The initial College Football Playoff rankings and the impact of Week 10’s slate

Tennessee earning the No. 1 seed in the initial College Football Playoff selection committee’s ranking wasn’t just a nice compliment for the Volunteers: It actually increased their chance to reach the playoff by a small amount.

The initial rankings come several weeks and many games before the final selection but the committee’s first decisions still offer a signal into its ultimate ranks. And that signal is immediately incorporated into the Allstate Playoff Predictor.

By virtue of earning the No. 1 ranking now, Tennessee’s chance to reach the CFP crept up to 63% from 60% on Tuesday night. Its chance to win the national championship increased to 11% from 10%.

While the Volunteers had the No. 1 strength of record entering the initial selection and the committee tends to lean on résumé over team strength, the model would not have been surprised if the committee had gone a different direction given that Tennessee only ranks fifth in FPI. Ohio State ranks second in SOR and first in FPI.

How does the initial rank matter? It’s a vote of confidence from the committee now that could translate to breathing room for the Volunteers. It’s easy to imagine how Tennessee could lose this weekend at Georgia and then finish at 11-1 without reaching the conference championship game. That exact scenario has more than a 55% chance of occurring. And in that situation, the Volunteers have a 67% shot at the playoff, according to the Predictor. That would be a little lower if they were starting from a lesser rank.

And how about TCU? Fans of the undefeated Horned Frogs had to feel disrespected with the No. 7 rank the team received, and rightfully so! TCU ranks third in strength of record and — if you’re asking me — résumé is all that should matter. But that’s an aside.

The wild thing from the model’s perspective: The Allstate Playoff Predictor thought it actually could have been worse for TCU, and upgraded the Horned Frogs’ chances of reaching the CFP to 12% from 11% after the rankings.

How could that be? Well, TCU ranks only 14th in FPI, so from the Predictor’s standpoint, the Horned Frogs landing seventh isn’t out of step with how the committee normally behaves. It often correlates with some combination of strength of record and FPI.

(Another aside: One critique we often hear for metrics-based approaches to selecting the playoff is that priors should be removed. In other words: The only action that should matter is action from this season. And I agree! That would make sense. TCU ranks eighth in efficiency, an approximation of what its FPI rank might be without priors. With that kind of rank and a No. 3 spot in SOR, it would be very hard to justify a seventh-ranking for the Horned Frogs. In other words, it’s reasonable to speculate that their reputation from before this season, relative to teams such as Alabama or Michigan, is hurting them with the committee.)

One thing that will have a much larger impact on the playoff race than the committee’s initial ranks? The Week 10 games. In fact, three of the four most impactful scheduled games on the playoff race left this season are taking place this week. Let’s dive into them.


Tennessee at Georgia

Tennessee chance to reach CFP with win: 83%
Tennessee chance to reach CFP with loss: 56%
Georgia chance to reach CFP with win: 78%
Georgia chance to reach CFP with loss: 40%

You’ll notice Tennessee has a better chance to reach the CFP with a win than Georgia with a win, and a better chance to reach the CFP with a loss than Georgia with a loss. And yet, currently, Georgia has a better chance to reach the playoff. How can that be? Because while Tennessee may be No. 1, Georgia is a pretty heavy favorite (74%) in this game, according to FPI.

We mentioned earlier that Tennessee has a 2-in-3 shot at the playoff if it loses to Georgia and finishes 11-1. What about the inverse scenario? Georgia would only have a 51% shot, basically a pure coin flip. The big difference? Even if Tennessee loses to Georgia it will have beaten Alabama.

Alabama at LSU

Alabama chance to reach CFP with win: 59%
Alabama chance to reach CFP with loss: 19%
LSU chance to reach CFP with win: 5%
LSU chance to reach CFP with loss:

Alabama certainly wouldn’t control its playoff destiny with a loss, but the Predictor thinks the Crimson Tide would still have an outside shot even if the Tigers win this one. That’s for a couple of reasons. First, Alabama would still have a small shot at winning the SEC. Second, even if it ended up 10-2, the Crimson Tide might not totally be out of it because of how strong its FPI rank is (2nd) and how difficult its schedule is (4th-most difficult). It would need chaos elsewhere, but it’s at least possible.

For two-loss LSU, it’s pretty simple: win out.

Clemson chance to reach CFP with win: 65%
Clemson chance to reach CFP with loss: 30%

There’s only one way for Clemson to control its destiny for the playoff: finish 13-0. And that’s why this game is so crucial; Clemson only has a 65% chance to win.

Even though Clemson can lose to Notre Dame and still go on to win the ACC, the fact that Clemson isn’t ranked as highly by FPI (7th) and has a weak strength of schedule (62nd) means that the committee certainly could leave the Tigers out as 12-1 ACC champs. If the Tigers do lose to the Fighting Irish and then finish 12-1, they will have a 55% shot at the CFP.

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