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How conference title game upsets could flip the CFP

Don’t sleep on conference championship chaos.

In the College Football Playoff era, there have been just two upsets in Power 5 conference championship games — and both were Wisconsin losses in games where they were favored by four points or fewer.

And zero top-5 ranked teams have been upset in a conference championship game in the playoff era, but that happened nine times in the BCS era.

But just because it hasn’t happened in the five years of the CFP doesn’t mean it won’t this year.

As it stands now, all five Power 5 conference championships have at least the potential to impact the college football playoff race. With the help of the trusty Allstate Playoff Predictor, let’s scan a few weeks into the future and break down the impact of an upset in each conference, presuming the most likely matchups hold.

SEC: Georgia over LSU
Georgia’s chance to win, per FPI: 47%

I did a double take at how likely Georgia is to beat LSU, too. It’s true though: The SEC championship game is shaping up to be effectively a coin flip, despite LSU’s current ranking as the No. 1 team in the country by the selection committee.

There are a couple of factors here. The biggest: FPI doesn’t think LSU is all that much better than Georgia to begin with. Though the Tigers have beaten Alabama and clearly have the better offense, Georgia’s defensive advantage is almost as large as LSU’s offensive one. The Bulldogs rank fifth in defensive efficiency this season, while the Tigers rank just 19th.

Add in that this will be a neutral-field-but-not-completely-neutral game played in Atlanta — which FPI takes into account — and the margin between these two gets even smaller.

The impact is probably quite straightforward: assuming no other losses for either team, both Georgia and LSU would likely get in, our model thinks. In fact, it probably is one of the easiest scenarios for the committee.

If Georgia loses to Texas A&M and then goes on to beat LSU, the Allstate Playoff Predictor gives it a 26% chance to reach the CFP as a two-loss champion.

Pac-12: Utah over Oregon
Utah’s chance to win, per FPI: 42%

Which Pac-12 team has the better playoff case?

Oregon’s argument is that it played a tougher schedule that featured Auburn out of conference. Utah’s is that Oregon lost to Auburn, which could prove inconvenient in a comparison against Alabama should the Crimson Tide beat the Tigers and fight the Ducks for the last playoff spot.

The Allstate Playoff Predictor has a clear opinion on the matter: The Pac-12 is better off with Oregon winning. Even though the Ducks lost a close game to Auburn, Utah has the same number of losses anyway despite an easier schedule.

If it came down to a comparison between a 12-1 Pac-12 winner and a 12-1 Oklahoma, the model believes Oregon would have a clear advantage over the Sooners but the committee could really go either way if Utah wins the conference.

Big 12: Baylor over Oklahoma
Baylor’s chance to win, per FPI: 24%

It may turn out that this game won’t matter to the CFP race. The Allstate Playoff Predictor has been down on Oklahoma for weeks, and that continues to be the case thanks to the Sooners’ relatively soft schedule and the loss already on its résumé. Going 12-1 with Oklahoma’s schedule would be almost twice as easy as going 11-1 with Alabama’s. What we’re getting at is: even in simulations where Oklahoma wins out, it still has only a 22% chance to reach the CFP. Technically, Baylor has a 6% shot to get in if it wins out, but what we’re really saying is: A Baylor win in this game eliminates the Big 12 from contention.

Big Ten: Wisconsin over Ohio State
Wisconsin’s chance to win, per FPI: 16%

Assuming Ohio State wins its other games, the impact here would be minimal. The Buckeyes would have an 88% chance to get in despite this loss to the Badgers.

In fact, if Ohio State beats Penn State, it really can afford a loss in one of either of its next two games (at Michigan and in the Big Ten championship game).

Believe it or not: If Wisconsin and OSU win their remaining games before playing each other and the Badgers win, the Allstate Playoff Predictor would give Wisconsin a 12% chance to reach the playoff. Its only losses would be at Ohio State and against an Illinois team that looks better now than when they played. Nonetheless, the Badgers would need quite a bit of wreckage elsewhere before this became a real consideration.

We’re using Wisconsin here because, according to FPI, it still has a 56% chance to win the Big Ten West. If Minnesota were to play and beat Ohio State it would be slightly more impactful, because the Gophers would have a better playoff case.

ACC: Virginia over Clemson
Virginia’s chance to win, per FPI: 5%

Clemson’s schedule is so weak that a single loss will very likely derail its playoff hopes, per the Allstate Playoff Predictor.

From an average Top 25 team’s perspective, Clemson has the 81st-most difficult schedule — easier than the schedules for teams such as UConn, Kent State, New Mexico State and Tulsa. Even though FPI considers the Tigers the second-best team in college football, a 12-1 record against their schedule would be enough to keep them out.

Brad Edwards contributed to this article.

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