There is only one other scheduled contest all year that could raise a team’s chance to reach the College Football Playoff with a win more than the Fighting Irish’s trip to Columbus — only behind Michigan‘s own bout with the Buckeyes — according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor. And there is no scheduled game in which a team faces higher total playoff leverage — the difference between its chance to reach the playoff with a win and a loss — than Notre Dame’s Week 1 contest.
A win over No. 2 Ohio State would bump the No. 5 Fighting Irish from a 30% chance to reach the playoff to a 56% chance, while a loss would drop them to just 25% — resulting in 31 percentage points of total leverage.
And that’s why the game is almost all upside. In giving Notre Dame a 30% chance to reach the playoff in Marcus Freeman’s first season running the show in South Bend, the Allstate Playoff Predictor is already baking in a likely loss to the Buckeyes. FPI estimates Ohio State has an 84% chance to win, so if Notre Dame can win that would shake up the landscape while a Buckeye victory would only slightly reinforce the status quo.
Let’s back up a second. For the unfamiliar, the Allstate Playoff Predictor is our statistical model that — well, you guessed it — forecasts the likelihood of each team reaching the College Football Playoff. It’s an endeavor that requires two distinct phases:
• Projecting the remainder of the season based on the strength and schedules of each team. This part is handled by ESPN’s Football Power Index.
• Forecasting the selection committee’s decision in each simulation, based on the past behavior of the committee.
Put it together and you’ve got the Allstate Playoff Predictor — which we’ll be using to write about the playoff landscape in this space each week. And better yet: You can use the Allstate Playoff Predictor tool on ESPN.com to run scenarios on your own. Does a two-loss SEC champion Georgia get into the playoff? What about a 12-0 Oklahoma team that loses in the Big 12 Championship Game? The Playoff Predictor can tell you the odds.
Slightly less at stake for Ohio State
Make no mistake: Week 1’s marquee matchup is a very important contest for both teams. But the stakes are a shade lower for Ohio State. The Buckeyes playoff leverage swings 24 percentage points — as opposed to 31 for Notre Dame — with a win vs. a loss.
It’s also, unlike with Notre Dame, not the Buckeyes highest leverage scheduled game (meaning conference championships excluded) this year. Ohio State actually has six games with more playoff leverage than their Week 1 game, though some of those are games where the Buckeyes are heavily favored — like their 95% chance to win over Iowa. Still: Ohio State’s games against Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State all carry slightly more leverage than the team’s Week 1 contest and the Buckeyes have between an 83% to 85% chance to win each individually, as is the case against Notre Dame.
The higher leverage in those other contests exists because a loss to either the Wolverines or Nittany Lions would significantly decrease Ohio State’s divisional — and therefore conference championship — chances. In contrast, a loss to Notre Dame keeps a potential 12-1 conference championship — with a virtually certain playoff berth — entirely in Ohio State’s control.
Pac-12 needs a big Week 1 win
The Pac-12 is already in trouble. That’s in part due to the weakness of the conference in general and in part because FPI isn’t really buying an instant USC turnaround with Lincoln Riley at the helm.
The conference’s best shot at a playoff appearance is Utah with a 7% chance. And the Utes face a critical nonconference game in Week 1 — one of only two contests Utah is not favored in this year — at Florida. Meanwhile, the conference’s second-most likely playoff team — Oregon — has a brutal opening matchup against Georgia that FPI estimates Oregon has just a 9% chance of winning.
If both Pac-12 teams fall in Week 1, the entire conference’s chance to put any team in the playoff would drop under 4%. Unlike the example above with Ohio State, the Pac-12 teams are no shoo-ins to receive a playoff berth with a 12-1 record and a conference championship. In fact, as the Predictor sees it: Each would have under a 50% shot to be selected in such a scenario.