need the committee to do them a favor. All of that is pretty unlikely, but Sooner fans can still deploy the Lloyd Christmas meme if they want.
  • Michigan needs chaos. After losing The Game to Ohio State, the Wolverines’ CFP odds plummeted from 37 percent to 1 percent. And what’s that 1 percent situation? Pure chaos. Michigan needs all of the teams ahead of them in the committee rankings to lose this weekend,2 and they probably also need Oklahoma State to upset Oklahoma. Even all that probably won’t be enough — our model would still only set their CFP odds somewhere north of 10 percent — but one thing the model doesn’t explicitly know is that Michigan has the head-to-head edge over both Big Ten title game participants. Since the committee has shown that it tends to re-sort from scratch in its final rankings, that one factor might be enough for Michigan to build a case from, in the event of upsets at the top.

 

The usual disclaimers about our model apply, of course. Though it’s based on the historical behavior of college-football pollsters, as well as the CFP committee’s first couple years of picks, the playoff is still relatively new and there’s still more than a little opacity to how their process works. They’ve made a head-scratching decision before and they probably will again. But for now, these are our best, most informed guesses as to how their choices will play out. Now we just have to wait for the weekend’s games — and Sunday’s selections — to find out who makes the playoff, and who will be on the outside looking in.

Footnotes

  1. Which we use to generate game-by-game predictions for the model.
  2. Except for Ohio State, which isn’t playing.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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