Good gosh o’mighty, what a college football season so far. It’s early November, and fans have already witnessed:
- a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown as time expired;
- an eight-lateral kickoff return that was returned for a touchdown as time expired;
- a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown as time expired; and
- the ongoing dominance of the next Herschel Walker.
Amid all this excitement, in walks the selection committee to cut the ribbon on its first iteration of this season’s College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings. Unveiled over the next month, these CFP rankings will determine who plays in the second-ever four-team playoff. But reading the CFP tea leaves can be overwhelming.
Confused by the CFP committee’s weird pronouncements? Fearful that Condoleezza Rice and her comrades will stab your team in the back? (Baylor and TCU fans, you know the feeling.) Trying to interpret the CFP rankings probably makes you feel like the Michigan guy who made his way around the Internet:
FiveThirtyEight can’t stop the CFP from screwing your team, but we’re going to try to use numbers and our football knowledge to prevent you from being blindsided.
Each week, we’ll break down the latest CFP rankings, preview the big upcoming games and explore what-if questions. As we did last year, we’ll take an iterative and probabilistic approach to project which four teams the CFP committee will select into the playoff on Dec. 6.
We’ll cover the Power Five conferences and make a special effort not to ignore the mid-major darlings. Translation: we’ll show Memphis and Houston some love. And as a born-and-raised LSU fan, I’m obliged to exhibit a cocky and blatant SEC bias intended to solicit all your angry emails.
Before we dive into the new rankings and preview games by conference, a few nitty-gritty details about the model are worth reiterating from what editor-in-chief Nate Silver has written in greater detail elsewhere on FiveThirtyEight:
- Game predictions are based on a tweaked version of ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) for each team.
- Based on game results, each team is given an Elo rating that reflects, primarily, its strength of schedule and, to a lesser extent, the margin of victory in its games.
- Each team is given a new projected ranking based on the previous week’s ranking, the outcome of the game it has just played and its Elo rating.
- Then the model iterates through the season’s remaining games and, using past coaches’ polls as a guide, tries to predict what the CFP committee will decide.
Latest CFP Rankings
Just like last year, the CFP committee angered Big 12 fans. Baylor and TCU were ranked sixth and eighth, respectively, while Ohio State is third. One-loss Alabama sneaked in at No. 4 and LSU at No. 2, a clear sign that the committee respects an SEC schedule. But the committee really has a penchant for Clemson, the squad at No. 1. That also helps Notre Dame, whose only loss is to Clemson. The committee puts the Fighting Irish just outside the party at No. 5.
|Team||CFP||Elo||FPI||Conf. Title||Playoff||Nat. Title|
What to watch for this week
The No. 4,1 one-loss Crimson Tide face No. 2, undefeated LSU in what is as close to a play-in game for the playoff as can be devised at this point in the season. Vegas has the Tide favored by about 6 points. That seems about right. After all, the game is in Tuscaloosa, and the FiveThirtyEight model gives home teams a 3.5-point advantage. But Alabama also has a slight edge over LSU according to FPI, despite its earlier loss to Ole Miss.
The FiveThirtyEight model gives Alabama a 41 percent chance of making the playoff, largely because they’re favored in this game; LSU’s playoff odds are 30 percent. But let’s answer our first what-if question: How will those odds change after this game? My colleague Jay Boice ran additional simulations contingent on each team winning. In this thought experiment, if the Tide win, their odds would rise to 53 percent; but if the Tigers were to win, their odds would tick up to 45 percent. The Tigers’ odds are still lower, even if they beat Alabama, because their remaining schedule is so grueling. A road game against Ole Miss and a matchup with Texas A&M at home stand out on what is, going into this week, the toughest remaining schedule.
(As a diehard fan who was born and raised in Baton Rouge, I’d like to be able to tell my fellow LSU faithful that these numbers favoring ’Bama are made up. But I can’t. What we Tiger fans do have going in our favor is Leonard Fournette, the Heisman Trophy favorite and, as Wright Thompson wrote, emerging legend.)
Interestingly, though Alabama is favored to win and gets higher odds of making the postseason, because LSU is undefeated, the Tigers have higher odds (22 percent) of winning the conference, according to our model. (That’s because if LSU stumbles, Ole Miss is in position to win the SEC West with a tiebreaker over Alabama.) But beyond Alabama and LSU, Florida is waiting in the wings with an 18 percent chance of squeezing into the playoff. The Gators are looking like a good bet to win the SEC East, as they face only creampuffs for the remainder of their conference schedule; and if they emerge as a one-loss champion of the SEC, it will be hard for the committee not to include them.
Baylor and TCU are putting up basketball scores each week. High-powered offenses drive the two highest-ranked teams according to FPI. Our model gives undefeated, No. 8 TCU the best chance of breaking into the playoff, even though Baylor is notionally better according to FPI. That’s because the Horned Frogs host the No. 6 Bears on Nov. 27 in what amounts to (assuming both teams are undefeated) a Big 12 championship game the conference never planned.
The Big 12 is deep — very deep. Take this week’s biggest game: TCU faces No. 14 Oklahoma State. Although the Horned Frogs look strong according to our model — which gives them a 31 percent chance of making the playoff — the Cowboys can’t be ignored (they have a 6 percent chance themselves). The conference also includes a strong Oklahoma team, whom our model gives a 14 percent chance of making the postseason.
The FiveThirtyEight model gives No. 3 Ohio State the best odds of making the playoff: 61 percent. Furthermore, we give the Buckeyes a 16 percent chance of repeating as national champs. But look beyond them and you’ll see a strong conference, with the winner likely to be placed in the playoff.
Ohio State has a difficult schedule ahead. Like the LSU vs. Alabama game this week, the Nov. 21 matchup against No. 7 Michigan State could be viewed as a de facto national quarterfinal game; Michigan State has a 22 percent chance of being in the final four. The winner likely will face currently undefeated Iowa in the Big Ten championship game.
After those three conferences, there’s a huge dropoff in quality. With the exception of Clemson, the ACC looks wobbly. That said, the undefeated Tigers are viewed favorably by the selection committee, which gave them their No. 1 ranking. Our model gives them a 51 percent chance of making the postseason (the best after Ohio State), but after them, Florida State is the next best ACC squad, with a 5 percent chance. That said, the Tigers face what is probably their toughest remaining challenge at home against the Seminoles on Saturday. If they survive, a what-if simulation we ran gives the Tigers a 61 percent chance of making the playoff. Furthermore, if they run the table in their remaining games, they’re likely to make the playoff (our model would put their chances at 99 percent), but if they don’t win out, the ACC champion won’t have a guaranteed spot. Why? Because if Clemson loses this week, our model would give both Clemson and FSU about a 15 percent chance.
What a total mess. Among Pac-12 teams, Stanford has the best chance of making the playoff, at 19 percent. Despite having just one loss, Utah does poorly in our model, registering a 6 percent chance — little better than unranked USC. FiveThirtyEight reckons that if Stanford does win out, it’s 90 percent likely to make the playoffs. In other words, the Pac-12 is not guaranteed a spot right now. To push the Cardinal’s odds up, Clemson would have to slip, and still a second team from the SEC or Big Ten might leapfrog the Pac-12 champ.
Beyond The Power Five
The best bet outside the five major conferences is No. 5 Notre Dame, with a 25 percent chance of making the playoff. Memphis and Houston, as impressive as they’ve been, stand only a 6 percent and 2 percent chance, respectively, of being included. In other words, the stellar mid-major teams should keep rooting for those in the major conferences to cannibalize each other.