How CFP hopefuls can reach all-important top four

Originally Published: November 8, 2017
By Seth Walder | ESPN Analytics

The SEC championship game might not even matter for Georgia's playoff chances.

If the Bulldogs are undefeated and take on an undefeated Alabama, Georgia will have one of the best four résumés in college football, no matter the outcome.

The ability to project Strength of Record (SOR) allows us to play out the scenarios being discussed in offices and sports bars across the nation and determine each team's chances of finishing in the top four of SOR. While SOR doesn't specifically predict the playoff, 11 of the first 12 College Football Playoff participants have finished top-4 in the objective measure of accomplishment (TCU was left out of the 2014 field with a top-4 SOR, in favor of eventual champ Ohio State).

So let's get to the most popular scenarios being discussed right now:

Scenario 1: Undefeated Alabama beats previously undefeated Georgia in SEC championship game

Alabama top-4 SOR chance: 100 percent
Georgia top-4 SOR chance: 100 percent

Whoa.

So this is what we're talking about. If -- and that's a reasonably sized 'if' -- Georgia and Alabama can reach the SEC championship game undefeated, their chances of finishing in the top four in SOR will be 100 percent no matter how the game shakes out. That's pretty wild. And while the selection committee gives credit for a conference championship, Georgia's record of accomplishment would still be very substantial and hard to ignore.

So what happens if ...


Scenario 2: Undefeated Georgia beats previously undefeated Alabama in SEC championship game

Georgia top-4 SOR chance: 100 percent
Alabama top-4 SOR chance: 86 percent

Alabama has a good chance of being able to afford a loss in the SEC championship game under this scenario, but not quite to the degree of the Bulldogs.

Why the difference, if they are both otherwise undefeated?

Georgia will have had a tougher path to its 12-0 record than Alabama. From the perspective of an average top-25 team, Georgia has had the 45th-toughest schedule so far this season, and Alabama has had the 68th-toughest. As a result of that and being undefeated, Georgia currently ranks first in Strength of Record, with an average top-25 team having just a 5 percent chance to accomplish the Bulldogs' 9-0 record given the schedule they've faced. An average top-25 team would have been undefeated facing the Crimson Tide's schedule 17 percent of the time.

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via APQuarterback Jake Fromm and the Bulldogs might have a playoff bid locked up before the SEC title game.

On top of Georgia starting out ahead, if both teams are undefeated heading into the conference title game, SOR won't punish Georgia for losing to Alabama as much as it would knock Alabama for losing to Georgia. Why? Because Alabama is the best team in the nation, according to FPI. So, even a good team would lose to Alabama most of the time. Georgia is also an excellent football team, but the chances of an average top-25 team losing to the Bulldogs are stronger, and therefore a loss would ding the Crimson Tide slightly more.

All in all, the SEC championship game could be less impactful -- résumé-wise -- than we might think for the two teams involved.

But what about for someone else ...


Scenario 3: Undefeated Alabama beats previously undefeated Georgia in SEC title game, and Notre Dame wins out

Alabama top-4 SOR chance: 100 percent
Georgia top-4 SOR chance: 100 percent
Notre Dame top-4 SOR chance: 63 percent

Sixty-three percent might not sound all that bad for the Fighting Irish, but consider: If we look at all scenarios where Notre Dame wins out, the Irish have a 93 percent shot at a top-4 SOR. So this scenario, which guarantees two SEC teams being in the top four, causes problems for Notre Dame. And that doesn't even consider the fact that Georgia has beaten the Fighting Irish head-to-head, which is something the committee might consider (but Strength of Record will not). Another unrelated scenario that Notre Dame will want to avoid -- but can't control -- is Wisconsin winning out. If the Badgers keep winning through the Big Ten title game, the Irish will have a 78 percent shot at a top-4 SOR finish. Still strong for Notre Dame, but clearly hurt by the Badgers' presence.

Wisconsin has a 94 percent chance of being in the top four itself if it wins out.


Scenario 4: One-loss Clemson beats previously undefeated Miami in ACC championship game

Clemson top-4 SOR chance: 99 percent
Miami top-4 SOR chance: 74 percent

For a team that ranked 10th in the initial CFP rankings despite being unbeaten, this has to seem like a pretty good projection for Miami. At the moment, Miami has the second-best SOR, though the lack of respect for the Hurricanes might stem from many people thinking that, quite frankly, they aren't that good. FPI doesn't disagree, ranking the Hurricanes 13th despite all they have accomplished.

But in this case, what we're measuring is accomplishment, and even if Miami wins until the conference title game and loses to Clemson, the Hurricanes still would have accomplished quite a bit. Remember, in that scenario Miami would have beaten Notre Dame.

Speaking of that Notre Dame game, does a loss to the Irish knock the Hurricanes out? Not out of the top-four race, as Miami would still have a 20 percent chance to accomplish that feat even with a loss this weekend.


Scenario 5: Auburn wins out

Auburn top-4 SOR chance: 98 percent

That's right. Auburn isn't finished.

The scenario we're talking about is not particularly likely -- the Tigers have just an 8 percent chance of winning out -- but if they do, could they really sneak into the playoff?

From an accomplishment standpoint, they probably ought to. The Tigers aren't a top contender at the moment, but consider what will have happened if this scenario comes to fruition. They would have beaten Georgia, Alabama, and then Georgia again! That's why we say it's a long shot to take place. But it's not impossible because Auburn is a sneaky-good team. FPI believes the Tigers are the eighth-best team in the nation, with the sixth-best defense and 12th-best offense.

So don't scratch off the Tigers yet. They're still in the hunt.

Matt Morris contributed to this report.

For more from ESPN Analytics, visit the ESPN Analytics Index

Seth Walder

ESPN Analytics

    SPONSORED HEADLINES

    Comments

    Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.


    MORE COLLEGE FOOTBALL HEADLINES