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College football predictions 2017: Why Wisconsin has the clearest Playoff path

S&P+ projections tell us the College Football Playoff committee could have quite the strength-of-schedule argument on its hands soon.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Purdue
Wisconsin’s Bradrick Shaw
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

After this week’s release of updated S&P+ projections, just one more step to the college football offseason remains: posting everything else.

Based on said ratings, we can project win probabilities for the entire college football season. In attempt to share as much as possible in a short amount of time, I have created a Google sheet with both projections and their implications. There are four tabs to this file:

  • the S&P+ ratings, with projected mean wins, conference wins, bowl eligibility odds, and the odds of finishing with either zero or one losses (i.e. the odds of being a major national title or G5 power bowl contender).
  • a full 2017 schedule with projected scoring margins and win probabilities
  • the odds of a given team ending up with a given record
  • the odds of a team ending up with a given conference record.

If you want to take a full-on dive into the numbers, go there. But I wanted to share some choice tidbits here.

Your primary College Football Playoff contenders

I’ll define this as the 15 power conference teams with the best chance of finishing with either zero or one regular season loss. Your definition may vary slightly, and obviously a two-loss team could or will enter the CFP race at some point in the coming years. But this is a pretty clear way to identify the teams with both the quality and schedules needed to make a run.

  1. Alabama (61% chance of 0-1 losses)
  2. Ohio State (41%)
  3. Wisconsin (33%)
  4. USC (28%)
  5. Oklahoma (26%)
  6. Washington (26%)
  7. Florida State (21%)
  8. Penn State (21%)
  9. Clemson (19%)
  10. Louisville (14%)
  11. Stanford (13%)
  12. Michigan (12%)
  13. LSU (11%)
  14. Florida (6%)
  15. Auburn (5%)

The standouts here:

  • Wisconsin’s schedule was brutal in 2016, featuring four of the top eight teams in FBS, per S&P+. This time around, not so much. No. 10 Michigan is the only projected top-30 opponent. With the Badgers looking as sturdy as ever — assuming first-year defensive coordinator (and second-year coach of any kind) Jim Leonhard doesn’t need a breaking-in period, and he might — and projected 11th overall, the result is a very high projected win total. Obviously the Badgers would have to face a top-10 opponent in the Big Ten title game, but we’re just talking about getting through the regular season at the moment.
  • No team is screwed by its schedule quite as much as Auburn. The Tigers are projected eighth, right between USC (28 percent chance of finishing with 0-1 losses) and Penn State (21 percent). But the Tigers drew No. 6 Clemson in non-conference play and No. 21 Georgia in inter-division play. Add that to the typical SEC West slate, and yikes. Gus Malzahn could field a near-elite team and still end up spinning 9-3 as a strong record. And he would be right to do so. No wonder Auburn folks want to move to the SEC East.
  • Florida State’s schedule could be the focus of a lot of debate this year. The Seminoles play No. 1 Alabama on a neutral field and visit both No. 6 Clemson and No. 15 Florida. They are projected as the second-best team in the country but have only the seventh-best odds of finishing 11-1 or better.

How might the committee judge an 11-2 ACC champion with this schedule versus a 12-1 champion of another P5 conference? And how might the committee judge an unbeaten or (especially) a one-loss Wisconsin in comparison?

While the final result typically takes care of itself (Wisconsin would indeed still have to get past an Ohio State or Penn State to win the Big Ten title), the weekly CFP rankings in November could be telling in this regard. They preach about scheduling intent, but FSU is scheduling intent made flesh.

Of course, the FSU hypothetical still doesn’t have great odds of playing out. I’ll point out that only two teams have a better than 1-in-3 chance at going 11-1 or better (and FSU has only a 52 percent chance of reaching even 10-2), so it should go without saying that chaos is baked right into the college football cake.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Michigan vs Florida State
FSU’s Deondre Francois
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Your likely conference/division races

Here are the teams that are projected within 1.5 mean wins of the lead in each division or conference.

  • AAC East (4): USF 5.3, Temple 4.8, Cincinnati 4.5, UCF 4.1
  • AAC West (3): Memphis 5.4, Houston 5.3, Tulsa 3.9
  • ACC Atlantic (3): FSU 6.5, Clemson 6.0, Louisville 5.5
  • ACC Coastal (5): Miami 5.1, Virginia Tech 4.6, Georgia Tech 4.1, Pitt 4.1, UNC 3.7
  • Big 12 (2): Oklahoma 7.3, Texas 5.8
  • Big Ten East (3): Ohio State 7.6, Penn State 6.7, Michigan 6.6
  • Big Ten West (1): Wisconsin 7.2
  • Conference USA East (2): WKU 6.3, Middle Tennessee 4.8
  • Conference USA West (4): Southern Miss 5.3, Louisiana Tech 5.3, UTSA 4.9, North Texas 3.8
  • MAC East (3): Miami (Ohio) 4.8, Bowling Green 4.3, Ohio 3.7
  • MAC West (3): Toledo 5.9, WMU 5.2, NIU 4.8
  • MWC Mountain (3): Boise State 6.1, Colorado State 4.9, Utah State 4.6
  • MWC West (1): San Diego State 6.0
  • Pac-12 North (2): Washington 6.7, Stanford 6.5
  • Pac-12 South (1): USC 7.4
  • SEC East (2): Florida 5.4, Georgia 4.7
  • SEC West (1): Alabama 7.0
  • Sun Belt (3): Appalachian State 6.6, Troy 5.7, Arkansas State 5.3

The ACC Coastal has long been one of the most uncertain divisions in FBS, with a lot of teams hovering around the same level of quality (and few to none looking like national title contenders). With each of last year’s top five teams replacing their starting quarterbacks, that isn’t likely to change this year.

All seven Coastal teams are projected within 2.6 wins of the top of the division. As comparison, there is a 3.1-win gap between USC and the projected second-place finisher in the Pac-12 South.

There’s a tie for second on the chaos list: the AAC Eat and CUSA West each have four teams within shouting distance of the lead. Don’t crown USF king of the G5 just yet. The Bulls still have to learn to defend a bit.

NCAA Football: Birmingham Bowl-South Florida vs South Carolina
USF’s Quinton Flowers
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports