Through some combination of scheduling and randomness, the pool of primary contenders for the 2016 College Football Playoff is smaller than it was last year.
Heading into Week 9 in 2015, the AP top 25 included eight undefeated power-conference teams, nine one-loss powers, and four unbeaten mid-majors. This time around: seven undefeated power teams, five one-loss powers, and two unbeaten mid-majors.
Last year, there were only two two-loss teams among the top 19. This year, there are six: No. 11 Wisconsin, No. 12 Florida State, No. 15 Auburn, No. 16 Oklahoma, No. 18 Tennessee, and No. 19 LSU.
Depending on how you want to define the word, you could say this means the odds of chaos are either smaller or greater.
On one hand, it does seem like the teams at the top have separated themselves. S&P+ is in no way beholden to ranking unbeaten teams simply because they're unbeaten; 6-0 West Virginia is 21st and 7-0 Nebraska is 22nd, after all. But four of the six remaining undefeateds are among the S&P+ top six, and a fifth (Baylor) is No. 11.
In theory, this means only a shallow pool of teams is likely to reach the finish line with CFP-worthy records.
On the other hand, two weeks ago, Clemson nearly lost at home to NC State, and the two current one-loss teams ranked the highest (Ohio State and Louisville) each narrowly avoided upset. We're never that far from chaos, and if silliness strikes, we could be looking at a two-loss team in the CFP.
First things first: How do the paths look for your primary contenders?
There are seven undefeated power-conference teams: Alabama, Baylor, Clemson, Michigan, Nebraska, Washington, and West Virginia. It is safe to assume that if any of them reach Selection Sunday undefeated, they will find themselves in the Playoff.
Yes, there could be more than four teams finishing 12-0, but while we always think that could happen, it never actually happens.
Odds of each current undefeated team remaining unbeaten at the end of each week (conference title games excluded), per S&P+ projections:
Only two of the seven unbeatens have at least a 50 percent chance of getting to 12-0, and none is above 59 percent.
As good as Alabama has looked, the Crimson Tide still have to navigate LSU in Baton Rouge and Auburn at home. (And then they would have to survive probably either Florida or Tennessee in the SEC title game, but we’re leaving conference championship games out of the equation for now.)
This week features three particularly important games: Clemson faces Florida State in Tallahassee (S&P+ says Clemson has a 68 percent chance of winning), West Virginia takes on Oklahoma State in Stillwater (56 percent), and Nebraska visits Wisconsin (32 percent). Baylor at Texas (72 percent) isn’t a slam dunk, either.
For Clemson, a win this weekend would raise the Tigers’ odds of finishing 12-0 to about 74 percent.
For Baylor (14 percent), WVU (10 percent), and Nebraska (6 percent), the work would be just beginning.
Currently, each of Michigan, Clemson, Washington, and Alabama has at least a 39 percent chance of finishing 12-0, but the odds of all four doing so are well under 10 percent. Even the chances of just Michigan and Clemson reaching 12-0 are less than one-in-three (30 percent). We’re going to have plenty of key losses.
We’re also probably going to need to expand our Playoff umbrella. Is this the year a two-loss team makes it in?
There are 24 teams that fall into one of four categories.
The seven power-conference undefeateds and five power teams with one loss (Florida, Louisville, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Utah) make up the 12 primary contenders.
But you can add 12 secondary contenders as well: 10 ranked power teams with two losses (Auburn, Colorado, Florida State, LSU, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Penn State, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Wisconsin) and two unbeaten mid-majors (Boise State, Western Michigan).
Even if things get wild, your four semifinalists will come from that group of 24.
First, let’s look at the odds of each of these teams finishing with a certain number of losses. (You can find detailed projections in the Football Study Hall stat profiles.)
Note: You’ll notice the asterisk by Boise State’s and Western Michigan’s names. For the sake of simplicity, I am equating an unbeaten mid-major with a two-loss power program, so their odds of finishing undefeated are treated the same as a power team finishing with two losses.
When a few more unbeatens lose, and the one-loss teams are thrown back into the pool, that will be very good news for Louisville (73 percent chance of winning out and finishing 11-1), Florida (34 percent), Ohio State (21 percent), and Texas A&M (18 percent).
On the off-chance that two-loss teams join the mix, Wisconsin (36 percent chance of winning out and finishing 10-2), Penn State (35 percent), and Colorado (32 percent) are most likely to benefit.
And at some point, Boise State (46 percent chance of finishing 12-0) and WMU (45 percent) join the conversation.
Let’s do the “run 10,000 simulations” thing to give you an idea of what we’re most likely to be talking about heading into championship weekend.
In 2014, we headed into championship weekend with one unbeaten power conference team (Florida State) and five one-loss powers (Alabama, Oregon, TCU, Ohio State, Baylor).
In 2015, we had two unbeaten powers (Clemson, Iowa) and five one-loss powers (Alabama, Oklahoma, Michigan State, Ohio State, North Carolina).
Two-loss teams had crept as high as seventh in the CFP rankings, but the pool of true contenders was made up of only zero- and one-loss teams.
Here’s what we’re probably looking at heading into championship weekend this time, based on 10,000 simulations:
- 25%: 2 undefeated teams, 2-4 one-loss teams
- 21%: 0-1 undefeated teams, 3-6 one-loss teams, possibility of a 2-loss team in the race
- 20%: 2-3 undefeated teams, 4+ one-loss teams
- 16%: 3 undefeated teams, 1-3 one-loss teams, minute possibility of a 2-loss team in the race
- 8%: 4 undefeated teams
- 7%: 0-1 undefeated teams, 7+ one-loss teams
- 3%: Fewer than 4 undefeated or one-loss teams, definite opportunity for 2-loss teams
- <1%: 5-6 undefeated teams
At best, there’s only about a 40 percent chance a two-loss team has Playoff hopes heading into the title games, and that’s probably only if a host of one-loss teams have weak résumés and a two-loss team with a few noteworthy wins (Wisconsin or LSU/Auburn, perhaps) has a conference title game to win.
We probably will know the contenders after Thanksgiving. The best teams are for the most part also the ones with the best records.
But we never know quite as much as we think, and the Playoff race has only just begun.