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We Found The Perfect Recipe For College Football Chaos

College football chaos is in the air. Last weekend brought us plenty of it, with then-No. 5 Michigan rolling over No. 2 Ohio State, No. 7 Oklahoma State storming back on No. 10 Oklahoma late and No. 3 Alabama outlasting Auburn in an Iron Bowl overtime thriller. But the conference championships could have even more pandemonium in store — and create plenty of headaches for the College Football Playoff selection committee when they have to piece together their final rankings.

Call us sadistic, but we like dreaming up scenarios that will confound the selectors most. And with the help of our College Football Playoff prediction model, we can put numbers on the disarray. What follows are the championship weekend results that would create the most uncertainty over the final playoff picture — i.e., a lot of teams with playoff odds floating somewhere above zero and below 100 percent — based on how our model thinks the committee might react to them, with the caveat that the committee has regularly done the unpredictable. Chained together, some of these outcomes are pretty unlikely … but some are surprisingly possible.

Doomsday Ingredient No. 1: Iowa beats Michigan (27 percent chance)

Practically all of the most chaotic championship-week scenarios see the Wolverines turning around and following up their huge win over the Buckeyes with a clunker in the Big Ten title game. That’s because a Michigan win here is pretty boring; it would simply lock in their playoff spot, most likely. An Iowa win, however, would not completely eliminate Michigan (they would drop from 79 percent to make the playoff to 20 percent), nor would it seal the Hawkeyes’ place by any means (they’d rise from 7 percent to 26 percent). And the ripple effects would extend across all of the other major contenders’ odds, especially Cincinnati and Notre Dame.

Doomsday Ingredient No. 2: Baylor beats Oklahoma State (38 percent chance)

This is another common thread among the biggest playoff free-for-alls. While a Cowboys win here all but assures them of making the playoff (their odds would rise from 61 percent to 98 percent), a Baylor win only elevates the Bears’ playoff odds from 21 percent to 56 percent. If combined with an Iowa win, Baylor beating OSU would leave eight teams with at least a 15 percent chance of making the playoff, and seven with at least a 25 percent chance — a real mess for the committee to untangle. But we’re not done creating chaos yet…

Doomsday Ingredient No. 3: Houston beats Cincinnati (22 percent chance)

As a fan of seeing teams from non-power conferences get a shot at the national title (despite the game being rigged against them), I have been rooting for Cincinnati and its barrier-breaking playoff bid this season. And normally, that impulse also tracks with increased playoff chaos: Yes, the Bearcats have forced the committee to give them consideration, but there is still uncertainty around their status that would not exist if they were a Power Five school. (Even if it finishes off a perfect 13-0 season, Cincy would have a 13 percent chance of being left out of the playoff.)

But in this case, our model actually thinks a Cincy loss in the AAC title game versus Houston would help shake up the playoff picture even more than a win. If we combine that result with wins from Iowa and Baylor, the only true playoff lock would be the SEC championship winner between Georgia and Alabama. Baylor would check in next, at a relatively healthy 78 percent, but there would be serious uncertainty over who would snag the remaining two slots between either the SEC runner-up, Notre Dame, Iowa or even Oregon or a two-loss Michigan.

Nebraska Cornhuskers and Illinois Fighting Illini players face off at the line of scrimmage.

Related: Our College Football Predictions Read more. »

Doomsday Ingredient No. 4: Oregon beats Utah (46 percent chance)

Even at its peak, Oregon never quite seemed as strong as its record — or high placement in the playoff rankings — indicated. However, the Ducks can still help create real uncertainty in the final playoff picture with a win in Friday night’s Pac-12 championship game against Utah. In a vacuum, the model says Oregon’s odds would rise from a paltry 8 percent to a still-remote 17 percent with the victory, but they would leap up to 48 percent if all of our other doomsday ingredients also play out. (The temporal aspect of this scenario-making is admittedly somewhat weird, since we’ll know Oregon’s fate before any of the other games above.) Between Oregon, Baylor, Iowa, Michigan, Oklahoma State, the ACC title-game winner and maybe even Alabama (see below), there would be an absurd number of 11-2 power-conference teams that would need sorting out to determine the last few playoff slots.

Doomsday Ingredient No. 5: Alabama beats Georgia (38 percent chance)

Since the outcome of the ACC championship between Pittsburgh and Wake Forest is mostly irrelevant — neither team has even a 1 percent chance to make the playoff (though a Demon Deacons win would very slightly contribute more to uncertainty in the model) — the only remaining puzzle piece to fall into place involves the SEC championship. Whether it’s Georgia or Alabama, we can safely assume the winning team will make the playoff no matter what. But will the loser? If the Bulldogs take care of the Crimson Tide, our model thinks there’s just a 29 percent chance two-loss Alabama would still be able to make the playoff. But if Bama knocks off UGA, the Dawgs would still have a 56 percent chance of being selected by the committee regardless of the loss.

Interestingly, those odds don’t change much when we plug either result into our other doomsday scenarios from above. (Essentially, our model thinks the SEC loser is going to have some kind of playoff case regardless of whatever other mayhem happens.) But the particulars of the chaos created by each SEC outcome are still interesting to break out. Here’s a scenario in which doomsday ingredient Nos. 1-4 happen, Wake wins the ACC and Georgia wins the SEC title game (which happened in 26 out of 10,000 simulations — or 0.26 percent of the time):

What if Georgia beats Alabama?

Predicted College Football Playoff probabilities (according to the FiveThirtyEight model) if the following results occurred in Week 14

Week 14
Team Result Odds to Happen Record* Playoff Prob.
Georgia W 62% 13-0 >99%
Baylor W 38 11-2 73
Notre Dame 11-1 65
Oregon W 46 11-2 62
Iowa W 27 11-2 50
Alabama L 62 11-2 19
Michigan L 27 11-2 15
Cincinnati L 22 12-1 4
Oklahoma St. L 38 11-2 4
Ohio State 10-2 4
Mississippi 10-2 4
Wake Forest W 42 11-2 <1
Pittsburgh L 42 10-3 <1

*Includes listed result for Week 14.

Source: ESPN

In that circumstance, UGA would be a total lock, but there would be a lot of ambiguity over who else is in the playoff. Seven teams would be sitting between 15 and 75 percent playoff odds, with Notre Dame, Oregon and Iowa most likely duking it out for the last two playoff slots. Still, we can make things even more uncertain if we take all of the above but toggle the SEC result to a Georgia loss (which also happened in 0.26 percent of simulations):

What if Alabama beats Georgia?

Predicted College Football Playoff probabilities (according to the FiveThirtyEight model) if the following results occurred in Week 14

Week 14
Team Result Odds to Happen Record* Playoff Prob.
Alabama W 38% 12-1 >99%
Baylor W 38 11-2 69
Georgia L 38 12-1 62
Notre Dame 11-1 50
Michigan L 27 11-2 38
Oregon W 46 11-2 38
Iowa W 27 11-2 31
Oklahoma St. L 38 11-2 4
Mississippi 10-2 4
Wake Forest W 42 11-2 4
Cincinnati L 22 12-1 <1
Ohio State 10-2 <1
Pittsburgh L 42 10-3 <1

*Includes listed result for Week 14.

Source: ESPN

Now this is the true doomsday scenario. Aside from Alabama, which would become a lock for the playoff, we would have very little idea (based on past precedent and tendencies) how the committee would react to this set of results. Six teams would be bunched between a 30 and 70 percent playoff probability, fighting over three playoff spots. Three of those teams would be coming off wins, two off losses and one having not even played this weekend; the committee would also have to weigh a 12-1 team against an 11-1 team and four 11-2 teams. And that doesn’t even include the next tier of Oklahoma State, Mississippi and Wake Forest, which would have a 12 percent chance of sending at least one team to the playoff.

Again, the chances of that entire scenario playing out are extremely remote. And we will probably have plenty of controversy even without it: Say all of the current CFP top five win except UGA — forcing the committee to choose between one-loss Georgia, one-loss Notre Dame, one-loss Oklahoma State and undefeated Cincinnati for its last two slots. That’s pretty chaotic too! Still, our ingredients above would maximize uncertainty — and that would be the wild ending this wide-open college football season deserves.

Check out our latest college football predictions.


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Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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