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Yes, College Football’s Playoff Race Really Is More Wide Open Than Usual

This year’s college football season has started with a dose of parity rarely seen in the playoff era. While Nick Saban and top-ranked Alabama still seem plenty dominant, having extended their winning streak to 18 games and counting by crushing Southern Miss last Saturday, the four other schools with at least two College Football Playoff appearances have either lost games already (Ohio State and Clemson) or looked shakier than usual at times (Notre Dame and Oklahoma). As a result, this feels like a more wide-open playoff race than we’re accustomed to seeing from a sport that typically offers little in the way of unpredictability.

But does the data back up that feeling? 

To put a number on each team’s chance of making the playoff, FiveThirtyEight is relaunching our College Football Playoff forecast after it took a hiatus during the chaotic pandemic season of 2020. As a refresher, the model uses ESPN’s Football Power Index1 to simulate the rest of the schedule, tracking how often each team is expected to win each game. But within each simulated season, we also model how the committee might respond to those results, based on the way it has tended to react in the past. The algorithm essentially synthesizes both factors — game results and human tendencies — in order to predict which four teams will be left standing in the championship chase come December.

One big takeaway is that this really is a more wide-open College Football Playoff race than we’ve seen in recent years. Right now, five teams have at least a 25 percent chance of making the playoff:2 Alabama (55 percent), Georgia (54 percent), Oklahoma (39 percent), Oregon (32 percent) and Notre Dame (25 percent). But behind them there are eight more teams with at least a 10 percent chance, meaning 13 teams are sitting between 10 and 55 percent playoff odds right now — a much more crowded picture than we usually see at this stage of a season.3

As always, our college football forecast interactive also lets you play around with hypothetical results for the upcoming week of games to see how each team’s odds would change with different outcomes. For instance, the 4-0 Fighting Irish host No. 7 Cincinnati this weekend in a game that has some big playoff implications. For Cincinnati (which is actually ranked higher than Notre Dame in the AP Top 25 but has lower playoff odds), its chances of making the playoff would rise from 10 percent to 20 percent with a victory but would drop to 2 percent with a loss. The game will also either boost Notre Dame’s playoff chances to 39 percent (if it wins) or drop them to 6 percent (if it loses). 

Weighted by the likelihood of each outcome, that game carries plus-or-minus 16.2 percentage points of playoff-odds swing for the Irish, making it the most important game of Week 5 for any top contender. (From Cincy’s perspective, the weighted swing is plus-or-minus 8.5 percentage points.) Using our model’s simulation data and this “swing” metric, we can calculate how all future games might shift the playoff landscape. Here are the teams our model assigns at least a 5 percent chance of making the playoff, along with their most important remaining contests of the season:

How our model sees the College Football Playoff race

All teams with at least a 5 percent chance to make the 2021 College Football Playoff (according to the FiveThirtyEight model), with the remaining games that swing their playoff odds the most

Most Important Remaining Game
Team Playoff Week Opponent Swing w/ W Swing w/ L Total Swing*
Alabama 54.9% 13 Auburn +8.7 -28.8 +/-13.4
Georgia 54.2 9 Florida +13.0 -29.1 18.0
Oklahoma 39.4 6 Texas +12.2 -20.3 15.2
Oregon 31.8 8 UCLA +12.1 -17.3 14.2
Notre Dame 24.8 5 Cincinnati +14.2 -18.9 16.2
Iowa 18.4 6 Penn St. +10.7 -11.0 10.9
Michigan 17.3 13 Ohio St. +11.9 -14.4 13.0
Ohio St. 14.9 13 Michigan +14.3 -11.8 12.9
Penn St. 13.9 13 Michigan St. +11.4 -10.8 11.1
Mississippi 10.7 5 Alabama +20.6 -5.3 8.5
Michigan St. 10.3 12 Ohio St. +14.2 -7.3 9.6
Florida 10.3 9 Georgia +19.8 -8.8 12.2
Cincinnati 9.7 5 Notre Dame +9.9 -7.4 8.5
Texas 8.6 6 Oklahoma +9.6 -5.8 7.2
Arkansas 6.7 12 Alabama +16.3 -4.0 6.4
Baylor 6.5 11 Oklahoma +9.4 -4.3 5.9
UCLA 6.2 8 Oregon +7.4 -5.2 6.1
N.C. State 6.2 11 Wake Forest +5.2 -5.5 5.4
Wake Forest 5.2 12 Clemson +9.4 -3.7 5.4

*Total swing is an average of the absolute values of swings in playoff odds with a win or loss, weighted by the likelihood of each result.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

From now on, just about every week contains a make-or-break game for at least one playoff contender. And some teams play more high-stakes contests than others. For instance, No. 12 Mississippi’s game against Alabama on Saturday is the Rebels’ most important game of the season — and the game with the second-biggest impact of Week 5, trailing only Notre Dame-Cincinnati. But for the Crimson Tide, it’s only their fourth-most important remaining matchup, behind games against Auburn, Arkansas and Texas A&M. (Bama’s squeaker over Florida two weeks ago could have also loomed large in retrospect, but the Tide held on to avoid adding an early loss to their resume.)

Saban’s squad is one of eight teams — along with Georgia, Oklahoma, Michigan, Oregon, Florida, Notre Dame and Ohio State — that effectively control their own destinies, with at least a 5 percent chance to run the table across their remaining games and at least a 95 percent chance of making the playoff (according to our model) if that does happen:

Which teams control their own destinies?

Among teams with at least a 5 percent chance of winning all of their remaining games, highest College Football Playoff probability conditional on winning out

Team Current Record Win Out % Playoff % if Team Wins Out
Georgia 4-0 21.1% >99.5%
Alabama 4-0 19.1 >99.5
Oklahoma 4-0 13.7 >99.5
Michigan 4-0 5.4 >99.5
Oregon 4-0 13.9 99.4
Florida 3-1 5.6 99.3
Notre Dame 4-0 12.5 98.5
Ohio State 3-1 7.1 96.8
N.C. State 3-1 5.3 77.2
Cincinnati 3-0 11.9 60.0
Brigham Young 4-0 7.4 32.8
Clemson 2-2 13.4 32.5
Coastal Carolina 4-0 22.2 3.5
Fresno State 4-1 8.6 3.1

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Obviously not all of those teams can actually win out all at once; Florida and Georgia play each other later in the season, as do Michigan and Ohio State, while undefeated versions of Georgia and Alabama would face off for the SEC championship. But each of them has at least some realistic chance to run the table — and to make the committee recognize them in the event they do it.

Upstart N.C. State (which took down Clemson last week) and Cincinnati are not in that club, but the model thinks they would present intriguing dilemmas for the selection committee if they keep winning games: Each has at least 60 percent odds of making the playoff conditional on winning out. Coastal Carolina is in the opposite situation — the 4-0 Chanticleers have an impressive 22 percent chance of going undefeated but would have just a 3.5 percent chance of getting into the playoff even if that happens. And Iowa, Michigan State, Penn State, Texas and UCLA would all have at least a 90 percent chance of making the playoff if they don’t lose again … but our model thinks each school’s chance of winning out is less than 5 percent.

Some of those teams, however, could also afford to lose and still make the playoff (which we’ve seen from Alabama in particular in 2014, 2015 and 2017). Among teams with at least a 5 percent chance to finish with no more than one remaining loss, Oklahoma, Alabama and Georgia are the three teams that our model thinks would have at least a 75 percent chance of making the playoff even if they drop a game before the end of the regular season and conference championships:

Who can afford to lose the rest of the way?

Among teams with at least a 5 percent chance of losing no more than once over the rest of the season, College Football Playoff probabilities conditional on the number of remaining losses

Chance to make the playoff with…
Team No more Losses 1 more Loss 2 more Losses
Oklahoma >99.5% 81.7% 25.0%
Alabama >99.5 78.2 30.4
Georgia >99.5 75.3 27.3
Baylor >99.5 74.2 18.0
Iowa >99.5 71.5 20.4
Penn State >99.5 70.1 13.1
Michigan >99.5 63.1 11.5
Oregon 99.4 62.7 10.5
Michigan St. >99.5 59.6 8.7
Mississippi >99.5 57.2 11.9
Wake Forest 94.9 52.1 5.3
Notre Dame 98.5 52.1 3.0
Texas 95.4 50.5 4.5
Boston College 97.0 45.9 1.7
Ohio State 96.8 40.7 3.2
Texas A&M 90.4 23.3 1.0
UCLA 91.1 23.1 0.7
Florida 99.3 14.7 0.4
N.C. State 77.2 14.3 0.1
Virginia Tech 75.5 13.2 0.1
Arizona State 73.6 12.8 0.4
Pittsburgh 68.5 10.5 0.1
Iowa State 76.3 10.3 <0.5
Cincinnati 60.0 9.9 0.3
Rutgers 54.4 8.2 <0.5
Oregon State 76.5 7.9 0.1
West Virginia 67.0 5.6 0.1
Brigham Young 32.8 1.7 <0.5
Southern Methodist 15.2 1.5 <0.5
Miami 21.6 1.3 <0.5
USC 51.5 0.8 <0.5
Clemson 32.5 0.8 <0.5
North Carolina 47.2 0.8 <0.5
Fresno State 3.1 0.1 <0.5
Coastal Carolina 3.5 <0.5 <0.5

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Something similar can be said of Baylor, which is currently 4-0 but faces a tough remaining slate of opponents from the Big 12 (and beyond), and for a bunch of teams from the Big Ten — Iowa, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State. If any of them can make it through with only one more loss, that team would still have a pretty solid chance of making the playoff.

For now, though, those are but a few of the myriad possibilities that still await us in this college football season. While the five most likely playoff teams have all been there before, the rest of the field truly does have an unusually large chance to shake things up this year.

Footnotes

  1. With an assist from the playoff committee’s rankings (when available; we use the AP poll before then) and our Elo ratings.

  2. After rounding.

  3. And 21 teams in total have at least a 5 percent shot — also a high number, historically speaking.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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