Six teams occupy to the top tier of College Football Playoff contenders. Or is it seven?
We're about to find out.
Saturday night's showdown in Athens between No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 3 Georgia will shed some light on the Fighting Irish and, if it breaks right for them, thrust the South Bend team near the top of the playoff conversation.
I think most folks would agree that Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, LSU and Oklahoma range from near-locks to at least legitimate contenders for the playoff. As it stands, the Allstate Playoff Predictor would also already include Notre Dame -- which FPI is quite bullish on -- in that group.
But a win over Georgia? On the road? That would fly the Fighting Irish up the board to a 66% chance to reach the playoff -- the third-highest chance behind Clemson (77%) and Alabama (74%).
A big reason why: Notre Dame's schedule has taken a sharp turn toward easy street. Two road matchups at Michigan and at Stanford both appear to be simpler tasks than they did just a few weeks ago. From an average top-25 team perspective, Notre Dame's strength ranks 47th -- not quite Clemson territory but an easier schedule than the likes of Oregon or Wisconsin.
A soft schedule can giveth and a soft schedule can taketh, but in Notre Dame's case the easier road would undeniably be a welcome development in the event of a win over Georgia. At that point, Notre Dame would be a very realistic candidate to finish 12-0. In fact, in 31% of our simulations in which Notre Dame beats Georgia, it wins out in the regular season. And that number might even be a shade low, because if the Fighting Irish do win on Saturday night, their FPI rating surely will get a little bump as well.
What about flip side? What if Fighting Irish can't upset the Bulldogs?
They would lose control of their own destiny, but they would be far from out of it. Our model actually gives Notre Dame a 75% chance to reach the playoff at 11-1 with a loss at Georgia.
That might feel a little high given what we mentioned earlier -- that its schedule is fairly easy -- and Notre Dame going 11-1 against this schedule wouldn't have gotten in. But all Notre Dame really needs to contend at 11-1 is two multiple-loss Power 5 champions. That's the kind of thing that seems improbable now -- it feels like Oklahoma isn't losing and Ohio State will never go down -- but can quickly happen with a couple of surprising regular-season results or -- and I know it has been a while -- an upset in a conference championship game.
Saturday night's game is actually the highest impact remaining scheduled game on the playoff race, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor (excluding conference championships). That's because there would be a large swing in playoff probability for both teams with either result, and, though Georgia is a solid favorite, it's conceivable for the game to go either way.
For Georgia, a loss wouldn't be a death knell either, but it removes a big out for them. There are situations where the Bulldogs could survive a loss in the conference championship game and still get in, as long as they are otherwise undefeated. A loss to Notre Dame greatly diminishes that path.
Eating crow on Ohio State, Wisconsin
One thing about FPI: It isn't stubborn. When it gets something wrong, it's willing to change its opinion. FPI was wrong about Ohio State. And the Allstate Playoff Predictor gave the Buckeyes just a 6% shot at the playoff in the preseason as a result.
The model has course corrected. Ohio State is the third-most likely team to reach the playoff at 43% (behind only Clemson and Alabama) and is the Big Ten favorite with a 48% chance to win the conference.
To a lesser extent, the same has been true about Wisconsin. We were low on the Badgers but now they, too, have a shot at the conference title (28%) and are long-shot contenders for the playoff.
Another test for UCF
We noted last week that UCF might have its best chance yet to actually reach the playoff with an undefeated season this time around, and the Knights did their part last Saturday by easily dispatching Stanford. Now they face what is actually their toughest remaining scheduled contest -- a road game at Pitt (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN2)
UCF is still favored by almost nine points, according to FPI, however. Should the Knights win again, their chance to reach the playoff would reach 11%.