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Sorry, Penn State: The Four Best Teams Got In To The College Football Playoff

Heading into college football’s conference championship week, we knew three schools (Alabama, Clemson and Washington) could basically punch tickets to the College Football Playoff with victories in their respective conference title games. The only real questions involved what would happen in the event of an upset or two — and, just as important, what the selection committee would do with Ohio State. The Buckeyes ranked second in the committee’s rankings going into the week, but they also weren’t playing in the Big Ten championship game. How the committee handled that dilemma would in effect be a referendum on the value of a conference championship in the CFP era.

The upsets never really came. Although Virginia Tech gave Clemson a fight, the Hokies ultimately succumbed to the Tigers in the ACC championship by a touchdown. Washington, meanwhile, routed Colorado 41-10 in Friday night’s Pac-12 title game, and Alabama secured the greatest peak Elo rating by a college football team in the last 80 years when they crushed Florida 54-16 to win the SEC. The only real drama came from an upset victory in the Big Ten championship for Penn State, which could build a case around beating Ohio State earlier in the season.

For what it was worth, our CFP projection model thought there was very little chance the committee would jettison the one-loss Buckeyes in favor of the two-loss Nittany Lions, even after we made a tweak that placed extra emphasis on head-to-head results. Yes, the committee once dropped a team that won its final game by 52 points (TCU) from third to sixth when they reshuffled the field for their final rankings. But the model still said there was only a 13 percent probability that Penn State would bump Ohio State this year.1

And, sure enough, the CFP committee went with the Buckeyes. On Sunday, it produced a final four of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Washington, the semifinals of which will be sorted out on New Year’s Eve.

Although Penn State was understandably frustrated by the decision, it would have been difficult to justify taking the Lions over the Buckeyes. Ohio State was a consensus No. 2 in both the Associated Press and Coaches’ polls, as well as most statistical rankings, including ESPN’s Football Power Index and Strength of Record metric. Undefeated Alabama is clearly the nation’s best team — quite possibly the best in college football history, in fact — but Ohio State is an obvious No. 2 by most measures. We can always debate the eternal question of whether the CFP should reward the best team or the “most deserving” one, but in the end the committee took the team that had the more dominating season against the tougher schedule, just as it usually does.

So, now that we have a final four, who will win? From here on out, our model no longer has to forecast the committee’s decision making, so it’s all about what ESPN’s Football Power Index predicts. The FPI sees Alabama as 64 percent favorites to beat Washington in the Peach Bowl (which, we should also note, is held in Atlanta — far closer to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, than to Seattle), and it gives Ohio State a 55 percent chance of knocking off Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl.

Overall, that works out to a 39 percent chance of yet another Alabama national title — it would be the school’s fifth in the last eight seasons under coach Nick Saban — though the rest of the field is still more likely to upset ’Bama than not. If the Crimson Tide beat the Huskies, Alabama’s title odds would rise to 62 percent; if Washington pulls the upset, the CFP championship would basically be a coin flip no matter who wins in Clemson-OSU.

But that’s all about a month away. There’s still plenty of college football to consume between now and then, including Army-Navy next week, the Heisman Trophy ceremony on Dec. 10, and about a trillion bowl games (which I mostly enjoy, even if they often lose money and feature increasingly poor teams). For college fans, the most wonderful time of the year is just beginning.

CORRECTION (Dec. 6, 7:30 a.m.): A previous version of this article misstated TCU’s final 2014 College Football Playoff ranking. TCU dropped to sixth place in the final week, not to fifth.


Footnotes

  1. Our model output from Dec. 3 showed Ohio State with an 87 percent chance of being selected, so the rest of Penn State’s probability must have come from the (extremely remote) possibility that they’d bump one of the other three teams in the top four.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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