College football’s goliaths have only gotten stronger.
A year ago, it seemed either Alabama or Clemson were almost destined to hoist the national championship trophy. Now, even more so.
Let’s start with the most outrageous number: According to ESPN’s Playoff Predictor, the Tigers have an 83 percent chance to reach the playoff.
Though they lost some imposing defensive talent in their front seven, the reigning champs have stability at head coach and a superstar talent returning at quarterback in Trevor Lawrence — both key factors in earning the confidence of ESPN’s Football Power Index. And though FPI had Clemson as the top team at this time last year, it thinks this season’s squad is almost four points per game better than what it thought of Dabo Swinney’s team 12 months ago.
Add in the fact that the Tigers’ schedule rates as only the 56th-hardest among FBS teams, and it’s just hard to fathom how Clemson could not make the committee’s top four come Selection Day. We’ll hazard a guess that over the next decade, no team will have a higher preseason chance to reach the playoff — per our model — than Clemson has right now.
To put the Tigers’ schedule into perspective: Their most difficult game, per FPI, is at South Carolina on Nov. 30. Alabama also plays at South Carolina, but that game is the Crimson Tide’s fifth-most difficult game.
Not that Alabama is in rough shape. The Tide have a 71 percent chance to reach the playoff — trailing Clemson, yes, but well ahead of where Playoff Predictor had Alabama a year ago. Though our impression of Alabama took a hit in last season’s national championship game, the Tide also have tremendous potential, with Tua Tagovailoa at the helm of the offense again.
Ultimately, there is a 23 percent shot that Alabama and Clemson meet again in the national championship game. And whether they play each other or not, there’s a 64 percent chance one of the two ends up as champion.
Michigan, Georgia lead group of challengers
Though the Tigers and Tide being the top playoff candidates is a surprise to exactly no one, the next-most likely team to earn the affection of the selection committee might raise some eyebrows: Michigan.
The Wolverines have failed to reach the playoff thus far, but they are in a better situation now than ever before in the playoff era. Coach Jim Harbaugh is bringing back eight starters on offense, including quarterback Shea Patterson, who tied for eighth in Total QBR a season ago.
The result is that FPI expects Michigan to have the best offense (and team) in the Big Ten, catching some of its division rivals in what could be a down season. Ultimately, Playoff Predictor thinks Michigan has a 41 percent shot at the playoff. However, it’s worth noting that FPI is awfully low on Ohio State — maybe even too low — because it isn’t explicitly aware that the Buckeyes have added via transfer an elite quarterback prospect in Justin Fields (transfer QBs are noted in FPI only when they have significant starting experience).
On the other hand, a new head coach-QB tandem does increase variance for Ohio State, and when you’re at the top, variance is a bad thing. No team is in better position than Michigan to seize the reins of the Big Ten and take advantage if the new crew in Columbus doesn’t work out right away.
Though Georgia — which also is bringing back a known quantity at QB in Jake Fromm — is a longer shot to reach the playoff than Michigan, Georgia has a better chance of actually winning the national championship. It makes sense: Most (including FPI) would agree that the Bulldogs are better than the Wolverines, but their path the top four is more complicated with Alabama and LSU in the same conference.
The Pac-12: Well rounded — maybe to a fault
The Pac-12’s two-year playoff drought is in good shape to continue: Our projections give the conference just a 21 percent chance to put a team in the playoff in 2019. The conference’s issue: It has plenty of good teams but no great teams.
The Pac-12 boasts eight teams between Nos. 10 and 36 in FPI’s rankings — but none better than Oregon, at No. 10. With so many teams in the same ballpark, it makes it more difficult to end up with a zero- or one-loss conference champion — generally (but not always) the recipe for a Power 5 conference to put a team into the playoff.
The Ducks are the most likely team to win the Pac-12 and reach the playoff, at 35 percent and 14 percent, respectively, but those numbers would surely be higher if Oregon could have avoided going to Washington, Stanford and USC in addition to playing a nonconference matchup against Auburn.
The only other Pac-12 team with better than a 1 percent chance to reach the playoff is Washington, at 4 percent.
The Big 12: Oklahoma is your only hope
Sorry, Longhorns fans: This is not your season for the playoff.
Despite hype building behind quarterback Sam Ehlinger and coach Tom Herman, the Longhorns simply need to replace too much talent to be a realistic contender in 2019, FPI alleges. With just eight returning starters, Texas is unlikely to challenge Oklahoma the way it did in 2018.
Playoff Predictor gives Texas less than a 1 percent chance to reach the playoff this season. Which is also what it gives every other team in the Big 12 not named Oklahoma. The conference’s hopes are pinned yet again on the Sooners, who have a 35 percent chance to return to college football’s playoff for the third consecutive season. With Kyler Murray moving on to the NFL, that might feel high, but remember that coach Lincoln Riley and the rest of the team in Norman faced the same situation a year ago after Baker Mayfield departed. FPI does give Oklahoma some credit for incoming transfer QB Jalen Hurts.
It’s never too early to start looking at the most likely playoff combinations. The chance of every one of these ranges between only 2-5 percent, but hey, that’s not nothing.
First thing that jumps out: Alabama and Clemson appear in all 10 of the most likely playoff combinations. The 12th-most likely combination (2 percent chance) is the first missing one of the two (in this case, Alabama).
If you’re wondering where the Pac-12 is: It just missed the cut. The 11th-most likely combination features Oregon.
Note that the combinations are for any seed order, and the teams are listed alphabetically.
South Carolina faces toughest schedule
It’s no surprise given that the Gamecocks face both participants in last season’s national championship game (in addition to playing a road contest at Georgia), but Will Muschamp and his team are staring at the hardest schedule in college football. As a result, the Gamecocks are projected to win only 6.1 games despite being FPI’s No. 18-ranked team.
Difficult slates abound across the SEC — which boasts 10 of FPI’s top 20 teams — and the Pac-12 due to the aforementioned depth. The teams with the 10 most difficult schedules all play in one of those two conferences. At the top, South Carolina is followed by USC, Florida, Stanford and Georgia. The Crimson Tide rank 20th in strength of schedule.
Virginia Tech faces the easiest schedule among Power 5 teams.