3 insights from college football playoff probabilities for 2019

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The second rankings for the college football playoff committee came out this week. The results included:

  • LSU takes over the top spot with their big win over Alabama
  • Georgia sneaks into the top four
  • Minnesota rockets all the way up to 8th

Most people will give you their pick for the four teams to make the college football playoff. However, there is too much randomness in college football for certainty about any four teams.

Instead, I’ll use these rankings and my best college football predictions to assign a probability to the top contenders for the playoff. Here are the numbers for the primary contenders.

1. Clemson, 87.8%
2. Ohio State, 72.8%
3. LSU, 61.8%
4. Utah, 39.9%
5. Oklahoma, 35.1%
6. Oregon, 34.8%
7. Alabama, 23.0%
8. Georgia, 19.2%
9. Penn State, 6.8%
10. Florida, 6.2%
11. Wisconsin, 4.9%
12. Minnesota, 2.4%
13. Auburn, 2.2%
14. Baylor, 1.4%
15. Notre Dame, 1.1%
16. Michigan, 0.2%
17. Texas, 0.1%
18. Iowa, 0.1%

In this article, let’s look at three storylines from these numbers.


Despite being 3rd in the latest committee rankings, Clemson has the best chance to make the playoff at 88%.

This might be surprising, as Clemson has struggled this year. For example, they almost lost at North Carolina earlier this season.

However, Clemson has the best chance to make the playoff because of their schedule. They finish the season with Wake Forest at home and then at South Carolina, who will start a freshman at QB for the injured Jake Bentley.

In the ACC championship game, Clemson will most likely play Virginia (76% chance by my numbers). At this point, my numbers would make them an 18 point favorite in that game.

Most likely, Clemson wins the ACC and makes the college football playoff. It’s the schedule that makes them such a prohibitive favorite.

But let’s dig deeper into Clemson. Are they as strong as last year when they won the college football playoff?

The offense has been good, but not great. To measure this, let’s look at success rate. A play is a success if the offense gains at least:

  • 50% of the necessary yards on 1st down
  • 70% on the necessary yards 2nd down
  • all the necessary yards on 3rd and 4th down

I take the success rate and adjust for strength of schedule with my algorithms.

On offense, Clemson ranks 17th in adjusted success rate. They seem to struggle with the passing game, as they rank 45th in my passing success rate adjusted for schedule.

These numbers depend on sophomore QB Trevor Lawrence. He led Clemson to a national championship last year as a true freshman, and he can’t enter the NFL draft next year. Perhaps a sophomore slump is inevitable?

The criticism of Lawrence has focused on turnovers. He has thrown eight interceptions this year, double his total from last season.

However, other numbers suggest that he has improved this season. For example, his completion percentage has gone from 65% last year to 67% this year.

In addition, we can also look at his grades given by Pro Football Focus. They have multiple people evaluate each play, and this analysis gives a QB credit for making difficult throws but penalizes him for missing easy throws or almost throwing an interception. By these PFF grades, Trevor Lawrence has actually graded out better this year than he did last year.

What about the Clemson defense? This preseason, it was reasonable to expect regression for this unit as they lost their entire defensive line. In addition, three of these linemen went in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft.

However, despite losses to the NFL, DC Brent Venables has had Clemson in the top 10 by my adjusted yards per play each of the past 5 season. This is season is no different, as Clemson ranks 1st in the nation by this metric. In adjusted success rate, they ranked sixth in the nation.

Most likely, there is nothing wrong with Clemson. They will not only make the playoff but contend for another national championship.

The Pac-12 conference

Washington made the college football playoff from the Pac-12 in 2016. However, the conference hasn’t put a team in playoff contention the past two seasons.

The conference must be thrilled to have not one but two teams in playoff contention in 2019. The most recent committee rankings have Oregon at 6th and Utah at 7th. Both of these teams have one loss.

Oregon started their season with a loss to Auburn. They have recovered since then, and they notched a signature win at Washington, a program that has dominated the Pac-12 North.

How has Oregon moved themselves into playoff contention? In the beginning of the season, it was the defense that surged. Over the course of the season, they rank 14th in my adjusted success rate.

More recently, the offense with NFL QB prospect Justin Herbert has excelled as well. The offense ranks 18th in my adjusted success rate, as they had an excellent game in a 56-24 beatdown at USC.

But in the Pac-12, let’s not forget about Utah. They tripped up earlier this season at USC, when the defense allowed 11 yards per pass attempt. However, this was their only poor game. Two weeks ago, Utah traveled to Washington and got a critical road win.

Just like Oregon, Utah looks really good on both sides of the ball. On offense, they rank 18th in my adjusted success rate. The strength of the offense has been the passing game. QB Tyler Huntley has increased his completion percentage from 64% last year to 74% this year.

On defense, Utah ranks a very respectable 7th in adjusted success rate. Despite giving up big plays against USC, Utah allowed a success rate of 44% in that game. This is not much higher than the college football average of 42%.

In addition, success rate is a powerful predictor going forward. Bill Connelly of ESPN did the initial research on this, and I confirmed it based on results from the 2019 season. Utah’s defense is legit despite an off game against USC.

Will Oregon or Utah emerge from the Pac-12? My numbers would favor Utah by 1.5 in the conference championship game over Oregon. Despite being behind Oregon in the playoff committee rankings, Utah (40%) has a better chance to make it than Oregon (35%).

In addition, a one loss Pac-12 champion is certainly in the conversation to make the playoff. While there is no certainty, my numbers give a three and four chance that a Pac-12 team make the playoff, consistent with the sum of the odds for Utah and Oregon.

This chance might seem a little high as Oregon and Utah are both a few spots away from the fourth and final spot in the playoff. However, there are still many games to play, as Georgia and LSU, two teams ahead of the Pac-12 duo, most likely meet in SEC championship game.

In addition, the playoff committee gives a bonus for conference championships and moves these teams ahead of teams that don’t play for a conference title. For example, assume Utah beats Oregon as a one loss Pac-12 champ. Alabama might be ahead of them in the rankings, but Utah probably jumps over Alabama team based on their conference title.


With 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, South Dakota State had a 21-20 lead on Minnesota. With the ball, the underdog Jackrabbits needed another score or maybe just a long drive to pull off the upset.

However, South Dakota State fumbled in their own territory. Minnesota recovered the ball 34 yards from the end zone, and they scored a go ahead touchdown and won the game.

It was quite a stroke of luck, as South Dakota State had more yards and better efficiency by yards per play than Minnesota in that game. Had South Dakota State pulled off the win, Minnesota would not be undefeated and most likely not 8th in the current playoff rankings.

The numbers aren’t high on Minnesota. In addition to South Dakota State, they also struggled against Fresno state and Georgia Southern earlier this season.

The Golden Gophers have surged in Big Ten play, but you must consider context. In their cross-division schedule, they played Rutgers and Maryland, two of the worst teams in the conference.

Minnesota’s third cross division game was against a top ten Penn State team, and they won this game at home last weekend. Minnesota showed everyone something in that Penn state win.

However, Minnesota is still far from a legitimate playoff contender. In the college football rankings I use for my best predictions, Minnesota ranks 25th.

Looking forward, Minnesota has two more difficult games in the Big Ten West. This week, they travel to Iowa, and my numbers give them a 37% win probability. At the end of the season, they host Wisconsin and have a 28% win probability.

Minnesota only has to win one of those two games to win their division, and my numbers give a 55% chance to win the Big Ten West. Even with a division title though, they most likely play Ohio state in the conference championship game. My numbers will make them a 21 point underdog in that game.

Don’t expect Minnesota to make the college football playoff, as my numbers give them a 1 in 40 chance.

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What’s the probability idle Alabama makes the College Football Playoff?

Alabama sits at 5th in the committee rankings after their loss to Auburn. They will not play on this upcoming championship weekend.

What’s the chance Alabama makes the college football playoff?

The four teams ahead of Alabama (Clemson, Auburn, Oklahoma, Wisconsin) all play in their conference championship game. If these teams win, they’re in.

By my numbers, there’s a 10.6% chance all four of these teams win. If one loses, it opens the door for Alabama.

The problem for Alabama is that the 3 teams below them (Miami, Georgia, Ohio State) also play in conference championship games.

The remaining opponent of one of the top 4 teams is TCU at 12th. If TCU wins, they most likely don’t jump into the top 4, and Alabama makes it. My numbers give this a 28.9% chance.

What if TCU loses but one of the other teams below Alabama wins? It depends on whether the committee moves this freshly minted conference champion ahead of Alabama.

In my simulation, I have a parameter that assigns a probability to whether a conference champion moves ahead of an idle team. In the results above, I assume a 90% chance, which results in a 42% playoff chance for Alabama.

It’s difficult if not impossible to assign a precise value to this parameter. It’s an attempt to model the behavior of fickle human beings.

You could have a detailed model of this based on the record of the teams, strength of schedule, etc. However, with only sparse data, I choose to make it simple: one parameter fits all teams.

If you assume a conference champion automatically jumps one spot over Alabama, then their only chance is a TCU loss. Their playoff odds are 28.9%.

If you assume a conference champion never jumps over Alabama, then they make it if at least one team loses. This probability corresponds to 89.4%. (Take 100% minus the 10.6% chance for all teams to lose).

The truth lies somewhere in between. FiveThirtyEight gives Alabama a 30% chance, the conference champion automatically jumps Alabama scenario. Massey-Peabody puts Alabama’s chances at 70%, suggesting that a new conference champion has a low chance to jump over the Crimson Tide.

What’s the chance Alabama makes the playoff? We really don’t know, but this outlines the range of possibilities.

College football playoff probabilities after week 12, 2017

Auburn still has a long road to the playoff. Cashing in on their 40% to beat Alabama at home is a good start.

The numbers do not like the Pac-12. USC is 11th with a 14.9% chance to make the playoff, which means they need to win the Pac-12 championship game and hope a lot of other contenders lose.

In the past 3 years, we haven’t seen a top contender lose in their conference championship game. This makes life easy for the committee.

Don’t assume the same lack of chaos will happen this year.

College football playoff probabilities after week 11, 2017

Three teams have become the favorites to make the College Football Playoff: Oklahoma, Clemson and Alabama.

Don’t count out Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish got smoked by Miami in week 11, but they can still make the playoff if they win their remaining games against Navy and Stanford.

It helps Notre Dame’s playoff probability that they don’t play in a conference championship game. They can’t lose and fall that final week of the season.

However, my methods do account for the possibility that a team like Ohio State wins a conference championship game and jumps ahead of Notre Dame. There’s no certainty for the Fighting Irish.

Miami moved up into the top 4 of the committee rankings with their big win over Notre Dame. However, they will be 4.5 point underdog in the ACC championship game to Clemson, and it’s unlikely both teams make the playoff.

College football playoff probabilities after week 10, 2017

Penn State drops after their loss to Michigan State, and Oklahoma assumes the top spot after their win over Oklahoma State.

Remember, this list does not rank teams by who would win on a neutral field. This reflects the odds of making the college football playoff, which depends on a team’s remaining schedule.

Oklahoma still has TCU and West Virginia, but they get both of these teams at home. They also have a road trip to Kansas before a likely berth in the Big 12 championship game.

While it isn’t certain that Oklahoma wins these remaining games, it’s an easier path than teams like Georgia and Notre Dame.

Georgia travels to Auburn for a rivalry game with enormous college football playoff implications. If they win, you’ll see their playoff probability rise next week.

My numbers give Georgia a 46% chance to win at Auburn. The win probability should perhaps be higher given that Auburn has injury issues on their offensive line.

Notre Dame travels south to play undefeated Miami. My numbers make this a 50-50 game.

I might lean a bit towards Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have the best rushing attack in the nation with an experienced offensive line and running back Josh Adams. Miami has struggled this season against the run, as they rank 26th in my adjusted yards per carry.

If Miami can slow down the ground game and make Brandon Wimbush throw, they give themselves the edge. Otherwise, it could be a long night for the Hurricanes.

For more on the methods behind these calculations, click here.

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