Perhaps more than any other sport, college football is adept at pulling a Rowdy Roddy Piper: convincing us we know the answers, then changing the questions.
We spend all offseason — and I mean all offseason — defining the stakes for a three-month charge through the fall. One-third of the way into that charge, half of our title favorites have lost, and a couple of our Heisman favorites have fallen off. It happens every year.
Oklahoma, Florida State, and LSU, the No. 4-6 teams in the preseason AP rankings, have lost a combined six games. Houston, Miami, and Texas A&M have lost none. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson has lapped the Heisman race. Tennessee has converted from the team that couldn’t protect a lead to the team against which no lead is safe. Ohio State looks like the killing machine it was supposed to be last year.
As we approach the midway point, I felt it worthwhile to take stock and try to get a feel for how the title race could play out.
Through five weeks, 16 FBS teams remain unbeaten: 12 from power conferences and four mid-majors. Of those four, only Houston has a decent shot right now at the Playoff, thanks to a win over Oklahoma and a late-season date with Louisville. (Air Force, Boise State, and Western Michigan are the others; the most noteworthy Power 5 win on their combined schedules is BSU’s win over Washington State, which lost to an FCS team.)
Using S&P+ win probabilities, let’s look at the odds of 13 teams (the 12 power teams and Houston) remaining unbeaten until conference championship weekend.
You can find complete win probabilities in the Football Study Hall stat profiles, updated weekly.
Right now, Ohio State and Clemson are the only teams with greater than 20 percent chances of remaining unbeaten. Both face late-October road hurdles — Ohio State at Wisconsin on Oct. 15, Clemson at Florida State on Oct. 29 — but they are safer than most.
Really, though, the list of most likely undefeateds looks like this before conference title games:
- Ohio State-Michigan winner
- Everyone else
Both Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes and Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines have at least a 41 percent chance of reaching the end-of-season rivalry game at 11-0. If that were to happen, the game would kick off almost exactly 10 years after the last time it happened.
Alabama still has work to do. Nick Saban’s Tide are No. 2 in S&P+ but must still face four top-20 teams between now and the SEC Championship. They have at least a 66 percent chance of winning in every remaining regular season game, but there are land mines. Odds are good that they slip up at least once. (They usually do. And they usually end up just fine.)
As for the remaining field, Washington and Houston are the only two with better than 10 percent chances of reaching 12-0.
And no, the “five teams finish unbeaten” chaos scenario we always try to craft has almost no chance of getting off of the ground; there’s only about a 0.02 percent chance of Ohio State/Michigan, Alabama, Clemson, Washington, and Houston all reaching 12-0.
Of the current crop of one-loss power-conference teams, only a couple are threats to run the table.
There are 15 power programs with one loss each. While we can debate the merits of individual schedules, the committee has showed it’s unlikely to keep out a one-loss Power 5 champion (2014 Big 12 co-champions Baylor and TCU aside).
Here are their odds of reaching Week 14 without another loss.
Overall, of the teams above, here are the 10 most likely to enter conference championship weekend with no more than one loss:
- Ohio State 67% (Most likely losses: Michigan 35%, at Wisconsin 22%, at Penn State 14%)
- Clemson 65% (Most likely losses: at Florida State 40%, Pitt 19%, at Boston College 16%)
- Michigan 63% (Most likely losses: Ohio State 65%, at Michigan State 13%, Maryland 12%)
- Alabama 58% (Most likely losses: at LSU 34%, Texas A&M 23%, at Tennessee 28%)
- Washington 52% (Most likely losses: at Oregon 35%, USC 29%, at Utah 28%)
- Houston 47% (Most likely losses: Louisville 61%, at Memphis 42%, at Navy 16%)
- Louisville 28% (Most likely losses: at Houston 39%, NC State 23%, at Boston College 18%)
- Tennessee 28% (Most likely losses: Alabama 72%, at Texas A&M 61%, Missouri 25%)
- Baylor 22% (Most likely losses: at Oklahoma 58%, at Texas 42%, TCU 42%)
- Miami 18% (Most likely losses: at Virginia Tech 53%, at NC State 44%, Florida State 42%)
Granted, odds don’t appear to apply to Tennessee this year, but right now the hierarchy is pretty clear.
The Ohio State-Michigan winner, Clemson, Alabama, Washington, and Houston are in the front of the line (and probably in that order).
And if the first month of the season was any indication, we’ll have a completely different list a month from now.