Seth Walder, ESPN Analytics 424d

Introducing projected strength of record, which likes SEC's chances

College Football, Georgia Bulldogs, Alabama Crimson Tide

The SEC basically has a coin flip's chance to boast two of the strongest four résumés when it comes time for the selection committee to make its College Football Playoff choices. Those chances are based on a new metric from ESPN Analytics called projected strength of record (PSOR), which can evaluate a team's chance to have a top-four strength of record (SOR) at the end of the regular season. The calculation is based on what a school has already accomplished, who remains on its schedule and the projected results of those future games based on our Football Power Index. Think of it as an expected résumé.

And when our model crunches the numbers, it finds that the SEC, almost exclusively thanks to Alabama and Georgia, has a 48 percent chance to have two of the top four most accomplished teams at the end of the year. Remember, that accomplishment is based on strength of record, which considers the circumstances of every game -- including the strength of the opponent and where the game is located.

Does this mean there is an even chance the SEC will have two teams selected to the playoff? Not exactly. Remember, humans make up the selection committee and they'll make their own choices about who deserves to make the playoff. Other factors such as a conference title will be included in those selections. Strength of record is simply an objective measure of accomplishment, though it has correlated very well with the committee's selections under the current format -- 11 of the 12 playoff teams have finished in the top four in strength of record. (TCU was left out of the 2014 field with the No. 4 strength of record, in favor of eventual champ Ohio State, which was No. 6 in strength of record). 

At the end of the year, any team with a top-four SOR has made a pretty strong case for itself. Alabama is projected to finish the season with the best strength of record in the country. An average top-25 team would be able to accomplish what we project Alabama to accomplish (12.2 wins) only 9 percent of the time. The Crimson Tide have an 85 percent chance to finish with a top-four strength of record, also best in the country.

Georgia ranks second in both projected strength of record and chance to finish in the top four, with a 57 percent chance.

Who else is a contender?

The teams that follow Alabama and Georgia in the list of most likely to finish in the top four of strength of record mostly align with the public's perception of the playoff contenders.

One interesting case to consider is currently undefeated Wisconsin. FPI gives the Badgers a decent shot to win the Big Ten (27 percent), but based on PSOR, their chances of finishing in the top four in SOR are lower, at 13 percent. That's due to an easy schedule, even when accounting for the fact that any opponent in the Big Ten title game will likely be tough. It's probably not an accident that Wisconsin's chance to finish in the top four in SOR is pretty similar to its chances of winning out (11 percent).

Penn State is essentially in the opposite situation. By virtue of playing in the Big Ten East, a Nittany Lions team that still faces Michigan and Ohio State is a longer shot to win the conference than Wisconsin (16 percent) but has a better chance (33 percent) to finish in the top four of SOR. It makes sense: Penn State has a much tougher road, and even if the Nittany Lions lost at some point, they still could be one of the four most accomplished teams when it's all said and done.

Pac-12 in trouble

You don't need any advanced math to figure out that at least one Power 5 conference will be shut out of the SOR top four (and the College Football Playoff).

And the Pac-12 is shaping up as the heavy favorite to be that conference, if there is only one. USC, Stanford and Washington all have a loss, so the conference is in a tough spot already. And then the team that is most likely to win the Pac-12, Washington, has such an easy schedule that even winning out likely won't even get the Huskies to the top four in strength of record. And the second-most likely conference champion, Stanford, already has two losses. In total, the Pac-12 has just an 11 percent chance to have a top-four SOR finisher.

But with the SEC threatening to have two of the top four most accomplished teams (and considering that there's a slim chance that Notre Dame could steal one of those spots, too), at least two conferences could certainly be shut out of the SOR top four and/or the playoff. After the Pac-12, the ACC ought to be the most concerned, because with Clemson having notched a loss, the league has only a 60 percent chance of having a team in the top four in SOR.

The most at stake

Just like we do for division or conference races, we can see which teams face the highest-leverage matchups in terms of their chance to reach the top four in SOR in the upcoming week. As is sometimes the case with conference leverage, these games often feature contenders squaring off against weak opponents, because the favorite has so much to lose if it, well, loses.

That is the case for Alabama, taking on Tennessee this week. Though the Crimson Tide have a 98 percent chance to win on Saturday, should they lose, their chance to make the top four in strength of record would plummet to 49 percent.

That being said, some of this week's best games -- such as Michigan at Penn State and USC at Notre Dame -- also make the top-10 leverage list because, frankly, a loss for any contender at this point would significantly hurt that team's chances.

For more from ESPN Analytics, visit the ESPN Analytics Index. 

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