Thanksgiving week: time for turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. And college football, too! For many teams, it’ll be their last game of the year. But some are eyeing the College Football Playoff. Thirteen, to be exact.
A baker’s dozen teams have more than a 1 percent shot at one of the four playoff spots, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model. For some (Alabama, Clemson), their paths are simple enough: just win out. For others (Ohio State, Baylor), their paths are a chesslike endgame: win the rest of their games and hope for some better-situated team to stumble. And still other teams (Michigan, North Carolina) don’t have a clear line to the playoff: instead they need a messy highway pileup for them to swerve into the mix.
The Thanksgiving weekend games are a precursor to the Dec. 5 conference championship matchups, which leaves only two weeks before the College Football Playoff committee makes its final picks. To break down how each of these 13 squads can get in, let’s cluster the teams into five groups according to their playoff chances if they win all their remaining games (including any conference championship game). We’ve grouped them based on their chances if they win out rather than on FiveThirtyEight’s current playoff odds because, at this stage, almost no team can afford to lose, so it’s better to think of playoff odds in the event that they don’t slip up.
The odds are presented in our what-if table below:
|Team||Playoff Chances||Lose next||Win next||Win out||Win out likelihood|
|Michigan St. 10-1||47%||<1%||61%||98%||47%|
|Ohio State 10-1||25%||<1%||45%||48%||51%|
|Notre Dame 10-1||21%||<1%||49%||49%||42%|
|North Carolina 10-1||10%||<1%||17%||39%||25%|
|Oklahoma St. 10-1||10%||<1%||25%||25%||38%|
|Florida State 9-2||<1%||<1%||<1%||<1%||46%|
|Mississippi St. 8-3||<1%||<1%||<1%||<1%||45%|
|Washington St. 8-3||<1%||<1%||<1%||<1%||33%|
In control of their destiny (> 98 percent): Clemson, Alabama, Iowa, Oklahoma, Michigan State
At FiveThirtyEight we have a policy against labeling any prediction “100 percent.” So, sure, for Clemson, Alabama, Iowa and Oklahoma, their chances of making the playoff if they win out are “> 99 percent,” and Michigan State isn’t far behind at 98 percent. But that’s just a formality; these teams are locks if they can prevail over the next two weeks.
The No. 1 Tigers1 will face South Carolina on Saturday (they have an 86 percent chance of winning) and then UNC in the ACC championship (62 percent shot at victory). Alabama has a tougher lineup: the Iron Bowl rivalry with Auburn (’Bama is a 78 percent favorite) and Florida in the SEC title game if Alabama wins the SEC West. Clemson and Alabama — unlike anyone else — have a little wiggle room should they lose this weekend. A one-loss Tigers team that wins the ACC championship gets into the playoff in 72 percent of the 5,000 simulations we run for our model, and a two-loss Tide team that loses to Auburn but beats Florida gets in 65 percent of the time.
Iowa, meanwhile, is one of two undefeated teams remaining in the country. And despite their weak schedule (the one knock against them), if the Hawkeyes win out, our model thinks they are a lock for the playoff. They have a tough test, though, at Nebraska on Friday (the game is a coin flip).
Another Big Ten team is in this group: Michigan State. If the Spartans beat Penn State (the Football Power Index says that’s an 80 percent likelihood), they’ll face Iowa in the Big Ten championship game. So if both Big Ten teams win out, that conference final becomes a de facto playoff of its own. Michigan State is just a tad behind the Hawkeyes, with a 98 percent shot at the playoff should the Spartans win out. That Ohio State win was a season-maker for them.
The last team fully in control of its destiny, by our model’s reckoning, is Oklahoma. The one-loss Sooners can lock up a playoff spot and win the Big 12 with a win against Oklahoma State (they’re favored even though it’s a road game). But if Oklahoma loses on Saturday, their odds fall to 7 percent, effectively eliminating them.
A special case (68 percent): Florida
The Gators are an odd duck — to mix our species. The committee docked them for being pushed into overtime by Florida Atlantic, so they fell four spots to No. 12. But look at Florida’s remaining schedule: Florida State on Saturday (with a 52 percent shot of winning) and then someone in the SEC championship, most likely Alabama (we estimate that Florida beats the Tide 31 percent of the time). If the Gators win both games, they’ll finish as a one-loss champion of a strong — if not the strongest — conference. In that scenario, our model puts their odds at 68 percent. Good, but not great. It’s not clear whether Florida winning the SEC with one loss would offset the otherwise harsh grades the Gators have received from the selection committee.
A matchup of 50-50 chances (49-52 percent): Notre Dame, Stanford
Notre Dame and Stanford face off on Saturday, but even the winner won’t control its own destiny. Both teams are probably left out of the playoff if Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and either Iowa or Michigan State win out; in that case, Notre Dame would very likely miss the playoff even if it beats Stanford, for example.
Should the Fighting Irish beat the Cardinal — Notre Dame is the underdog — then their playoff odds rise to 49 percent. Notre Dame fans find it unjust that Oklahoma and Iowa leapfrogged them in the committee’s rankings, especially because the Sooners’ sole loss came against Texas, a team the Irish whooped 38-3. But who ever said the cries of injustice would end with a four-team playoff?
On the flip side, should Stanford beat the Irish at home Saturday, which they have a 62 percent shot of doing, and then go on to win the Pac-12 title match over USC or UCLA, they’ll have a 52 percent chance of making the playoff.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ( 46-48 percent): Ohio State, Baylor
The Buckeyes and the Bears get crowned with that hallmark of sound statistical analysis: the shruggie. Both teams have contingent playoff paths — that is, either team getting in is heavily dependent on another team losing. There’s high uncertainty over how the committee will judge them should they win out.
Ohio State’s playoff picture is complicated. It has two ways in. The team can still win the Big Ten title, but for the Buckeyes to do so, two things need to happen: (1) The Buckeyes beat Michigan at The Big House — which they’re just 58 percent favorites to do — and (2) Michigan State loses to Penn State (not very likely). Should the one-loss Buckeyes have such good fortune and then go on to beat Iowa to become conference champs, our model gives them a 94 percent shot at being picked for the playoff. On the other hand, if Ohio State merely beats the Wolverines, but can’t compete for the Big Ten title because Michigan State takes its place, then its playoff odds will be 38 percent. Those aren’t great odds; but they’re not terrible either.
Baylor, too, has a split path. First, the Bears need to beat TCU on Friday (a prospect that’s little better than a coin flip). But Baylor needs Oklahoma State to win over Oklahoma, too. Then if the Bears beat Texas on Dec. 5, they will be one-loss Big 12 champs. In this scenario, Baylor makes the playoff 74 percent of the time. However, if the Bears win out without winning the Big 12, their odds are only 28 percent. Conference championships matter.
Need lots of help (16-39 percent): North Carolina, Oklahoma State, Michigan
This is the group of chaos. Take one-loss UNC, for example. Even if the Tar Heels beat NC State on Saturday (a 64 percent likelihood) and No. 1 Clemson in the ACC championship game, it’s not clear they’ll get into the playoff. The Tar Heels’ playoff chances are 39 percent if they win out, but their chances were better last week. That’s because Ohio State lost and Michigan State is ascendant, and either team is now a better bet to be chosen over UNC. The Tar Heels, even if they should win, might be squeezed out by a one-loss Notre Dame or possibly a one-loss Ohio State that misses the Big Ten title game. Stanford, which ranked five slots ahead of UNC in this week’s rankings, could be another concern.
Oklahoma State is an even longer shot. To win the Big 12, it needs to beat Oklahoma and have Baylor lose to TCU or Texas. But even if all that happens, our model gives the Cowboys only a 41 percent shot. In addition to Oklahoma and Baylor, Notre Dame probably needs to lose — that’s because a one-loss Irish team looks like a better bet than a one-loss, Big 12 champion Cowboys team.
And then there is Michigan, which needs a lot to break its way. Yes, the Wolverines need to beat the Buckeyes, but Penn State needs to also upset Michigan State and then the Wolverines have to win the Big Ten championship over Iowa. If — and that’s a lot of ifs — all that happens, Michigan (as a two-loss Big Ten champ) has a 68 percent shot at the playoff. On top of winning the conference, Michigan — like all the teams in this final group — probably needs Notre Dame to lose, too.
CORRECTION (Nov. 25, 11:09 a.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the division that Florida Atlantic’s football team plays in. It plays in the FBS, not FCS. The article has also been updated to make clear that Notre Dame, Stanford, Oklahoma State and North Carolina have more difficult paths to the playoffs than the article originally described.