NCAA Football

Trying to predict the final College Football Playoff rankings with all possible outcomes

michigan football fan

To objectively say who the best teams in the country are, ESPN has a couple of tools to look at: Team Efficiencies and their Football Power Index.  Team Efficiencies “are based on the point contributions of each unit to the team’s scoring margin, on a per-play basis.  The values are adjusted for strength of schedule and down-weighted for ‘garbage time.'” Football Power Index “is a measure of team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team’s performance going forward.”

Here’s what the top 15 in FPI look like going into championship weekend:

2016 Football Power Index NCAA Week 14

Michigan at No. 3 only confirms the eye test, but while they appear to be one of the four best teams in the country, they still need a lot of good fortune in order to continue playing. It’s interesting to see Wisconsin, Colorado and Penn State all bunched together in that order. It seems more and more that Penn State does not have much of a chance to get in, as the committee clearly stated that see a measurable difference between Ohio State and Penn State. Looking at Team Efficiences only further drives this point home, with Penn State sitting all the way back at No. 21, with Colorado ranked No. 11 and Wisconsin at No. 10. Michigan? No. 2, then Washington #3, Ohio State #4, Clemson #5.

There is also an interesting stat ESPN has called Strength of Record. This stat attempts to see how a team presumably ranked 25th would do if they had a particular team’s schedule, which takes into account home and road games. As defined by ESPN, “Strength of Record takes strength of schedule a step further by accounting for how a team actually did against its schedule. Strength of Record simply cares about the difficulty of a team’s schedule and the result (win or loss).”

When looking at the current rankings, Wisconsin stands out being ranked No. 4 in Strength of Record, but No. 6 in the CFP rankings behind Michigan, which ranks No. 8 in SOR. The committee made a point of saying that they spent over an hour debating Michigan and Washington, so the separation between the two is razor thin. I think it would be safe to assume given what the committee has said, that if Washington loses to Colorado in the Pac-12 championship, the door should be open for either Michigan or the winner of the Big 10 championship.

However, Michigan beat both teams playing in the Big 10 Championship. They also beat Colorado, so despite these championship games potentially boosting these three teams into contention, their wins would only further validate Michigan’s resume.

FiveThirtyEight’s projection model tells a completely different story,  as they see just a 2% chance of Michigan making the playoff if Washington loses to Colorado and Penn State beats Wisconsin. In that scenario they give Penn State a 66% chance to make it and Colorado a 28% chance. That is also assuming an Oklahoma win, if Oklahoma State wins the Big 12 then Penn State’s chances go up to 70% and Colorado down to 27%.

The outlook is even more grim for Michigan if Wisconsin beats Penn State. In that scenario FiveThirtyEight’s projection model gives Wisconsin between 84-87% depending on if Oklahoma wins or loses, with Colorado at 20%. Michigan has less than a one percent chance in that scenario. I have to think they would have more of a chance than that, but losing two of their last three games doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression, so maybe they just don’t deserve to make it, even if they are one of the four best teams in college football.

But that’s where this whole process has been muddied. Are they taking the four best teams? Are they taking the four best resumes? Or are they taking the four best teams at this particular moment in time? I think it’s the latter, but I’d love to see this selection process defined more.

If everything goes chalk on Saturday with Clemson and Washington both winning, the team that gets hurt the most according to FiveThirtyEight’s projection model would actually be Ohio State, regardless of the outcome of the Big Ten championship. In fact, although it seems counter-intuitive, according to the model if Wisconsin wins OSU actually has less of a chance to get in than if Penn State won. They are still extremely likely to get in as a Wisconsin win puts them at 85% and a Penn State win at 90%.

However, what if both Washington and Clemson are to lose on Saturday? The way the committee has Wisconsin ranked ahead of Penn State, they would seem to be the most likely of the two Big Ten teams to get in, and in FiveThirtyEight’s model they are a near lock in this situation at 96%. Colorado is next at 62% and then Oklahoma at 35% before we get to Michigan at 6%.

I still find it hard to believe that Michigan would only have a six percent chance in this scenario, but then there’s the odd look of three Big 10 teams getting into the playoff.  I’ve heard national college football guys saying there’s no way that would happen, in the same breath they’ve said there’s no way the Pac-12 could be left out two consecutive years. That just seems ridiculous since they’re supposed to be objectively picking the four best teams, but there may be some validity to it.

The best part (or the worst part for some teams…TCU 2014 RIP) about this process is that everything can change on Saturday. What if Penn State lays 50 on Wisconsin, or if Colorado completely shuts down Washington? FiveThirtyEight has some incredible tools for CFP predictions, but when it comes down to it, we really have no idea how a randomly thrown together group of human beings is going to decided these four teams. Now how much more fun would it be if they went to eight?

Just for fun, here’s what FiveThirtyEight’s projection model looks like if all hell breaks loose:


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