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Each Contender’s Path To The College Football Playoff

For every team in the College Football Playoff hunt, the path forward remains an arduous one, filled with peril at every turn. But some of those paths are at least relatively straightforward; others involve a bunch of different moving parts. Today, let’s take a look at what each significant playoff contender needs to go its way — keeping things vaguely within the realm of the likely — in order to get to at least 90 percent playoff odds in the eyes of our prediction model. In each case, we’ll try to get it there in as few results as possible,1 which is easier said for some teams than others.


Current playoff chances: 87 percent
Path to 90+ percent:

  • Clemson wins the ACC championship (Week 14): +9 percentage points

Conditional playoff chances: 96 percent
Chance of happening: 85 percent


Current playoff chances: 76 percent
Path to 90+ percent:

  • Alabama beats Georgia in the SEC championship (Week 14): +23 percentage points

Conditional playoff chances: 99 percent
Chance of happening: 64 percent


Current playoff chances: 39 percent
Path to 90+ percent:

  • Georgia beats Alabama in the SEC championship (Week 14): +52 percentage points

Conditional playoff chances: 91 percent
Chance of happening: 36 percent

These three are pretty basic. The undefeated Tigers and Crimson Tide are both practically assured of making the playoff if they just win their respective conference title games — even if they don’t otherwise win out. There are a few scenarios in which the two teams could miss the playoff with losses in between now and championship Saturday, but our model says the Tigers would still have an 80 percent playoff shot even if they lose to, say, Boston College this weekend but win the ACC. Likewise, Bama would be at 92 percent if it loses the Iron Bowl against Auburn but still wins the SEC.

Alabama and Clemson’s chances if they win all their remaining games except the conference championship are 45 and 44 percent, respectively. But for the one-loss Bulldogs, that number is 12 percent. So for all intents and purposes, they have no choice but to hand the Tide a huge upset defeat if they want to extend their national championship hopes. The good news, though, is that if we assume UGA plays to the model’s expectations in its other three games (against Auburn, UMass and Georgia Tech), the SEC title game is the big win-and-you’re-in matchup to circle on the Bulldog calendar. In other words, for all three teams, the simplest playoff road leads through the conference championship.

Notre Dame

Current playoff chances: 58 percent
Path to 90+ percent:

  • Notre Dame beats Florida State in Week 11: +5 percentage points
  • Notre Dame beats Syracuse in Week 12: +15 points
  • Notre Dame beats USC in Week 13: +14 points

Conditional playoff chances: 92 percent
Chance of happening: 49 percent


Current playoff chances: 41 percent
Path to 90+ percent:

  • Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State in Week 11: +4 percentage points
  • Oklahoma beats Kansas in Week 12: +1 points
  • Oklahoma beats West Virginia in Week 13: +21 points
  • Oklahoma wins the Big 12 championship (Week 14): +24 points

Conditional playoff chances: 91 percent
Chance of happening: 37 percent

Ohio State

Current playoff chances: 18 percent
Path to 90+ percent:

  • Ohio State beats Michigan State in Week 11: +12 percentage points
  • Ohio State beats Michigan in Week 13: +32 points
  • Ohio State wins the Big Ten championship (Week 14): +28 points

Conditional playoff chances: 90 percent
Chance of happening: 18 percent

Notre Dame doesn’t have a conference and therefore doesn’t have a chance to pad its resume with another signature win, so it has no room for error. Luckily, the Irish’s remaining schedule is quite reasonable. Florida State is a shell of its former self, Syracuse is having a good season but not on the Irish’s level, and USC isn’t what it used to be either. And our model says an undefeated Notre Dame is essentially a playoff shoo-in. The only cause for concern might be the health of quarterback Ian Book, who will miss Saturday’s game against FSU with a rib injury. But the Irish are still 16½-point favorites over the Seminoles even with backup QB Brandon Wimbush at the helm.

Oklahoma and Ohio State can basically control their own destinies as well — the model says both have playoff chances of greater than 91 percent if they just win out. An Irish loss could potentially help the Sooners and Buckeyes, too. Oklahoma has a greater than 90 percent playoff probability conditional on just three outcomes: beating West Virginia and winning the Big 12 while Notre Dame loses at least one game. And any Notre Dame loss would nudge OSU’s chances above the 90 percent threshold as well, provided the Buckeyes beat Michigan and win the Big Ten.


Current playoff chances: 40 percent
Path to 90+ percent:

  • Syracuse beats Notre Dame in Week 12: +9 percentage points
  • Michigan beats Ohio State in Week 13: +28 points
  • Michigan wins the Big Ten championship (Week 14): +15 points

Conditional playoff chances: 92 percent
Chance of happening: 13 percent

Unlike Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oklahoma, Michigan can’t get to 90 percent simply by winning its remaining games. (That maxes them out at 82 percent.) The Wolverines need help, then, most likely in the form of an Irish loss against Syracuse at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 17. Michigan has other potential paths — Boston College beating Clemson this weekend, for instance, would push UM’s odds to 88 percent if coupled with Wolverine wins over Ohio State and whomever they’d play for the Big Ten title. But watching some other team vicariously avenge Michigan’s early season loss in South Bend would be a fitting way for the Wolverines to stamp their ticket into the playoff.

West Virginia

Current playoff chances: 12 percent
Path to 90+ percent:

  • West Virginia beats TCU in Week 11: +2 percentage points
  • West Virginia beats Oklahoma State in Week 12: +6 points
  • West Virginia beats Oklahoma in Week 13: +19 points
  • West Virginia wins the Big 12 championship (Week 14): +38 points
  • Michigan loses the Big Ten championship (Week 14): +14 points

Conditional playoff chances: 91 percent
Chance of happening: 2 percent

WVU needs even more help than does Michigan. And in fact, it might need help from Michigan. Generally speaking, it needs whoever wins the Michigan-Ohio State game — which will torpedo the chances of one member of the one-loss club — to then proceed to lose in the Big Ten title game. (Our model gives West Virginia slightly higher odds under the configuration where Michigan beats OSU, then loses.) Either way, the one-loss Mountaineers need as many teams with a similar resume as possible to move aside. But West Virginia isn’t necessarily putting all its eggs in the Big Ten basket. It could also see its playoff odds soar into the high-80-percent range if Notre Dame loses one of its remaining games (while WVU wins out).

Washington State

Current playoff chances: 13 percent
Path to 90+ percent:

  • Washington State beats Colorado in Week 11: +5 percentage points
  • Washington State beats Arizona in Week 12: +3 points
  • USC beats Notre Dame in Week 13: +5 points
  • Washington State wins the Pac-12 championship (Week 14): +48 points
  • Michigan loses the Big Ten championship (Week 14): +17 points

Conditional playoff chances: 91 percent
Chance of happening: 1 percent

One-loss Wazzu is in the same boat as West Virginia in terms of benefiting from a Michigan defeat in the Big Ten title game. (Assuming it wins its own remaining games — including the Pac-12 title, most preferably over Utah.) Washington State could get another boost if USC beats Notre Dame since both teams would then have one loss, against the Trojans in each case. It’s unclear how realistic this actually is (since our model doesn’t have a specific Notre Dame adjustment reflecting its tendency to, um, get the benefit of the doubt), but the Irish make the playoff only 18 percent of the time in the scenario laid out above, compared with the Cougars’ 91 percent mark.

Central Florida

Current playoff chances: 4 percent
Path to 90+ percent:


I’m kidding. But not really. This one is far more difficult to pin down than the others above, just because it’s so rare in our data for UCF to make the playoff (and the specifics of each scenario are rarer still). So I’ll just list some of the common outcomes in what few simulations give UCF a relatively large probability of making the playoff:

  • UCF wins all four remaining games, including the American championship. (Duh.)
  • Both Notre Dame and Washington State lose at least one remaining game, and at least one loses twice.
  • Oklahoma and Michigan both fail to win their respective conference championships.

Chance of happening: less than 1 in 2,000

These probably aren’t the only scenarios under which UCF makes the playoff, but there just aren’t very many UCF-friendly combinations that come up in the simulations. Their 4 percent overall probability of making the playoff is more about adding up a bunch of fractional chances over the course of many simulations — where they’re not overly likely to make it in any given one, but there’s enough uncertainty that they could potentially get in.

And that’s the important thing to remember when discussing UCF’s playoff chances: The selection committee has never taken an undefeated Group-of-Five conference team2 in four years of picking playoff squads, and similar undefeated candidates (UCF last year, Western Michigan two years ago) have been denied entry by the committee. So all of this is, by definition, theoretical. Our model bases its predictions on the way in which college football’s power structure has traditionally grouped teams into tiers and given priority to different types of resumes, which is why there are at least some universes where a team like UCF can get real consideration if all hell breaks loose elsewhere. But more likely, they’re getting stray points of probability from the fact that we still don’t always know how the committee will react to a team like the Knights.

Of course, a cynic would say we do know — and the answer will always be “no.” But that’s part of what’s interesting about the playoff. There’s much we still don’t know when it comes to who will win upcoming games, and that’s one source of uncertainty built into our model. But we also can’t perfectly predict how the committee itself will react. All UCF and the rest of this year’s contenders can do is win the games in front of them and hope for the right combination to fall into place around them.

Check out our latest college football predictions.


  1. It’s important to note that this is without regard to chronology. So for instance, winning the conference championship could be the simplest way a team gets to 90 percent playoff odds, but that team would also need to win some easy games beforehand to make the conference title game matter. Our approach would still consider a conference title game win to be the simplest path, because the high probability of getting to that game in a position to make the playoff is “baked in” to the conditional probabilities. (Yes, my head hurts, too.)

  2. Schools from the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference and the Sun Belt Conference.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.