Five weeks into the 2018 season, the College Football Playoff’s crystal ball is slowly coming into focus. Some would-be contenders — like Wisconsin and USC — have largely played themselves out of the playoff with quick losses. Others — such as LSU and Notre Dame — have bolstered their resumes with early wins. But there’s still plenty of football left to be played, plenty of time to see whether we’ll end up with more of the same or something new by season’s end.
To help make sense of it all, FiveThirtyEight is relaunching its College Football Playoff prediction model this week. You can read about how it works in detail here, but the basic premise is that we simulate both the results of future games (using a mix of ESPN’s Football Power Index and the committee rankings) and the behavior of the playoff committee to arrive at each team’s chances of making college football’s version of the Final Four. And according to our model, four very familiar teams — Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson — are the early leaders in the national title race, with Oklahoma and Notre Dame lurking not too far behind.
|Danger week*||Chance to…|
|Team||Conf.||Record||Elo||Make Playoff||Win Title|
|2||Ohio State||Big Ten||5-0||1986||13||Michigan||54||17|
|5||Oklahoma||Big 12||5-0||1915||13||West Virginia||31||7|
|6||Notre Dame||Ind.||5-0||1942||6||Virginia Tech||33||6|
|8||Penn State||Big Ten||4-1||1833||10||Michigan||10||2|
|9||West Virginia||Big 12||4-0||1802||13||Oklahoma||13||2|
|11||Michigan||Big Ten||4-1||1734||13||Ohio State||7||2|
|13||Wisconsin||Big Ten||3-1||1817||11||Penn State||6||1|
|19||Michigan St.||Big Ten||3-1||1759||7||Penn State||3||1|
|20||Oklahoma St.||Big 12||4-1||1705||11||Oklahoma||5||1|
For five of those teams, the path ahead is relatively straightforward: Win, and you’re probably in. Our model says Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma (sorry, Notre Dame) all have a greater than 99 percent chance of making the playoff if they win their remaining games. That will be easier for some than others — the Tide and Buckeyes have about a 1-in-3 chance, the Tigers’ odds are more like 1 in 4,1 and the Bulldogs2 and Sooners are around 1 in 10 — but each does at least control its own destiny.
The same goes for three other squads, who also have a greater than 99 percent chance of making the playoff if they win out: West Virginia, LSU and Kentucky. But before fans in Morgantown, Baton Rouge and Lexington get too excited, the odds of them doing that are pretty low. FPI is skeptical that the Wildcats are very good; LSU still has to face Florida, Georgia and Alabama over a brutal monthlong stretch starting this weekend; and the remaining Mountaineer slate is no walk in the park either. It’s possible that at least one will finish with a single loss or fewer (the traditional playoff recipe for major-conference schools), but the path will be difficult.
Among the teams that need a little help, Notre Dame easily has the best playoff outlook. The Fighting Irish’s most difficult remaining opponent might come this very week — a Virginia Tech team that also lost to Old Dominion two weeks ago — so red-hot QB Ian Book could be in a good position to lead Notre Dame to its first playoff berth. The Irish may not quite be playoff locks if they win out; our model says they’re at 87 percent if they run the table, meaning they’d also need one of the big-name teams to slip up along the way.3 But the last time a Notre Dame team unexpectedly rattled off an undefeated regular season, it went to the Bowl Championship Series title game, and it’s hard to believe it wouldn’t get the same treatment from the committee this season.
Poor Central Florida probably won’t get the same benefit of the doubt, though. Despite opening the season 4-0 to extend the program’s winning streak to 17 consecutive games, the Knights have just a 2 percent chance to make the playoff in our model — and they’re only an 11 percent shot even if they manage to go undefeated for a second straight season. Between bad luck (a potentially resume-boosting Power Five road game against North Carolina was canceled because of Hurricane Florence) and the committee’s apparent unwillingness to even consider undefeated non-power conference teams over major-conference schools with multiple losses, UCF could very well find itself settling for a self-declared national title yet again by season’s end.
The rest of the potential contenders have losses on their resumes, and that means serious question marks for their playoff chances. Washington’s opening-week loss to Auburn, for instance, instantly put the Huskies behind the eight ball, though they still have time to play their way back into the playoff picture if they keep winning (and, say, Notre Dame loses). Penn State still has a 10 percent shot at the playoff, despite last Saturday’s crushing late-game defeat against Ohio State, but they — along with fellow Big Ten hopefuls Michigan and Wisconsin — have plenty of work cut out for them. At least the Wolverines and (maybe) the Badgers4 still have their chances to knock off the Buckeyes. In that regard, Penn State already blew its shot at a big, playoff-worthy statement win. Miami, meanwhile, may have short-circuited its chances early on with a 33-17 loss to LSU in the first week; the Hurricanes’ playoff hopes now rest on running the table and potentially beating Clemson in an ACC title-game rematch. Although these teams can still make the playoff, their margins for error are razor-thin.
But let’s be honest: The playoff chase still mainly revolves around the preseason favorites. There’s a 65 percent chance that the national champion is one of Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Georgia, which leaves just 35 percent for everybody else in the entire country. Although not even this year’s ridiculously dominant Crimson Tide team is necessarily guaranteed to make its fifth straight College Football Playoff appearance, it would be a surprise if Bama and its top rivals didn’t find their way into the playoff by season’s end. In today’s college football reality more than ever, the powerhouse programs are seated at the dinner table, and everyone else is left to fight over the scraps.