The college football regular season is winding down, and there is much intrigue over who will make the College Football Playoff. Using our PFF College grades along with the machine learning capabilities of AWS, we’ve simulated the rest of the college football season thousands of times to come up with our estimates for the probability that each team a.) makes the College Football Playoff and b.) wins the National Championship.
While handicapping what a committee will do with their selections is inherently difficult, especially with only five years of data and what appears to be non-stationary standards of selection, we’ve built in some straightforward criteria that incorporates strength of schedule, strength of victory, conference played in, whether a team made and/or won their conference title game and preseason priors. This has given probably too much deference to a couple of these teams (cough, Clemson and Georgia) and will no doubt spark some debate over the difference between “best” and “most deserving.”
We present our top six, with commentary on each:
1. Clemson (96% to make CFP, 32% to win the national title)
Priors carry here for what has been our highest-ranked team for most of the season. With a very easy path to the ACC title (92% in our simulations), it would take a lot for the committee not to allow in the reigning national champions, especially with how this team is trending. Trevor Lawrence started the year slowly but has earned a 70.0-or-better PFF grade in all but one game since Week 4, and an 85.0-plus grade in each of the last three games. Their defense has earned an 80.0 overall grade or better in three of the last four games, and if Brett Venables can work his magic during the tournament, Lawrence and one of the best groups of receivers in college football should be able to bring back-to-back titles back to Clemson.
2. LSU (81%, 17%)
The most deserving category is swept by the LSU Tigers, who find themselves as one of only three unbeaten teams left yet have played the eighth most difficult schedule in the FBS up to this point. Joe Burrow is the runaway winner of the Heisman trophy and currently leads all of college football with 28 big-time throws. He is the most accurate passer we have seen in the PFF College era, posting an accurate throw on over 76% of attempts. As a passing unit, they rank fourth in the country in EPA generated per attempt. Their offense steals the headlines, but LSU’s defense has been above adequate at hanging onto leads. Their coverage unit grades as the 19th best in the nation while allowing a successful pass play from an EPA standpoint on just 40% of attempts. The Tigers rank seventh overall in both our offensive and defensive opponent-adjusted metrics, making this LSU team one of the most balanced with the highest offensive upside in the country.
3. Alabama (50%, 14%)
A one-loss Alabama squad loses a lot of luster in the eyes of the committee with the season-ending injury to Tua Tagovailoa. They are most likely on the outside looking in at the SEC title game with few opportunities remaining to make a statement for why they deserve to be in the college football playoff. Alabama is clearly the team most dependent on how the committee will make their selections and are the main example of why forecasting the playoff race is incredibly difficult. Thankfully, Mac Jones still gets to throw to the best receiving unit in the country. As a receiving unit, Alabama posts 9.3 yards after the catch per reception; they rank third nationally with an 89.8 receiving grade and have caught over 90% of the catchable passes thrown. The loss to Tagovailoa is significant, but if the only blemish on the Crimson Tide resume is a loss to the number-one seeded team in the college football playoff bracket, then a case can be made by the committee for why Alabama is the most deserving one-loss team in the country.
4. Ohio State (63%, 13%)
Third overall in our opponent-adjusted offensive metric, the Buckeyes also have the third-best EPA per pass attempt in the FBS. Justin Fields has been the only quarterback in the country to keep pace with Joe Burrow, as his 93.2 overall passing grade is tied for first with Burrow. Their offense is clearly one of the best units in the country, but their defense might be the best overall. As a team, the Buckeyes have the highest-graded pass-rush and coverage units in the country. They allow a -.571 EPA per pass attempt, which is by far the best mark in the country. Chase Young is set to return to this defense that has NFL-level talent at every position. Ohio State has its most difficult stretch of regular-season games still to come, which is why we are slightly lower than we probably should be on their current playoff and National Title odds.
5. Georgia (47%, 12%)
Due in large part to preseason priors, we would likely have Georgia favored should they make the SEC title game against a team like LSU, and such a win would likely get them into the CFP despite their mid-season loss to South Carolina. While handicapping them as favorites against LSU is probably a bit aggressive, there are reasons to like the Bulldogs, namely the fact that they have a quarterback and a defense that rivals any in the country, and they will be playing close to home in the Atlanta. The seventh-highest-graded defense in college football boasts the country’s third-highest-graded coverage unit, and they should give Joe Burrow his toughest test so far this season should they meet. Jake Fromm has been underwhelming at times but still has the country’s fifth-highest passing grade. His experience playing in big college football games the last two years could be the difference if Georgia takes care of business the next few weeks.
6. Oklahoma (26%, 5%)
It has not been a banner three games for the Sooners, losing against Kansas State and winning their next two games by a combined four points against Iowa State and Baylor. That said, they have a 66% chance of winning the Big 12 title, and if one or more SEC and/Pac 12 teams falter, there is a case to be made for Jalen Hurts and company if the criteria is wanting the best teams in the tournament. The Sooners' defense would (again) be the worst facet of any team in the College Football Playoff, but their offense, averaging 0.49 expected points added every time they drop back to pass, would likely make the quarter-final game as exciting as their matchup against Alabama last year, a game that they could have won with an extra quarter of play.