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The Playoff Picture Is Clear, As Long As Alabama And Clemson Win Saturday

The top five teams were unchanged in Tuesday evening’s College Football Playoff committee rankings. Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Iowa and Michigan State remain entrenched in the No. 1 to No. 5 spots, and all control their own destiny. So no news there. But shifts in the rankings of Stanford, Ohio State and North Carolina sent important signals as to how the committee thinks.

First, though, the four major conference championship games must be played Saturday. And FiveThirtyEight is here to provide some probabilistic guidance, if not omniscient assurance, as to how the playoff picture will be affected come Saturday night. Here are our projections of which teams the committee will include in the playoff with its final rankings on Sunday:

Ranking Probability of …
Team CFP Elo FPI Conf. Title Playoff Nat. Title
Oklahoma 11-1 3 3 1 100% 99% 21 42%
Alabama 11-1 2 1 2 74% 79% 21 25%
Clemson 12-0 1 5 7 57% 77% 21 14%
Michigan St. 11-1 5 4 14 62% 61% 21 7%
Iowa 12-0 4 12 26 38% 40% 21 3%
Ohio State 11-1 6 2 3 0% 16% 6a 4%
North Carolina 11-1 10 9 15 43% 14% 21 2%
Stanford 10-2 7 6 11 48% 13% 21 2%
Florida 10-2 18 22 23 26% <1% 21 <1%
College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings as of Dec. 1. Playoff probability changes are since Nov. 29; only changes greater than 5 percentage points are shown.

The playoff picture is quite simple if Alabama and Clemson win the SEC and ACC titles, respectively. Both are locks for the playoff if that happens. So is the winner of the Big Ten championship game between Michigan State and Iowa; that game amounts to a quarterfinal. Oklahoma, which won the Big 12 championship and is done with its regular season, is a shoo-in, by our model’s estimation.

But should either Alabama or Clemson (or both) lose on Saturday, it’s anyone’s guess who gets in.

Ohio State, which moved up to No. 6 in the latest rankings, saw its playoff odds decline to 16 percent from 22 percent. (Our model has consistently liked the Buckeyes better than the committee has, in part because of their high Elo rating, so they’ve tended to fall slightly when new committee rankings are released.) Still, Ohio State remained ahead of Stanford in the committee standings.

In theory, that would make Ohio State next in line in the event of a Clemson or Alabama loss.1 The problem is that other schools have more of an opportunity to impress the committee this weekend. Although our model gives Stanford a 13 percent shot at the playoff — slightly lower than Ohio State’s — that’s because the Cardinal face a tough opponent in USC for the Pac-12 championship. Stanford is more likely than Ohio State to make it in if it wins that game, however; another quality win plus a newly minted conference title would probably be enough for it to leapfrog the Buckeyes, according to the model.

A trickier case is North Carolina, which is hanging around with a 14 percent shot. Even if the Tar Heels beat Clemson, they’re not assured of much; our model gives them only about a one-in-three shot at the playoff if they win the ACC title. UNC, ranked No. 8 in the AP poll, didn’t receive any favors from the committee, which slotted it in at No. 10 because of concerns over its weak schedule. The committee will have an opportunity to reconsider if the Tar Heels win, but the team may need to beat Clemson convincingly to up its odds.

Finally, don’t write off Clemson — which could have an opportunity to make it in even with a loss. In the event that it falls to UNC, Clemson would have a résumé similar to Ohio State’s as a one-loss non-champion — but with a stronger schedule, an additional win (Clemson would be 12-1 to Ohio State’s 11-1), and victories over Notre Dame and Florida State.

For those of you who want more nitty-gritty details about our projections, check out our original methodology manifesto, as well as last month’s methodology update.

Footnotes

  1. Ohio State is ranked sixth, but either Iowa or Michigan State will lose next weekend, which would presumably move the Buckeyes up to No. 5. Thus, by this simplistic math, they’d be in the top four if Clemson or Alabama also lost.

Andrew Flowers writes about economics and sports for FiveThirtyEight.

Reuben Fischer-Baum is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

Jay Boice is a computational journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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