What the numbers say about the College Football Playoff Big 3 and the race for fourth

BySeth Walder via ESPN logo
Friday, September 16, 2022

The College Football Playoff race is looking chalky at the top.

So much so that the Allstate Playoff Predictor has never been this confident in Week 3 on the top three teams' individual chances to land a berth to the playoff.

Never in the model's five-year history has it had three teams with at least a 70% chance each to reach the playoff ahead of Week 3 the way it currently does with Alabama (84%), Ohio State (80%) and Georgia (70%). And the cumulative 233% 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 by the Crimson Tide against Texas last weekend!

And there's an incredibly high 43% chance that all three of those teams reach the CFP. Considering all the things that can happen between now and the conclusion of conference championships -- and that two of the three teams are in the same conference(!) -- that's pretty remarkable.

One way I like to visualize the playoff race is by looking at the top possible combinations of playoff teams. The table below is the top 10 most likely groups of four teams to reach the playoff, in any seed order.

Looking at things this way, we can again see the Crimson Tide, Buckeyes and Bulldogs still dominate: The top four most likely playoff combinations all feature all of them. And there is no single combination with more than a 3% chance of becoming reality that does not feature all of them.

That's not to say there's a guarantee about the current Big 3: 43% is 43%, and that means more likely than not at least one will miss the playoff, per the Allstate Playoff Predictor.

But where I think this chart is particularly interesting is, if we for the moment lock in the top three, looking at who that fourth team could be that gets in.

Clemson Tigers

Playoff chance: 46%

Clemson sits firmly in its own tier: nowhere as close in playoff probability as Alabama, Ohio State or Georgia, but well above the long and semi-long shots down below.

The Tigers are the fourth-best team in college football, per FPI. In the past there's been a question as to whether a one-loss conference champion Clemson would have the résumé to get into the playoff and the Predictor hasn't always been so sure. In this case though, with teams like Notre Dame and Miami on Clemson's schedule, the model is confident: The Tigers get in 91% of the time when they lose to the Fighting Irish but win the rest of their slate.

Michigan Wolverines

Playoff chance: 26%

The second-most likely playoff combination features two SEC teams and two Big Ten teams (with Michigan joining the three favorites) -- perhaps a preview of what college football soon would have looked like were playoff expansion not on the horizon.

Michigan could just win out and have a straight run to the playoff, of course. But a statistically more likely path to the playoff, per the Predictor, is finishing 11-1 with a loss to Ohio State and still getting into the playoff. If the first part happens -- losing only to the Buckeyes and missing out on the Big Ten championship game -- the model forecasts a 67% chance at the playoff for the Wolverines.

USC Trojans

Playoff chance: 20%

FPI and the Allstate Playoff Predictor have moved far and fast on USC. Entering the season, the models couldn't stand the Trojans -- at least relative to consensus -- but now suddenly USC finds itself with a 1 in 5 shot at the playoff in the third-most likely playoff combination.

An asset to the Trojans? Their easy remaining schedule. USC has the 57th most difficult schedule remaining among FBS teams and will be favored in all but one of the remaining scheduled contests -- the Trojans have a 41% chance to win at Utah, per FPI.

Texas Longhorns

Playoff chance: 19%

The Alabama game was a brutal missed opportunity, but the (mild) bright side for Longhorns fans is that it at least strengthened Texas' game forecasts going forward (even in a loss, a team's FPI rating can go up, just as it did for Texas in this case).

Winning out would result in a sure playoff spot but would be tough to pull off. It's a possibility though. Also possible: Texas could lose to, say, Oklahoma but then win the Big 12 (perhaps with a revenge victory over Oklahoma again in the Big 12 championship game). In that scenario -- regardless of their opponent in that conference championship game -- Texas would have a 59% chance to reach the playoff as an 11-2 conference champion.

Tennessee Volunteers

Playoff chance: 11%

FPI is a fan of the Vols after they escaped their overtime contest against Pitt with a victory. The model thinks they're the seventh-best team going forward, one spot ahead of USC.

The problem, of course, is the schedule: road contests at Georgia and LSU plus a home game against Alabama means the Volunteers would need some big upsets, plural. If they somehow manage to pull off an 11-1 season with a loss to Georgia, missing out on the SEC championship game, they would have better than a three in four chance at the playoff due to the difficulty of their schedule (sixth-hardest among FBS teams).