Category Archives: Default

Want To Win A Heisman? Follow These 8 Simple Steps

It’s Heisman Trophy time! In advance of the upcoming announcement, we wanted to scientifically determine how the voters choose the winner. Using our combined expertise in analytics — one of us has a Ph.D. in political science (with a focus on complex systems) and the other was a stats consultant for a professional team — we discovered an amazingly simple formula for becoming a Heisman Trophy winner. We couldn’t keep this newfound knowledge to ourselves, so we thought we’d share our findings with all the college football players out there so they can plan accordingly.

Using the top 10 in the voting each year since 1998,We chose 1998 as our starting point because that was the first season of the Bowl Championship Series, when college football’s true modern era began. (And not at all because the 1997 Heisman race is difficult to model.)

‘>1 we analyzed 191 Heisman nominees to figure out what tends to separate the winner from the rest. Then, we applied it to this year’s likely hopefuls to see how they’d fare.Thanks to a 10th place tie last year, we have an odd number in our sample.


Here’s our foolproof plan for Heisman glory:

(Note: We intentionally jury-rigged some of these rules and thresholds to perfectly explain the past winners in our sample. We know, we know: It’s not exactly statistically kosher for making future “out of sample” predictions — and may or may not violate rules of “basic scientific inference.” But it’s fun! And regardless of our playful cherry-picking, we still might learn something about the selection process along the way, in spite of ourselves.)

Step 1: Be a QB or an RB.

Players eliminated: 35

Players remaining: 156

Who it knocks out this year: Ed Oliver, Houston

We found that only eight positions have ever been among the top 10 nominees for a Heisman, and only two — quarterback and running back — have won since 1998. (The others to make a top 10 all-time are DB, DL, LB, TE and WR,Which were called “ends” in ye olden days of football.

“>3 plus exactly one OL.) Voters’ hard-and-fast dedication to QBs and RBs hasn’t always been as rigid; several receivers and tight ends won the award in previous eras, and Charles Woodson won as a defensive player in 1997.Woodson also returned kicks, though, and occasionally played receiver on offense.

“>4 But for the most part, you aren’t winning the Heisman unless you’re a QB or an RB, particularly in recent seasons. (Sorry if rushing or passing just isn’t your thing.)

Step 2: Be part of a Power Five conference (or Notre Dame).

Players eliminated: 27

Players remaining: 129

Who it knocks out this year: McKenzie Milton, UCF; Rashaad Penny, San Diego State

Of the 11 conferences represented among our 191 players, only five — not coincidentally, the current Power Five conferences of 2017 (so, the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) — plus Notre DameWhich is independent but gets the same treatment as a power-conference school, because, well, it’s Notre Dame.

“>5 were actually home to a Heisman winner. In order to find a Heisman recipient from a non-power conference, you’d have to go back to 1990, when Ty Detmer of Brigham Young (which played in the WAC) took home the award. Although some minor-conference stars have come vaguely close over the past decade — in our sample, Northern Illinois’s Jordan Lynch and Hawaii’s Colt Brennan each finished third — it’s extremely unlikely that one would have a season spectacular enough to offset the voters’ preference for big-program stars.

Step 3: Be on a team that has three or fewer losses.

Players eliminated: 21

Players remaining: 108

Who it knocks out this year: Bryce Love, Stanford; Lamar Jackson, Louisville; Khalil Tate, Arizona

Unfortunately, winning the Heisman isn’t just about individual excellence. The award disproportionately goes to players on the top teams in the country. Since 1998, 32 percent of Heisman winners have been on a team that was undefeated going into its bowl game, and 26 percent were from a team with just one loss. Meanwhile, no player on a team with more than three losses has won the award. That’s bad news for two of this season’s finalists — Stanford’s Bryce Love and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, each of whom plays for a four-loss squad. The good news, Bryce and Lamar, is you can tell your grandkids it wasn’t your fault.

Step 4: Run for 15 or more touchdowns (if you’re a QB).

Players clinched: 6

Players eliminated: 24

Players remaining: 78

Who it knocks out this year: Nobody.

The Heisman loves quarterbacks — they’ve won 14 of the 19 trophies handed out since 1998 — but not always for their passing skills. When a running QB has an especially great season, the voters are quick to show him some love: Of the seven historical QBs with 15 or more rushing TDs (among those we haven’t already eliminated), six — Marcus Mariota, Eric Crouch, Cam Newton, Lamar Jackson, Johnny Manziel and Tim Tebow — ended up winning the Heisman. And the seventh — Kansas State’s Collin Klein — had the bad fortune to produce his season the same year Manziel pulled off the feat with better overall numbers.Manziel crushed Klein in terms of total offense, with 5,116 yards to 3,561.

“>6 We’ve avoided the guideline this year, though; no remaining QB on our list came close to 15 scores on the ground, since Lamar Jackson was eliminated in Step 2.The Heisman world is a harsh world.

“>7 But the broader life lesson remains: It isn’t about personal accomplishment, it’s about how good you are compared with everyone else.

(Note: The statistics we used for historical candidates were through the end of the bowls, which isn’t ideal — but hey, you work with what you’ve got.You might even call it the ol’ “college football try.”

“>8 But because we believe in fairness, we prorated this year’s candidates’ stats for an extra game going forward. You’re welcome!)

Step 5: Meet some basic statistical thresholds (if you’re a QB).

Players eliminated: 28

Players remaining: 50

Who it knocks out this year: Nobody.

Although a player’s statistics aren’t perfectly correlated with his chances of winning the Heisman, there is a bare minimum level of output you have to meet in order to seriously contend for the award. For quarterbacks, those numbers are mostly associated with passing (surprise!), but they can be augmented slightly with rushing. No QB left in our sample won the award with worse stats than:

  • 30 passing TDs
  • 1 rushing TD
  • 11 interceptions

These qualifications cull the list of historical hopefuls considerably, narrowing it down to quarterbacks who were highly productive rather than marginal candidates who survived the previous cuts by being on a good team from a big conference. All of 2017’s remaining QB contenders passed those benchmarks with flying colors, though, so, sadly, this step doesn’t help us zero in on a winner for this year.

Step 6: If you’re a QB, have fewer team losses than the other QBs.

Players clinched: 1

Players eliminated: 12

Players remaining: 37

Who it knocks out this year: Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State; J.T. Barrett, Ohio State

As we mentioned earlier, Heisman voters are all about QBs who just win, baby. So at this stage, we reshuffle every signal-caller who hasn’t yet been eliminated and keep only the passer whose team lost the fewest games heading into its bowl (using total touchdowns as the tiebreaker). There is one exception to this rule: If a QB with more losses registered 5,000 or more yards of total offense in a season when no other passer cracked 4,000, that quarterback leapfrogs everyone to win the Heisman.Obviously.

“>9 But it’s a rare exception, invoked only once in our sample: When Robert Griffin III (whose Baylor Bears lost three games) got the hardware over Andrew Luck (one loss). Talk about tough Luck.RGIII’s win here also eliminates RBs Montee Ball, Trent Richardson and LaMichael James


Step 7: Meet some not-so-basic statistical thresholds (if you’re an RB).

Players eliminated: 15

Players remaining: 22

Who it knocks out this year: Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin; Saquon Barkley, Penn State; Kerryon Johnson, Auburn

Even though they do win sometimes, Heisman life is hard for running backs. Because voters want so desperately to give the award to a QB, the statistical bar a ball carrier needs to clear in order to qualify for the award is pretty high. In our sample of seasons since 1998, no RB won the Heisman with fewer than:

  • 1,980 yards from scrimmage
  • 16 rushing TDs

Those are extremely lofty standards that few running backs can match. None of our remaining running backs met those requirements this season,Bryce Love is currently only 7 yards shy of this requirement and is likely to hit this in his bowl game. But we eliminated him back in Step 3.

“>11 which leaves us with only one clear Heisman favorite for 2017.

Step 8: If no QBs are left, the RB wins. If a QB remains, he wins.

Players eliminated: 10

Players clinched: 12

Players remaining: 0

Who it knocks out this year: Nobody.

Who it clinches the Heisman for this year: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

The final step is a little chaotic. First, you check if any quarterbacks are left after pruning down the list based on statistics and team losses. If there’s a QB who survived all of the checkpoints above, that player wins the Heisman. (Congrats to Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, tonight’s likely winner!) If there is no QB left over, the trophy goes to the running back who cleared all of the statistical benchmarks from Step 7. The one exception: If the remaining QB had fewer than 4,000 passing yards and 40 touchdown passes, and a surviving RB eclipsed 2,200 yards from scrimmage on a team with zero or one losses, the Heisman goes to the running back. (This gets us Reggie Bush over Brady Quinn in 2005 and Derrick Henry over Mayfield in 2015 but preserves Carson Palmer’s win over Larry Johnson in 2002.)Penn State had 3 losses heading into its bowl game that year.

“>12 For running backs, you gotta be in peak form to knock off a qualified QB.

And that’s all there is to it! It’s just that simple. Follow the eight steps above, and you’re guaranteed to be holding the Heisman on a December night in New York City. (Until something unexpected happens — in which case we’ll tweak the rules to make it fit. Science!)

NFL Quarterbacks Are Leaning On The Short Pass — And It’s Not Working

Picture this common scene on a Sunday afternoon. Your team could really use a scoring drive to turn the tide. On a 3rd-and-10, before the quarterback is even pressured, he quickly throws a 2-yard pass, and the receiver is tackled a few yards later to bring up fourth down. The crowd grumbles, the offense casually jogs off the field and the punting unit comes on. Better luck next time.

Sure, once in a blue moon the offense may throw a bubble screen on 3rd-and-33 and end up with a 52-yard touchdown, like the Rams did with Robert Woods against the Giants in Week 9 this season. But that is the rarest of exceptions.

Generally, safe passes like that don’t accomplish much, and we have the data to back that up. How does that 2-yard pass on 3rd-and-10 work out? According to the ESPN Stats & Information Group, quarterback passes thrown no more than 2 yards beyond the line of scrimmage on third down with at least 10 yards to go have been converted only 10.9 percent of the time this season. On throws that travel at least 10 yards, quarterbacks have converted 38.6 percent of the time. So an offense can more than triple its conversion rate just by doing the most obvious thing when trying to move the chains: throwing the ball past the imaginary yellow line on your TV screen.

And yet despite this, NFL teams are leaning on the short pass more than ever. The same league that transformed into a passing league over the past 10 years is slowing morphing into something else: the dump-off league.

There are some risks with throwing deeper, of course, such as a higher interception rate. And in some special situations, getting a first down isn’t the primary goal of a drive, especially when facing third-and-long. Sometimes teams are just trying to get enough yards to make a field-goal attempt shorter. Or with a big lead in the second half, they’re hoping for an easy completion that will run some clock and gain field position.

But when an offense really needs to score points, playing it safe and throwing short of the sticks on third down is often the inferior strategy. We looked at the data from ESPN Stats & Info for passes on 3rd-and-10 or longer for Weeks 1 to 13. We divided the passes between those thrown short of the sticks and those thrown at or beyond the sticks:For reference, a 12-yard pass on 3rd-and-13 would be considered short of the sticks.


Short passes become punts

Key outcomes for passes on 3rd-and-10 or longer, Weeks 1-13

Short of the sticks 672 73.2% 6.6 1.2% 2.4% 12.5%
At or beyond the sticks 390 42.8 9.6 4.4 3.8 42.6

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The completion rate for short throws is more than 30 percentage points higher than the rate for longer passes and yet the conversation rate is more than 30 points lower. This is not surprising because defenses are playing to prevent the first down and are willing to concede a fraction of the yardage. However, this positioning make it very difficult for a team to throw short and run after the catch to convert.

So far we have only talked about third downs, the crucial down for maintaining offensive success. However, analyzing aggressive and conservative passing on first and second down is also important. A bubble screen that loses a few yards to bring up 2nd-and-13 is also putting the offense in a position to fail.

Football Outsiders’ key efficiency metrics, including Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (explained here), are built around the concept of successful plays and are adjusted for factors like the down and distance. For instance, a 5-yard pass on 3rd-and-3 is more valuable than a 5-yard pass on 2nd-and-17. For a pass to be considered a successful play, it must gain at least 45 percent of the needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth. A completion that does not meet those standards is considered a failed completion. Joe Flacco of the Ravens set the failed completion record last season, with 144, and he leads all quarterbacks in 2017 with 95 through Week 13.

It’s not just Flacco. The ineffective dump-off is happening across the NFL. Leaguewide, 26.1 percent of all completions this season qualify as failed completions. That’s the highest rate for a season in the Football Outsiders database, which goes back to 1989, and if the 2017 rate stays at that level, it will break the current high bar set in 2015 (25.1 percent).

This is not to say that the short pass doesn’t have value in the NFL playbook or that every quarterback should begin slinging the ball 25 yards downfield each time he takes a snap. There is no one right way to run an NFL offense, and some teams have been able to use the short pass to devastating effect. To get a better sense of this, let’s look at which quarterbacks throw short most often using air yards stats.This includes passes that drew a defensive pass interference flag but excludes passes that were intentionally thrown away or became intentional grounding penalties.


Football Outsiders has a stat called “Short%” to denote the percentage of attempts that a quarterback threw short of the minimum yards needed for a successful play, as defined above. So if 45 percent of needed yards are required on first downs, then anything shorter than a 5-yard throw on first-and-10 would be considered a short pass here. The league average for Short% in 2017 is 41.6 percent on first down, 45.5 percent on second down, and 42.5 percent on third down. It’s not until fourth down that most quarterbacks realize the importance of needing to convert with a big throw. Short% on fourth down is 26.2 percent (although that is only on a sample of 214 plays).

We looked at Short% on first, second and third downs for quarterbacks who have had a minimum of 200 dropbacks this season. For the 35 quarterbacks, we took the z-score (standard deviations above or below average) of each percentage and added them up, to make sure we were accurately capturing quarterbacks who threw short on all of their downs relative to the league. The quarterback with the largest summed z-score in the table below is the most conservative, as a higher percentage of his passes were short of being a successful play.

Which quarterbacks are the most conservative passers?

Which quarterbacks throw short of a “successful” pass distance the most relative to their peers (as measured by the z-scores — the standard deviations above/below the mean — of the Short%* for each down added together), minimum 200 dropbacks through Week 13 of the 2017 season

D. Brees (NO) 52% 1.38 54% 1.10 53% 1.39 3.87
J. Flacco (BAL) 48 0.79 55 1.28 51 1.12 3.19
C. Beathard (SF) 50 1.07 47 0.19 55 1.65 2.91
A. Smith (KC) 48 0.82 55 1.32 46 0.54 2.68
B. Hoyer (SF/NE) 45 0.42 55 1.27 49 0.90 2.59
J. Cutler (MIA) 42 0.02 51 0.66 56 1.77 2.45
B. Bortles (JAC) 50 1.12 48 0.35 48 0.70 2.17
B. Hundley (GB) 51 1.24 48 0.25 47 0.56 2.05
K. Cousins (WAS) 47 0.70 46 0.03 50 1.05 1.78
J. McCown (NYJ) 49 0.97 47 0.20 46 0.52 1.69
C. Keenum (MIN) 50 1.07 46 0.02 46 0.50 1.59
J. Brissett (IND) 46 0.48 53 1.03 42 -0.06 1.45
P. Rivers (LAC) 44 0.30 51 0.67 45 0.32 1.29
E. Manning (NYG) 43 0.12 55 1.34 40 -0.22 1.25
A. Rodgers (GB) 60 2.38 52 0.89 24 -2.28 0.99
A. Dalton (CIN) 39 -0.43 58 1.66 36 -0.76 0.46
D. Carr (OAK) 43 0.11 45 -0.12 45 0.33 0.32
M. Trubisky (CHI) 29 -1.64 53 1.01 49 0.90 0.28
T. Taylor (BUF) 38 -0.55 44 -0.23 45 0.42 -0.37
M. Stafford (DET) 40 -0.22 50 0.54 37 -0.70 -0.38
C. Newton (CAR) 50 1.07 38 -1.10 39 -0.37 -0.40
J. Goff (LAR) 40 -0.18 41 -0.69 44 0.26 -0.60
D. Kizer (CLE) 37 -0.68 42 -0.52 44 0.28 -0.91
T. Siemian (DEN) 34 -0.97 42 -0.59 46 0.50 -1.05
M. Ryan (ATL) 34 -0.97 45 -0.10 41 -0.09 -1.17
B. Roethlisberger (PIT) 47 0.68 38 -1.11 36 -0.75 -1.19
M. Mariota (TEN) 37 -0.64 46 0.04 33 -1.10 -1.70
C. Palmer (ARI) 29 -1.63 46 -0.03 40 -0.33 -1.98
T. Brady (NE) 36 -0.79 42 -0.54 34 -1.06 -2.40
R. Wilson (SEA) 36 -0.73 37 -1.27 38 -0.52 -2.52
T. Savage (HOU) 38 -0.47 42 -0.55 30 -1.57 -2.59
D. Prescott (DAL) 36 -0.81 32 -1.96 42 -0.05 -2.82
C. Wentz (PHI) 35 -0.92 39 -0.95 34 -1.06 -2.93
D. Watson (HOU) 30 -1.53 31 -2.13 40 -0.26 -3.92
J. Winston (TB) 30 -1.62 32 -1.95 22 -2.54 -6.10

Higher z-scores mean a quarterback throws short more often.
*Short% is the share of passes that fall short of a successful play’s distance (at least 45 percent of the needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third)

Source: Football Outsiders

Some of the names at the top of the list are predictable, including Flacco and infamous short pass maestro Alex Smith. Jay Cutler has been very dink-and-dunk oriented with Adam Gase in Miami this season, while San Francisco’s first two quarterbacks this season (Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard) made the top five.

The real surprise here is the name at the very top: Drew Brees. Not only does he rank as the most conservative passer, but he has consistently stuck to this strategy no matter what the down is. To his credit, Brees has made it work — the Saints rank No. 1 in offensive DVOA and No. 6 in passing. Perhaps more accurately, the running backs are making this offense work. Through Week 13, rookie Alvin Kamara ranked as the best receiving running back while teammate Mark Ingram ranks as Football Outsiders’ top rusher. With two RBs capable of big gains on any play, it’s no surprise that Brees is throwing short early and often. We’ll see if this strategy can sustain itself — the Saints have failed to score 21 points in all four of their losses this season (each was to a playoff contender, including last night’s loss to Atlanta).

At the bottom, seven quarterbacks had a combined z-score below 2.0 standard deviations. That includes the trio of favorites for the MVP race in Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Carson Wentz, whose aggressive styles this year have been a positive for their offenses. Similar things could have been said about Deshaun Watson before Houston’s standout rookie tore his ACL.

But being aggressive is not a magic formula for success as the list plainly shows. Watson’s backup, Tom Savage, has tried to emulate Watson’s aggressive style, but without anywhere near the same success. Likewise, Jameis Winston of the Buccaneers is routinely one of the leaders in air yards per attempt, but his lack of consistency remains a problem for Tampa Bay. In Dallas, Dak Prescott is throwing aggressively, but his receivers are getting the fewest yards per carry after the catch in the league.

Like with any stat, Short% is only one piece of the puzzle, and every quarterback has his own set of circumstances. As we see with Brees, a quarterback can get away with passive play if he’s extremely efficient and the team is still winning.

Few quarterbacks have this type of arsenal or this type of ability, so they would be better served trusting the numbers and resisting the easy dump-off.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Beside The Points For Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017

Things That Caught My Eye

Ohtani narrows it to seven

Japanese pitcher Shohei Ohtani has narrowed his search for a MLB team down to seven, with New York and Boston notably absent from the list. Right now Ohtani looks to be 20 percent higher than the league average in ERA and on-base-plus-slugging, which is nuts. Only a few dozen players each year beat the 20 percent above average benchmark in either stat, it’d be crazy to hit both. [FiveThirtyEight]

Russia’s banned

Russia was banned from competing in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in light of the complex doping regime the nation operated throughout the Sochi games. So far 11 medals have been stripped from Russians. But with the nation out of the 2018 games, it’s worth looking at which nations may stand to gain. Had Russia not competed in Sochi, and its 33 medals been reallocated, China would have left with five more, Norway four, Germany, Canada, France, Italy and the U.S. three. [FiveThirtyEight]

African players making gains in the NFL

Native-born and first-generation African players are all over the NFL, with 30 teams having at least one African on their roster. Cleveland has the league high, with B.J. Bello, David Njoku, Emmanuel Ogbah, Larry Ogunjobi, and Victor Salako. African players have been making steady gains in the NFL since Howard Simon Mwikuta played for the Cowboys in a 1970 preseason game, and players who have returned home to start development programs have accelerated that progress. [The Undefeated]

A Jonas testifies in soccer corruption trial

Kevin Jonas, one of the Jonas Brothers, testified in Brooklyn that yes, he had gone to a Paul McCartney concert in Buenos Aires in 2010. The circumstances surrounding the testimony have to do with the trial of Juan Angel Napout for money laundering, racketeering and wire fraud. Napout allegedly used his FIFA influence to score tickets to that concert. His lawyers refused to concede there even was a Paul McCartney concert, so prosecutors called on a celeb to solve the problem. Soccer is weird. [Vice Sports]

Try out our fun new interactive, Which World Cup Team Should You Root For?

LeBron remains the best

LeBron James remains as good as ever, notching career highs in true shooting percentage, three point percentage, assist percentage, block percentage, and the second highest free throw percentage of his career. While his defense is slightly off his peak performance, James hasn’t really missed much of a step. [FiveThirtyEight]

They did it!

The New York Giants are cleaning house, firing GM Jerry Reese and coach Ben McAdoo after a disastrous season. The team is in the capable hands of defensive coordinator, a man who is 10-38 as a head coach. []

Make sure to try your hand at our fun NFL can you beat the FiveThirtyEight predictions? game!

Big Number

284 kg

Congratulations to Sarah Robles, who won the 2017 IWF World Weightlifting Championships, becoming the first U.S. woman to take gold since 1994. Robles lifted 126 kg in the snatch and 158 kg in the clean and jerk (three kilograms shy of the record) for a total of 284 kilograms. [Team USA]

Leaks from Slack:

emily :


emily :

!! that means the two biggest buildings at nike HQ will be named after Serena Williams and Mia Hamm. hell yeah !!

(also cause I guess the new big WHQ buildings are getting athlete names.. so the whole “She’s the only one!!!” isn’t exactly true)


Oh, and don’t forget
Kasparov with the jokes

Why Democrats Are Finally Pushing Franken To Resign

Three weeks ago, after Leeann Tweeden accused Minnesota Sen. Al Franken of groping her and kissing her without her consent, we argued that Democrats ought to have pushed for Franken to resign. Doing so would have allowed them to claim the moral high ground at a time when allegations of sexual misconduct had implicated both Democratic and Republican politicians — including President Trump and Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama. It would also have come at a relatively small political price, since Franken’s replacement would be named by a Democratic governor and Democrats would be favored to keep the seat in a special election in 2018.

Democrats didn’t see it the same way; instead, the party line was that Franken’s case should be referred to the Senate ethics committee. But the party has since shifted gears: On Wednesday, a cavalcade of Democratic senators — first several female members, such as New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand and Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono, but eventually including party leaders such as New York’s Chuck Schumer — called on Franken to resign. Franken’s office has said he’ll make an announcement about his future on Thursday, which many reporters expect to be a resignation.

So what changed? Most obviously, several other women came forward with accusations that Franken had groped them or made unwanted advances toward them, including two new accusations on Thursday alone.

Unfortunately, this was fairly predictable: Sexual predation is often serial. (Consider, for instance, that, on Jezebel’s fairly exhaustive list of prominent men accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault, all but a handful have multiple accusers.) The lesson is that even if party leaders think that an initial allegation against one of their members may be politically survivable or morally tolerable, it will often be followed by other accusations.

But something else changed too: Democratic leaders got a lot of feedback from voters in the form of polls, and it wasn’t positive.

Voters care about sexual harassment allegations — and thought both parties were mishandling them

Polling suggests that voters care a lot about sexual harassment allegations — a Quinnipiac poll this week, for instance, found that 66 percent of voters thought that politicians should resign when “accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault by multiple people.” And the poll also found that only 28 percent of voters approve of the Democrats’ handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault claims, as compared with 50 percent who disapprove. That’s better than the numbers for Republicans (21 percent approve, 60 percent disapprove), but not by much. Meanwhile, a Huffington Post/YouGov poll last month found equally poor numbers for Democrats and Republicans when voters were asked whether the parties had a sexual harassment “problem.”

Voters are also not necessarily interested in making overly fine distinctions among different types of sexual misconduct. A YouGov poll this week, for instance, found that roughly the same proportion of voters wanted Franken (43 percent resign, 23 percent not resign, 35 percent not sure) and Moore (47/22/31) to step down.A higher share of voters wanted Democratic Rep. John Conyers (58/9/34) and Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold (53/6/41) to resign, by contrast, after being told that they’d used government funds to settle harassment claims.

‘>1 All of this goes to show that voters face a number of complexities when considering these allegations, such as the number of accusers; the severity of the alleged misconduct; the age of the victims and their ability to consent; the amount of time passed since the alleged misconduct; the credibility of the accusers; whether the politicians apologize for the conduct or how persuasive they were in denying the allegations; and whether the allegations involved an abuse of public office. As a human being, I have my own intuitive and moral sense for how to weigh these factors — but as someone who tries to diagnose their political impact, I don’t necessarily expect everyone else to sort them out in quite the same way.

The moral high ground could also be the political high ground for Democrats

It’s reasonable to be a little bit suspicious of polls showing voters to be highly worried about sexual harassment because sometimes partisanship can outweigh voters’ self-professed concerns.

There’s also some partisan asymmetry in how voters interpret these claims. As The Huffington Post’s Ariel Edwards-Levy points out, voters in both parties largely believe sexual harassment claims made against the other party — but Democrats also tend to believe claims made against fellow Democrats, while Republicans are more skeptical about claims made against GOP lawmakers. Note, of course, that Trump won the Electoral College last year and received 88 percent of the Republican vote despite more than a dozen accusations of sexual misconduct against him.

All of this can be frustrating to Democratic and liberal commentators, who complain about “unilateral disarmament,” i.e. the notion that Democratic legislators such as Franken and Rep. John Conyers will be forced to resign because of sexual misconduct allegations while Republicans such as Moore, Trump and Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold will survive theirs because their bases will rally behind them.

This may be more of a curse than a blessing for Republicans, however. Somewhat contrary to the conventional wisdom, the allegations against Moore have had a meaningful impact in Alabama. Moore has put Republicans in an unenviable position: He’ll either lose a race to a Democrat in one of America’s reddest states, trigger a nasty intraparty fight over expulsion, or stay in office but potentially damage the Republican brand for years to come. Voter concern over Republican mishandling of the accusations against GOP Rep. Mark Foley, who sent sexually explicit messages to underaged teenage pages, was a contributing factor in the landslide losses Republicans suffered in 2006. And while it isn’t a perfect analogy because they weren’t accused of sexual misconduct themselves, Missouri’s Todd Akin and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock lost highly winnable Senate races for Republicans in 2012 after making controversial comments about women who had been raped.

So it may well be that Democratic politicians usually resign from office when faced with accusations of sexual harassment while Republicans usually don’t. If so, that could work to Democrats’ benefit. If the Democrat is in a safe seat, he’ll be replaced with another Democrat anyway. And if he’s in a swing seat, the party would often be better off with a new candidate rather than one who’s damaged goods.The electoral penalty that politicians pay for scandals is sometimes enough to outweigh the declining advantages of incumbency.

‘>2 In Minnesota, for instance, Franken’s approval rating has plunged to 36 percent, according to a SurveyUSA poll, down from 53 percent last year. Whichever Democrat replaces him would have to win the special election in 2018 but would then probably have an easier time than Franken holding the seat for the full six-year term that comes up in 2020.

Moreover, a tougher stance toward accused harassers such as Franken makes Democrats look less hypocritical when party leaders such as Nancy Pelosi talk about having “zero tolerance” on sexual harassment.

Maintaining the moral high ground isn’t always easy. It means you have to hold your party to a higher standard than the other party. It means you sometimes have to make real trade-offs. But it can also pay political dividends and mitigate political risks. Democrats just lost an election in 2016 against a historically unpopular candidate because their candidate was disliked nearly as much. The political environment is favorable for Democrats in 2018, but perhaps the easiest way that Democrats could blow their opportunity is if voters conclude that as bad as Republicans are, Democrats are no better. With Democrats coming around to a tougher stance on Franken and Conyers while Republicans equivocate on Moore and restore funding to his campaign, they’ll be able to draw a clearer distinction for voters.

Russell Wilson Will Do It Himself, Thank You

When Russell Wilson and J.D. McKissic connected for a 15-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia in Week 13, the Seattle Seahawks quarterback tied the NFL record for the most passing TDs in the fourth quarter in a single season with 15, set by Eli Manning in 2011. The TD pass also sealed a 24-10 victory over the 10-2 Eagles — the Seahawks’ most impressive win of the season. Seattle improved to 8-4 on the year to move back into a playoff position and now owns an 80 percent chance of making the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL projections. Wilson was stellar in the final quarter on Sunday, going 5-8 on his passes with a scorching-hot passer rating of 122.4. It was yet another impressive display by Wilson, whose remarkable fourth-quarter performances have become so frequent, they are almost expected at this point.

The Seahawks have based the majority of their success over the past few years on their defense and the “Legion of Boom,” which has been one of the most feared units in recent memory. But as the team continues to deal with major injuries on the defensive side, it’s Wilson and the offense that Seattle has relied on. While Wilson’s performance through the first three quarters has been just OK, his fourth-quarter heroics are among the best in the league. Since Wilson entered the NFL in 2012, only Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have kept up with the Seahawks QB in the final 15 minutes of the game.

In the first three quarters of a game, Wilson’s touchdown to interception ratio is 2.5, according to the ESPN Stats & Information Group. Come the fourth quarter, that ratio balloons to 4.2.

The much-deserved hype of Philadelphia sophomore quarterback Carson Wentz and the longevity of New England’s Tom Brady have left Wilson as the forgotten man when it comes to talk of MVP. Wilson may not be having the best statistical season of his career, but after he outdueled Wentz on Sunday, the Seahawks QB earned the right to be at the forefront of the conversation based on how important he is to his team.

Of the five players — all quarterbacks — with the best odds of winning the MVP, according to Ladbrokes, Wilson leads the league in total accrued yards — rushing and passing — and total offensive touchdowns responsible for, and he is second only to Brady in the number of first downs he’s been responsible for.

Russell Wilson’s offense transcends the Eagles’ defense

Comparing Ladbrokes’ top five MVP candidates

Russell Wilson Seattle 2 1 1 23
Carson Wentz Philadelphia 3 1 7 10
Tom Brady New England 1 3 2 8
Jared Goff L.A. Rams 13 10 10 5
Drew Brees New Orleans 11 15 6 2

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information Group, Ladbrokes

What’s evident about all the other quarterbacks is that they’ve received some of the best protection from their offensive lines: Every quarterback except for Wilson has received top-10 pass protection.Percentage of plays the offense controls the line of scrimmage on dropbacks

“>1 The Seahawks’ offensive line ranks 23rd, meaning Wilson has had to scramble for his life on multiple occasions. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Wilson has attempted 95 passes outside the pocket, which is the most in the league and 31 more than the quarterback with the second most, Blake Bortles.

The poor offensive line play also hasn’t helped the Seahawks’ ground game, which is all but nonexistent this season. On the surface, the Seattle rushing attack looks perfectly mediocre with an average yards per rush of 3.90 — good enough for 22nd in the league. But if you isolate the guys who are paid to run (as in, not throw), the Seattle rogues’ gallery of running backs — Chris Carson, Thomas Rawls, Eddie Lacy, someone named Mike Davis — has collectively averaged 3.19 yards per carry. That’s not only the worst in the NFL this season, it ranks 537th among 543 team seasons since 2001.

All this means that the burden is completely on Wilson to move the chains and keep his team in the game — making this Wilson’s most important season. The 2013 champion Seahawks were built on Wilson, a stifling defense and the Beast Mode rush attack. Of those things that aren’t Wilson, one is injured and the other plays in Oakland. And yet, Seattle could all but seal its playoff spot with a win in Week 14 over Jacksonville, which would improve its chances of making the postseason to 92 percent,Independent of other Week 14 games.

“>2 according to our Elo prediction model. Wilson would also boost his MVP credentials significantly by defeating the Jaguars’ defense, which leads the league in total defensive expected points added. If the Seahawks do prevail and make the playoffs, you won’t need to guess who’s responsible.

FiveThirtyEight vs. The Readers

Week 13 in our NFL predictions game — in which we invite you to outsmart our Elo algorithm — saw the readers suffer three heavy losses that started on Thursday night, by predicting that Washington would beat Dallas. They were wrong and lost 15.7 points in the game. The readers then lost 11.1 points by being less confident than our Elo in Baltimore’s victory over Detroit. And the last of the double-digit losses for the readers came on Sunday night when the Seahawks upset the Eagles, which gave readers a loss of 12.8 points. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. The readers gained 10.7 points by being less confident than Elo in the Bears’ chances against the 49ers, and then 10 points in predicting a win for the Vikings on the road against the Falcons.

Make sure you get your Week 14 predictions in early, and thanks for playing.

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 13

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 13 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

CHI 72% CHI 62% SF 15, CHI 14 +10.7
ATL 61 MIN 51 MIN 14, ATL 9 +10.0
LAR 57 LAR 69 LAR 32, ARI 16 +6.7
PIT 66 PIT 73 PIT 23, CIN 20 +2.0
NE 73 NE 80 NE 23, BUF 3 +1.2
OAK 71 OAK 75 NYG 17, OAK 24 +0.2
JAX 75 JAX 79 IND 10, JAX 30 +0.1
KC 62 KC 60 KC 31, NYJ 38 +0.0
TEN 66 TEN 68 HOU 13, TEN 24 -0.7
LAC 89 LAC 89 CLE 10, LAC 19 -1.6
MIA 57 MIA 55 DEN 9, MIA 35 -4.1
NO 66 NO 64 CAR 21, NO 31 -4.2
GB 63 GB 59 TB 20, GB 26 -5.4
BAL 60 BAL 51 DET 20, BAL 44 -11.1
PHI 52 PHI 61 PHI 10, SEA 24 -12.8
DAL 61 WSH 53 WSH 14, DAL 38 -15.7

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Politics Podcast: Will Taxes Be A Pyrrhic Victory For The GOP?



The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast team discusses the policy and political implications of the GOP’s tax policy overhaul, aimed at dramatically cutting corporate taxes. The team also follows up on the fallout from former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn’s decision to plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia.

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast publishes Monday evenings, with occasional special episodes throughout the week. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

Should Alabama’s Résumé Have Trumped Ohio State’s Conference Crown?

The College Football Playoff selection committee had almost gotten away free and clear, without having to make any truly tough decisions this season. Although USC won Friday night (preserving its sneaky playoff campaign), Saturday began playing out exactly how the committee needed in order to avoid controversy: Oklahoma manhandled TCU in the Big 12 title game, eliminating one of the biggest sources of chaos left on the schedule; then, Georgia and Clemson rolled to their respective conference championships, punching certain tickets to the playoff as well. Three teams were in, and the fourth would have been obvious if then undefeated Wisconsin could just take the Big Ten title over Ohio State.

But, in college football, the powers that be rarely get so lucky. When turf permitted, the Buckeyes handled the Badgers Saturday night, setting up a nightmare decision for the committee that was always going to leave somebody angry: Two-loss Big Ten champ Ohio State? Or one-loss Alabama, who spent Saturday watching the SEC championship from Tuscaloosa? (Or the Trojans, to whom our model perhaps surprisingly gave a 20 percent playoff probability on Sunday morning?) In the end, the committee picked Alabama — but the debate will rage on over the month to come.

Decisions, decisions…

Résumé ranks for College Football Playoff contenders and chance of making the playoffs according to FiveThirtyEight’s model as of Dec. 3, 2017

Clemson 1 3 2 3 1 100.0%
Oklahoma 3 7 1 27 6 100.0
Georgia 2 5 3 17 4 98.2
Ohio State 5 2 7 36 8 40.2
Alabama 4 1 4 47 5 28.0
USC 6 14 8 11 13 20.1
Auburn 7 6 5 12 3 11.4
Wisconsin 8 9 6 57 9 2.1
UCF 15 21 9 86 10 0.0

Playoff teams in bold.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information

On Alabama’s side were most of the major statistical yardsticks experts use to evaluate teams. That was true both in terms of backward-looking accomplishments — the Tide rank fourth in Strength Of Record, a measure of how impressive a team’s record was given its schedule (OSU ranks seventh) — and forward-looking talent — ’Bama is the nation’s top team according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, which is designed to predict future outcomes (OSU isn’t an especially close second). The Crimson Tide also dominated their games more thoroughly than the Buckeyes, and came out slightly ahead in FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, a rolling assessment of each team’s performance over time. The overall, season-long résumé metrics clearly favored Alabama.

However, Ohio State could claim something Alabama couldn’t: A conference championship. (Specifically, in a conference various power ratings consider either the toughest or second-toughest in the country.) That is supposed to matter a lot: According to the selection committee’s guidelines, they “will be instructed to place emphasis on winning conference championships, strength of schedule, and head-to-head competition when comparing teams with similar record and pedigree.” Only once in playoff history — ironically, when OSU made the playoff under similar circumstances last season — had the committee ever slotted in a team that didn’t win its conference (or even play for its conference crown). Such titles are perceived to be so crucial that conferences have specifically added championship games in an attempt to boost their teams’ playoff chances.

But the selection committee proved Sunday that conference titles aren’t everything. Defying efforts to reduce playoff qualification to a series of boxes that teams can check off, they appear to have taken a more holistic view of the season in total. Although there were cases to be made for both the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide, Alabama is generally considered the best team in the country by oddsmakers, and it would probably have been wrong to exclude them from the playoff. It’s unfortunate that they had to get in at the expense of a worthy Buckeyes squad, but until the College Football Playoff field is expanded to eight teams, two-loss major-conference teams are usually at risk of being left out of the proceedings.

And now that the playoff is set, we should be in for a highly entertaining college football final four. We’ll get to see the nation’s best offense (Oklahoma) face a Georgia team that excels at everything, and a clash of two top defenses in a rematch of last year’s Clemson-Alabama championship game. Of course, we’ll have to slog through the annual Army-Navy matchup, the formality of Baker Mayfield’s Heisman victory and a bunch of lesser bowls to get there — but it should all be worth the nearly month-long wait.

The GOP Takes A Big Step Toward Passing A Big Policy Goal

Friday was really bad for the Republican Party in that President Trump’s one-time national security adviser Michael Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI and there are indications that he might testify to politically damaging and possibly illegal actions by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and maybe even the president himself. But Friday (and early Saturday) was really great for Republicans in that the party took a huge step towards a goal it had long before Trump was even running for president: a huge cut in corporate tax rates that GOP leaders say will encourage American companies to increase their current workers’ pay and hire more employees. (Many economics experts strongly dispute these claims.)

The Senate voted 51-49 to pass its version of the tax bill. That does not guarantee that the provision will become law. The policies the GOP are trying to pass are unpopular with the public and have the potential to substantially increase the national deficit. The House and Senate versions, moreover, have some major differences, and getting all of the hard-to-please members and factions in each chamber (think Maine’s Susan Collins, Arizona’s John McCain and the House Freedom Caucus) all on board for the same bill won’t be simple.

But this tax bill has advanced much further than the Obamacare repeal, which stalled in the Senate, in a much shorter time period. It has a good chance of becoming law, perhaps even before Christmas. If it does, it’ll have big implications — both in terms of policy and politics.

1. Both the House and Senate versions of this legislation radically overhaul America’s tax system, mostly notably in cutting corporate taxes from 35 to 20 percent, while getting rid of many existing tax deductions in order to make up for the lost revenue. They also substantially cut taxes on certain kinds of businesses that do not organize themselves as corporations. And the bills cut some taxes that disproportionately hit wealthy people. These changes will benefit wealthy business owners like Trump.

In short, this is a full-on embrace of trickle-down economics, premised on the idea that corporations and businesses taking in more money will pass that down to workers. Once enacted, these policies will likely be difficult for Democrats to undo — much like Republicans are having a hard time rolling back the increased Medicaid spending and protections for pre-existing conditions that were key features of Obamacare. It’s just hard to imagine Democrats will find it easy to raise the corporate rate substantially in the future. Companies are likely to suggest any hike in that rate will force them to layoff employees.

2. The Senate version repeals Obamacare’s individual mandate. I expect the House to agree to include the mandate repeal, so it’s likely to be included in whatever law Trump would potentially sign. In other words, this legislation could become part of a series of moves made by Trump’s executive branch that some say amount to a “synthetic repeal” of the Affordable Care Act, even if Republicans couldn’t find the votes to kill that entire law.

3. If ultimately passed by both chambers and signed by Trump, the tax bill gives the president and congressional Republicans their first big legislative win since the start of Trump’s tenure. What does that mean politically? Well, here’s one thing it doesn’t necessarily mean: more congressional seats for Republicans. Since this bill is so unpopular, it’s hard to see this legislation helping boost the congressional Republicans ahead of the 2018 midterm elections — and it may hurt them.

It’s also not clear if this bill’s passage means congressional Republicans will rally around Trump — in general or on the Russia investigation specifically. Sure, Republicans could decide that the success of the tax bill shows that Trump is an effective governing partner, even if he behaves erratically. But Republicans on Capitol Hill could also go in the opposite direction, deciding that a tax overhaul is probably the only big bill that will pass during Trump’s presidency. Under that theory, they would begin to more forcefully distance themselves from him, perhaps even clearing the path for Trump to be impeached and removed from office if the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller shows serious misconduct by the president.

The safest bet, in terms of what the passage of the tax bill tells us about the future workings of Trump and Congress, is perhaps “maybe not that much.” Congressional Republicans are likely to continue to flail both legislatively and in terms of how they deal with an unpredictable president, defending Trump at times, attacking him at others.

But if nothing else, the enactment of the tax bill would shift Trump from a do-nothing president who can’t implement an agenda even with his party in control of both houses of Congress to the president who signed the most extensive tax overhaul in three decades. Trump will likely brag about this bill as a huge accomplishment — a big league one, he might say. He will demand that the “fake news” ” cover the bill’s passage intensely, and that coverage will never be enough for him. Trump spoke often as a candidate about “winning,” and now, after a first year full of political and policy setbacks, he is closer to a huge win as president.

Russia’s Group Is The Easiest In Modern World Cup History

Before the World Cup draw on Friday, there was reason to suspect that Russia would get off easy. As the host country, it were slotted into Pot 1, which made it impossible for them to be grouped with a powerhouse like Brazil or Germany. But it looks like the Russians also had a little luck on their side. In fact, by one metric, Russia’s Group A is the weakest group in modern World Cup history.

Based on Elo ratings — a measure of a team’s quality that takes into account factors such margin of victory, game importance and game location — Russia’s group with Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia has an average rating of 1720, which is 98 points worse than the average of all World Cup teams. That’s the largest gap between group strength and the World Cup average for any group in the World Cup since the expansion to the modern format in 1986.With group play and a 16-team knockout tournament; 24 teams from 1986 to 1994 and then 32 from 1998 onward.


Luck of the draw?

The easiest groups in expanded World Cup history based on the difference between average Elo rating of group and the average of the tournament, 1986-2018

2018 A Saudi Arabia Egypt Russia Uruguay 1720 -97.8
2014 H Algeria Belgium South Korea Russia 1734 -92.0
2010 F Paraguay Italy Slovakia New Zealand 1713 -66.9
2006 G France Switzerland South Korea Togo 1732 -57.2
2002 B Paraguay South Africa Spain Slovenia 1749 -53.0
1998 B Austria Cameroon Chile Italy 1747 -52.3
2002 C Brazil Turkey China Costa Rica 1750 -51.8
1986 B Belgium Mexico Iraq Paraguay 1757 -45.0
2006 H Saudi Arabia Tunisia Ukraine Spain 1744 -44.7
1994 D Argentina Greece Nigeria Bulgaria 1757 -43.6

The Russians avoided a whammy each time a pingpong ball was selected. After Uruguay joined them as the group’s Pot 2 team — Uruguay is middle of the pack, with an 1849 Elo rating — things really started going Russia’s way. Egypt, which has the second-weakest Elo of any team in Pot 3, was drawn, and the group was rounded out with Saudi Arabia, which has the lowest Elo in the field of 32. Compared with all of the potential ways Russia’s draw could have played out, its group ended up being among the easiest 2.2 percent of all possible combinations, according to the average Elo rating of its members.

(Of course, this is even better news for Uruguay, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, because they get to face Russia — the worst Pot 1 team by a wide margin — in addition to one another.)

While Group A is the easiest when compared to the 2018 World Cup field, it actually doesn’t hold the claim for lowest raw score among all groups since 1986. That distinction belongs to Group F in 2010, which featured the defending champion Italy, Slovakia, Paraguay and New Zealand. No team from this group would make it past the quarterfinals.

That said, Russia should stroll into the knockout stage. Indeed, FiveThirtyEight is giving Russia a 74 percent chance of advancing that far, with Uruguay followed closely behind with a 72 percent chance of reaching the knockouts.

Using Elo averages, no group in this next World Cup cracks the top 10 most difficult since 1986, but all are obviously tougher than Group A. Here’s a look at which teams should advance from each:

Group B is projected to be the strongest in the tournament, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index, and will be headlined by an early game between old rivals Portugal and Spain, which will face off for just the second time at a World Cup. The Iberian Peninsula neighbors met for the first time in 2010, when the Spaniards won 1-0 on their way to the country’s first ever World Cup victory. And the duo could meet again on the grandest stage of them all: They have the highest combined chance of making the final of any two teams in the same group.

Powerhouse France, coming off a loss in the finals of the 2016 European Championship to Portugal, will be looking to move through and claim its second ever World Cup trophy. Peru owns a 47 percent chance to make its second-ever knockout stage appearance and first since being defeated by Pelé’s Brazil in Mexico in 1970.

After scraping through the qualifying stages, Argentina is the clear favorite in Group D, with a 74 percent chance of advancing. But all eyes will be on Iceland, which famously beat England in the 2016 Euros on their way to the quarterfinals, to see if the country of just 330,000 people can go on another magical run. And they may be ready to shock the world again: Iceland’s chance of advancing to the knockout stage is just 33 percent, which will likely become even smaller after they face the Argentines in its first game.

After its heartbreaking 7-1 defeat by Germany in front of its home fans in the 2014 World Cup semifinals, Brazil will be out for revenge in Russia. The way the tournament’s bracket is set up, Brazil and Germany could be on a collision course to meet in the final if they both win their respective groups. As it stands, Brazil and Germany have the highest and third-highest chances of making the final in 2018.

Group F is in the mix for being this tournament’s “Group of Death” as reigning champions Germany will be joined by Mexico and Sweden. The Mexicans’ and Swedes’ qualifying chances are separated by just 3 percentage points, which is the smallest difference of any teams drawn out of Pots 2 and 3 in the same group. Rounding out the group is South Korea, which famously made it all the way to the semifinals in 2002, when they co-hosted the tournament, and currently have the third-worst SPI rating of any team traveling to Russia. The prize for second place in Group F? A possible date with Brazil in the Round of 16. Good luck.

Belgium and England will be extremely pleased with how the draw turned out for them, as they’re combined chances of making it out of the group stages are the highest of any two teams in the same group. What’s more, they don’t play each other until the final round of group-stage matches, so depending on how they fare against Tunisia and Panama, the Belgians and English could have already qualified by the time they meet.

The Polish could be the most likely team from Pot 1 to fail to qualify for the knockout stage, as they currently have the second-lowest SPI rating of any team from Pot 1. They’ll be joined by Colombia and Japan, whose qualifying chances are split by just 2 percentage points. This means that Group H is the only group that has three teams with at least a 49 percent chance of making it out of the group stage. With the Colombians ranked the 9th-best team in the tournament and the Japanese being the highest-ranked team of any from Pot 4, Poland faces one of the toughest tests of teams from Pot 1.

–Neil Paine and Dean Strachan contributed research.

How Alabama, Ohio State Or Someone Else Can Crash The Playoff

After 14 weeks of anticipation, we’ve made it: College football’s championship weekend is finally upon us. Come Sunday at noon, the playoff selection committee will reveal its picks for the Final Four — who still has national championship life, and who’s left out in the cold. But we don’t really have to wait until then for clues about which teams will be booking flights for Pasadena and New Orleans on New Year’s Day. Based on what happens in this week’s games and a little tinkering with our college football predictions, we can make an educated guess about what the committee’s choices will be — though it has been known to throw us a curveball every now and then. Here’s what our model says to watch for over the weekend:


SEC Championship: Auburn vs. Georgia

Saturday, 4 p.m. ET on CBS

How the outcome changes teams’ playoff odds

Georgia 44.0% 0.1% 96.2% 47.7 pts
Auburn 58.6 >99.9 9.4 44.9
USC 10.6 11.9 9.0 1.5
Stanford 3.3 3.8 2.7 0.6
TCU 7.1 7.6 6.6 0.5
Alabama 30.4 30.0 31.0 0.5
Ohio State 32.8 33.3 32.3 0.5
Miami 26.0 26.2 25.7 0.3
Clemson 76.5 76.3 76.7 0.2
Wisconsin 45.1 45.2 45.0 0.1
Oklahoma 65.5 65.5 65.4 0.1
UCF 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.0

Using FiveThirtyEight model simulations as of Nov. 29. Average change is weighted by the probability of each outcome.

The winner of this game is practically guaranteed to make the playoff. For Auburn — which the FiveThirtyEight model has favored here with a 54 percent chance of victory — that would mean capping off one of the most remarkable stretch runs in college football history. After losing to LSU on Oct. 14, Auburn had a 5-2 record and was staring at a mere 4 percent playoff probability. But a string of wins that includes beating two No. 1-ranked teams (at game time) has the Tigers set up for a potential CFP clincher. And on the UGA side of things, the Dawgs can get sweet revenge for their 40-17 loss on the Plains in November, stamping a playoff ticket for the first time in program history.

Neither team has much margin for error if it loses, however. We give Georgia a 1-in-905 chance of being picked for the playoff without an SEC title, and while Auburn’s chances are slightly better with a loss (9 percent), the Tigers would need a convoluted sequence of events that includes TCU upsetting Oklahoma just to have any glimmer of hope from the committee. And as far as outside rooting interests go, the outcome here has surprisingly little effect on the rest of the CFP picture. (Even Alabama, sitting at home twiddling its thumbs, doesn’t see its chances budge much either way.) At most, USC needs an Auburn win as part of a very specific scheme that can push its chances with the committee up to a coin flip (more on that later).


Big Ten Championship: Wisconsin vs. Ohio State

Saturday, 8 p.m. ET on FOX

How the outcome changes teams’ playoff odds

Wisconsin 45.1% 2.3% >99.9% 48.1 pts
Ohio State 32.8 58.4 <0.1 28.7
Alabama 30.4 38.5 20.1 9.1
USC 10.6 13.9 6.4 3.7
Clemson 76.5 77.8 74.8 1.5
Oklahoma 65.5 66.7 63.9 1.4
Georgia 44.0 45.0 42.8 1.1
Stanford 3.3 4.1 2.3 0.9
Auburn 58.6 59.4 57.6 0.9
TCU 7.1 7.6 6.5 0.5
Miami 26.0 26.2 25.6 0.3
UCF 0.1 0.1 <0.1 <0.1

Using FiveThirtyEight model simulations as of Nov. 29. Average change is weighted by the probability of each outcome.

Just as the SEC title game is basically do-or-die for the two teams involved, this contest is a simple binary for Wisconsin: Win, and clinch a semifinal berth; lose, and see those chances fall to basically nothing. Fair or not, a one-loss Wisconsin team would not compare favorably with the other playoff contenders, given its weak strength of schedule. For the Buckeyes, however, things aren’t quite that simple. Yes, they can boost their chances with a victory — which our model gives a 56 percent chance of happening — but OSU is far from a lock even if it wins. The Buckeyes will also need TCU to do them a big favor by upsetting Oklahoma — further boosting OSU’s chances to 75 percent — and hope for the committee to look favorably upon their impressive victories (and ignore their 55-24 loss to Iowa).

Beyond the Big Ten, Alabama has the big rooting interest here. Since they don’t control their own destiny, the one-loss Crimson Tide need favorable contrasts in the eyes of the committee — and that means setting up a comparison against two-loss Ohio State, not undefeated Wisconsin. Bama’s playoff chances would be about 18 percentage points higher with a win by the Buckeyes than a win by the Badgers. And USC also requires an Ohio State victory here, as another component of its long-shot playoff bid.


Big 12 Championship: Oklahoma vs. TCU

Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET on FOX

How the outcome changes teams’ playoff odds

Oklahoma 65.5% 99.9% 7.7% 43.2 pts
Alabama 30.4 19.8 48.2 13.3
TCU 7.1 <0.1 19.1 8.9
Ohio State 32.8 27.3 42.1 6.9
USC 10.6 6.2 18.0 5.5
Stanford 3.3 1.5 6.3 2.3
Auburn 58.6 56.8 61.6 2.2
Clemson 76.5 75.0 79.0 1.9
Miami 26.0 25.2 27.3 1.0
Wisconsin 45.1 44.6 45.9 0.6
Georgia 44.0 43.6 44.7 0.5
UCF 0.1 <0.1 0.1 <0.1

Using FiveThirtyEight model simulations as of Nov. 29. Average change is weighted by the probability of each outcome.

Much like Wisconsin and both SEC title contestants, Oklahoma can basically assure itself of a playoff berth with a victory over TCU here. With a one-loss résumé accentuated by the most dominating offense in the nation (plus another win over a top-15 team if they do beat the Frogs), the Sooners can also help vindicate the Big 12’s decision to revive its conference championship game this year. But that decision could very well backfire on the conference, too, and leave it without a playoff team yet again if TCU pulls off the upset. We give the Sooners a 63 percent chance of winning and making all of this moot; there’s even an unlikely backdoor route for OU if it loses that involves Ohio State winning the Big Ten. But the most straightforward path for Oklahoma (and the Big 12) is a Sooner victory.

For TCU’s part, its playoff hopes are remote (if not nonexistent) and wouldn’t crack 20 percent even if it does upset the Sooners. According to the swing in our model’s playoff chances, Alabama actually has the second-greatest stake in the Big 12 Championship of any team in the country, including the Frogs. Bama would see its CFP chances swell from 30 percent to 48 percent if TCU beats Oklahoma, since the one-loss Tide are directly competing with the Sooners for a playoff spot. (In fact, Alabama fans should be watching this matchup far more intently than they will the SEC title game.) Likewise, Ohio State has a big stake in TCU winning, as does USC and several other contenders. In terms of outside rooting interests, this Big 12 title game is easily the most important game of the weekend.


ACC Championship: Clemson vs. Miami

Saturday, 8 p.m. ET on ABC

How the outcome changes teams’ playoff odds

Miami 26.0% <0.1% 89.2% 36.8 pts
Clemson 76.5 >99.9 19.2 33.3
USC 10.6 11.2 9.1 0.9
Ohio State 32.8 33.4 31.4 0.8
Auburn 58.6 59.1 57.2 0.8
Stanford 3.3 3.7 2.3 0.6
Wisconsin 45.1 44.7 45.9 0.5
Alabama 30.4 30.7 29.8 0.4
TCU 7.1 7.4 6.6 0.3
Oklahoma 65.5 65.6 65.2 0.1
UCF 0.1 0.1 0.1 <0.1
Georgia 44.0 44.0 44.0 <0.1

Using FiveThirtyEight model simulations as of Nov. 29. Average change is weighted by the probability of each outcome.

The ACC Championship is also very close to an NCAA quarterfinal. Certainly the committee is guaranteed to take Clemson (which placed No. 1 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings) if the Tigers beat Miami for the conference crown — which our model assigns a 71 percent probability of happening. If the Canes win, our model thinks there’s roughly an 11 percent chance that they’d somehow be on the outs — think a universe in which Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Georgia all win and the committee prefers Alabama’s résumé to Miami’s — but that’s unlikely. (Miami is only one slot behind Alabama in strength of record before a hypothetical win over Clemson.)

Then again, our model also says the Tigers would have about a 19 percent chance of making the playoff even if they don’t beat Miami, a scenario that most likely involves TCU and Ohio State victories muddying the water for the committee. And several other teams across the country would benefit from Clemson winning, most notably USC (in Step 5 of the Trojans’ improbable CFP charge).


Pac-12 Championship: Southern California vs. Stanford

Friday, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN

How the outcome changes teams’ playoff odds

USC 10.6% <0.1% 23.6% 11.7 pts
Stanford 3.3 6.0 <0.1 3.0
Ohio State 32.8 35.5 29.5 3.0
Alabama 30.4 32.8 27.5 2.6
TCU 7.1 8.9 4.9 2.0
Clemson 76.5 76.9 76.0 0.4
Auburn 58.6 58.9 58.2 0.4
Oklahoma 65.5 65.8 65.1 0.3
Miami 26.0 26.1 25.9 0.1
Wisconsin 45.1 45.0 45.1 0.1
UCF 0.1 0.1 <0.1 <0.1
Georgia 44.0 44.0 44.0 <0.1

Using FiveThirtyEight model simulations as of Nov. 29. Average change is weighted by the probability of each outcome.

With Stanford’s College Football Playoff chances slim at best — they’ll be only 6 percent even if the Cardinal wins the Pac-12 — the only real playoff implication for this game involves a guerilla playoff push by a USC team that hasn’t ranked in the AP top 10 since September. The Trojans seemed dead in the water after being crushed by Notre Dame six weeks ago, but they’ve strung together just enough victories to stay on the periphery of the playoff conversation. Now, their best-case playoff scenario depends on the following outcomes, with games listed in order of importance:

  • USC beats Stanford (45 percent probability)
  • TCU beats Oklahoma (37 percent)
  • Ohio State beats Wisconsin (56 percent)
  • Auburn beats Georgia (54 percent)
  • Clemson beats Miami (71 percent)
  • Memphis beats UCF (36 percent)

If all of that happens, the Trojans’ playoff chances would rise to 51 percent; the playoff field would most likely be Auburn, Clemson, Ohio State and whichever team the committee prefers between USC, Alabama and TCU. It’s not an especially likely set of circumstances — but then again, nothing about this Trojan resurgence has been likely.

The only other game with potential playoff implications is the AAC Championship Game between Central Florida, which is making a bid for a perfect season, and Memphis. Sadly, because of UCF’s schedule strength, its chances of making the playoff are remote. But the combination of outcomes that gives the Knights the highest playoff probability (granted, still a measly 0.19 percent) involves wins by UCF, Clemson, Ohio State, TCU and Stanford. So, to all the fans of stale memes down in Orlando: Yes, I’m telling you there’s a chance.

But most likely, the playoff will contain the SEC winner, the ACC winner, plus Wisconsin and Oklahoma — if they win — or Ohio State and/or Alabama (or maybe TCU or USC if the committee’s feeling really crazy) should the Badgers and/or Sooners fall. It’s an oddly tidy set of contingencies for a championship weekend that some are calling the best ever. But at the same time, I have a feeling this season isn’t quite out of surprises yet.

Check out our latest college football predictions.