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Our College Football Playoff Forecast Is Back — And So Are The Usual Contenders

Oddsmakers predicted the 2022 college football season would be more top-heavy than usual, and so far the projection has proven prescient. In 2021, two of the top four teams in the AP preseason poll had already suffered losses by Week 3. In 2022, the preseason’s top four teams remain undefeated at the season’s quarter turn,are 2-2 and no longer receiving Top 25 votes.

">1 with Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State bulldozing opponents by 32.5 points per game. That’s the second-best combined margin for the preseason top four through the first four games of any season since 2000.1-point victory over Texas and Clemson outlasted Wake Forest for a 6-point win in double overtime. ">2

So nobody should be surprised that familiar faces are high up in the postseason probabilities, either. To appraise each team’s odds of punching a playoff ticket, FiveThirtyEight is relaunching our College Football Playoff forecast for 2022 — and Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State each have at least a 35 percent chance of qualifying for the playoff, with the Bulldogs (54 percent), Crimson Tide (53 percent) and Buckeyes (48 percent) netting about coin-flip odds. If that holds, it would be the second time in the past three seasons without a newcomer in the playoff, and the ninth time in 10 seasons that the playoff didn’t include a team from outside the Power Five conferences.

How we’re forecasting the College Football Playoff

All Football Bowl Subdivision teams with at least a 1 percent chance of winning the 2022 national championship according to the FiveThirtyEight model

team Wins Losses Win Conf. Win Out Make Playoff Win Title
Georgia 4 0 39% 23% 54% 20%
Alabama 4 0 39 21 53 23
Ohio State 4 0 42 24 48 16
Clemson 4 0 44 16 35 7
Michigan 4 0 17 8 22 5
USC 4 0 32 11 20 3
Minnesota 4 0 20 5 16 3
Utah 3 1 25 9 13 2
Penn State 4 0 9 3 12 2
Mississippi 4 0 6 2 11 2
Baylor 3 1 23 3 11 2
Washington 4 0 15 5 10 1
Oklahoma 3 1 15 4 10 2
Tennessee 4 0 6 2 9 2
Oklahoma St. 3 0 14 2 9 1
Florida State 4 0 13 3 9 1
LSU 3 1 5 1 5 1

Source: ESPN Football Power INdex

As a refresher on how the model works, it uses ESPN’s Football Power Index and the AP rankings to simulate the rest of the schedule, taking into account each team’s win probability in a given matchup. With past decision-making as a guide, the model then accounts for how the committee might respond to certain outcomes and then distills the probability of each team to advance to the coveted playoff.

Since most of the playoff odds are hoarded by a select few teams at the very top of the rankings, our model doesn’t anticipate an awful lot from the rest of the field. In fact, our model sees a clear “big three” in its pecking order, with a dropoff after that — though Clemson has 35 percent odds for what would be the program’s seventh playoff appearance. No other program has better than a 22 percent playoff probability.

Our model gives 13 teams at least a 10 percent probability of reaching the playoff, though the Big Ten and SEC account for more of them (seven) than the rest of the nation combined (six). But outside of the predictable quartet, the teams that have a puncher’s chance at the playoff might surprise you.

There’s a bittersweet scenario in play for the Pac-12, a conference in the midst of a five-season playoff drought. Soon-to-depart USC has the best playoff odds (20 percent) of any member school, and our model gives the Trojans an 11 percent chance to win out the rest of the way. Our model isn’t nearly as high on crosstown rival UCLA, another undefeated and forthcoming deserter Pac-12 program that had to overcome its own fanbase in a tight win over South Alabama. With four remaining games left against ranked opponents and a team ranked 53rd in overall efficiency, we give the Bruins just a 3 percent probability of advancing to the playoff and a 1 percent chance to win out.

The Big Ten’s third best odds of a playoff appearance aren’t found in usual hotbeds like Happy Valley or Iowa City or Madison. It’s found in Minneapolis. Minnesota (17 percent) has flattened its way to a 4-0 start by outscoring opponents by a combined 159 points (second-best among Football Bowl Subdivision teams). The Gophers have the nation’s strongest defense and rank second in overall efficiency, ahead of titans Georgia and Ohio State. 

Offseason questions have been resoundingly answered by Big Ten colleagues Michigan (22 percent) and Penn State (12 percent). The Wolverines outscored their first three opponents by a combined 149 points (17 points clear of any other FBS team), an extraordinary start given that Big Blue lost both its offensive and defensive coordinators — and nearly its head coach — after it made its first playoff appearance last season. The Nittany Lions, who kept head coach James Franklin after the rumor mill linked him to USC, have so far rebounded from a 7-win effort in 2021, too.

Four full-time coaches have passed through Knoxville since Tennessee (9 percent) last had a 10-win season, but second-year coach Josh Heupel has injected excitement into the fanbase. The Vols already have earned a visit from College GameDay and beaten 2021 ACC champion Pittsburgh and ranked conference foe Florida. Similarly, Mississippi (11 percent) has a top-25 offense, defense and quarterback (in Jaxson Dart), and is a few breaks away from being in the playoff conversation.

There are plenty of matchups left on each team’s schedule that can make or break their playoff hopes. According to the model, Georgia’s biggest remaining matchup comes in early November when the Bulldogs host Tennessee. Sure, that’s an opponent Georgia has outscored 207 to 64 over the past five matchups, but the game carries real stakes. There’s a possible 30-percentage point drop in playoff odds for Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs if they lose, a potential gain of 9 percentage points if they win and an overall swing of plus-or-minus 13.3 percentage points, weighted by the likelihood of each outcome. 

Alabama’s most explosive matchup comes in Week 11, when coach Nick Saban battles his former assistant Lane Kiffin in Oxford. With a win, the Tide’s playoff probability would spike by 12 percentage points, but a loss would drop those odds by more than 30 percentage points. Ohio State’s toughest matchup might come on Oct. 29 at Penn State, but its most impactful tilt comes a month later against archrival Michigan. A loss would equate to a massive 37 percentage point drop in playoff probability for the Buckeyes. And rounding out the top four, Clemson’s biggest test comes when the Tigers travel to Tallahassee to take on Florida State. A loss at Doak Campbell Stadium would plummet Clemson’s playoff odds by about 24 percentage points.

By this method, here are the most meaningful remaining games on the schedule for our top contenders:

The highest-leverage remaining games for each contender

All teams with at least a 5 percent chance to make the 2022 College Football Playoff (according to the FiveThirtyEight model), with the remaining games that swing their playoff odds the most

Team Current PO% Week Opponent Win% with W with L Avg.
Georgia 54% 10 Tennessee 78% +9% -30% +/-13%
Alabama 53 11 Mississippi 72 +12 -30 17
Ohio State 48 13 Michigan 70 +16 -37 22
Clemson 35 7 Florida State 63 +14 -24 18
Michigan 22 13 Ohio State 30 +33 -14 20
USC 20 7 Utah 46 +16 -13 14
Minnesota 16 8 Penn State 42 +11 -8 10
Utah 13 7 USC 54 +9 -11 10
Penn State 12 9 Ohio State 32 +18 -9 12
Mississippi 11 11 Alabama 28 +18 -7 10
Baylor 11 13 Texas 43 +10 -8 9
Washington 10 11 Oregon 44 +10 -8 9
Oklahoma 10 10 Baylor 57 +6 -8 7
Tennessee 9 7 Alabama 28 +15 -6 9
Oklahoma St. 9 12 Oklahoma 38 +10 -6 8
Florida State 9 7 Clemson 37 +13 -8 10
N.C. State 6 5 Clemson 23 +15 -5 7
Oregon 6 12 Utah 48 +5 -5 5
LSU 5 10 Alabama 26 +12 -4 6

A game’s average potential swing is calculated via an average of its playoff odds swing with a win or a loss, weighted by the odds of each outcome happening.

Source: ESPN Football Power Index

In a sport devoid of parity, the strongest likelihood is that the sport’s titans will reign once again. But as predictable as it all may seem, there are still hundreds of games to be played and thousands of possibilities for how this season unfolds. Resumes will be built, padded and crushed. Perhaps that can provide a measure of comfort for fans whenever it feels like they have seen this movie before — again, and again and again.

Check out our latest college football predictions.


  1. Preseason No. 5 Notre Dame can’t say the same; in Marcus Freeman’s first season as coach, the Irish are 2-2 and no longer receiving Top 25 votes.

  2. Trailing only 2019 (35.3) — an impressive rank considering that Alabama eked out a 1-point victory over Texas and Clemson outlasted Wake Forest for a 6-point win in double overtime.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.


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