Category Archives: College Football Playoff

3 Games This Week Could Tell Us Who Will Make The College Football Playoff

Rivalry week, college football’s cancel-all-plans showcase in late November, is perennially viewed as having top billing on the sport’s calendar — chock-full of postseason implications in addition to bragging rights. But this year, there might be a challenger to rivalry week’s throne: There may be no more pivotal slate of games this season than that of Week 10, with three games on the Nov. 3 docket with critical consequences for the College Football Playoff.
Our playoff model simulates every game of the season, extracting the likelihood of each outcome as well as the probability of every team to reach the final four. To help you prepare for Week 10, here are the games that matter most, as defined by their potential cumulative effect on the entire nation’s playoff chances.

No. 1 Alabama (8-0) at No. 3 LSU (7-1)
Favorite: Alabama (69.4 percent)
Total potential CFP swing: 43.6 points
The stakes: With both programs having two weeks to prepare, the Crimson Tide and Tigers will clash in a matchup that has often decided the SEC West division. This year’s installment pits one of the best LSU defenses in recent years against potentially the best offense Alabama has ever fielded.
After losing to then-No. 22 Florida in Gainesville, LSU rebounded with consecutive wins over ranked opponents: a 36-16 disposal of then-No. 2 Georgia and a 19-3 thrashing of then-No. 22 Mississippi State. Four wins over ranked opponents charmed the College Football Playoff committee into putting the Tigers third in the first iteration of its rankings.8
Behind Heisman front-runner Tua Tagovailoa and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley’s run-pass option attack, Alabama’s point margin is plus-252 in first halves this season, nearly 100 points better than any other team, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. In most seasons, it would be absurd to label a team as two-touchdown favorites against the third-ranked team in the nation, a team with a 1-in-5 chance of reaching the playoff — but that’s how good Alabama is. It’s been 21 years since LSU was this big of a home underdog.
Even though the Tide have been unquestionably the most dominant team this season, a loss would still hurt — dropping their likelihood of reaching the playoff by nearly 30 points. An LSU win would give the Tigers nearly coin-flip odds (49.8 percent) of reaching the playoff, and it would provide a bump for Georgia (from 32.2 percent to 35.9 percent) and Kentucky (from 6.8 percent to 8.1 percent) because it would likely mean that neither of those SEC East leaders would face Alabama in the conference championship game. Should Alabama win, the Tide’s odds of reaching the playoff would spike to 79 percent. A loss for LSU would drop the Tigers’ chances to 7.1 percent, effectively removing the team from contention.

How Alabama-LSU swings the playoff picture
Potential changes in College Football Playoff probability for selected teams based on the outcome of the Nov. 3 Alabama-LSU game

Change in odds if Alabama…

Team
Current Playoff %
wins
loses
Weighted Difference*

LSU
20.2%
-13.0
+29.6
+/-18.1

Alabama
66.8
+12.2
-27.8
17.0

Georgia
32.2
-1.6
+3.7
2.3

Ohio State
23.9
+0.7
-1.5
0.9

Oklahoma
35.3
+0.6
-1.4
0.9

Kentucky
6.8
-0.6
+1.3
0.8

Total †

43.6

* Difference in playoff odds is weighted by the chance of each outcome — win or lose — actually happening.
† Total swing includes every game in the country — not just those listed here.

No. 6 Georgia (7-1) at No. 9 Kentucky (7-1)
Favorite: Georgia (70.8 percent)
Total potential CFP swing: 36 points
The stakes: For the better part of three decades, Kentucky has served as the doormat of the SEC East, while Georgia has routinely contended for conference championships. So while it’s no surprise that the loaded Bulldogs have a 1-in-3 chance of returning to the playoff, few preseason prognosticators would have guessed that the Wildcats would be relevant this late in the season. But here we are, with coach Mark Stoops crowd-surfing in locker rooms as his team rattles off victories. The winner of Saturday’s ground-and-pound clash is guaranteed a spot in the SEC title game.
Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm, who last season led Georgia to the national championship game as a true freshman, has withstood ample criticism and an eye-gouging in his sophomore campaign. As it stands, the Justin Fields experience is on hiatus. Across the field, Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson is largely tasked with getting the ball to Benny Snell Jr. ad nauseam. The sophomore has attempted only 153 passes this season — one more than Tagovailoa, who largely sits the second half of games.
Saturday should be a blistering defensive fight. Kentucky has held seven consecutive opponents to fewer than 20 points, a feat last accomplished by the Wildcats nearly six decades ago. Both teams rank in the top 20 in opponent adjusted quarterback rating and in the top eight in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Whoever loses this game will see the near-annihilation of its playoff hopes: Kentucky’s odds would drop to 0.1 percent, and Georgia’s odds would drop to 2.1 percent. A win would improve the Wildcats’ odds to 16.2 percent, while Georgia’s odds would spike by 12.4 points to 44.5 percent. Kentucky toppling Georgia would greatly benefit just about every other team in the running: Alabama’s odds would jump to 73.2 percent, Notre Dame’s to 51.1 percent, Oklahoma’s to 36.7 percent, Ohio State’s to 25 percent and LSU’s to 22 percent.

How Georgia-Kentucky swings the playoff picture
Potential changes in College Football Playoff probability for selected teams based on the outcome of the Nov. 3 Georgia-Kentucky game

Change in odds if Georgia…

Team
Current Playoff %
Wins
Loses
Weighted Difference*

Georgia
32.2%
+12.4
-30.1
+/-17.5

Kentucky
6.8
-6.7
+16.2
9.5

Alabama
66.8
-2.7
+6.4
3.8

LSU
20.2
-0.8
+1.8
1.1

Oklahoma
35.3
-0.6
+1.4
0.8

Ohio State
23.9
-0.5
+1.1
0.6

Total†

36.0

* Difference in playoff odds is weighted by the chance of each outcome — win or lose — actually happening.
† Total swing includes every game in the country — not just those listed here.

No. 4 Notre Dame (8-0) at Northwestern (5-3)
Favorite: Notre Dame (70.7 percent)
Total potential CFP swing: 31.4 points
The stakes: Few teams can challenge Northwestern for the national lead in inconsistency. The Wildcats have pirouetted to double-digit victories over two ranked opponents and come within fourth-quarter scoring drives of losses to upset-minded-but-inferior Nebraska and Rutgers. After dropping three of its first four games — including home losses to Duke and Akron — Northwestern responded by winning four straight Big Ten contests to occupy the driver’s seat of the Big Ten West.
Notre Dame has handled its business — and still had to watch as one-loss LSU was ranked ahead of it on Tuesday night. Through no fault of its own, Notre Dame’s victories over then-No. 7 Stanford and then-No. 24 Virginia Tech haven’t exactly aged well. Now under the guidance of dual-threat quarterback Ian Book, Notre Dame’s offense has improved substantially, and Brian Kelly is shepherding one of his top defenses since his arrival in 2010.
Considering that no team with three losses has qualified for the College Football Playoff in its four-year history, Northwestern faces long odds. But because of the imbalance in the Big Ten, the Wildcats have a clear path to the Big Ten championship and a resume-boosting opportunity to play a top-tier opponent, likely either Michigan or Ohio State, at the end of the season. So a loss this weekend would serve as a death knell, but a win keeps those slim hopes alive at 1.4 percent.
Every team on the outside looking in is pulling for Northwestern, who could provide a huge odds boost to the other contenders with a win. Notre Dame controls its destiny, with a win improving its odds to 61.1 percent. But a loss would drop the Irish’s chances to 23.3 percent, suggesting that even with only one loss, it would need serious help to maintain its spot in the top four.

How Notre Dame-Northwestern swings the playoff picture
Potential changes in College Football Playoff probability for selected teams based on the outcome of the Nov. 3 Notre Dame-Northwestern game

Change in odds if Notre Dame …

Team
Current Playoff %
Wins
Loses
Weighted Difference

Notre Dame
50.0%
+11.1
-26.7
+/-15.6

Michigan
26.6
-2.0
+4.8
2.8

Oklahoma
35.3
-1.1
+2.8
1.6

LSU
20.2
-1.1
+2.6
1.5

Georgia
32.2
-0.9
+2.1
1.2

Alabama
66.8
-0.8
+1.9
1.1

Total†

31.4

* Difference in playoff odds is weighted by the chance of each outcome — win or lose — actually happening.
† Total swing includes every game in the country — not just those listed here.

Check out our latest college football predictions.


How LSU And Oklahoma Can Still Make The College Football Playoff

A week ago, we kicked off our College Football Playoff prediction model by talking in part about the handful of teams that were in great shape — provided they just kept winning ballgames. Then Saturday came around, and just like that, two of those squads (LSU and Oklahoma) were knocked down more than a few rungs on the championship ladder. So how can the Tigers and Sooners climb their way back toward the top?
In each remaining week of the season, we’ll break down what one team — or, in today’s case, two — needs to have happen in order for it to make the College Football Playoff. Primarily, we’ll be looking at how much each remaining game on the team’s schedule (and other teams’ schedules as well) potentially swings its playoff probability.

Louisiana State
Current playoff chances: 4 percent
What it can do: Losing to Florida dropped LSU’s playoff chances from 11 percent to 4 percent, giving the Tigers very little margin for error from here on out. The good news in Baton Rouge, though, is that they still basically control their own destiny — one of the fringe benefits of having an impossibly tough SEC schedule. If LSU wins out, our model says it would have a greater than 99 percent chance of making the playoff, making it one of only five schools (joining Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson) whose playoff chances are that high if they go the rest of the season without a loss. Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done: Even after putting the Gators behind it, LSU still has four more ranked opponents left on its regular-season schedule, plus whomever it might play in the SEC title game (if the Tigers get there). At the same time, just one more loss would basically doom LSU, leaving its playoff probability at the end of the season at just 16 percent even if it finishes 10-2. Practically speaking, Ed Orgeron’s team really does have no choice but to keep winning.
Who can help it: After allowing LSU to storm back from down 21-10 to beat it in September, Auburn could end up doing its SEC West rivals yet another favor by winning the Iron Bowl over Alabama in late November. LSU’s chances of making the playoff are about 3 percentage points higher in our simulations where Auburn beats Alabama than vice versa. In fact, any Alabama loss would generally help LSU’s chances of making the playoff because it would give the Tigers the edge over the Tide in the division (assuming they beat the Tide themselves in Death Valley on Nov. 3). One other thing is also clear: Alabama and Georgia’s playoff bids are basically incompatible with LSU’s. Conditional on the Tigers making the playoff, there’s only a 23 percent chance that Alabama also makes it and a 14 percent chance for Georgia. Even the SEC can contain only so many playoff contenders. Outside the conference, Texas and Penn State are teams with similar playoff bona fides who would theoretically be competing with LSU for an outside shot at the final playoff slot, so slip-ups by the Longhorns or Nittany Lions also slightly help the Tigers. But even so, most non-LSU games won’t move the Tigers’ needle much, meaning they’ll mostly have to forge a path to the playoff for themselves.

Which games hold the most weight for LSU?
Remaining 2018 college football games with the biggest effect on LSU’s playoff chances*

DIff. in LSU Playoff Odds

WK
Team
Opponent
w/ Win
w/ Loss
Weighted

10
LSU
Alabama
+10.6%
-3.5%
+/-5.3

7
LSU
Georgia
+7.1
-3.0
4.2

13
LSU
Texas A&M
+3.7
-3.5
3.6

8
LSU
Mississippi St.
+2.6
-3.4
3.0

11
LSU
Arkansas
+0.7
-3.4
1.2

13
Alabama
Auburn
-0.5
+2.6
0.8

7
Alabama
Missouri
-0.3
+2.3
0.5

10
Florida
Missouri
-0.3
+0.7
0.4

11
Texas
Texas Tech
-0.4
+0.4
0.4

10
Penn State
Michigan
-0.3
+0.4
0.4

* Relative to the team’s current odds
Based on two sets of simulations: one in which the team wins and one in which it loses. Differences are weighted by the likelihood of each outcome happening. Numbers may not add up exactly because of rounding.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information group

Oklahoma
Current playoff chances: 17 percent
What it can do: After losing the Red River Showdown to Texas on Saturday, the Sooners are less in the driver’s seat than LSU in terms of controlling their own postseason destiny. Even if Oklahoma wins all its remaining games, our model still gives the Sooners only an 85 percent chance of making the playoff. That’s not too terrible, though, given that Kyler Murray and company have a relatively manageable remaining schedule that includes only one ranked opponent. That matchup — a Nov. 23 battle against West Virginia in Morgantown — could swing Oklahoma’s season more than any other game, with our model calling for an average change to the Sooners’ playoff chances of plus or minus 13 percentage points, depending on whether they can beat the Mountaineers. In the universe where OU does win that one, the Sooners make the playoff 29 percent of the time; in the ones where they don’t, that number is 2 percent.
Who can help them: Because they’re not quite the locks that some other top teams are, Oklahoma will probably need another big-time contender to falter. And according to our model, that team is most likely Notre Dame. Aside from West Virginia and Texas, whose hopes each rest on outdueling the Sooners for the Big 12 title, the Fighting Irish are the team whose playoff chances drop the most in simulated universes where Oklahoma makes the playoff. Unfortunately for the Sooners, Notre Dame has a 39 percent chance of navigating the rest of its schedule undefeated — tops among any team in the nation — while Oklahoma’s chances of winning out are only 14 percent. (That discrepancy is a big reason for Notre Dame’s 46 percent chance of making the playoff, while Oklahoma sits at 17 percent.) But a Notre Dame loss — most likely to Syracuse, USC or Northwestern — would do the Sooners a big favor in their struggle to regain position in the playoff race.

Which games hold the most weight for Oklahoma?
Remaining 2018 college football games with the biggest effect on Oklahoma’s playoff chances*

DIff. in Oklahoma Playoff Odds

WK
Team
Opponent
w/ Win
w/ Loss
Weighted

13
Oklahoma
W. Virginia
+12.2%
-14.2%
+/-13.1

10
Oklahoma
Texas Tech
+6.7
-12.4
8.7

8
Oklahoma
TCU
+5.4
-11.8
7.4

11
Oklahoma
Oklahoma St.
+4.4
-13.4
6.6

9
Oklahoma
Kansas St.
+1.4
-13.9
2.5

12
Oklahoma
Kansas
+1.0
-13.6
1.8

9
Texas
Oklahoma St.
-1.4
+1.7
1.6

12
Texas
Iowa St.
-1.1
+2.9
1.5

13
Notre Dame
USC
-0.9
+2.4
1.3

12
Notre Dame
Syracuse
-0.8
+3.3
1.3

* Relative to team’s current odds
Based on two sets of simulations: one in which the team wins and one in which it loses. Differences are weighted by the likelihood of each outcome happening. Numbers may not add up exactly because of rounding.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information group

Check out our latest college football predictions.