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The Spartans Shift Up: Updated College Football Playoff Predictions (Week 12)

Michigan State kicked a field goal on the last play of its game on Saturday to topple the undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes — and made the College Football Playoff picture more complicated. You may have some unanswered questions: What does the upset of the Buckeyes mean for the eventual Big Ten champ’s chances? Does it help or hurt Notre Dame’s playoff position? And what about the Big 12? Fear not! FiveThirtyEight’s college football model has some (probabilistic) answers. Here are our updated projections following Saturday’s 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
Clemson 11-0 1 4 6 60% 69% 21 16%
Alabama 10-1 2 1 3 59% 66% 21 22%
Oklahoma 10-1 7 5 1 63% 55% 10 22%
Michigan St. 10-1 9 2 17 47% 44% 33 6%
Ohio State 10-1 3 3 4 10% 33% 29 9%
Notre Dame 10-1 4 7 8 a 31% 21 6%
Iowa 11-0 5 12 29 37% 29% 6a 3%
Baylor 9-1 10 9 2 16% 19% 21 7%
Florida 10-1 8 10 19 32% 17% 5a 3%
North Carolina 10-1 17 8 16 40% 11% 21 2%
Stanford 9-2 11 11 9 52% 11% 21 2%
Oklahoma St. 10-1 6 14 14 20% 9% 16 2%
Michigan 9-2 12 13 15 7% 6% 21 <1%
Navy 9-1 16 16 38 26% <1% 21 <1%
Mississippi 8-3 22 17 7 9% <1% 21 <1%
Florida State 9-2 14 19 13 0% <1% 21 <1%
TCU 9-2 18 18 5 0% <1% 5a <1%
Northwestern 9-2 20 21 55 0% <1% 21 <1%
Memphis 8-3 21 52 49 0% <1% 21 <1%
Houston 10-1 19 28 44 31% <1% 21 <1%
Wisconsin 8-3 25 31 28 0% <1% 21 <1%
Utah 8-3 13 37 26 0% <1% 21 <1%
Oregon 8-3 23 6 24 0% <1% 21 <1%
LSU 7-3 15 38 12 0% <1% 21 <1%
USC 7-4 24 26 10 33% <1% 21 <1%
College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings as of Nov. 17. Playoff probability changes are since Nov. 18; only changes greater than 5 percentage points are shown.

 

(But first, a reminder: Our predictions are probabilistic for a reason. There’s a lot we don’t know! With only one year of data to work off, it’s not clear how the playoff committee weighs winning a conference championship against not playing in one, or how it judges a one-loss team in a strong conference versus an undefeated squad from a weak one. We’ll learn a lot more on Dec. 6 when the committee makes its picks.)

Clemson and Alabama cruised on Saturday and retain pole position to make the playoff at 69 percent and 66 percent, respectively. Oklahoma sweated out a thrilling TCU comeback and remains the best bet from the Big 12 to make the playoff: The Sooners’ odds have risen to 55 percent. If they can win at Oklahoma State next Saturday, the Sooners make the playoff in 85 percent of our simulations.

After that, it’s a pair of Big Ten teams — and things get hairy. Our model now gives Michigan State the inside track to be the fourth team in the playoff (with a 44 percent likelihood). Right behind the Spartans are the Buckeyes, at 33 percent. Luckily for Michigan State, it has a clear path to the playoff: Beat Penn State next week (the Spartans are 80 percent favorites) to wrap up the Big Ten East and then win over Iowa in the conference title game. Should Michigan State win out, our model gives them a 92 percent shot to make the playoff.

Ohio State is not out yet, however. The Buckeyes’ path is just much less clear. They first need to beat Michigan at The Big House next week — no easy task, as the Buckeyes are only 58 percent favorites. Then they need the Spartans to lose. In a scenario in which Michigan State does slip up and a one-loss Ohio State team wins out — including over Iowa — the Buckeyes make the playoff in 96 percent of those simulations.

But that is not the Buckeyes’ only way to the playoff. Should they win out and be excluded from the Big Ten championship game, they still make the playoff 54 percent of the time. As I explained last week, Ohio State as a one-loss defending national champion presents an impressive résumé for the committee to consider, even if the Buckeyes are prevented from vying for their conference title. It’s possible that two Big Ten teams make the playoff.

Other takeaways from our model: Notre Dame, even if it wins out, is not assured a playoff spot. Three teams ranked behind it by the committee — Iowa, Michigan State and Oklahoma — have a good chance to leapfrog the Irish if they win out. Still, if the Irish beat Stanford next week to finish their regular season, their chances jump noticeably, to 69 percent.

Baylor notched an impressive win over undefeated Oklahoma State on Saturday, but it didn’t help its playoff chances much. Currently, the Bears’ chances are 19 percent. Florida, on the other hand, had an overtime scare against Florida Atlantic, but despite a Gator victory, the model revised Florida’s playoff odds down to 17 percent.

Andrew Flowers writes about economics and sports for FiveThirtyEight.

Reuben Fischer-Baum is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

Jay Boice is a computational journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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