A good sim should occasionally surprise you. Especially with something as complex and uncertain as a college football playoff season, it’s more or less impossible to see how all the parts fit together ahead of time without one. Alabama and Clemson are pretty straightforward, sure, but what about the other 128 teams? And in what combinations? Our pre-season sim’s answers surprised me.
This is what I saw when I ran the post-sim report. These are the five most likely playoff brackets (teams are listed alphabetically):
Not surprisingly, this says the 3 most likely brackets are Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and one of Oklahoma, Michigan or Ohio State – pretty much conventional wisdom. But look at #5. LSU makes an appearance, which by itself was a little unexpected. But they do so here alongside Alabama and Georgia. That is, there are 3 SEC teams! And this isn’t merely an inevitable random blip in a long sim, but the 5th most likely scenario. Digging in further we find the chips fall this way not infrequently. All told, we show the SEC placing three teams in the playoff 15% of the time. (See below for full distributions for all conferences.)
I’ve never even considered that possibility. It’s entirely possible the playoff committee would avoid doing something that would draw as much ire from other conferences and fanbases as that would. But if they keep acting as they have in the first five years, this could happen. We have refined our model of the committee over the years and do quite well predicting their rankings. They’ve shown a surprising — to me, anyway – preference for choosing the “best” teams over the “most deserving” ones. And have been cavalier about geographic politics. They have also been anything but consistent. But if they remain this “pure”, we could be in interesting territory.
Beyond the politics of the committee, there are three key factors creating this possibility. First is that LSU continues to get stronger. We have them neck-and-neck with Oklahoma at #4 in the country, sporting the #4 defense and (in another surprise) the #8 offense. Second, Georgia doesn’t have to play Alabama or LSU before an SEC title game. That scheduling
device quirk means the three teams only *have* to have 2 losses between them through the conference championships. So, if they’re as good as we expect them to be, and they catch a few breaks, it’s not hard to imagine all three teams with one or fewer losses when the committee makes its final selections.
Which brings us to the final factor: what happens in other conferences. While Clemson has a clear path, all other contenders face serious fights on the way to conference championships and playoff “eligibility”. Oklahoma’s is easiest, but Texas could be “back”, Iowa State is feistier than ever, and Jalen Hurts still figuring out Riley’s offense. Nevermind the Big12’s round-robin + conference championship structure means there is a guaranteed extra conference loss to go around. The Big 10 might have the two other best teams, in Ohio State and Michigan, but they must contend with each other, strong rivals in the East and a much revived West division. If you were picking a year for the Big 10 to eat its own, this isn’t a bad one. Finally, the Pac12 is “blessed” with a weak bottom (and middle for that matter), clearing the way for Washington, Oregon or Utah. But they still have each other, including a regular season cross-division matchup between the Utes and Huskies. And these teams aren’t (yet?) to the point of taking the lower half of the conference for granted in the same way some others have in recent years.
Probably won’t happen. But the *possibility* has arrived. If you like meltdowns and drama in college football, a 3-SEC-team playoff would be tough to beat. It might even accelerate the move to a larger bracket and automatic conference tie-ins. A little silver lining for you if the SEC surprises us with even more dominance than usual this year.