College football’s top playoff contenders come out on top. Chaos awaits if they don’t.

Back in August, the 2022 college football season was expected to be the most top-heavy in recent memory. Instead, six of the top seven teams in the AP preseason poll are likely to miss the college football playoff — including betting favorite Alabama, which dropped two regular-season games for the second time in more than a decade. And in their place, a notoriously oligarchic playoff system could include two first-time entrants recovering from losing seasons behind new head coaches (USC and TCU) while ruling out the four stalwarts with the most appearances of all time (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State). would and Oklahoma).1

The curtain is now drawn on the regular season, but fans shouldn’t leave the theater until Championship week is over. We here at FiveThirtyEight are known for dabbling in chaotic simulations and the 2022 season will be no exception. Using our model as a guide, let’s hop on the rollercoaster of possibilities for the ninth edition of college football’s most exclusive annual attraction.

Scenario 1: Chalk

College football playoff odds (according to the FiveThirtyEight model) if TCU, Georgia, Michigan and USC all win in week 14

team conf recording next opp. Currently In the scenario
TCU big 12 12-0 kansas st 71% >99%
Georgia SEC 12-0 LSU 92% >99%
Michigan big ten 12-0 Purdue 97% >99%
U.S.C Pac-12 11-1 Utah 46% 94%
State of Ohio big ten 11-1 32% 4%
Alabama SEC 10-2 13% 2%

Includes teams with playoff odds less than or equal to 1 percent in the scenario.

Source: ESPN

It says that even get a new team to the playoffs is cause for celebration. So two first-time signups in back-to-back seasons—the expected outcome of the playoff select committee should the favorites win next weekend—is pure chaos.

Four Power Conference champions, all with one or zero losses, fit the playoff bill most years. That three of the four could go unbeaten is unprecedented.2 But assuming all becomes clear by championship weekend based on current team standings, our predictions are that Michigan, Georgia, TCU and USC all have at least a 94 percent chance of making the playoffs.

The Bulldogs would have an even better chance of becoming the sixth repeat national champion in the last 50 years and the first to accomplish the feat in the playoff era. They would extend the SEC streak of at least one representative in each playoff, which no other conference can claim. Michigan would advance to the playoffs for a second straight season after a stunning blowout of archrival Ohio State last weekend. Essentially without the services of Heisman contender running back Blake Corum, the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes from 530 yards off offense. For TCU, it would be the culmination of a journey that began with the team not ranking in the AP preseason poll after losing two seasons in the last three years. In his first season as coach, Sonny Dykes made the Horned Frogs king of Texas and topped the Big 12 rankings. And like Dykes, USC’s Lincoln Riley started a program for the top of the sport in his first season at the helm. Alongside marquee-transfer quarterback Caleb Williams — the betting favorite to win the 2022 Heisman Trophy — Riley and the Trojans are the class of the Pac-12 and would be the first team in the conference to make the playoffs since 2016. That would be a bittersweet pill to swallow for the Pac-12 as it will lose USC and UCLA to the Big Ten in 2024.

ESPN’s Football Power Index lists the Trojans as No. 14 in the nation, below a quartet of three-lost programs and Texas with four. As selection committee chairman Boo Corrigan said last week, that’s largely because the team’s defense, which ranks 65th in efficiency and would be the second-worst of any playoff team since 2014, isn’t what you’d expect from a playoff-caliber team. USC also trails playoff contenders Alabama and Ohio State in record strength. That record strength could change, however, if USC Utah beats a ranked opponent for a third straight season and emerges as the Major Conference champion.

Scenario 2: Pure chaos

College football playoff odds (according to the FiveThirtyEight model) if Michigan, TCU and USC all lose in week 14

team conf recording next opp. Currently In the scenario
Georgia SEC 12-0 LSU 92% 95%
Michigan big ten 12-0 Purdue 97% 77%
kansas st big 12 9-3 TCU 20% 52%
TCU big 12 12-0 kansas st 71% 45%
State of Ohio big ten 11-1 31% 45%
Alabama SEC 10-2 13% 30%
Utah Pac-12 9-3 U.S.C 8th% 20%
Clemson Acc 10-2 UNC 8th% 14%
Tennessee SEC 10-2 8th% 12%
LSU SEC 9-3 Georgia 4% 5%
U.S.C Pac-12 11-1 Utah 46% 2%
Tulane American 10-2 UCF <1% 2%

Includes teams with playoff odds of at least 1 percent in the scenario.

Source: ESPN

Now let’s try chaos for size.

If three of the four favorites—Michigan, TCU, and USC—lose, our model would plot the Kansas State Wildcats with three losses as the third team, joining Georgia, Michigan, and TCU. The Horned Frogs and Buckeyes would each have a 45 percent chance of qualifying in this scenario. That the Big 12 could get two playoff spots and neither of them would be Oklahoma would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the season.

According to our model, there are currently 10 teams with at least a 5 percent probability of qualifying for the playoffs. That seems awfully high considering the model still likes two of the four3 advance regardless of the outcome of the conference championship game. But style points and timeliness matter to a human committee.

Tuesday’s unveiling of the rankings will be instructive, especially for Ohio State and Alabama, who will not be seen again by the committee. The Crimson Tide lost two games for a total of four points, while Ohio State was beaten by 22 points in its most lopsided home loss since 1999 before most of its current roster was born. Will it matter that the Buckeyes have the lead in record strength if FPI favors the Crimson Tide? It’s unlikely that one could usurp the other in a bye week.

Scenario 3: All hell breaks loose

College Football Playoff odds (using the FiveThirtyEight model) for Michigan, Georgia, TCU and USC all lose in week 14

team conf recording next opp. Currently In the scenario
Georgia SEC 12-0 LSU 92% 75%
Michigan big ten 12-0 Purdue 97% 72%
kansas st big 12 9-3 TCU 20% 55%
State of Ohio big ten 11-1 32% 48%
TCU big 12 12-0 kansas st 71% 45%
Alabama SEC 10-2 28% 28%
LSU SEC 9-3 Georgia 4% 23%
Clemson Acc 10-2 UNC 8th% 20%
Utah Pac-12 9-3 U.S.C 8th% 19%
Tennessee SEC 10-2 8th% 11%
U.S.C Pac-12 11-1 Utah 46% 2%
penn st big ten 10-2 <1% 2%

Includes teams with playoff odds of at least 1 percent in the scenario.

Source: ESPN

Finally, let’s consider the doomsday scenario for the playoff committee: Everyone Four current playoff favorites fall during the championship weekend, beginning with the group’s surprisingly unsurprising surprise: Our model expects Utah to beat USC for the second time this season. In mid-October, the Utes scored in the last minute, converting a 2-point try to beat the Trojans by a single point. With Utah having a 53 percent chance of repeating the result, the Pac-12 road to the playoffs could be torpedoed again in the last two weeks of the season (which seems to happen like clockwork every year).

In a purple forever matchup, Kansas State and TCU will face off in a second round after the Horned Frogs won the first matchup by double digits. Our model likes the Wildcats, but not enough to give them even a coin toss chance of beating the Horned Frogs. LSU inexplicably lost to Texas A&M last weekend, which means if the Tigers manage to topple Georgia, they will likely become the first playoff-era SEC champion not to qualify.4 With three losses a season, our model gives LSU only a 21 percent chance of defeating Georgia. And an unlikely Purdue upset from Michigan probably wouldn’t put the Wolverines out of contention. Our model would still give Jim Harbaugh and company a 74 percent chance of advancing to the playoffs if they lose overall and a 72 percent chance if the other favorites also lose.

But this ultra-chaotic scenario will benefit Michigan’s archrivals Columbus, a scenario only slightly less appealing to the Buckeyes than losses from Georgia and USC and a win for Kansas State. Ohio State would have a 48 percent chance of making the playoffs if the top four teams lost, leaving the selection committee with a huge multi-team dilemma. The model assumes that four teams with playoff odds between 25 and 60 percent would meet and fight for two places.

While that’s unlikely to happen — there’s only a 0.6 percent chance Michigan, Georgia, TCU and USC will all lose during the championship weekend — this situation would be the last dose of disorder the 2022 season deserves, and could go from pre-season certainty to breathtaking freedom-for-all in just 14 weeks.

Check out our latest College Football Predictions.

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