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The Field Narrows: Updated College Football Playoff Predictions (Week 13)

Oklahoma looked impressive. Clemson and Alabama held their ground at the top. Iowa and Michigan State are now on a collision course. Stanford and North Carolina remain in the hunt, but don’t control their own fate. Ohio State lurks in the background.

So ends the final weekend of regular-season college football. Now the conference championships will decide which four teams make the playoff. There were 13 teams in contention for a playoff spot going into this past weekend; coming out, only eight of them realistically have a shot now.

Here are our updated projections following the Thanksgiving weekend games. (These numbers will change again on Tuesday night after the new committee rankings are released.)

Ranking Probability of …
Team CFP Elo FPI Conf. Title Playoff Nat. Title
Oklahoma 11-1 3 3 1 100% 99% 35 41%
Alabama 11-1 2 1 2 74% 79% 15 25%
Clemson 12-0 1 5 7 56% 74% 21 13%
Michigan St. 11-1 5 4 14 62% 60% 13 8%
Iowa 12-0 4 12 26 38% 39% 8a 3%
Ohio State 11-1 8 2 3 0% 22% 21 6%
North Carolina 11-1 14 9 15 44% 16% 6a 2%
Stanford 10-2 9 6 11 48% 10% 6a 2%
Florida 10-2 12 22 23 26% <1% 12 <1%
Florida State 10-2 13 8 10 0% <1% 21 <1%
Baylor 9-2 7 17 4 0% <1% 21 <1%
Northwestern 10-2 16 18 56 0% <1% 21 <1%
Washington St. 8-4 20 44 53 0% <1% 21 <1%
Temple 10-2 25 27 49 47% <1% 21 <1%
Toledo 9-2 24 32 48 0% <1% 21 <1%
Navy 9-2 15 30 44 0% <1% 21 <1%
Utah 9-3 23 37 28 0% <1% 21 <1%
Oregon 9-3 17 7 25 0% <1% 21 <1%
Mississippi St. 8-4 21 25 22 0% <1% 21 <1%
UCLA 8-4 22 35 21 0% <1% 21 <1%
Michigan 9-3 10 21 19 0% <1% 7a <1%
Oklahoma St. 10-2 11 19 17 0% <1% 10 <1%
Notre Dame 10-2 6 13 9 a <1% 21 <1%
TCU 10-2 19 10 6 0% <1% 21 <1%
Mississippi 9-3 18 11 5 0% <1% 21 <1%
College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings as of Nov. 24. Playoff probability changes are since Nov. 25; only changes greater than 5 percentage points are shown.

We can think of the four playoff positions as belonging to the following teams:

    1. Oklahoma. Oklahoma wrapped up its regular season by winning the Big 12 championship on Saturday night, after an 58-23 domination of Oklahoma State. The Sooners now must wait for the final committee rankings to be released on Dec. 6, but by our model’s estimation they are shoo-ins to make the playoff (99 percent).
    2. Iowa or Michigan State. The Big Ten title match between Iowa and Michigan State is a de facto play-in game: the winner is almost certainly getting in the playoff. Michigan State is a 64 percent favorite according to the Football Power Index (FPI), and if the one-loss Spartans do prevail, our model gives them a 96 percent shot at making the playoff. If instead the undefeated Hawkeyes win, they’re in the playoff in 98 percent of our simulations.
    3. Alabama or an open slot. Alabama won on Saturday and will face Florida for the SEC championship. The Tide’s playoff odds rose to 79 percent, while Florida’s fell to below 1 percent following an ugly loss to Florida State. That means even an upset of Alabama probably wouldn’t be enough to get the Gators in. Instead, a Florida win could open the door for Ohio State or Stanford (if Stanford wins the Pac-12 title game — only about a 50/50 proposition, according to FPI). Our model even thinks there’s an outside shot Alabama could get in despite a loss next weekend, although we doubt the committee will agree.
    4. Clemson, UNC or an open slot. Clemson’s an absolute lock if it beats UNC in the ACC championship. If it loses — and the matchup is competitive, according to FPI — what happens next is anyone’s guess. Should UNC beat the Tigers, those odds only rise to 37 percent, meaning there’s a chance the committee could opt for Ohio State or Stanford instead. It’s also theoretically possible the committee could choose Clemson ahead of UNC even if Clemson loses, deciding Clemson’s superior schedule outweighed its head-to-head loss.

Andrew Flowers writes about economics and sports for FiveThirtyEight.

Jay Boice is a computational journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

Reuben Fischer-Baum is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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