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College Football’s Top Playoff Contenders Can Win Their Way In. Chaos Awaits If They Don’t.

Back in August, the 2022 college football season was expected to be the most top-heavy in recent memory. Instead, six of the top seven teams in the AP preseason poll will likely miss out on the College Football Playoff — including betting favorite Alabama, which dropped two regular season games for just the second time in more than a decade. And in their place, a notoriously oligarchal playoff system could include two first-time participants that rebounded from losing seasons behind new head coaches (USC and TCU) while excluding the four stalwarts with the most all-time appearances (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma).1

The curtains are now drawn on the regular season, but fans shouldn’t leave the theater before the conclusion of championship week. We here at FiveThirtyEight have been known to dabble in chaos-fueled simulations, and the 2022 season will be no exception. With our model as a guide, let’s hop aboard the rollercoaster of possibilities for the ninth iteration of college football’s most exclusive annual attraction.

Scenario 1: Chalk

College Football Playoff odds (according to the FiveThirtyEight model) if TCU, Georgia, Michigan and USC all win in Week 14

Team Conf Record Next Opp. Current In Scenario
TCU Big 12 12-0 Kansas St. 71% >99%
Georgia SEC 12-0 LSU 92% >99%
Michigan Big Ten 12-0 Purdue 97% >99%
USC Pac-12 11-1 Utah 46% 94%
Ohio State Big Ten 11-1 32% 4%
Alabama SEC 10-2 13% 2%

Includes teams with playoff odds under of at least 1 percent under the scenario.

Source: ESPN

It’s telling that even getting a new team into the playoff is cause for celebration. So two first-time entries in consecutive seasons — the expected result from the playoff selection committee should the favorites win next weekend — registers as sheer mayhem.

Four power-conference champs, all with one or zero losses, fits the playoff bill most years. That three of the four might enter undefeated is unprecedented.2  But with the assumption that everything comes up chalk on championship weekend based on current team ranking, Michigan, Georgia, TCU and USC would all have at least a 94 percent chance of advancing to the playoff, according to our projections.

The Bulldogs would have an even better chance to become the sixth repeat national champion in the past 50 years and the first to accomplish the feat in the playoff era. They would extend the SEC streak of at least one representative in every playoff, something no other conference can claim. Michigan would advance to the playoff for a second consecutive season after a stunning blowout of archrival Ohio State last weekend. Essentially without the services of Heisman-contending running back Blake Corum, the Wolverines pounded the Buckeyes behind 530 yards of offense. For TCU, it would be the culmination of a journey that started with the team unranked in the AP preseason poll, following two losing seasons in the past three years. In his first season as coach, Sonny Dykes elevated the Horned Frogs to King-of-Texas status and the top of the Big 12 standings. And like Dykes, USC’s Lincoln Riley has launched a program to the top echelon of the sport in his first season at the helm. Alongside marquee transfer quarterback Caleb Williams — the betting favorite to win the 2022 Heisman Trophy — Riley and the Trojans are the class of the Pac-12 and would be conference’s first team to reach the playoff since 2016. That would be a bittersweet pill to swallow for the Pac-12 since it will lose USC and UCLA to the Big Ten in 2024.

ESPN’s Football Power Index has the Trojans listed as the No. 14 team in the nation, below a quartet of three-loss programs and four-loss Texas. This is largely because, as selection committee chair Boo Corrigan said last week, the team’s defense, which ranks 65th in efficiency and would be the second worst of any playoff team since 2014, isn’t what one would expect of a playoff-caliber team. USC also trails playoff contenders Alabama and Ohio State in strength of record. However, that record strength could change if USC beats Utah for a third consecutive win over a ranked opponent and emerges as a major-conference champion.

Scenario 2: Sheer Chaos

College Football Playoff odds (according to the FiveThirtyEight model) if Michigan, TCU and USC all lose in Week 14

Team Conf Record Next Opp. Current In Scenario
Georgia SEC 12-0 LSU 92% 95%
Michigan Big Ten 12-0 Purdue 97% 77%
Kansas St. Big 12 9-3 TCU 20% 52%
TCU Big 12 12-0 Kansas St. 71% 45%
Ohio State Big Ten 11-1 31% 45%
Alabama SEC 10-2 13% 30%
Utah Pac-12 9-3 USC 8% 20%
Clemson ACC 10-2 UNC 8% 14%
Tennessee SEC 10-2 8% 12%
LSU SEC 9-3 Georgia 4% 5%
USC Pac-12 11-1 Utah 46% 2%
Tulane American 10-2 UCF <1% 2%

Includes teams with playoff odds of at least 1 percent under the scenario.

Source: ESPN

Now, let’s try on chaos for size.

If three of the four favorites — Michigan, TCU and USC — lose, our model would pencil in the three-loss Kansas State Wildcats as the third team to join Georgia, Michigan and TCU. The Horned Frogs and Buckeyes would each have a 45 percent chance of qualifying in that scenario. That the Big 12 could snag two playoff spots, and that neither would be Oklahoma, would have been unthinkable at the start of the season.

There are currently 10 teams with at least a 5 percent probability of qualifying for the playoff, according to our model. That seems awfully high considering the model still likes two of the four3 to advance regardless of conference championship game outcome. But style points and recency bias matter for a committee comprised of humans. 

Tuesday’s ranking reveal will be instructive, particularly for Ohio State and Alabama, which won’t be seen again by the committee. The Crimson Tide lost two games by a combined four points, while Ohio State got shellacked by 22 in its most lopsided home defeat since 1999, before most of its current roster was born. Will it matter that the Buckeyes have the edge in strength of record if FPI favors the Crimson Tide? It’s unlikely that either could usurp the other on what amounts to a bye week.

Scenario 3: All Hell Breaks Loose

College Football Playoff odds (according to the FiveThirtyEight model) if Michigan, Georgia, TCU and USC all lose in Week 14

Team Conf Record Next Opp. Current In Scenario
Georgia SEC 12-0 LSU 92% 75%
Michigan Big Ten 12-0 Purdue 97% 72%
Kansas St. Big 12 9-3 TCU 20% 55%
Ohio State Big Ten 11-1 32% 48%
TCU Big 12 12-0 Kansas St. 71% 45%
Alabama SEC 10-2 28% 28%
LSU SEC 9-3 Georgia 4% 23%
Clemson ACC 10-2 UNC 8% 20%
Utah Pac-12 9-3 USC 8% 19%
Tennessee SEC 10-2 8% 11%
USC Pac-12 11-1 Utah 46% 2%
Penn St. Big Ten 10-2 <1% 2%

Includes teams with playoff odds of at least 1 percent under the scenario.

Source: ESPN

Finally, let’s consider the doomsday scenario for the playoff committee: all four current playoff favorites falling during championship weekend. We’ll start with the surprisingly unsurprising upset of the bunch: Our model expects Utah to beat USC for a second time this season. In mid-October, the Utes scored in the final minute and converted a 2-point attempt to down the Trojans by a single point. With Utah given a 53 percent chance to replicate the result, the Pac-12 path to the playoff could once again be torpedoed in the final two weeks of the season (which seems to happen like clockwork every year).

In a purple matchup for the ages, Kansas State and TCU will square off for a second round after the Horned Frogs won the first matchup by double digits. Our model likes the Wildcats, but not enough to give them even a coin flip’s odds of beating the Horned Frogs. LSU inexplicably lost to Texas A&M last weekend, which means if the Tigers manage to topple Georgia, they’d likely become the first SEC champion of the playoff era to not qualify.4 With three losses on the season, our model only gives LSU a 21 percent chance to best Georgia. And an unlikely Purdue upset of Michigan likely wouldn’t eliminate the Wolverines from contention. Our model would still give Jim Harbaugh and Co. a 74 percent chance to advance to the playoff if they lose in general, and a 72 percent shot if the other favorites lose as well.

But this ultra-chaotic scenario stands to benefit Michigan’s archrivals from Columbus, a scenario only slightly less appealing to the Buckeyes than losses from Georgia and USC and a win for Kansas State. Ohio State would have a 48 percent chance to make the playoff if the top four teams lose, creating a huge, multi-team dilemma for the selection committee in the process. The model thinks four teams would be piled up between 25 and 60 percent playoff odds, fighting over two spots. 

While it’s unlikely to happen — there’s just a 0.6 percent chance that Michigan, Georgia, TCU and USC all lose during championship weekend — that situation would be the final dose of disarray that the 2022 season deserves, potentially evolving from preseason certainty to a stunning free-for-all in the span of just 14 weeks.

Check out our latest college football predictions.


  1. Leave it to college football to save its biggest portion of chaos for Thanksgiving weekend: Week 13 featured seven top-25 upsets, including home defeats of Clemson and Ohio State, teams that our model projected to be in line for playoff appearances before last weekend.

  2. In the eight-season playoff era, there have only been 10 instances of an undefeated power-conference champion.

  3. Georgia and Michigan.

  4. No two-loss team have ever qualified for the playoff.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.


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