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The Final Four Teams Are Clear: Updated College Football Projections (Final Weekend!)

UPDATE (Dec. 6, 1:03 a.m.): Despite all the articles FiveThirtyEight published about the different scenarios that could end the college football season, all that chaos never materialized. The playoff committee’s choice is clear: Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Michigan State should be the four teams to make the playoff.

In case you’re a visual learner, here are our model’s playoff projections:

Ranking Probability of …
Team CFP Elo FPI Conf. Title Playoff Nat. Title
Clemson 13-0 1 4 7 100% >99% 23 20%
Alabama 12-1 2 1 2 100% >99% 21 28%
Oklahoma 11-1 3 5 1 100% 99% 21 39%
Michigan St. 12-1 5 2 14 100% 93% 32 11%
Stanford 11-2 7 6 11 100% 6% 8a <1%
Ohio State 11-1 6 3 3 0% 2% 14 <1%
Iowa 12-1 4 15 26 0% <1% 39 <1%
College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings as of Dec. 1. Playoff probability changes are since Dec. 2; only changes greater than 5 percentage points are shown.

All that’s really unknown going into the final committee rankings on Sunday are the seeding it will give to the four teams. Our model projects those, too:

LIKELIHOOD OF BEING SEEDED…
NO. 1 NO. 2 NO. 3 NO. 4
Clemson 92% 9% <1% <1%
Alabama 9 91 <1 <1
Oklahoma <1 <1 66 32
Michigan St. <1 <1 32 60
Stanford <1 <1 <1 5
Ohio State <1 <1 <1 2

Clemson has a 92 percent likelihood of snagging the top seed, a position they’ve held in every one of the committee’s rankings thus far. There’s an inertia to these things, and Clemson hasn’t done much to shake the committee’s faith. The 13-0 Tigers finish their season as the only undefeated FBS team, with impressive wins against Notre Dame, Florida State and North Carolina. (Phantom offsides calls presumably don’t factor into the committee’s seedings.)

Alabama — the one-loss champions from the SEC — are next in line, fresh off a dominating win against Florida. Currently ranked No. 2 by the committee, the Tide have a 91 percent shot at the No. 2 seed (the most likely outcome), but could possibly leapfrog Clemson to be the playoff‘s top dog (a 9 percent chance). Either way, Alabama is in the top two.

Where Oklahoma and Michigan State end up is less clear. The Sooners have been the No. 3 ranked team in the last two committee rankings, and despite an early-season loss to Texas, Oklahoma measures up well according to advanced metrics, like ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) and Chase Stuart’s Simple Rating System. It’s unknown, though, just how much the committee weighs these metrics, leaving Oklahoma with a 66 percent probability of landing in the No. 3 spot.

Michigan State survived a thrilling challenge from Iowa in the Big Ten championship, capping an epic 22-play drive with a touchdown in the final minute. Michigan State has the opposite odds of Oklahoma — the Spartans are likely to be seeded No. 4, but could jump to No. 3 depending on the committee’s whims. Then again, the Spartans might not want the No. 3 slot — that likely means they’ll have to play Alabama instead of Clemson, and according to our metrics Alabama is better.

If you take a look at that first chart again, you’ll see that Oklahoma is the favorite to win the national title at 39 percent despite likely being seeded third. The Sooners are the No. 1-rated team according to ESPN’s Football Power Index1, which our model uses to simulate game outcomes.2 The metrics are higher on the Sooners than the committee has been.

One last note: Stanford fans: you may notice a 6 percent shot at the playoff. But that’s just the model being conservative. While the Cardinal played a tough schedule and easily won the Pac-12, it’s extremely unlikely they’ll make it into the playoff over Michigan State. There just wasn’t enough chaos this year.


ORIGINAL POST (Dec. 5, 8:24 p.m.): The Tide are rolling into the College Football Playoff. After dominating Florida 29-15 to win the SEC championship, Alabama is a lock for the playoff according to FiveThirtyEight’s model — though you probably didn’t need fancy stats to tell you that.

Below are our updated playoff odds following Alabama’s win but before the ACC, Pac-12 and Big Ten championship games began. As we’ve outlined before, our model sees both Oklahoma and the winner of Iowa vs. Michigan State as shoo-ins.

Ranking Probability of …
Team CFP Elo FPI Conf. Title Playoff Nat. Title
Alabama 12-1 2 1 2 100% >99% 21 32%
Oklahoma 11-1 3 3 1 100% >99% ▲ 21 40%
Clemson 12-0 1 5 7 58% 76% ▲ 21 14%
Michigan St. 11-1 5 4 14 61% 60% ▲ 21 7%
Iowa 12-0 4 14 26 39% 39% ▲ 21 3%
North Carolina 11-1 10 9 15 42% 10% ▲ 21 1%
Stanford 10-2 7 6 11 48% 7% 6a 1%
Ohio State 11-1 6 2 3 0% 7% 9a 1%
College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings as of Dec. 1. Includes completed games as of 8 p.m., Dec 5. Playoff probability changes are since Dec. 2; only changes greater than 5 percentage points are shown.

Now it’s just a matter of where the Tide will be ranked within the top four. Last week they were placed at No. 2, but after winning against Florida, our model gives them a 45 percent shot at the No. 1 slot. If Clemson wins, that number gets much lower. The Tide are good, but the committee is likely to keep an undefeated ACC champion as the top team.

The path for Stanford and Ohio State, meanwhile, just got much more treacherous. Both teams’ odds fell to 7 percent. Following Alabama’s win, they each need Clemson to lose against North Carolina later tonight; and, of course, the Cardinal need to win the Pac-12 championship over USC to stay in contention. But even then it’s no sure thing.

Speaking of North Carolina, the Tar Heels are down, but in better shape than other underdogs because of that last game against Clemson. Because there’s only one playoff slot available to them (Alabama and Oklahoma are now locks, as is the Big Ten winner) the Tar Heels’ odds fell, but only by four percentage points, down to 10 percent. However, if they can upset Clemson and win the ACC, those odds rise to 25 percent. So a UNC playoff berth would still make for a surprise on Sunday, but there’s a chance the committee will smile upon their conference championship and big win against the former No. 1 team in the country.

Then again, there’s also a 43 percent chance the committee will put Clemson in the playoffs anyway. We’re only a few hours away from knowing more! Check back in late tonight after the final games for our last predictions before the committee releases its final rankings.


For those of you who want more nitty-gritty about our projections, check out our original methodology manifesto, as well as a methodology update from earlier this season.

Footnotes

  1. FPI uses a slew of measures — such as game outcomes, margin of victory, strength of schedule, offensive and defensive team efficiencies — to predict outcomes. You can read more about how it’s constructed here, and why FiveThirtyEight uses it for our game simulations here.

  2. The FPI-based projections presented here may change. FPI rankings will be updated following Saturday’s games.

Jay Boice is a computational journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

Andrew Flowers writes about economics and sports for FiveThirtyEight.

Reuben Fischer-Baum is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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