Projecting Likely Playoff Contenders
Now that most non-conference games in 2017 are complete, we take a moment to explore the National Championship picture using our model to assess likelihood of teams go undefeated or emerge from their respective conferences.
The last two weeks have certainly complicated the Ohio State vs. Alabama match-up everyone was sure of at the beginning of the year. Alabama remains the most likely power-5 team to finish unblemished as the usual cast of SEC contenders keeps tripping up, though there is at least one giant red-flag remaining on the schedule. Between Auburn’s woeful O-line performance and LSU’s face-plant in Starkville these past two weeks, the only date I’m worried about is when the Tide travel to Starkville themselves. Bama still goes into the SEC championship game at 12-0 in 40% of our simulations, down from 52% last week. No other SEC teams are undefeated in more than 1% of simulations, but if Mississippi State survives the next two weeks, they will be on the board.
The B1G conference grows more and more interesting each week. As we discussed in last week’s podcast, the likelihood of Ohio State to bounce back from the OU game seems pretty good (hey, remember 2015 when we all left them for dead after Va Tech?). The model has OSU winning out 32% of the time. The rest of the conference? Wisconsin (18% undefeated) and Penn State (9%) look great but are untested, and Michigan (1.5%) is lurking as well. Sadly NU’s slim chances went down in flames in Durham. The reality is a B1G playoff berth comes down to the conference championship game – OSU and Penn State are heavily favored over Wisconsin.
The hype is real in my old stomping grounds of Texas and Oklahoma. After a disaster against Maryland, Tom Herman is back on everyone’s minds having still not won a meaningful game in burnt orange. Last week everyone handed the Sooners the conference crown, but now the annual match-up at the Cotton Bowl has a bit more juice. However there are some folks in a different color orange who would scoff at this story line. Our model likes Oklahoma State (8%) more than Oklahoma (4%), partially on account of Bedlam being in Stillwater. The focus on the Red River Shootout has somehow left OK State as the 3rd wheel (a team that was 1 bad call away from a potential Playoff berth last year). Smart money is on the Cowboys right now, though a rematch with the Sooners in the B12 championship game would be a likely tossup.
The ACC, billed to be a wild-ride this year, is suddenly dull. Clemson is so far beyond the competition this race seems already over. Florida State (2% chance to win out) has a great defense, but is in deep trouble having lost QB Francois. I had hope for Louisville, but that was far-fetched apparently. Kelly Bryant looks like a Deshaun Watson clone running that O and the defense is just nasty.
Finally, out west, USC (7%) appeared to be a juggernaut but now looks vulnerable coming off Saturday night’s game. Washington (39%) is clearly in the driver’s seat in the North but hasn’t been tested. They wouldn’t meet until the Pac 12 championship game where the model heavily favors the Huskies (74%) at present. I’m starting to think USC is good, but not great (look at what happened to Stanford).
Darkhorses? Sadly, there are few candidates. The four-team playoff and the Power-5 have seen to that. South Florida could end up going undefeated, but doesn’t play anyone of merit (Illinois!). Boise has already lost, and while the model likes San Diego State (42%), UTSA (34%), and Memphis (33%) to win out, none of them have the path that would really garner consideration from the playoff committee. San Diego State is the closest but needs Stanford go on a run in the Pac-12. Should we get some upheaval, one of these teams could see a miracle, but I think two teams from the same Power-5 conference is more likely. A Michigan-Penn State ordeal could have potential. A 1-loss Mississippi State or Georgia as SEC runner-up is always a possibility. If USC lost a really close game to Washington, I could see both getting in. Oklahoma St-OU as two 12-1 teams? Could setup a 3rd game between them this year though. Regardless, it appears to be a lot of familiar team names – the most interesting story is probably Oklahoma State which has come oh-so-close twice in the last five years.