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How the SEC or Big Ten — or both — get two teams in the College Football Playoff

Let’s talk about the conference double dip: two teams in the playoff, much to the chagrin of everyone else.

It’s a feat that has happened only twice in the eight previous years of the College Football Playoff era, but it’s a scenario we’re already barreling toward in 2022. The caveat this time: We don’t yet know which conference it will be.

According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor — our model that forecasts the rest of the season and the selection committee’s resulting decision — there is currently a 69% chance the SEC repeats with multiple teams in the playoff and a 32% chance the Big Ten puts two teams in the playoff.

The chance that at least one of those two conferences sends multiple teams selected to the playoff? 85%! (Note: the SEC and Big Ten putting multiple teams in the playoff are not independent events, which is why we can’t simply add the probability of each together). Still: 85% is remarkably high.

For those wondering: the chance that both put two teams in the playoff and shut everyone else out: 15%.

But let’s focus on the 85%, really. And see how each conference can get there.


How the SEC puts two teams in the playoff

Let’s start with the most obvious way: The easiest path is Alabama and Georgia winning out before facing each other in the SEC title game. Should that happen, the winner is obviously in and the loser is very likely to be in: a 93% chance if Alabama loses and an 86% chance if Georgia loses.

So right from the jump the SEC is in great shape. There’s a 19% chance that is exactly what happens — again, fairly remarkable for needing two teams to win out.

But the SEC has lots of cushion beyond that scenario. We can add a loss to the team that wins the SEC championship game with no problem: So a one-loss Alabama beats a previously undefeated Georgia or vice versa, and that gets both into the playoff the vast majority of the time, too.

Or we can add a loss to the loser and it still has a good chance. So for example: Alabama could lose at Ole Miss, still reach the SEC championship game and then lose to Georgia and still have a 73% chance to get in. Or Georgia could lose at Kentucky and lose to Alabama and still have a 38% chance to earn a berth. The strength of Alabama and Georgia — who rank No. 1 and No. 3 in the FPI — and the strength of Alabama’s schedule (projected to be the fourth-most difficult) grant those teams that kind of flexibility. Georgia’s schedule is projected to be only 36th-most difficult in the FBS, so it doesn’t quite get that same kind of leeway in the model’s mind.

For Alabama and Georgia, there’s also one more way: Say Alabama loses to LSU and only LSU, and therefore misses out on the SEC title game. In that circumstance, the Crimson Tide would have a shockingly high 92% chance at the playoff as the model figures the committee would reward Alabama for being — in the FPI’s mind — the best team in the country.

Flip it around and say Georgia loses to Tennessee and only Tennessee and misses out on the SEC championship game: It would have a 61% chance at the CFP.

So there’s a slew of ways just those two teams can both get in. But now let’s layer in the long shots. Certainly they could just win the SEC — easier said than done — but there are other paths even for those schools.

If Tennessee won every game except its road contest against Georgia — that would include a win over Alabama — and missed out on the SEC championship game, it would have a 51% chance at the playoff. Run the same scenario with Ole Miss losing only to Alabama and the Rebels would have a 34% shot.

There are too many permutations to run through — and we should include LSU in this group as well — but the point is: The SEC has huge blocks of probability to putting two teams in the playoff via Alabama and Georgia, and many smaller slivers that are still feasible that include the long shots.

How the Big Ten puts two teams in the playoff

The Big Ten is obviously in a different situation with its two primary contenders — Ohio State and Michigan — in the same division. If Ohio State lost to Michigan and only Michigan and the Wolverines won the Big Ten, the Buckeyes would have a 73% chance to join Michigan in the CFP. If the roles were reversed, Michigan would still have a pretty good shot: a 63% chance at the playoff with the one loss to Ohio State. That scenario has the further cushion of the eventual winning team losing a different game earlier in the year, which wouldn’t really affect the probabilities.

The Big Ten East has the added wrinkle of Penn State, which could play a similar role as the favorites. If we swapped in Penn State instead of Michigan — losing to an eventual Big Ten champ Ohio State and only Ohio State — it, too, would have a chance but much less (37% shot). That’s because Penn State gets far less respect from the FPI than Michigan — the Nittany Lions are 12th and the Wolverines are fourth, so it’s harder to make the argument Penn State is one of the four “best” teams, though Penn State’s schedule is more difficult.

Then there’s the added element of Minnesota coming from the West. At 4-0, the Golden Gophers have a 10% shot at a surprise playoff berth, which can’t be ignored. And it’s convenient for the Big Ten, because it opens up more double playoff possibilities.

Obviously Minnesota could simply win out to get in (an otherwise undefeated Ohio State team would have about a 4-in-5 shot of getting in the playoff with a loss to Minnesota this scenario). Or it could lose a game — to, say, Penn State — and then win the Big Ten and have a 61% chance at a berth. Or it could win out until the Big Ten championship game, lose there and then have a 28% shot to reach the CFP as a one-loss non-champion. None of that is unreasonable. Minnesota is ranked 14th in the FPI and is an underdog in only one scheduled matchup: the Nittany Lions.

So while the Big Ten’s chances of putting two teams in the CFP are significantly lower than the SEC’s, it shares having a variety of paths to the achievement.

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