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The Week In College Football: A High-Stakes Michigan State-Ohio State Game

Ohio State vs. Michigan State is this week’s marquee matchup in the college football world. If either team wants to ensure a playoff appearance, it needs to win out — but the Buckeyes and Spartans have to first get past each other. (And come the Big Ten championship game, one will also need to get past Iowa, if things hold.)

But a win here matters more for one-loss Michigan State. It’s not that Ohio State can take a mulligan; the undefeated Buckeyes just have more leeway.

Alabama 1 >99%
Clemson 0 >99
Ohio State 0 >99
Oklahoma St. 0 98
Iowa 0 96
Michigan St. 1 95
Oklahoma 1 92
Florida 1 90
Notre Dame 1 63
Baylor 1 58
North Carolina 1 55
Ohio State 1 52
Stanford 2 49
Clemson 1 47
Michigan 2 47
TCU 1 36
Alabama 2 35
Iowa 1 19
Oklahoma St. 1 18
Florida 2 7
USC 3 5
Utah 2 4
Oklahoma 2 4
Houston 0 4
Clemson 2 3
Navy 1 3
Notre Dame 2 2
Michigan St. 2 2
Ohio State 2 1
North Carolina 2 1
Florida State 2 1

In 5,000 simulations of our College Football Playoff model, a one-loss1 Ohio State team makes the playoff 52 percent of the time. (The table next to this paragraph shows teams’ odds of making the playoff under different scenarios — Iowa going undefeated, Alabama losing a second game or Ohio State losing its first one, for example. These scenarios factor in the outcomes of conference championship games.) That 52 percent probability represents Ohio State’s chance should the Buckeyes take any one loss; if they lose to the Spartans specifically, their odds to make it are only 29 percent.

So obviously this week’s game is hugely important. But even at 29 percent, Ohio State would have a higher chance of making the playoffs than Notre Dame does now. They have more leeway than nearly any other team to lose this weekend, as you can see in the second column of the what-if table farther down in this piece. That said, the Michigan State matchup matters for an additional reason: The winner will likely get to play in the Big Ten championship game.2 If the Buckeyes lose this weekend and then go on to win out, the College Football Playoff committee will have to decide that Ohio State belongs in the playoff without seeing the team play in a conference championship game. Still, Ohio State would have just one loss in that scenario and would have ended its season with a regular-season win at Michigan — and remains the defending national champion. It’s far from the worst résumé, and it’s plausible that the committee could add Ohio State alongside Michigan State or Iowa.

Ohio State isn’t the only team that will still have a shot if it falters: Should Clemson or Alabama lose before Dec. 6, our model gives a one-loss Tigers squad or a two-loss Tide team a better than one in three shot of making it into the playoff. Other teams, too — such as Iowa, Oklahoma State and Florida — have some reasonable shot at the playoff should they lose one additional game before season’s end, since they could still win their conferences. (Michigan State, however, is basically eliminated from playoff contention with a loss.)

Let’s dwell on the two-loss team scenarios for a second. Contrary to some folk wisdom, incurring two losses does not automatically disqualify an elite team from the playoff. (It’s also not that uncommon historically to have a two-loss team ranked in the top four before the bowl games.) According to our simulations, there is about a one in eight chance that a two-loss team makes it. (To be more exact, in 11.6 percent of our simulations at least one two-loss team makes the playoff.) Usually the two-loss team is Alabama, which has a 35 percent chance of making it with two losses, but Florida (7 percent) and Oklahoma (4 percent) stand an outside shot, too, should they drop another game.

These scenarios also identify the most likely odd man out: Notre Dame. Sorry, Irish fans, but your team is the best squad not fully in control of its own destiny. Yes, the College Football Playoff committee currently has Notre Dame ranked No. 4, but they are at risk of being bumped (with only a 63 percent chance of making it in if they win all their remaining games). Think of it this way: If Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama win out, they’re locks — that’s no surprise; but as the what-if table shows below, our model expects an undefeated Oklahoma State or even a one-loss Oklahoma to have a better shot at the No. 4 spot than the Irish. The latter scenario seems like it would be especially maddening to Irish fans, as Oklahoma’s loss came to Texas — a team Notre Dame destroyed 38-3 early in the season.

What-ifs of the week

Playoff chances if they …
Team Playoff Chances Lose next Win next Win out Win out likelihood
Clemson 10-0 68% 35% 69% >99% 48%
Alabama 9-1 63% 63% >99% 47%
Ohio State 10-0 62% 29% 72% >99% 35%
Oklahoma 9-1 45% 4% 60% 92% 46%
Notre Dame 9-1 26% 2% 31% 63% 40%
Oklahoma St. 10-0 25% 10% 45% 98% 17%
Florida 9-1 23% 1% 23% 90% 21%
Iowa 10-0 22% 5% 24% 96% 14%
Baylor 8-1 16% <1% 28% 58% 27%
Michigan St. 9-1 12% 1% 46% 95% 11%
Stanford 8-2 11% <1% 15% 49% 21%
Michigan 8-2 9% <1% 14% 47% 19%
North Carolina 9-1 9% <1% 15% 55% 15%
TCU 9-1 5% <1% 19% 36% 15%
Utah 8-2 1% <1% 3% 4% 34%
USC 7-3 1% <1% 2% 5% 25%
Houston 10-0 1% <1% 1% 4% 31%
Navy 8-1 <1% <1% <1% 3% 17%
Florida State 8-2 <1% <1% <1% 1% 40%
Mississippi 7-3 <1% <1% <1% <1% 32%
Wisconsin 8-2 <1% <1% <1% <1% 53%
Oregon 7-3 <1% <1% <1% <1% 32%
LSU 7-2 <1% <1% <1% <1% 28%
Memphis 8-2 <1% <1% <1% <1% 43%
Northwestern 8-2 <1% <1% <1% <1% 14%

(The dash in Alabama’s row denotes that we had a sample-size issue with that projection. They lost to Charleston Southern only three of 5,000 times in our simulation. That they went on to make the playoff two of those three times is statistical noise, so we excluded that number from the table.)

What to watch for this week

Big Ten
Game of the week: Ohio State vs. Michigan State

We already outlined the stakes of this game. Ohio State is a 79 percent favorite to win, according to predictions based on the Football Power Index (FPI). But the Buckeyes have had a tumultuous — though successful — turnover at quarterback, with J.T. Barrett replacing a slumping Cardale Jones, only for Barrett to get suspended for one game, allowing Jones to fill in until Barrett returned. Barrett will start against the Spartans.

Big 12
Game of the week: Oklahoma State vs. Baylor

The Big 12 carnage threatens to continue! After Oklahoma State took care of TCU two weeks ago and then Oklahoma impressively took down Baylor last week, the conference is showing how its November bloodbath schedule can wreak havoc. Oklahoma — which is now comfortably the best college football team according to FPI — takes on TCU in a game it’s expected to win 74 percent of the time. A closer matchup involves the other Oklahoma school: undefeated Oklahoma State, ranked No. 6 by the committee,3 is an underdog at home against Baylor. Should the Cowboys lose, as FPI predicts is 62 percent likely, their chances of making the playoff fall to 10 percent.

Game of the week: LSU vs. Mississippi

Arkansas’s thumping of LSU cleared up the SEC end-game scenarios — while sending me into an existential spiral about my beloved Tigers. But should Ole Miss lose against LSU this week (a 35 percent probability), Alabama clinches the SEC West. That means the Tide can formally book its ticket to face Florida, the winners of the East.

Game of the week: North Carolina vs. Virginia Tech

North Carolina is having a great season, but like Notre Dame, the Tar Heels aren’t guaranteed a playoff spot should they win out. The one-loss Tar Heels look set to face Clemson in the ACC title game — but even if they win out the regular season and beat the No. 1 Tigers, our model projects UNC as having only a 55 percent shot at the playoff. In short, the ACC is notably weak, and outside of an undefeated Clemson, there is no sure thing.

Game of the week: Utah vs. UCLA

You can watch Utah vs. UCLA because it’s the best and closest Pac-12 matchup of the week, but it won’t have major playoff implications. Practically nothing in the Pac-12 does. Both Stanford and Utah — the conference’s shining lights to make the playoff — lost last week. That said, Stanford still has an 11 percent chance of getting in. As a curious reader asked on Twitter: Under what scenario could that happen?

Let’s play college football god for a minute (using the first table above as our guide). For a two-loss Stanford to get in, they’d first need to beat Notre Dame, which would presumably eliminate the Irish from the playoff hunt. Then they’d need to see carnage elsewhere. The Cardinal could pray for Big 12 chaos — TCU losing to Oklahoma and then beating Baylor; Oklahoma State losing to Baylor but beating Oklahoma, for instance. Or if UNC upsets Clemson, the ACC might not be assured of a playoff bid. Although these cases aren’t likely, they’re possible. Hence the 11 percent odds for Stanford.

Beyond The Power Five
Game of the week: Houston vs. UConn

Congrats, Cougars! You’re one of the five undefeated teams remaining, but you’re still a long shot for the playoff if you win out: 4 percent, by our model’s estimate. To crash the playoff, Houston needs the major teams to seriously cannibalize one another’s chances.

One other team deserves some respect: Navy. The 8-1 Midshipmen have an outside shot (3 percent) at the playoff if they win out. Their matchup with Houston next week should be a curious contrast in styles, with fringe playoff implications.


  1. How exactly those losses occur — against which teams, in the regular season or conference championship game — is not specified in this simulation.

  2. Unless Michigan State blows it by losing to Penn State next week — which it has a 24 percent chance of doing. That’s another way Ohio State could back into the playoff.

  3. All the rankings I use in this article are the committee’s.

Andrew Flowers wrote about economics and sports for FiveThirtyEight.