Each week in this space, we examine all the things a certain contending team needs to have happen in order for it to make the College Football Playoff. First up, the Oklahoma Sooners, who are hoping to rally back from their stunning home loss to Iowa State on Saturday.
Current situation: According to FiveThirtyEight’s College Football Playoff projections, the Sooners rank eighth with an 18 percent chance of making the playoff. They had been in a good spot before the loss — third in the nation, with a 45 percent CFP probability — but the unranked Cyclones held what had been the nation’s best offense to its fewest expected points added (EPA) of the season and (more importantly) torched the Sooner defense for its third-worst single-game EPA performance since 2005.1 The shocking defeat ended OU’s 17-game conference winning streak, dropped the Sooners from third to 12th in the AP poll and made their road back to CFP contention a steep uphill climb.
What the Sooners can do: The good news for Oklahoma is that our model gives the Sooners an 11 percent chance of winning the rest of their games, which is better than any other one-loss team in the country except Notre Dame and Ohio State. (And Oklahoma’s head-to-head win over the Buckeyes should come in handy if it comes down to an OU-OSU comparison by the committee.) If they can do it, they should be in great shape for the College Football Playoff: The model gives OU a 92 percent chance of getting in if it wins out.
To pull it off, the Sooners will have to prevail in a couple of tough — but certainly winnable — home contests: against Texas (this Saturday) and TCU (Nov. 11). They’ll also have to win on the road against Kansas State in two weeks and — this is the biggie — beat Oklahoma State in the Nov. 4 Bedlam in Stillwater. ESPN’s Stats & Information Group gives the Sooners about a 58 percent chance of winning that game, and it’s the one they can least do without. According to our model, OU beats the Cowboys in 88 percent of the simulations in which the Sooners make the CFP, while they lose to OSU in 54 percent of the simulations where they miss the CFP.
Here are the most important games left in the regular season for Oklahoma, based on the biggest difference in winning percentages between our simulations where the Sooners make the playoff and ones where they don’t:
Where they need help: In addition to winning their remaining games, the Sooners could use some strategic upsets elsewhere across the nation to get an extra boost. For instance, two-loss Stanford — while probably out of the CFP race itself — can help clear a CFP path for Oklahoma with an upset over 6-0 Washington on Nov. 10. Similarly, Florida State takes out Clemson on Nov. 11 in more simulations where OU is playoff-bound than not. And Michigan can help the Sooners by beating Penn State in two weeks, though the one-loss Wolverines themselves are also trying to claw back into the playoff picture. Just one of these upsets — in concert with Oklahoma running the table from here out — would nearly be enough to guarantee the Sooners safe CFP passage.
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