Projecting the Playoff Conversation (Week 6)
A quick look at our latest end-of-season projections (focusing on our “In The Conversation” metric). The aim, as always, is to project the teams we’ll be discussing as we head into the conference championships.
Things may get muddier before it’s all over, but this week they seem to have gotten clearer. Seven teams have separated themselves, all with >50% of being in the playoff conversation at the end of the regular season – Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, Washington, Louisville and Tennessee. There are other undefeated teams, but these (plus Louisville) are who we project to be standing tallest after 12 games. The field is also shallower, with only 13 teams showing a >10% chance of being “in the conversation”. The second group are led by former SWC-mates Texas A&M and Baylor, followed by a tight grouping of West Virginia, Houston, Nebraska and UNC.
There are no formal paths to the playoffs but it’s helpful to think along those lines. To make that easier we plot our win projections by conference. The most certain slot goes to the SEC winner, right now projected as the 1- or 2-loss winner of an Alabama-Tennessee title game. Then the Ohio State-Michigan winner will be a big favorite in the Big 10 title game and, avoiding an upset there, on its way to a possible #1 playoff seed. Similarly, Clemson, the almost-certain winner of the ACC Atlantic, will be a huge favorite to win that title game and roll into a playoff spot. Then things get interesting. Washington could make it easy by going undefeated, but we put only a 24% chance of that happening (see table at bottom). Does a 1-loss Washington team (33% chance) still get the fourth spot? A 2-loss Washington (24%)? There’s a very good chance that a 1-loss Louisville (53%) and, say, a 1-loss Michigan (61%) floating around to make the committee’s 4th selection a delicate thing.
The details will surely sort differently, but that set of 7 teams has some robustness to it. 3 of the paths have 2 strong contenders on them, and the 4th, out West, has a team head-and-shoulders above its competition. It’s early, of course, but the structure of it all favors the 4 playoff teams coming from those 7.
Baylor and West Virginia could still surprise but our models aren’t that impressed, and given the Big 12’s reputation this year, would probably need to go undefeated to make the playoff. We give them both a 3% chance of pulling that off.
Then there’s the Group of 5 “path”. U of H is the only team with a realistic shot, and that basically comes down to their being undefeated. They will be favored in all remaining games except Louisville, but we still give them only a 13% chance of making it through unscathed. If they do, great fun. How about a 1-loss Pac 12 champ Washington vs. an undefeated AAC champ Houston debate?! Plus the Michigan/Ohio State loser trying to convince us that conference championships shouldn’t matter that much.
Finally, we are squarely on the Western Michigan bandwagon, jumping them 15 spots to #31 this week and giving them a 48% chance of going undefeated. But realistically voters/public/committee need a year to warm up to a group-of-5 team before taking them seriously. But a G5 team can at least get into the conversation if they’re undefeated and there aren’t enough 1-loss P5 teams to fill out the bracket. We put a 5% chance of that happening this year for the Broncos.
A bit more detail on the projections for our ITC Top 20. Ohio State is easily the Power 5 team most likely to go undefeated, with a 47% probability.