With just a few weeks remaining before College Football Playoff Selection Day, only a few programs truly control their own destiny. For everyone else, it’s a matter of degree.
And the variance in those degrees can be large. The difference between what else needs to happen for Oklahoma to win out and reach the playoff versus, say, what Northwestern needs if it wins out is pretty substantial. But here to help us parse through it all is the Allstate Playoff Predictor, which will run through each team’s chances in the event it wins out. Let’s break them down.
Locks and virtual locks: Alabama (7-0), Notre Dame (8-0), Ohio State (4-0), Florida (6-1)
All of the marquee undefeated programs are obviously in if they win out, and Florida joins them in the over-90% category should it win out and be a one-loss SEC champion. This part is easy — we all know these teams literally control their own destiny — so let’s move on to the more interesting cases.
Chance to reach playoff if it wins out: 81%
This might shock people, but Northwestern literally is the No. 1 team in the country in strength of record. An average top-25 team would have had just a 9% chance to go 5-0 against the Wildcats’ schedule, as the Wildcats have. Another way to put it: Going 5-0 against Northwestern’s schedule is harder than going 7-0 against Alabama’s, 8-0 against Notre Dame’s or 5-1 against Texas A&M’s.
My point here is that Northwestern already has a strong résumé. And it only would get stronger with an undefeated season. That’s not Northwestern’s issue, though; team quality is. Currently, ESPN’s College Football Power Index (FPI) considers the Wildcats the 19th-best team in college football. But here’s the thing: While there’s a lot of talk of the four best teams, résumé is traditionally the most important characteristic for the committee. Therefore, the Allstate Playoff Predictor is quite confident the Wildcats wouldn’t have a problem making the playoff field in the 11% of simulations in which they win out.
USC (3-0) and Oregon (3-0)
Chance to reach playoff if they win out: 74% and 71%, respectively
After seeing the initial committee rankings — which slotted the Ducks at No. 15 and the Trojans at No. 18 — our model is likely a little high on the Pac-12. It’s tough to be sure — the committee is evaluating a three-game sample from USC compared to, say, an eight-game sample from Cincinnati, so things could change.
But here’s what the model is thinking about when it says USC controls three-quarters of its destiny: the zero in the loss column. Traditionally, low loss totals have been rewarded by the committee above and beyond strength of record, and so the model sees an undefeated champion even with a small number of games and leans toward the committee putting it in. But we’d be the first to admit this is a particularly hard season to quantify: The Playoff Predictor is built on the committee’s past behavior, and the committee has never faced the scenarios it is encountering in 2020.
One thing remains clear, though: To have any hope of getting in, the Pac-12’s champion must be undefeated.
Chance to reach playoff if it wins out: 68%
Well huh. This feels low. And it might well be. But remember: The Playoff Predictor is absolutely not considering any sort of Trevor Lawrence-less mulligan for the Tigers’ loss to Notre Dame.
Also: This is the inverse of the Pac-12 situation. The model is conditioned to reward low figures in the loss column above and beyond strength of record — because that’s what the committee has done before — and that leads to it leaning toward an undefeated Pac-12 champion over a one-loss ACC champion. Reasonable enough most seasons, but I think that runs contrary to most people’s (again, reasonable) gut instinct that the committee would do the opposite this season and put Clemson in.
Overall the model is telling us: A one-loss champion Clemson would probably make the playoff. But with the 43rd-ranked strength of schedule, the model wouldn’t be sure about that.
Chance to reach playoff if it wins out: 60%
Currently sitting at No. 7, Cincinnati looks like a team that can get in if it wins out and gets enough help from elsewhere.
It’s not that hard to imagine. What if Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame all roll and win their conferences? Then we’re talking about Cincinnati vs. a two-loss, non-champion Clemson, or Cincinnati vs. a one-loss Texas A&M, or Cincinnati vs. a Pac-12 champion for the last spot. Not all of those will necessarily be in play (a loss by any of those other teams would completely remove them). If the Bearcats take care of business and get a few bounces their way, they really can do this.
Texas A&M (5-1)
Chance to reach playoff if it wins out: 39% (ignoring very unlikely scenario that Texas A&M reaches SEC championship game)
Texas A&M isn’t in that different of a boat from Cincinnati: It would like Alabama to win out and there to be only one real contender to emerge from both the Big Ten and ACC. After that, if the committee writes off the Pac-12, it could be the team that sneaks in on résumé — after all, it does have a win over Florida.
Chance to reach playoff if it wins out: 15%
The committee basically stuck a fork in the Cougars’ playoff chances in the very first ranking, but the Allstate Playoff Predictor was already skeptical of their chances anyway, given their current schedule. Even at 9-0, BYU is only 10th in strength of record and 14th in FPI. And it has a lone scheduled game left — against San Diego State on Dec. 12. Of course, another contest against a strong opponent could make a difference, but the Playoff Predictor won’t make that judgment until that contest is actually on the books.
Chance to reach playoff if it wins out, including ACC championship game: 24%
Chance to reach playoff if it wins out and misses ACC championship game: less than 1%
While Miami has maybe a clearer path to the playoff than BYU, I put the Hurricanes below the Cougars here because they have very little control over that path. They need to win out, yes, but they also need Clemson to take another loss, which is awfully unlikely. Miami has a 1% chance to win the ACC, which is more or less its chance to reach the playoff.
Chance to reach playoff if it wins out: 2%
FPI might be quite fond of the Sooners — it thinks they’re the fifth-best team in college football going forward — but the damage has already been done, résumé-wise, to keep them out of the playoff. The Playoff Predictor doesn’t foresee a realistic way for a two-loss champion Sooners team to work its way into the playoff given all the other contenders this season.