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The College Football Playoff’s Doomsday Scenarios

With two weeks of regular-season football left before the conference championships, the number of teams with any realistic chance of making the College Football Playoff has been trimmed down to about a dozen or so. (According to our CFP projection model, 10 teams have at least a 5 percent playoff probability, with four more clocking in between zero and 5 percent.) But that doesn’t mean the potential for chaos is any lower than it’s been all season — after all, which of that small group will make the selection committee’s Final Four is still very much up in the air. So as we wait for the relative calm of Week 121 to pass for the promise of disarray in Week 13 and beyond, let’s map out some of the scenarios most likely to give the committee fits over the next few weeks.

Scenario 1: Auburn wins the Iron Bowl

After Auburn beat the bejeezus out of previously unbeaten and top-ranked Georgia last Saturday, the 8-2 Tigers opened the door for what could be one of the best longshot playoff bids in CFP history. In this scenario, Auburn would beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl on Nov. 25, giving them the SEC West crown on a head-to-head tiebreaker. The Tigers would then face Georgia in the conference championship game, where either outcome would inflict chaos. An Auburn victory there would practically assure the Tigers of becoming the first two-loss team to ever make the playoff (our model would give them a 94 percent chance of getting in), while a UGA win would make the Dawgs a solid but far from certain playoff pick (73 percent).

Odds based on SEC championship scenarios
PLAYOFF PROBABILITY
SCENARIO CHANCE OF HAPPENING ALABAMA AUBURN GEORGIA
Current 68% 22% 31%
Alabama wins Iron Bowl 60% 84 1 30
Alabama beats Georgia* 40 100 1 5
Georgia beats Alabama* 19 50 0 82
Auburn wins Iron Bowl 40 44 54 32
Auburn beats Georgia* 23 40 94 1
Georgia beats Auburn* 18 49 3 73

* In SEC championship game.

The dilemma: What to do with Alabama? If the Tide don’t make the SEC title game, there’s a decent chance they won’t make the CFP either. In the universe where Auburn beats Georgia for the conference championship, our model assigns the Tide a 40 percent chance of becoming the second SEC team in — but Alabama would have to hope its case outweighs those of the other “at-large” style bids around the nation. Things get even more complicated if Georgia beats Auburn: Under that circumstance, our model would give Alabama a 49 percent chance of getting a CFP nod despite sitting out championship weekend, so it’s anybody’s guess what the committee would do. (Try explaining to either Georgia or Alabama if one gets left out of the playoff with the same number of losses as the other.) And none of this even touches on the craziness that would ensue if Alabama wins the Iron Bowl but loses the SEC championship to UGA, setting up a head-to-head circle of parity among the Bulldogs, Tide and Tigers.

Scenario 2: Ohio State wins the Big Ten

The most straightforward playoff scenario is one where Alabama, Wisconsin, Miami and Oklahoma all win out, leaving relatively little debate about who should be in. Three undefeated major-conference teams, plus another with just one loss?2 It’s the kind of smooth sailing the committee dreams about. You could also swap in Clemson for Miami and not add much chaos: If the Tigers beat the Canes for the ACC championship, Clemson would simply slide in as a lock for the CFP alongside the other three. But give Wisconsin a loss in the Big Ten title game — most likely to Ohio State, which our model currently has favored to win the conference — and the picture becomes much more interesting.

Odds based on Big Ten, SEC and ACC scenarios
PLAYOFF PROBABILITY
SCENARIO CHANCE OF HAPPENING WISC OSU BAMA AUB UGA CLEM MIA
Current 41% 29% 68% 22% 31% 69% 53%
Wisconsin loses Big Ten* 57% 6 50 70 22 32 70 55
Alabama also loses Iron Bowl 22 7 42 48 55 34 72 56
Miami also loses ACC* 13 7 43 48 56 34 97 30

* In conference championship game.

The dilemma: Should Ohio State get in with two losses — particularly since the second was an ugly, 31-point shellacking by Iowa with three weeks left in the regular season? It seems unlikely, but consider that under the scenario above, the Buckeyes would also have had to beat Michigan on the road and knock off the previously undefeated Badgers, in addition to last week’s 45-point destruction of then-12th-ranked Michigan State. Of course, Wisconsin would have only one loss on its résumé, but its strength of schedule is weak enough that even after closing the season with games against ranked Iowa, ranked Michigan and (presumably) OSU, the Badgers wouldn’t be an obvious pick. This situation would also create quandaries outside the Big Ten, particularly if Scenario 1 from above also happens: Losses by Wisconsin and Alabama would destroy the committee’s tidy setup and force them to choose among as many as six one-loss teams and a handful of other two-loss squads. Good luck with that.

Scenario 3: TCU runs the table

At various times this season, it’s seemed as though Oklahoma was a long shot to make the playoff (after losing to Iowa State) and then a relatively strong bet (after beating TCU). But the Sooners still aren’t quite safe. The Horned Frogs could get their revenge with a win over OU in the Big 12 title game,3 and throw the CFP picture into disarray in the process. A TCU victory would by itself give the Frogs about a 34 percent chance of making the playoff, but it would also make life extra-difficult for the committee if some of the nation’s other playoff favorites lose.

Odds based on Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and ACC scenarios
PLAYOFF PROBABILITY
SCENARIO CHANCE OF HAPPENING OU TCU BAMA AUB UGA WISC OSU CLEM MIA
Current 58% 10% 68% 22% 31% 41% 29% 69% 53%
TCU beats Oklahoma* 29% 8 34 73 24 33 45 33 72 57
Alabama also loses Iron Bowl 12 7 26 51 57 35 45 27 74 59
Wisconsin also loses Big Ten* 6 9 27 56 57 37 9 50 74 61
Miami also loses ACC* 4 8 28 54 57 37 8 52 99 36

* In conference championship game.

The dilemma: Under the most extreme of the scenarios above, the committee would have no major-conference undefeated teams to choose from, but plenty with one loss (Alabama, Clemson, Miami, Wisconsin and possibly Georgia) and even more with two (TCU, Oklahoma, Ohio State, USC, Notre Dame, Penn State, Oklahoma State and possibly Auburn and Washington or Washington State). Add in the fact that several of the two-loss teams would have beaten a fellow contender for a conference championship, and it would make for a tremendous mess. Even after three years of studying the CFP committee’s behavior, our model is pretty uncertain about who would be picked under such a scenario, aside from its relative confidence that Clemson would make it if it wins the ACC.

Scenario 4: The messiest of them all

Out of all 20,000 simulations that go into our CFP predictions each week, 10 (or 0.05 percent) spat out a scenario where nine teams had at least a 10 percent chance of making the playoff after every single game was played. This is the ultimate doomsday scenario — where our model basically has no idea who the committee will pick for its Final Four, despite analyzing its previous choices and poring over the usual norms of college football rankings going back nearly a century.

The College Football Playoff’s ultimate doomsday scenario

The only scenario in our 20,000 simulations where nine teams have at least a 10 percent chance of making the playoff after conference championships

RESULT
TEAM WEEK 12 WEEK 13 WEEK 14 PLAYOFF PROBABILITY
Clemson W W W 100%
Georgia W W W 100
Miami W W L 40
USC W W 40
Alabama W L 30
Oklahoma W W L 30
Auburn W W L 20
Ohio State W W W 20
TCU W W W 20
Wisconsin L W L 0

This exact scenario happened 10 times in 20,000 simulations.

The first domino to fall here would be Michigan beating Wisconsin this weekend (which our model gives a 24 percent chance of happening). Then Bama would need to lose the Iron Bowl, Georgia would beat Auburn for the SEC, Clemson would beat Miami for the ACC, TCU would beat Oklahoma for the Big 12 and Ohio State would beat Wisconsin for the Big Ten. (Plus, USC would need to win the Pac-12, most likely over Stanford.) Needless to say, it’s very improbable that all of those circumstances would line up together perfectly — but if they do, it could make for the most headache-inducing committee meeting in CFP history.

Check out our latest college football predictions. Also, see what it will take for Notre Dame, Clemson, Washington, Penn State and Oklahoma to still make the playoff.

CORRECTION (Nov. 16, 2017, 2:45 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the scenario in which Wisconsin would finish the season with one loss.

Footnotes

  1. Only one matchup — Wisconsin vs. Michigan — features two Top 25 teams.

  2. In this scenario, Clemson and Georgia, each of whom currently has one loss, would by definition lose a second game in their respective conference championships.

  3. With head-to-head wins over both Oklahoma State and West Virginia, TCU would simply need to hold steady with them (at two in-conference losses apiece) over the next two weeks to make the conference championship on a tiebreaker.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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