Introducing the College Football Playoff Predictor … which likes Clemson better than Alabama


If there’s one team to bank on making the College Football Playoff this year, it ought to be Clemson — and it isn’t even that close.

While Alabama is the defending national champion, Dabo Swinney’s team has a 67 percent chance to reach the playoff — a full 20 percent better than the Crimson Tide.

That’s the conclusion from a new metric from ESPN Analytics: Playoff Predictor. We’ve ranked and rated teams and their accomplishments in the past, but for the first time, we can now provide every team’s chance to reach the playoff — in the preseason and every day of the season.

So how do we come up with such a number for Clemson and every other team? This isn’t just based on the whims of a few football fiends in Bristol; the model is derived from the committee’s past behavior in its rankings (both in-season and on selection day) throughout the first four years of the playoff system. And through study of the committee, ESPN Analytics identified five key factors that determine each team’s chance to reach the playoff.

  • Strength of Record (how much teams have accomplished)

  • FPI (how good teams are)

  • Number of losses (incorporated into SOR but the committee places even more emphasis on losses)

  • Conference championships

  • Independent status (Notre Dame can’t be a conference champion, but all else being equal it might get more credit than a team that didn’t win its conference championship) — despite the committee claiming it wants the four best teams.

That’s why Strength of Record is the most important factor. Fifteen of the 16 playoff teams in the past four years have ranked in the top four of Strength of Record on selection day.

So given all that, why are the Tigers so far ahead of the Crimson Tide and the rest of the field? Two key reasons.

One, because FPI considers Clemson to be the best team in college football this season, thanks in large part to having more returning starters (like Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, who likely would have been first-round picks) than the Crimson Tide. But more importantly: Clemson has a much easier path to a conference championship.

Remember, Alabama has to contend with Auburn in its own division and quite possibly Georgia in the SEC title game. While there are those who envision a Florida State rebound or like Miami this season, there’s no way to argue against the fact that Clemson, which has a 69 percent chance to win the ACC, has less to contend with in its conference than Alabama.

The Tigers also are the most likely team to win the national championship, at 24 percent, while Alabama and Georgia are tied second-most likely at 14 percent each.

Here’s the full breakdown of the 20 teams most likely to reach the playoff:


Surprise contender: Notre Dame

What the heck does the Playoff Predictor think is happening in South Bend?

While most of the above results are chalky, the Fighting Irish stand out as one team whose projection does not fit with the public perception. There are two major reasons for this:

1. Notre Dame is better than many people think. It doesn’t boast the sexiest offense, but the Fighting Irish actually ranked 12th in offensive efficiency last season — a metric which considers the effectiveness of the unit on a play-by-play level and considers the strength of opponents faced. But more important than that, defensively, they ought to be stout. Notre Dame ranked 10th in defensive efficiency a season ago and is returning nine starters to that side of the ball.

2. As an independent, Notre Dame’s schedule strikes a nice balance in 2018. It’s difficult enough that a strong record would be an accomplishment and would catch the committee’s eye, but easy enough that 11-1 — probably the record it needs to accomplish — is within the realm of possibility. Of course, plenty rides on Week 1, when Notre Dame takes on Michigan. A win over the Wolverines would boost the Fighting Irish’s chances of reaching the playoff to 53 percent, while a loss would drop them to 23 percent.


The Big 12 is in big trouble

How reliant the Big 12 is on Oklahoma? The Sooners have a 24 percent shot to return to the playoff, but the Big 12 as a whole has only a 29 percent chance between all of its schools combined. That’s a lower percentage than six individual schools.

If Lincoln Riley can’t get the Baker Mayfield-less Sooners back to the national semifinal, then the Big 12’s best bet is probably Texas. If the Longhorns were to take a major step forward in Tom Herman’s second season and somehow reach the playoff (3 percent chance), it would likely be on the back of its defense. After adjusting for the powerful offenses in the Big 12, last year’s defense actually was the fifth-most efficient in the FBS last season and FPI projects the unit to be the third-best defense this year.

No matter what, the Big 12’s chances at a championship this season are low — even compared just to Notre Dame.


Will SEC double-dip again?

A year after the committee showed it was willing to put two teams from the same conference into the playoff, the SEC has about a 1 in 4 shot of pulling off the stunt again, with three major playoff contenders in Alabama, Georgia and Auburn. But the SEC might not be the only conference with such aspirations.

It’s a long shot, but don’t rule out the Big Ten as a conference that conceivably could put two teams into the playoff given how many contenders it has. Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin all have a double-digit shot at the playoff, and Michigan is right behind at 8 percent. Those values are all independent of each other, which is why the conference only has a 13 percent chance at two teams in the national semifinal. Still, that’s not nothing.


The playoff could hinge on Ohio State and Auburn

All of the six highest-impact games on the playoff race involve either the Buckeyes or Tigers.

What’s so special about those two teams? They are both playoff contenders who play in a division with at least one other major playoff candidate and a conference with at least two other major playoff candidates. Impact is measured by considering the playoff leverage for both teams in a given game and then combining it with the likelihood of each team winning. So in the case of Washington and Auburn in Week 1, both teams’ chances will be greatly impacted by the result of a game that, according to FPI, is truly a coin flip.

Matt Morris and Paul Sabin contributed to this article.



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