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Most College Football Dreams Have Yet To Be Crushed

Today, we launched our college football predictions for the 2017 season, and there weren’t too many surprises at the top: Alabama and Clemson are the leading favorites to make the four-team College Football Playoff (so what else is new?), followed by Oklahoma and Washington, three Big Ten teams1 and Georgia. What’s perhaps most notable at this stage of the season is that even the undefeated front-runners still have relatively low chances of being picked by the committee at season’s end.

How the undefeateds stack up

FiveThirtyEight college football forecast for undefeated teams, 2017

CHANCE OF …
TEAM CONF WINNING OUT MAKING PLAYOFF
Alabama SEC 38% 66%
Clemson ACC 28 55
Oklahoma Big 12 19 45
Washington Pac-12 20 40
Wisconsin Big Ten 13 26
Georgia SEC 7 25
Penn State Big Ten 11 22
TCU Big 12 6 17
Miami ACC 4 11
Wash. St. Pac-12 2 6
Michigan Big Ten 2 6
Utah Pac-12 <1 <1

Includes undefeated teams in Power Five conferences

Alabama (5-0) has a 66 percent chance of making the playoff, and that’s easily the nation’s best; Clemson (5-0) is second, at 55 percent. That means there’s a 64 percent chance that at least one of the last two champs won’t be in the playoff (including a 15 percent neither will be present). And the odds quickly fall off even further from there — Washington (5-0) rounds out the top four with just a 40 percent shot at the playoff.

In other words, there’s still so much we don’t know yet about how this season will play out.

And in a way, that can work in the undefeated teams’ favor. Most of them have a much higher probability of making the CFP than of winning out, so there are plenty of plausible paths that involve them weathering a loss and still ending up playing for the championship.

But it also means there’s plenty of hope to go around, whether a team is undefeated or not. A dozen teams currently have double-digit CFP probabilities, and 25 have at least a 1 percent chance of making the playoff. Furthermore, almost all of the top 20 teams in our projection are pretty likely to make the playoff if they win all of their remaining games. The only clear exception here is Notre Dame (4-1), which already needs some helpful losses from the teams above them. The problem for the Irish is that — unlike most of the one-loss contenders — winning out doesn’t disrupt too many other contending teams’ playoff trajectories. If Ohio State wins the rest of its games, it’ll be dealing losses to Penn State (No. 4 in the AP top 25 poll), Michigan (No. 7) and possibly Wisconsin (No. 9) in the Big Ten championship game, whereas Notre Dame’s best remaining opponents are outside the top 10. Plus, the Irish don’t have a conference championship to pad its résumé at season’s end. (Hey, maybe it’s time to join a conference, guys?)

Mostly, the uncertainty in our probabilities is a function of how early we are in the college football calendar: Not even halfway into the season, there are still enough games left that most contenders control their own destinies. Most one-loss teams can probably play their way into serious CFP contention if they run the table:

Winning fixes everything, unless you’re Notre Dame

Chance that a given one-loss team will make the College Football Playoff if it wins all remaining games

CHANCE OF MAKING PLAYOFF
TEAM CONFERENCE CHANCE OF WINNING OUT CURRENT IF TEAM WINS OUT
Auburn SEC 5% 11% 97%
Florida SEC 1 2 92
USC Pac-12 7 11 89
Kansas St. Big 12 <1 1 89
Ohio State Big Ten 21 24 86
Oregon Pac-12 3 3 86
NC State ACC 2 3 86
Okla. State Big 12 6 7 79
Virginia Tech ACC 3 3 71
Notre Dame Ind. 9 3 28

Among one-loss teams with the 10 best chances of making the playoff listed on the FiveThirtyEight college football predictions interactive graphic

And even some two-loss teams could get in by winning out. For example, Stanford (3-2) has a 62 percent chance of making the playoff if it goes without another loss. (These kinds of numbers are contingent on who a team would beat in those universes — in the Cardinal’s case, that’s most notably Washington.)

So take heart, fans, even if your team isn’t at the top of our rankings right now. A lot of schools have a lot of ways to win the national championship. And each week in this space, we’ll pick out one of those teams and explore all the things that have to happen around the country for our model to think it has a shot to make the cut.

Footnotes

  1. Wisconsin, Penn State and, yes, one-loss Ohio State.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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