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Welcome To The College Football Playoff Committee’s Nightmare Scenario

In what has become a recurring tradition since FiveThirtyEight started predicting the College Football Playoff field, it’s time for another installment of our Playoff Doomsday Scenario. This is the set of results that could potentially give the selection committee the most fits when they sit down to pick the playoff teams in about a week and a half.

How does it work? Our prediction model has two components — it forecasts future games (using a mix of ESPN’s Football Power Index and the committee rankings), and it also predicts how the committee will react to those results. The doomsday scenarios, then, are the ones where — even conditional on a given set of results happening — there is the most uncertainty about who the committee would actually pick for the playoff. That means we’re looking for situations with as few high- or low-probability teams — and as many with some nonzero chance — as possible.

Call it an old habit from the days of the Bowl Championship Series, but rooting for college football chaos is fun. And there are a few combinations of results involving the top teams (let’s say, everyone with at least 1 percent chance in our current projections) that could throw the committee into disarray over the next few weeks. These chances reflect the results from Week 13 but not the latest playoff committee rankings, which were released Tuesday night. Instead, they use our model’s expectation of how those rankings will change.

Let’s start with Rivalry Week and the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn. Since Auburn was essentially eliminated from playoff contention weeks ago, the only result that promotes meaningful chaos is an Alabama win — allowing the Tide to finish the regular season 11-1 and hope for a repeat of 2017, when they made the playoff with one loss despite not even playing for the conference title.

The other most hotly contested games of Week 14 are both in the Big Ten, with Michigan hosting Ohio State and Minnesota facing Wisconsin. Although we currently give the Wolverines only a 2 percent chance of making the playoff, they rank seventh in FPI, and our model gives them a solid-enough 30 percent chance of upsetting the Buckeyes. You can also construct some pretty chaotic situations where Ohio State wins here and then loses the Big Ten title, but our top doomsday scenario sees a Michigan win.

The same flexibility exists around Minnesota and Wisconsin: The Badgers actually have a 6 percent chance now, despite losing two games, so they could figure into committee chaos if they win out. (We give them a whopping 47 percent playoff chance if that happens.) But a Minnesota win contributes even more to the most doom-laden of all doomsday scenarios.

Finally, we need LSU to lose against Texas A&M — which has a 16 percent chance of happening — bringing the Tigers’ record to 11-1 heading into the SEC title game. After Week 14, our scenario would give nine different teams at least a 10 percent chance of making the playoff, with only one real lock: Clemson at 94 percent.

Perfect playoff chaos would start in Rivalry Week …

Predicted playoff probabilities if the following results occurred in Week 14

If this happened in …
Team Current W-L Wk 14 Wk 15 Playoff Prob.
Clemson 11-0 W ?? 94%
Ohio State 11-0 L ?? 57
Georgia 10-1 W ?? 54
Oklahoma 10-1 W ?? 51
LSU 11-0 L ?? 49
Alabama 10-1 W 40
Utah 10-1 W ?? 19
Minnesota 10-1 W ?? 16
Baylor 10-1 W ?? 13
Michigan 9-2 W 4
Oregon 9-2 W ?? <1
Wisconsin 9-2 L <1

For teams with a playoff chance of at least 1 percent through week 13.

There’s a 1 in 147 chance of all of these Week 14 outcomes happening according to FiveThirtyEight’s model.

Source: ESPN

But we’re not done yet. The results above would set up the following Power Five conference championship matchups in Week 15: Baylor vs. Oklahoma for the Big 12, Georgia vs. LSU for the SEC, Ohio State vs. Minnesota for the Big Ten, Oregon vs. Utah for the Pac-12 and Clemson vs. Virginia Tech (most likely) for the ACC.

How do we create the most chaos out of that mix?

First, we have Ohio State winning the Big Ten. That lets the Buckeyes finish the season 12-1, with a conference title but also with a head-to-head loss against 10-2 Michigan. (The committee has been known to put an emphasis on head-to-head resumes.) For chaos’s sake, that makes the Buckeyes a much more ambiguous pick than Minnesota would have been at 12-1, with wins over both Ohio State and Penn State (who beat Michigan earlier this season).

Then we have Georgia winning the SEC over LSU. UGA would become an ironclad playoff pick (which we’re trying to shy away from) in that situation, but our model thinks LSU — at 11-2 but with quality wins over Alabama, Florida and Auburn — would still have a 33 percent chance of making the playoff despite the back-to-back losses, given the other chaotic options we’re providing. In the reverse situation, UGA would be eliminated and LSU would have an 80 percent playoff probability, so a Georgia win makes life more difficult for the committee, despite making Georgia itself an easier call.

Elsewhere in the nation, Baylor winning the Big 12 would also promote our doomsday agenda. The Sooners would get knocked out of playoff contention, as the now 12-1 Bears would have their revenge for OU beating them on Nov. 16, and Baylor would have a 33 percent chance of making the playoff as well. The reverse scenario would also be intriguing: An Oklahoma win would give the Sooners a 43 percent chance, elevate the Buckeyes to 57 percent and even vault Alabama (!) up to a 71 percent chance of making the playoff. But it would also leave five teams with no chance of making it — our official doomsday scenario gets that number down to four — and three teams with at least a 70 percent chance, which our alternative knocks down to two. All told, Baylor beating Oklahoma makes things slightly more chaotic.

In the other two power conferences, there is really only one answer for each that promotes chaos. Utah winning the Pac-12 needs to happen to give the Utes a 33 percent chance of making the playoff; an Oregon win (with all of our other dominoes falling) would just take the entire conference out of contention — a victory for spite, but not for chaos. And Clemson winning the ACC has to happen, if simply because our model had no simulated outcomes in which the Tigers lost and the other scenarios above all happened. (Clemson has a 91 percent chance of winning the ACC if it is undefeated going into the title game, so an upset was already unlikely.)

According to our model, there is a 0.03 percent chance that all of those outcomes happen exactly as described. (That’s 1 in 3,333.) But if they do, we would be left with two locks in Clemson and Georgia … plus six other teams with exactly 33 percent playoff odds each!

… and culminate in the conference championships

Predicted playoff probabilities if the following results occurred in Weeks 14 and 15

If this happened in …
Team Current W-L Wk 14 Wk 15 Playoff Prob.
Clemson* 11-0 W W >99%
Georgia* 10-1 W W >99
Ohio State* 11-0 L W 33
Utah* 10-1 W W 33
Baylor* 10-1 W W 33
LSU 11-0 L L 33
Alabama 10-1 W 33
Michigan 9-2 W 33
Oklahoma 10-1 W L <1
Minnesota 10-1 W L <1
Oregon 9-2 W L <1
Wisconsin 9-2 L <1

For teams with a playoff chance of at least 1 percent through week 13.

There’s a 1 in 3,333 chance of all of these Week 14 and 15 outcomes happening according to FiveThirtyEight’s model.

*Conference champs

Source: ESPN

Half of them would be conference champs — which the committee claims to emphasize but doesn’t always in practice. One would be a conference championship game loser; two wouldn’t have even played for their conference title at all. Who would be the playoff picks? Our model gives a collective shruggie. Unfortunately, the committee doesn’t have that luxury.

Of course, this apocalyptic scenario almost certainly won’t happen as scripted. The best we can hope is for fragments of it to hold up. But with so many major-conference teams sitting at one loss right now, there are a lot of ways things can get annoying for the committee between now and selection day — some of them really, really annoying, if the scenario above is any guide.

Check out our latest college football predictions.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.