If it wins out, UCF's playoff chances are better than ever

Why the numbers suggest Clemson is already a lock for the CFP (1:28)

ESPN'S FPI predicts Clemson will have no problem making it back to the College Football Playoff, giving it an 83% chance, the best in the nation. (1:28)

Throughout last year as UCF was in the midst of its second straight undefeated regular-season campaign, a question lingered each week: Did the Knights have a path to the College Football Playoff?

And every time the Allstate Playoff Predictor had the same response: nope.

This year could be different.

Because just two games into the season, the Allstate Playoff Predictor gives UCF a 6% shot to reach the playoff. Doesn't sound like a lot? It isn't. But 12 months ago, the same model put the Knights at under 1%. Relative to that, UCF fans will surely take their current prospects.

Any realistic supporter knows that the Knights will have to have a third consecutive undefeated season in order to have a shot at the playoff. So this isn't just a matter of what UCF's chances are now, but what if it wins out?

It's 30%. That's not bad, and well above their selection-day chances each of the past two seasons. Mix in a pair of Notre Dame losses -- because it's hard to imagine two teams that aren't from a Power 5 conference getting in -- and UCF is up to 34%.

What that number is telling us: It's possible, but they'll still need help from elsewhere. Multiple-loss champions in, say, the Big 12 and Pac-12, while simultaneously avoiding the sort of scenarios we outlined last week that could lead to multiple SEC bids.

So what's different this time around?

Despite the fact that as of this writing it's unclear which of three quarterbacks will start against Stanford this weekend (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App), FPI is actually more convinced of UCF's quality at this point in the season. Currently the Knights rank 16th in FPI -- the highest they've ranked since after their bowl win over Auburn in 2017 when they ranked 15th.

That last part is key. The Auburn victory went a long way toward UCF's legitimacy; at the time of the selection several weeks before that, FPI thought UCF was only the 21st-best team in the country.

Having a better team helps UCF's projections two-fold. First, it makes winning out more likely. UCF has a 20% chance to win out, including its conference championship game. But there's another component: Simply being better -- which likely translates to winning by more -- is also a factor in being selected to the playoff. If UCF beats Stanford on Saturday, whether they do by 1 or by 20 matters to perception.

FPI, by the way, is bullish on the Knights relative to the betting market, predicting roughly a two-touchdown UCF win on average.

While the quarterback uncertainty could be a cause for concern, it seems more likely that the totality of the UCF offense is driving the team's early success -- against weak opponents, yes, but blowing out those teams can be a sign of strong future prospects. According to the PlayStation Player Impact Rating, UCF has an elite offensive line (rating: 96) that includes three first-team all-conference players from last season in Jordan Johnson, Cole Schneider and Jake Brown. That's a completely different model than FPI, of course, but it's an indication that UCF's offensive production isn't all stemming from a single signal-caller.

Ultimately, UCF remains a long shot. But at least this time, there actually is a shot.

Sneaky upset week?

This could be an under-the-radar weekend for a landscape-changing loss. While Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma are all significantly better than their respective opponents this week, all four play on the road. The result? A 49% chance that at least one of the four loses this week.

According to FPI, Ohio State is the most likely of the four to drop a contest this week, with a 22% chance to fall to Indiana. Don't scoff: No one saw their blowout defeats at the hands of Purdue (last year) or Iowa (2017) coming either. And both of those were also on the road.

A loss this week wouldn't eliminate the Buckeyes from contention, but it would drop their playoff chances down to 7%.