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The College Football Playoff Picture Looks Tidy Now, But That Will Probably Change

Things have been relatively easy for the College Football Playoff committee so far this season. There are four remaining undefeated major-conference schools — Alabama, Clemson, Michigan and Washington — which slide neatly into the top four slots of the rankings. Meanwhile, a couple of dominant one-loss teams — Ohio State and Louisville — wait in the wings, just ahead of the gnarled mass of two-loss teams in the field at large.

Even when the committee invited controversy in its initial 2016 rankings, slotting then 7-1 Texas A&M ahead of unbeaten Washington for the No. 4 slot, it was quickly given the opportunity to fix the mistake when the Aggies lost at Mississippi State. And with the committee’s rankings aligning with outside opinion, our College Football Playoff prediction model sees more certainty in the “Final Four” than a week ago. Four slots, four undefeated teams — it seems as if things are shaping up to work out unusually well in the CFP’s normally chaotic world.

Well, maybe. If those four teams win out, things would indeed be convenient for the committee. Our model even thinks a team as dominant as Alabama could afford to drop a game and still be more likely to make the playoff than not. But, as is often the refrain when peering into the college football crystal ball, a lot can happen between now and when the final rankings are released on Dec. 4.


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For instance, our model says there’s only about a 1-in-5 chance that all four current major-conference undefeateds make the playoff in the end. Some of that comes from the possibility of losses — according to our simulations (based on ESPN’s FPI ratings), there’s a 96 percent probability that at least one of the four loses before the playoff field is set — and more still comes from the uncertainty of how the committee eventually will sort out the top four.

Texas A&M’s dropping out of the conversation — their CFP odds fell from 19 percent to 2 percent — helped crystallize the playoff picture over the weekend. Alabama, Clemson, Michigan and Washington also saw their CFP chances rise because they either scratched a difficult opponent off of their schedule (the Tide squeaked past LSU) or improved their FPI with dominating wins (the Tigers and Wolverines won by 54 and 56, respectively, while the Huskies dropped 66 points on Cal).

But there are still plenty of paths for teams currently on the outside looking in. Washington’s remaining schedule is notably difficult, starting with a matchup against FPI No. 12 USC on Saturday. A slip-up could open a window for, say, Louisville — if it keeps winning. Meanwhile, Ohio State would likely play its way in by beating Michigan in their annual tilt on Nov. 26, and two-loss Wisconsin could still feasibly make it by winning the Big 10’s opposite division and the championship game over the Michigan-Ohio State winner. (Our model gives conference champions a slight bonus.)

With only two of the top eight in our current CFP odds having anything less than an 88 percent chance of winning their next game (according to FPI), this weekend might not make for many wild swings in the playoff odds and rankings. But soon enough, the chaos will set in — perhaps even for that neat, tidy four-team group atop the committee’s standings.

Check out our college football predictions.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.