Clemson can still reach the College Football Playoff, but Oklahoma’s chances are sliding

Written by on September 10, 2021

In recent seasons, a single loss might have been the end for Clemson‘s College Football Playoff hopes — but not in 2021.

Even though the Tigers lost their season opener to Georgia last week, they are virtually assured one of college football’s final four spots should they win out the rest of the way. The strange thing? The Tigers might — let me stress: might — even have wiggle room for one more loss, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor.

A 12-1 conference champion Clemson has a 96% chance to reach the playoff, and an 11-2 conference champion Clemson — with a loss at NC State, let’s say — still gives the Tigers a 57% shot at the playoff. At that point, it would be out of their hands, largely based on what happens elsewhere, but still very much possible.

Why the difference? It’s all about the schedule and, frankly, the Georgia game itself.

In 2018 and 2019 (2020 isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison because of all the scheduling oddities), Clemson ranked 57th and 83rd (!) in strength of schedule. That latter number particularly left little room for error. But this year, the Tigers are up to 37th in SOS (and 34th if we guarantee they play in the conference championship game, as they did in those previous seasons), ahead of other contenders such as Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oklahoma.

When the committee sits down to evaluate Clemson this year, even if it has two losses, the playoff predictor thinks opponent strength will be a factor.

There is one detail that could hurt Clemson beyond what our model currently sees: its Football Power Index rating. Currently, the Tigers still are holding on to the No. 2 spot behind Alabama, but just barely. If Clemson were to slip just a little bit more (or Ohio State, Oklahoma and Georgia were to move up), the Tigers could fall to third, fourth or fifth in FPI’s rankings. Should that happen, the playoff predictor would expect less forgiveness for a two-loss Clemson from the committee.

Pac-12’s eyes on Columbus

The Pac-12 started the season with a long-at-best shot at the playoff, and that’s still the case with a 7% chance today.

I’m not going to say that Oregon can completely flip the script with a win at Ohio State on Saturday, but it can certainly help. The Ducks are by far the conference’s best hope at putting a team in the playoff, and a win over the Buckeyes would boost the entire conference’s chances to 17% and put Oregon at 13%. A loss would have the Pac-12 down to 6%.

Why such a large gain and such a small fall depending on a win or loss, respectively? Because FPI doesn’t exactly believe in the Ducks in this game, giving them just a 12% chance to win. The good news for Oregon: If the Ducks do win, it would significantly alter what we think about them moving forward, so I’d hazard a guess the Ducks’ chances would increase by even more than we’re estimating now.

Costly wins for Oklahoma, Iowa State

A team’s playoff forecast doesn’t always improve after a win. Case in point: As Oklahoma failed to pull away from Tulane in Week 1, it certainly didn’t feel like that was an indication of a team more likely to reach the playoff than what we previously thought. And it wasn’t! Oklahoma won, yes, but it also fell short of expectations — which means we had to adjust what FPI thought about the Sooners going forward. FPI reduced its expectation for Oklahoma by about four points per game (significant!) after that contest, and it dropped the Sooners’ chances to reach the playoff from 72% to 55%.

The same was true for Iowa State. As recently as last week, the Cyclones were considered a dark-horse playoff contender. But after seeing them just scrape past Northern Iowa 16-10, the playoff predictor is almost all the way out on them, dropping the Cyclones to just a 1% chance.

So what does this all mean for the Big 12 going forward? While the conference started out in a particularly strong position — with an 87% chance to put a team in the playoff — that number has fallen to 68%, despite the conference’s top three contenders all walking away from Week 1 with wins. The good news for the Big 12 is that Texas looks like a possible contender after exceeding expectations against Louisiana, but that wasn’t enough to make up for a shaky start from the Sooners and Cyclones.

Lauren Poe contributed to this report.

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