What the numbers say about the Big 3 of the College Football Playoffs and the race for fourth place

The college football playoff race is looking chalky at the top.

So much so that in Week 3, the Allstate Playoff Predictor has never been more confident about the top three teams’ individual chances of making the playoffs.

Never in the model’s five-year history has it had three teams each with at least a 70% chance of making the playoffs before Week 3 as it currently has with Alabama (84%), Ohio State (80%) and Georgia (70%). And the 233% cumulative chance is also higher than the top three teams at this stage since and including 2018, when the Allstate Playoff Predictor began. And that’s even with a narrow escape from the Crimson Tide against Texas last weekend!

And there’s an incredibly high 43% chance that all three of these teams will make the CFP. Considering all the things that can happen before the conclusion of the conference championships – and that two of the three teams are in the same conference (!) – that’s pretty remarkable.

I like to visualize the playoff race by looking at the highest possible combinations of playoff teams. The table below shows the top 10 most likely groups of four teams to make the playoffs, in any order.

Looking at things this way, we can see again that the Crimson Tide, Buckeyes, and Bulldogs still dominate: The four most likely playoff combinations contain all of these combinations. And there isn’t a single combination with more than a 3% chance of becoming a reality that doesn’t contain all of them.

That doesn’t mean there’s a guarantee for the current Big 3: 43% is 43%, and that more than likely means at least one will miss the playoffs, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor.

But I think this chart is particularly interesting if we stick to the top 3 for now and look at who this fourth team coming in might be.


Clemson Tiger

Playoff Chance: 46%

Clemson is firmly in his own class: Playoff odds are nowhere near as high as in Alabama, Ohio State or Georgia, but well above the long and mid-length shots below.

The Tigers are the fourth best team in college football according to the FPI. In the past there has been question as to whether Clemson, a conference champion with one loss, would have the resume to make the playoffs, and the Predictor hasn’t always been so sure. In this case, however, with teams like Notre Dame and Miami on Clemson’s schedule, the model is confident: The Tigers come 91% of the time when they lose to the Fighting Irish but win the rest of their roster.


Michigan Wolverines

Playoff Chance: 26%

The second-likeliest playoff combo is two SEC teams and two Big Ten teams (with Michigan among the top three) — perhaps a preview of what college football would have been like had playoff expansion not been in sight would.

Michigan could just win and of course go straight to the playoffs. But a statistically more likely path to the playoffs, according to Predictor, is to finish 11-1 with a loss to Ohio State and make the playoffs. If the first part happens – only losing to the Buckeyes and missing the Big Ten championship game – the model predicts a 67 percent chance of the Wolverines making the playoffs.


USC Trojans

Playoff Chance: 20%

FPI and the Allstate Playoff Predictor have moved far and fast on USC. At the start of the season, the Models couldn’t stand the Trojans — at least relative to consensus — but now suddenly USC finds itself in the third-likeliest playoff combination with a 5-1 shot at the playoffs.

An asset to the Trojans? Your simple remaining schedule. USC has the 57th hardest schedule among FBS teams and is preferred in all but one of the remaining scheduled competitions — the Trojans have a 41% chance of winning in Utah, according to FPI.


Texas longhorns

Playoff Chance: 19%

The Alabama game was a brutally missed opportunity, but the (mild) upside for Longhorns fans is that it at least boosted Texas’ game predictions going forward (even with a loss, a team’s FPI rating can go up, right as for Texas in this case).

A win would secure a place in the playoffs, but would be difficult to achieve. But it is a possibility. Also possible: Texas could lose to Oklahoma, for example, but then win the Big 12 (perhaps with another rematch win over Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game). In this scenario, regardless of their opponent in this conference championship game, Texas would have a 59% chance of making the playoffs as an 11-2 conference champion.


Tennessee volunteers

Playoff Chance: 11%

FPI is a fan of the Vols after they escaped their overtime battle with Pitt with a win. The model ranks them as the seventh best team, one spot ahead of USC.

The problem, of course, is the schedule: street competitions in Georgia and LSU, plus a home game against Alabama, mean the Volunteers would need some big surprises, plural. If they somehow manage to end an 11-1 season in a loss to Georgia and miss the SEC championship game, they would have because of the difficulty of their schedule (sixth hardest among FBS teams).

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