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How Clemson And Washington Can Still Make The College Football Playoff

Each week in this space, we examine all the things a certain contending team needs to have happen in order for it to make the College Football Playoff. This week’s edition is a double feature starring the Clemson Tigers and Washington Huskies, each of which fell out of the AP Top 5 after suffering upset losses last week.

Current situations: After Clemson and Washington lost to Syracuse and Arizona State, respectively, the two teams’ College Football Playoff odds were dented pretty badly. According to FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model, the Tigers now have just a 29 percent chance of making the playoff (down from 55 percent going into the weekend), and the Huskies are at 24 percent (down from 43 percent). Six teams are currently ahead of the Tigers and Huskies in our CFP probabilities, and Clemson isn’t even the favorite to win its conference anymore. (Miami has slightly higher odds of winning the ACC.) The relatively straightforward paths for both teams to return to the CFP have now run into major complications.

What the Tigers and Huskies can do: As always, winning out is paramount to getting into the playoff. If Clemson runs the table — which our model gives a 20 percent chance of happening — it will have a 97 percent probability of making the CFP, a near-lock. The Tigers’ trip to NC State on Nov. 4 is easily their biggest obstacle to that; they win that game in 95 percent of our simulations that have them going to the playoff, while they only win it 49 percent of the time in sims where they don’t make the CFP. (That 46 percentage point difference makes it the highest-leverage game left in Clemson’s season.) It should also be noted that these numbers assume that Clemson’s star QB Kelly Bryant is healthy; he was knocked out of the Syracuse loss but seems to be progressing quickly in his recovery.

For Washington, the odds of winning all its remaining games are a bit higher (21 percent), although the Huskies also have a less guaranteed playoff path — only 87 percent CFP odds — even if they do win out. Washington’s most important game comes at Stanford on Nov. 10, a matchup the Huskies win 96 percent of the time in their playoff-bound simulations but only 40 percent of the time in universes where they don’t make the playoff.

Which of Clemson and Washington’s remaining games hold the most weight?

Remaining 2017 matchups, ranked by the amount of leverage on each team’s playoff chances. Based on two sets of simulations: one where the team makes the playoff and one where it doesn’t.

Clemson games CLEMSON WIN % BY OUTCOME
WK OPPONENT MAKES PLAYOFF DOESN’T MAKE PLAYOFF DIFF.
10 North Carolina State 94.6% 48.5% +46.2
11 Florida State 93.5 62.3 +31.2
13 South Carolina 90.1 67.3 +22.8
9 Georgia Tech 93.6 75.0 +18.6
12 Citadel 100.0 99.9 +0.1
Washington games WASHINGTON WIN % BY OUTCOME
WK OPPONENT MAKES PLAYOFF DOESN’T MAKE PLAYOFF DIFF.
11 Stanford 95.6% 39.5% +56.1
13 Washington State 98.0 73.4 +24.7
10 Oregon 94.5 78.4 +16.0
12 Utah 96.7 82.0 +14.7
9 UCLA 95.2 82.0 +13.2

Differences may not add up exactly because of rounding.

Where they need help: As mentioned above, Clemson doesn’t need much in the way of outside help — as long as the Tigers win, they’re still almost guaranteed to make the playoff. They could benefit slightly from anything that boosts their odds of winning the ACC, however, including losses by NC State and Miami. And any wins by Auburn will automatically help Clemson because of its head-to-head victory against those other Tigers in September.

Washington, on the other hand, could use more of an assist from afar. There are two categories for these kinds of games: Some — like Stanford losing to Cal in Week 12 — tend to be entangled with implications about the strength of a team’s own opponents.1 (Arizona State beating USC also fits this category, because it makes Washington’s loss to the Sun Devils look less bad.) But the more interesting ones come where the connection isn’t obvious: Georgia Tech beating Georgia, for instance, helps Washington because it hurts an undefeated Bulldogs team that currently sits ahead of the Huskies in our playoff odds.

Which other games need to go right for Clemson and Washington?

The non-Tigers, non-Huskies matchups that have the most leverage on each team’s playoff chances

Clemson: PROBABILITY BY CLEMSON OUTCOME
WK RESULT MAKES PLAYOFF DOESN’T MAKE PLAYOFF DIFF.
12 Wake Forest def. N.C. State 44.6% 38.2% +6.4
10 Virginia Tech def. Miami 36.8 32.5 +4.3
11 Boston College def. N.C. State 26.6 22.3 +4.3
13 North Carolina def. N.C. State 18.1 14.5 +3.6
11 Auburn def. Georgia 47.8 44.4 +3.5
11 Notre Dame def. Miami 49.5 46.5 +3.0
12 Virginia def. Miami 17.2 14.4 +2.8
12 Michigan def. Wisconsin 28.3 25.7 +2.6
Washington: PROBABILITY BY WASHINGTON OUTCOME
WK RESULT MAKES PLAYOFF DOESN’T MAKE PLAYOFF DIFF.
12 California def. Stanford 17.9% 14.3% +3.6
13 Georgia Tech def. Georgia 30.2 27.2 +3.0
9 Arizona State def. USC 34.5 31.7 +2.9
13 South Carolina def. Clemson 28.2 25.5 +2.8
13 Notre Dame def. Stanford 48.9 46.2 +2.7
10 Washington St. def. Stanford 40.5 37.8 +2.7
10 Arizona def. USC 28.2 25.6 +2.6
8 Notre Dame def. USC 66.5 63.9 +2.6

Differences may not add up exactly because of rounding.

One good piece of news for both Clemson and Washington is that, of the six teams ahead of them in the CFP probabilities, all but likely Big 12 winner TCU hail from just two conferences: the Big Ten and SEC. Since the playoff selection committee puts an emphasis on conference championships, some of those teams will by definition see their odds plummet before the Final Four is chosen — we just don’t know which ones yet. So there aren’t many universes where both, say, Alabama and Georgia make the playoff, or both Ohio State and Penn State (to say nothing of Wisconsin).

But Washington and Clemson may also find themselves as enemies down the season’s final stretch; with one loss apiece, they could very likely be competing for the same CFP slot. Indeed, Clemson only makes the playoff in 23 percent of the simulations where Washington is in, versus 31 percent of the sims where Washington misses out. (That same split is 18 percent versus 25 percent from Washington’s perspective.) With only four teams standing at the end of the season, every loss counts — a lesson the Tigers and Huskies might have learned the hard way last weekend.

Check out our latest college football predictions.

Footnotes

  1. For instance, consider a situation in which Team A and Team B are conference rivals. Team B might be less likely to win an unrelated game in a simulation where Team A makes the playoff, because Team B is also likely to be weaker in a universe where Team A beats them head-to-head.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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