What surprising college football playoff scenarios could arise this season?
When I triggered the Allstate Playoff Predictor on Sunday morning, something was… different.
I had just sat down with my morning coffee, so the brain was only half functioning. My eyes were shining on Georgia and Alabama at the top. They took a look past disappointing competitors but still in the state of Oklahoma and Ohio. Michigan was up there; FPI loves the Wolverines right now. Cincinnati is in the mix now. But then a few places down – and that’s where I wondered if I was just groggy – is that Pitt? Pitt?
It was not a mirage. The Pitt Panthers have the 10th best chance of reaching the college football playoffs, with a 9% shot, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor. A long shot, yes. But as real as it can be, as far as the model is concerned.
Today we’re dedicating this space to breaking down the Predictor’s most surprising takes as we move into Week 6. And there’s nothing quite like seeing Pitt in the Predictor’s top 10.
Pitt Panthers… playoff contenders?
Pitt is not even class in the AP poll right now. What’s going on?
For starters, the driver for it all is FPI, which is all-in on the Panthers. Pitt ranks 6th for total efficiency this season, which is adjusted to the opponent. And in a way, that’s underestimated, as the Panthers are 6th on offense, 10th on defense and 99th on special teams. Do you know which of these is the least indicative of future performance? You guessed it, the special teams. Quarterback Kenny Pickett is second in QBR – one spot behind Malik Willis of Liberty and one spot ahead of Bryce Young of Alabama.
All in all, even with the previous preseason, FPI believes Pitt is the 10th best team in the country going forward. Remember, it’s not just about recording, but who you played and how you played them. Pitt has a narrow loss to Western Michigan, yes. But he also beat Tennessee on the road, blew up opponents he was supposed to blow up, then beat Georgia Tech on the road by 31 a week after the Yellow Jackets beat North Carolina, and two weeks after losing only by 6 to Clemson.
So what does being the No. 10 REIT team give the Panthers? This gives them a 9% chance of winning the rest of the way. And it is these simulations that interest us. Because now they are one 12-1 ACC Champion Pitt. Maybe even a Pitt Champion ACC 12-1 team who beat Clemson twice.
Is it likely? No, I’m telling you that is precisely unlikely – up to 91%. But in those 9% of simulations, Pitt would be a serious contender, even if he only held a No.10 REIT rating (and he would likely increase). The Panthers’ predicted all-time strength rank would be 4.5. And they would be a Power 5 conference champion with one loss, usually a sure-fire recipe for a playoff contender. With a decent amount of chaos under our belt already – and the Predictor working on a pretty safe assumption, there’s more to come – Pitt would stand a chance if he won.
Penn State has only a 12% chance of making the playoffs
Whatever the Nittany Lions sell, REIT doesn’t buy. They may be ranked # 4 in the AP poll now, but that’s not where our numbers expect them to end.
This is how the model sees it. Ohio State and Penn State are virtually matched in terms of efficiency – which is expected from points added per game, adjusted for opponent’s time and waste. Ohio State was expected to be the best team this preseason. Penn State is due to travel to Columbus later this year. Put these three things together. Why should the Nittany Lions be favored over Ohio State or Michigan (a team that has played better than either team so far) to win the Big Ten East? By FPI, they are not.
Penn State faces a pretty big test this week in Iowa, which should tell us a bit more about both teams. But even if the Nittany Lions overtake the Hawkeyes, they will still have an uphill battle to face.
Texas are yet to exit the playoff race
Texas has an 11% chance of making the playoffs, which essentially makes it the most high-profile version of Pitt history.
Much like the Panthers, Texas has a loss. He ranks 10th in efficiency, which is worse than Pitt, but entered the season with a much stronger past performance. So even with this loss, FPI has Texas as the eighth best team going forward. And also like Pitt, Texas has a well-performing quarterback: Casey Thompson ranks 5th in the Total QBR.
Plus, that loss to Arkansas suffered at the start of the year actually looks a bit better now than it was then – even after a 37-0 loss to the Razorbacks by Georgia.
If Texas wins, it would be a Power 5 conference champion with one (predicted) loss in the REIT’s top 10, and quite possibly two wins over Oklahoma. Their projected SOR rank would only be 2.6 – it would be hard to deny them.
I will say the same crazier is that the Predictor thinks there is a chance that Texas might even have a luck as a two-game losing champion, which is kinda wild for me. But since they would likely have to play Oklahoma twice, their projected SOR rank in that scenario would only be 4.7.
Georgia and Alabama could register in two losses non-champions
No two-losing team has ever made it to the playoffs. Now we’re talking about a two-losing team that isn’t a conference champion?
If Georgia were to, say, lose to Florida and then again in the Conference Championship game, the Allstate Playoff Predictor says the Bulldogs would still have a 71% chance to advance to the last four college football games. And conversely, let’s give Alabama one loss to Texas A&M, then another in the conference championship game – and the Predictor spit out a 70% shot in the playoffs.
Hey, they said the top four teams, didn’t they? Although the committee does not always choose the top four teams, the quality of the team is a factor for them.
As it stands, no team is within six points on neutral ground against either Alabama or Georgia. So it’s hard to imagine a world where, even after a few losses, they aren’t in the top four teams.
Because the SEC is so strong, and they would almost certainly play out in those scenarios, the projected SOR ranks for Alabama and Georgia would only be 3.2 and 3.9, respectively. They could literally have a better and most deserving case even as a two-game losing non-champion! That’s no guarantee due to the number in the loss column, but the Predictor thinks the committee would most likely give the Bulldogs or Crimson Tide the benefit of the doubt, even with two losses.