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How Alabama, Ohio State Or Someone Else Can Crash The Playoff

After 14 weeks of anticipation, we’ve made it: College football’s championship weekend is finally upon us. Come Sunday at noon, the playoff selection committee will reveal its picks for the Final Four — who still has national championship life, and who’s left out in the cold. But we don’t really have to wait until then for clues about which teams will be booking flights for Pasadena and New Orleans on New Year’s Day. Based on what happens in this week’s games and a little tinkering with our college football predictions, we can make an educated guess about what the committee’s choices will be — though it has been known to throw us a curveball every now and then. Here’s what our model says to watch for over the weekend:

 

SEC Championship: Auburn vs. Georgia

Saturday, 4 p.m. ET on CBS

How the outcome changes teams’ playoff odds

CHANCE OF MAKING THE PLAYOFF
TEAM CURRENT IF AUBURN WINS IF GEORGIA WINS AVG. CHG (+/-)
Georgia 44.0% 0.1% 96.2% 47.7 pts
Auburn 58.6 >99.9 9.4 44.9
USC 10.6 11.9 9.0 1.5
Stanford 3.3 3.8 2.7 0.6
TCU 7.1 7.6 6.6 0.5
Alabama 30.4 30.0 31.0 0.5
Ohio State 32.8 33.3 32.3 0.5
Miami 26.0 26.2 25.7 0.3
Clemson 76.5 76.3 76.7 0.2
Wisconsin 45.1 45.2 45.0 0.1
Oklahoma 65.5 65.5 65.4 0.1
UCF 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.0

Using FiveThirtyEight model simulations as of Nov. 29. Average change is weighted by the probability of each outcome.

The winner of this game is practically guaranteed to make the playoff. For Auburn — which the FiveThirtyEight model has favored here with a 54 percent chance of victory — that would mean capping off one of the most remarkable stretch runs in college football history. After losing to LSU on Oct. 14, Auburn had a 5-2 record and was staring at a mere 4 percent playoff probability. But a string of wins that includes beating two No. 1-ranked teams (at game time) has the Tigers set up for a potential CFP clincher. And on the UGA side of things, the Dawgs can get sweet revenge for their 40-17 loss on the Plains in November, stamping a playoff ticket for the first time in program history.

Neither team has much margin for error if it loses, however. We give Georgia a 1-in-905 chance of being picked for the playoff without an SEC title, and while Auburn’s chances are slightly better with a loss (9 percent), the Tigers would need a convoluted sequence of events that includes TCU upsetting Oklahoma just to have any glimmer of hope from the committee. And as far as outside rooting interests go, the outcome here has surprisingly little effect on the rest of the CFP picture. (Even Alabama, sitting at home twiddling its thumbs, doesn’t see its chances budge much either way.) At most, USC needs an Auburn win as part of a very specific scheme that can push its chances with the committee up to a coin flip (more on that later).

 

Big Ten Championship: Wisconsin vs. Ohio State

Saturday, 8 p.m. ET on FOX

How the outcome changes teams’ playoff odds

CHANCE OF MAKING THE PLAYOFF
TEAM CURRENT IF OHIO ST. WINS IF WISCONSIN WINS AVG. CHG (+/-)
Wisconsin 45.1% 2.3% >99.9% 48.1 pts
Ohio State 32.8 58.4 <0.1 28.7
Alabama 30.4 38.5 20.1 9.1
USC 10.6 13.9 6.4 3.7
Clemson 76.5 77.8 74.8 1.5
Oklahoma 65.5 66.7 63.9 1.4
Georgia 44.0 45.0 42.8 1.1
Stanford 3.3 4.1 2.3 0.9
Auburn 58.6 59.4 57.6 0.9
TCU 7.1 7.6 6.5 0.5
Miami 26.0 26.2 25.6 0.3
UCF 0.1 0.1 <0.1 <0.1

Using FiveThirtyEight model simulations as of Nov. 29. Average change is weighted by the probability of each outcome.

Just as the SEC title game is basically do-or-die for the two teams involved, this contest is a simple binary for Wisconsin: Win, and clinch a semifinal berth; lose, and see those chances fall to basically nothing. Fair or not, a one-loss Wisconsin team would not compare favorably with the other playoff contenders, given its weak strength of schedule. For the Buckeyes, however, things aren’t quite that simple. Yes, they can boost their chances with a victory — which our model gives a 56 percent chance of happening — but OSU is far from a lock even if it wins. The Buckeyes will also need TCU to do them a big favor by upsetting Oklahoma — further boosting OSU’s chances to 75 percent — and hope for the committee to look favorably upon their impressive victories (and ignore their 55-24 loss to Iowa).

Beyond the Big Ten, Alabama has the big rooting interest here. Since they don’t control their own destiny, the one-loss Crimson Tide need favorable contrasts in the eyes of the committee — and that means setting up a comparison against two-loss Ohio State, not undefeated Wisconsin. Bama’s playoff chances would be about 18 percentage points higher with a win by the Buckeyes than a win by the Badgers. And USC also requires an Ohio State victory here, as another component of its long-shot playoff bid.

 

Big 12 Championship: Oklahoma vs. TCU

Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET on FOX

How the outcome changes teams’ playoff odds

CHANCE OF MAKING THE PLAYOFF
TEAM CURRENT IF OKLAHOMA WINS IF TCU WINS AVG. CHG (+/-)
Oklahoma 65.5% 99.9% 7.7% 43.2 pts
Alabama 30.4 19.8 48.2 13.3
TCU 7.1 <0.1 19.1 8.9
Ohio State 32.8 27.3 42.1 6.9
USC 10.6 6.2 18.0 5.5
Stanford 3.3 1.5 6.3 2.3
Auburn 58.6 56.8 61.6 2.2
Clemson 76.5 75.0 79.0 1.9
Miami 26.0 25.2 27.3 1.0
Wisconsin 45.1 44.6 45.9 0.6
Georgia 44.0 43.6 44.7 0.5
UCF 0.1 <0.1 0.1 <0.1

Using FiveThirtyEight model simulations as of Nov. 29. Average change is weighted by the probability of each outcome.

Much like Wisconsin and both SEC title contestants, Oklahoma can basically assure itself of a playoff berth with a victory over TCU here. With a one-loss résumé accentuated by the most dominating offense in the nation (plus another win over a top-15 team if they do beat the Frogs), the Sooners can also help vindicate the Big 12’s decision to revive its conference championship game this year. But that decision could very well backfire on the conference, too, and leave it without a playoff team yet again if TCU pulls off the upset. We give the Sooners a 63 percent chance of winning and making all of this moot; there’s even an unlikely backdoor route for OU if it loses that involves Ohio State winning the Big Ten. But the most straightforward path for Oklahoma (and the Big 12) is a Sooner victory.

For TCU’s part, its playoff hopes are remote (if not nonexistent) and wouldn’t crack 20 percent even if it does upset the Sooners. According to the swing in our model’s playoff chances, Alabama actually has the second-greatest stake in the Big 12 Championship of any team in the country, including the Frogs. Bama would see its CFP chances swell from 30 percent to 48 percent if TCU beats Oklahoma, since the one-loss Tide are directly competing with the Sooners for a playoff spot. (In fact, Alabama fans should be watching this matchup far more intently than they will the SEC title game.) Likewise, Ohio State has a big stake in TCU winning, as does USC and several other contenders. In terms of outside rooting interests, this Big 12 title game is easily the most important game of the weekend.

 

ACC Championship: Clemson vs. Miami

Saturday, 8 p.m. ET on ABC

How the outcome changes teams’ playoff odds

CHANCE OF MAKING THE PLAYOFF
TEAM CURRENT IF CLEMSON WINS IF MIAMI WINS AVG. CHG (+/-)
Miami 26.0% <0.1% 89.2% 36.8 pts
Clemson 76.5 >99.9 19.2 33.3
USC 10.6 11.2 9.1 0.9
Ohio State 32.8 33.4 31.4 0.8
Auburn 58.6 59.1 57.2 0.8
Stanford 3.3 3.7 2.3 0.6
Wisconsin 45.1 44.7 45.9 0.5
Alabama 30.4 30.7 29.8 0.4
TCU 7.1 7.4 6.6 0.3
Oklahoma 65.5 65.6 65.2 0.1
UCF 0.1 0.1 0.1 <0.1
Georgia 44.0 44.0 44.0 <0.1

Using FiveThirtyEight model simulations as of Nov. 29. Average change is weighted by the probability of each outcome.

The ACC Championship is also very close to an NCAA quarterfinal. Certainly the committee is guaranteed to take Clemson (which placed No. 1 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings) if the Tigers beat Miami for the conference crown — which our model assigns a 71 percent probability of happening. If the Canes win, our model thinks there’s roughly an 11 percent chance that they’d somehow be on the outs — think a universe in which Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Georgia all win and the committee prefers Alabama’s résumé to Miami’s — but that’s unlikely. (Miami is only one slot behind Alabama in strength of record before a hypothetical win over Clemson.)

Then again, our model also says the Tigers would have about a 19 percent chance of making the playoff even if they don’t beat Miami, a scenario that most likely involves TCU and Ohio State victories muddying the water for the committee. And several other teams across the country would benefit from Clemson winning, most notably USC (in Step 5 of the Trojans’ improbable CFP charge).

 

Pac-12 Championship: Southern California vs. Stanford

Friday, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN

How the outcome changes teams’ playoff odds

CHANCE OF MAKING THE PLAYOFF
TEAM CURRENT IF STANFORD WINS IF USC WINS AVG. CHG (+/-)
USC 10.6% <0.1% 23.6% 11.7 pts
Stanford 3.3 6.0 <0.1 3.0
Ohio State 32.8 35.5 29.5 3.0
Alabama 30.4 32.8 27.5 2.6
TCU 7.1 8.9 4.9 2.0
Clemson 76.5 76.9 76.0 0.4
Auburn 58.6 58.9 58.2 0.4
Oklahoma 65.5 65.8 65.1 0.3
Miami 26.0 26.1 25.9 0.1
Wisconsin 45.1 45.0 45.1 0.1
UCF 0.1 0.1 <0.1 <0.1
Georgia 44.0 44.0 44.0 <0.1

Using FiveThirtyEight model simulations as of Nov. 29. Average change is weighted by the probability of each outcome.

With Stanford’s College Football Playoff chances slim at best — they’ll be only 6 percent even if the Cardinal wins the Pac-12 — the only real playoff implication for this game involves a guerilla playoff push by a USC team that hasn’t ranked in the AP top 10 since September. The Trojans seemed dead in the water after being crushed by Notre Dame six weeks ago, but they’ve strung together just enough victories to stay on the periphery of the playoff conversation. Now, their best-case playoff scenario depends on the following outcomes, with games listed in order of importance:

  • USC beats Stanford (45 percent probability)
  • TCU beats Oklahoma (37 percent)
  • Ohio State beats Wisconsin (56 percent)
  • Auburn beats Georgia (54 percent)
  • Clemson beats Miami (71 percent)
  • Memphis beats UCF (36 percent)

If all of that happens, the Trojans’ playoff chances would rise to 51 percent; the playoff field would most likely be Auburn, Clemson, Ohio State and whichever team the committee prefers between USC, Alabama and TCU. It’s not an especially likely set of circumstances — but then again, nothing about this Trojan resurgence has been likely.


The only other game with potential playoff implications is the AAC Championship Game between Central Florida, which is making a bid for a perfect season, and Memphis. Sadly, because of UCF’s schedule strength, its chances of making the playoff are remote. But the combination of outcomes that gives the Knights the highest playoff probability (granted, still a measly 0.19 percent) involves wins by UCF, Clemson, Ohio State, TCU and Stanford. So, to all the fans of stale memes down in Orlando: Yes, I’m telling you there’s a chance.

But most likely, the playoff will contain the SEC winner, the ACC winner, plus Wisconsin and Oklahoma — if they win — or Ohio State and/or Alabama (or maybe TCU or USC if the committee’s feeling really crazy) should the Badgers and/or Sooners fall. It’s an oddly tidy set of contingencies for a championship weekend that some are calling the best ever. But at the same time, I have a feeling this season isn’t quite out of surprises yet.

Check out our latest college football predictions.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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