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So What Happens If Alabama And/Or Clemson Lose?

That’s the big question going into this Sunday’s College Football Playoff selection. Our staff college football fans sat down to talk through the scenarios on Slack. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


blythe (Blythe Terrell, general editor): OK, so the conference championships are this weekend. The real test of our new College Football Playoff model is IMMINENT.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor-in-chief): Well, it’s not much of a test, since the scenarios are either pretty obvious or the model’s like all ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

andrewflowers (Andrew Flowers, quantitative editor): Yeah, if Alabama and Clemson cruise to win their conference titles, this is an open-and-shut case: They both get into the playoff, alongside Oklahoma and the Big Ten winner. But if one or both lose, all hell will break loose.

natesilver: Probably where the model most disagrees with the conventional wisdom is in thinking Clemson might still have a pretty good shot — even with a loss.

andrewflowers: Exactly, @natesilver. That makes the ACC championship the most interesting game to watch. If Clemson loses, the playoff committee has a difficult job. Will UNC get in? Or could Stanford take their place if they win the Pac-12?

Or will Clemson sneak in despite losing?!

blythe: Part of me hopes it gets exciting (since I’ve got no team in the game). I want something weird to happen. And part of the model is trying to predict how the committee members will think, right?

natesilver: Yeah, the whole point of the model is that it’s trying to replicate human thinking. So since everyone else is all ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ about what happens if Clemson or Alabama loses, maybe that means it’s right in some sense!

What it can do, though, is think an extra step or two ahead. For instance, it recognized that Stanford still had an outside path to making it into the playoff even after Stanford’s second loss to Oregon a few weeks ago. Why? Because it knew that Stanford could potentially beat Notre Dame, then win the Pac-12 — and that might look pretty good to the committee.

Likewise, it recognized that a Big 12 team that got hot was likely to leapfrog Notre Dame — and it turned out that Oklahoma did exactly that, even before Notre Dame lost to Stanford.

blythe: Stanford sneaking in would make SOMEONE here happy (@allison)

allison (Allison McCann, visual journalist): AND WE DID BEAT NOTRE DAME!

blythe: Oh, yeah, what ever happened to the Irish?

andrewflowers: I get emails from Notre Dame fans asking for their playoff odds if they had beaten Stanford.

blythe: Everyone is on a quest for hope, Andrew.

natesilver: If there were a six-team playoff, like there should be, Notre Dame would be a bubble team right now. But maybe let’s get back to the cases at hand?

allison: Stanford is sitting with a 13 percent chance of making the playoff, but they almost certainly need a big-time loss from someone else this weekend, right?

andrewflowers: That’s right @allison — Alabama and/or Clemson need to lose for the Cardinal to get in.

blythe: So, the Big Ten winner gets in. And Oklahoma is a lock. That’s where we stand, right? Those are the two knowns?

natesilver: And that Alabama and Clemson are locks if they win. So there could be no drama at all, if the favorites win out.

blythe: Right. So the interesting scenarios …

allison: Yeah, forget favorites. Give us all the drama.

blythe: If Clemson loses and Alabama wins, then what?

allison: Does that make Ohio State next in line? (It’s NOT Stanford, which is garbage.)

andrewflowers: Our model is high on Clemson even if they lose; they have the highest odds to get in, at 42 percent (assuming Alabama wins). But the Pac-12 game really matters here. If Stanford beats USC, they might get in.

allison: I am completely unashamed of my favoritism here. Stanford could be more likely than Ohio State to make it in if they win that conference title! THAT’S WHAT ANDREW WROTE!

natesilver: Yeah, let’s unpack a few things here. First, the model thinks that four teams have a credible case — Stanford, Clemson, UNC and Ohio State. It likes Stanford’s chances a little better than UNC and Ohio State — if Stanford wins. And it puts Clemson right up there with Stanford, in defiance of the conventional wisdom I guess.

But when I think through the politics of the committee’s decision, I like Stanford’s chances a little better than the model does.

allison: Because of Condi???

andrewflowers: Think of it like this: if Clemson loses, they can point out they’ve played a more challenging schedule than UNC, and had a signature win over Notre Dame, too. And, relative to Stanford, they’d have fewer losses despite not winning their conference. It’s a tough call for the committee.

But the ultimate nightmare is if Clemson and Stanford lose. Will that pave the way for Ohio State to sneak in? Don’t sleep on the Buckeyes!

natesilver: @allison: I think the committee starts from the premise that it doesn’t have much respect for UNC and thinks they’d get demolished if they were in the playoff. So it wants to find an excuse to leave them out. But it has trouble taking Clemson over UNC when UNC just beat Clemson. How about Ohio State? Maybe, but they’re not a conference champion either — and frankly, if you’re going to take a one-loss nonchampion, Clemson’s resume is at least as good as Ohio State’s. That leaves Stanford. They’re a politically correct choice, having won their conference title and having played a much better schedule than UNC.

allison: And because of Condi ;-).

Okay fine, Andrew, I’ll go with you and consider losses from both Clemson and Stanford. You’ve written that our model consistently likes the Buckeyes more than the committee — why?

andrewflowers: Would the committee really pick UNC over Ohio State if the Tar Heels beat Clemson and Stanford also loses? That to me is the existential question. Lots of $$$ is involved in these selections. I don’t mean to sound too conspiratorial, but with Ohio State’s national football fanbase, it’d be awfully tempting to pick them.

blythe: Let’s look at another scenario. What if the Tide get rolled and the Tigers beat the Tar Heels? Then you have Florida as the SEC champ over ‘Bama. What does that do? Could a two-loss Gators team show up in the playoff?

andrewflowers: Um, no.

natesilver: Ohio State’s a fascinating case, @allison. Because, remember, the model’s job is to replicate human thinking. And it thinks humans should really like Ohio State for some pretty basic reasons. One-loss power conference team. Defending national champion. (That’s factored in implicitly in way the model uses Elo ratings, which carry over slightly from season to season.) Coming off a HUGE win against Michigan. Only loss was against another very good team, Michigan State.

But the narrative that developed around Ohio State was poor. I actually thought the Ezekiel Elliott comments after the Michigan State loss might have hurt them — it made it seem like they had blown their chance instead of reminding voters that this was a very good football team that had a chance to redeem itself against UM.

blythe: That Florida State loss was pretty brutal. So no Florida. But how does that change the picture? A ‘Bama loss and Clemson win?

andrewflowers: A ‘Bama loss is less of a headache than a Clemson one. Sorry Florida fans, but if you win, the SEC is getting shut out. Stanford is in pole position to make it if they win the Pac-12; and if they slip up, then Ohio State is waiting in the wings.

To be specific — Stanford has a 61 percent shot at the playoff if Alabama loses, Clemson wins and the Cardinal beat USC.

blythe: But ‘Bama is pretty unlikely to lose, right?

natesilver: Florida would have to DEMOLISH Alabama. If they win 42-3 or something … and Stanford loses … and the committee decides it really prefers conference champions after all, they might get a look.

andrewflowers: Very unlikely, @blythe. They’re 78 percent favorites.

natesilver: And having seen a bunch of Florida over the past few weeks … I’m not taking the 22 percent side of that bet.

blythe: OK, so the final scenario: If ‘Bama and Clemson both lose, then what? MAXIMUM CHAOS!

andrewflowers: In this nightmare scenario, Stanford is a great bet if they win the Pac-12 (62 percent). But, honestly, it gets messy real fast. Five teams possibly competing for two spots.

natesilver: Here’s something interesting, though. According to the model, Ohio State would rather have Alabama lose and Clemson win than both Alabama and Clemson lose.

andrewflowers: But don’t count out just-beaten Clemson, either: They’re right with the Cardinal at 59 percent. And that’s right, @natesilver — Buckeye fans should be rooting hard for Clemson.

blythe: This seems like the real ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ situation.

natesilver: They should be rooting for Clemson only if Alabama loses. If Alabama wins, though, they need Clemson to lose to have any shot at all. It’s like some weird prisoner’s dilemma.

blythe: As college football should be.

natesilver: But the thinking here is that if both Alabama and Clemson lose, the committee would resolve its UNC-Clemson “problem” by letting both teams in. Especially if Stanford loses, too.

andrewflowers: One last thing: We’d be remiss without mentioning how @natesilver rigged the model to favor Michigan State. The Spartans are obviously in if they beat undefeated Iowa; and vice versa for the Hawkeyes. Zzzzz…

natesilver: Ha! The main question is how far Sparty will move up into the top four with a win.

Excuse me — WHEN they win. Weirdly, it might be best for them to stay at No. 4 — because most computer rankings think No. 1 Clemson isn’t as strong as No. 2 Alabama or No. 3 Oklahoma.

andrewflowers: BTW, a strong Michigan State win makes Ohio State look good. Another thing for Buckeye fans to root for.

allison: Should I [Stanford fans] be rooting for a Michigan State or Iowa? What’s my prisoner’s dilemma here?

natesilver: Yeah, that could help Ohio State a bunch. Historically, the times when we’ve seen two teams from the same conference rank in the coaches poll or AP top four is when the second team’s only loss came to the team ranked ahead of it. Which works for Ohio State is Sparty wins, but not if it’s Iowa instead.

So you should be rooting for Iowa, @allison, because it makes Ohio State’s case weaker.

blythe: So basically, the likeliest situation is that ‘Bama and Clemson win their conference titles and everything is very boring (or great, depending on your team preference) with Oklahoma, Iowa/Michigan State, Clemson and ‘Bama. But we’ll see if UNC or Florida makes it interesting on Saturday.

andrewflowers: Should be fun!


Read more: All The Wild Scenarios That Could End The College Football Season

Blythe Terrell is a former senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Andrew Flowers writes about economics and sports for FiveThirtyEight.

Allison McCann is a former visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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