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How We’re Predicting The 2019 College Football Playoff

A handful of weeks into the 2019 season, we still don’t know much about how the College Football Playoff race will eventually play out. Twenty-four major-conference teams (so, the Power Five plus Notre Dame — more on the Irish later) are currently undefeated, and 29 more have only one loss. Although we may be headed for yet another Clemson-versus-Alabama rematch in the national title game, that’s not set in stone … yet.

To help make sense of the postseason picture from this early stage of the season onward, we built a model that predicts every team’s chance of making the playoff and winning the national championship. You can read more about how it works here — and we’ve made some tweaks this year — or scroll on to see the current rankings and how they might change going forward.

The usual suspects are indeed at the top of this year’s projections as well, with Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Georgia forming the top 5 most likely playoff teams. And yes, the two most likely championship-game contestants are — you guessed it — Clemson (45 percent chance of making the title game) and Alabama (30 percent). Those odds imply that there is a 62 percent chance at least one of the Tigers and Crimson Tide make the playoff and a 14 percent chance we see yet another Clemson-Bama tilt in New Orleans next January.

But that means there’s an 86 percent chance we don’t get Swinney-versus-Saban Part IV in the national title game. It’s still a wide-open battle. Our model currently gives 40 teams at least a 1 percent chance to make the playoff, 30 teams at least a 1 percent chance of making the title game and 21 teams at least a 1 percent chance of winning it all.

Surveying the 2019 College Football Playoff race

Chance of making the College Football Playoff and winning the national championship for teams with at least a 1 percent title probability

Chance to…
Team Conf. Record Elo Danger week* Make Playoff Win Title
1 Clemson ACC 3-0 2043 14 S. Carolina 75% 25
2 Alabama SEC 3-0 1996 14 Auburn 46 18
3 Oklahoma Big 12 3-0 1858 14 Okla. St. 37 8
4 Ohio State Big Ten 3-0 1922 14 Michigan 33 8
5 Georgia SEC 3-0 1894 12 Auburn 27 8
6 Notre Dame Ind. 2-0 1861 4 Georgia 25 6
7 LSU SEC 3-0 1902 11 Alabama 20 6
8 Wisconsin Big Ten 2-0 1707 9 Ohio State 15 3
9 Penn State Big Ten 3-0 1763 13 Ohio State 11 2
10 Florida SEC 3-0 1909 7 LSU 10 2
11 Oregon Pac-12 2-1 1677 8 Washington 9 2
12 Auburn SEC 3-0 1835 14 Alabama 8 2
13 Utah Pac-12 3-0 1710 10 Washington 9 1
14 Michigan Big Ten 2-0 1769 4 Wisconsin 7 1
15 Oklahoma St. Big 12 3-0 1728 14 Oklahoma 6 1
16 Iowa Big Ten 3-0 1799 11 Wisconsin 5 1
17 Virginia ACC 3-0 1759 5 Notre Dame 5 1
18 Wash. St. Pac-12 3-0 1752 9 Oregon 5 1
19 Texas Big 12 2-1 1750 7 Oklahoma 4 1
20 Washington Pac-12 2-1 1708 8 Oregon 4 1
21 Texas A&M SEC 2-1 1786 7 Alabama 3 1

*A team’s most dangerous opponent is the team on its remaining schedule with the highest probability of beating it, according to the FiveThirtyEight model.

The big change we’ve added to the model this season involves one of those teams: Notre Dame. We believe we were systematically underrating the Fighting Irish’s chances of making the playoff in past seasons — as evidenced by the paltry 62 percent CFP probability we gave them heading into selection day last year. (They ended up making it, while a team we gave better odds to — Ohio State at 69 percent — missed out.)

As an independent, Notre Dame was ineligible for the conference championship bonus in our model, which made its résumé look weaker in comparison with teams that had won their conferences. This year, however, we assign some fraction of the bonus to independents, based on their W-L record and how often the record tends to be enough to win a conference. That should help the Fighting Irish’s odds this year, provided they keep winning; if Notre Dame wins out, we give it a 97 percent chance of making the playoff.

Of course, the biggest obstacle to that comes this weekend, when Georgia — an intriguing dark horse championship pick — hosts the Irish in a game that our model gives UGA a 65 percent chance of winning. This is by far the most important game of Week 4 in college football, with nearly 40 total points of playoff probability (across all FBS teams) riding on the outcome of the contest:

How Georgia-Notre Dame swings the playoff picture

Potential changes in College Football Playoff probability for selected teams based on the outcome of the Sept. 21 Georgia-Notre Dame game

Change in odds if Georgia…
Team Current Playoff % Wins Loses Weighted Difference*
Notre Dame 24.9% -14.7 +26.6 +/-18.9
Georgia 26.7 +8.9 -16.1 11.4
Clemson 74.8 +1.1 -1.9 1.4
Ohio State 32.9 +1.0 -1.8 1.3
Oklahoma 36.7 +0.6 -1.0 0.7
Oregon 9.1 +0.5 -0.9 0.7
Total† 39.4

* Difference in playoff odds is weighted by the chance of each outcome — win or lose — actually happening.

† Total swing includes every game in the country — not just those listed here.

Naturally, both UGA and Notre Dame would see their playoff odds rise by quite a bit with victories (and fall with losses). But an Irish win would shake things up most of all — Notre Dame’s chance of making the playoff will improve by about 27 percentage points if it wins, and UGA’s will fall by about 16 points. That’s a pretty huge impact for a game this early in the season.

But although UGA-Notre Dame is the biggest game of Week 4, most top contenders’ fates will potentially be sealed much later in the year. Among the top 5 teams in our championship odds, four of them (Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma) face their highest remaining chance of losing any given regular-season game in Week 14 — the final weekend before conference championships. (And even Georgia faces its most dangerous remaining regular-season opponent in Week 12 at Auburn, not this weekend against Notre Dame, in large part because UGA is at home against the Irish.)

That means there will be plenty more drama to unfold as the season goes on. And you can use our playoff predictions to help follow it — and play with the implications of each game — every step along the way.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.