College Football Playoff 2017: Projecting the 29-team race

If nothing else, Oklahoma’s loss to Iowa State reminded us that a college football season is always a mere step or two from getting weird.

Early in the year, we come up with surefire visions of multiple unbeaten power conference champions, and we craft “who’s in, and who’s out?” narratives based on conferences, not teams.

After the Cyclones’ upset win, for instance, every studio show immediately began discussing whether the Big 12’s Playoff chances were kaput.

It was October 7. There are a lot more losses to come.

And the best way to come to grips with this is to lean into win probabilities.

My Football Study Hall stat profiles feature projected win probabilities (based on S&P+ ratings) for each FBS team, along with the odds of teams finishing with given records. Let’s use that data to paint a picture of the CFP race ahead.

Last year at this time, we did something similar, and it gave us a pretty accurate look at how the race would unfold. At this point, S&P+ said the five teams most likely to finish the regular season with zero or one loss were Ohio State (67 percent), Clemson (65 percent), Michigan (63 percent), Alabama (58 percent), and Washington (52 percent). Four of those five reached the Playoff; the one that didn’t (Michigan) missed out by the margin of an overtime spot in Columbus.

So who is most likely to reach the finish line minimally scathed?

Here are the AP’s current top 25 teams (plus four extra teams not yet eliminated from the title race), along with their odds of finishing with either zero, one, two, or three-plus losses:


Of the teams above, here are the 10 most likely to enter conference championship weekend with no more than one loss:

  1. Alabama: 81% (Most likely losses: at Auburn 37%, at Mississippi State 18%, LSU 14%)
  2. Washington: 65% (Most likely losses: at Stanford 35%, Washington State 27%, Oregon 21%)
  3. Clemson: 62% (Most likely losses: FSU 37%, at NC State 31%, Georgia Tech 25%)
  4. Georgia: 62% (Most likely losses: at Auburn 52%, at Georgia Tech 34%, vs. Florida 20%)
  5. Wisconsin: 52% (Most likely losses: Michigan 35%, at Indiana 26%, at Minnesota 21%)
  6. San Diego State: 51% (Most likely losses: Boise State 49%, New Mexico 35%, Fresno State 27%)
  7. UCF: 50% (Most likely losses: USF 46%, at SMU 43%, at Navy 39%)
  8. Penn State: 44% (Most likely losses: at Ohio State 72%, Michigan 34%, at Michigan State 32%)
  9. USF: 35% (Most likely losses: at UCF 54%, Houston 36%, at Tulane 30%)
  10. Ohio State, which has already lost to Oklahoma: 35% (Most likely losses: Penn State 28%, at Michigan 28%, at Iowa 12%)

The first thing to note: the odds for these top teams are higher than last year.

  • The SEC’s middle class is weaker than in recent years, which gives both Alabama and Georgia solid odds of avoiding traps.
  • Clemson has already survived Louisville and Virginia Tech in conference play and faces only one more S&P+ top 20 team.
  • Washington still has to avoid land mines in Pac-12 North play but avoids USC in the regular season.
  • And Wisconsin avoids Ohio State and Penn State in cross-division play.

Last year at this point, only three teams had a 20 percent or greater chance of reaching the regular season finish line unbeaten. This year, it’s five teams, plus 13 with a 20 percent or greater chance of finishing with one loss.

So it’s looking slightly more likely than usual that the Playoff picture has taken shape already.

It’s Clemson, Washington, and a potential Alabama-Georgia SEC title game winner at the front of the line. But as Oklahoma just realized, there’s still a long way to go.

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