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College Football Chaos Could Be Lurking Below The Top 3 Teams

So far, this year’s college football season has played out with relatively little chaos. Sure, 28.5-point underdog Old Dominion beat Virginia Tech, BYU toppled Wisconsin, and Purdue put a big dent in Ohio State’s playoff chances just last week. But most of the leading preseason favorites are still in good shape to make the College Football Playoff with five weeks to go before the conference championship games (and a week before the selection committee’s first set of rankings is released).

If the season ended today, the committee would have an especially easy choice with its top three: Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame, each of which is a prestige program with an undefeated record. Picking the fourth slot, however, would be a little trickier, as there’s a crowded field of worthy one-loss contenders. And that’s what sets this season apart: The sheer potential for madness is quite high, even if it hasn’t manifested itself yet.

We can map out how this season compares with others at the same point in time (i.e., through the week in which most FBS teams have played seven games) by classifying how many teams usually fit into the categories that my boss, Nate Silver, laid out in his 2015 story advocating for an expanded playoff field:

  • Tier 1 contains undefeated teams from major conferences.1 As a general rule, these teams automatically make the playoff, since there are basically never more than two or three of them by the end of any given season.
  • Tier 2 contains one-loss teams from major conferences and undefeated teams from minor conferences. These teams have a decent playoff chance, particularly if they win a major conference title, because they’re the next in line to be picked after the list of Tier 1 teams is exhausted.
  • Tier 3 contains two-loss teams from major conferences and one-loss teams from minor conferences. These teams seldom make the playoff, though it’s not completely impossible.
  • Tier 4 is everyone else.

This season, there are only three teams in the running for Tier 1 — the aforementioned trio of Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame. That’s a lot fewer than usual for this point in the schedule; since 1992,2 the average season had featured 5.9 Tier 1 teams at roughly the same moment in time. While this means the committee doesn’t have to hope that a bunch of undefeated teams lose by season’s end — which usually happens anyway when they play one another, or other high-tier teams, in the final weeks and in the conference championships — it has left us with an unusually large number of Tier 2 teams: 14, to be exact, or 1.7 more than the usual average since 1992. Those are the teams that generate controversy, because they all have playoff cases with some level of credibility, and there are always far too many of them to make for an easy decision between them.

We can, of course, break that second tier of teams into subgroups based on a few other characteristics. Nate found that one-loss major-conference winners figure to make a four-team playoff field about 72 percent of the time, while one-loss non-champs make it only 47 percent of the time. Undefeated minor-conference champs are in the back of the line, with history saying they should find themselves among the top four only about 25 percent of the time. (Although UCF would take those odds right now, considering that minor-conference teams have made the playoff 0 percent of the time since 2014.) Here’s a summary of the current Tier 1 and 2 teams, along with the factors that might further differentiate them:

Breaking the 2018 College Football Playoff field into tiers

Undefeated and one-loss NCAA teams in the 2018 season by tier. Tier 1 teams are undefeated teams from major conferences (plus Notre Dame), while Tier 2 teams are either major conference teams with one loss or minor conference teams with no losses.

Does the team …
Team Conf. Play in a major conf.? lead their conf.? Have an Undefeated record? Have One loss? TIer
Alabama SEC 1
Clemson ACC 1
Notre Dame Ind. 1
Michigan Big Ten 2
Texas Big 12 2
LSU SEC 2
Georgia SEC 2
Oklahoma Big 12 2
Ohio State Big Ten 2
Florida SEC 2
Iowa Big Ten 2
Kentucky SEC 2
NC State ACC 2
Washington St. Pac-12 2
West Virginia Big 12 2
Central Florida American 2
South Florida American 2

Source: CFB at Sports-Reference.com

Many of these teams will sort themselves out by playing one another before selection day. Of the teams above, only Clemson, Notre Dame, NC State, Washington State and Iowa won’t face another Tier 1 or Tier 2 team before the conference championships. All of the others will play at least one, while Georgia (which plays Florida and Kentucky) and West Virginia (Texas and Oklahoma) will each face two fellow members of the list. So by definition, the field of playoff-worthy teams will be whittled down significantly as we head down the stretch run.

But with so few Tier 1 teams to slot in automatically — and so many to deliberate over from Tier 2 — the committee could be faced with plenty of good, old-fashioned college football debates by season’s end. Like so many other college football seasons before it, 2018 is probably saving its best (and craziest) for last.

Check out our latest college football predictions.

CORRECTION (Oct. 25, 2018, 7:30 p.m.): A previous version of the table in this article indicated that Notre Dame is a member of a major conference. The university’s football program competes as an independent but is treated as a major-conference team for the purposes of our tier system.

CORRECTION (Oct. 26, 2018, 11:45 a.m.): A previous version of this story said only four teams would not face another Tier 1 or 2 opponent over the rest of the regular season. A fifth, Washington State, was mistakenly excluded.

Footnotes

  1. “Major” being the Power Five (plus Notre Dame). Before the playoff was introduced, these were the BCS conferences.

  2. The first year of the Bowl Coalition, a rough signpost for the beginning of the modern bowl era.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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