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The Road to the CFB Playoffs

Part 1: Ranking the Power 5 Conference Contenders. Who has he toughest road to the playoffs?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The onset of the college football playoffs last season has brought a more significant dichotomy to the FBS. The playoff selection population is essentially limited to the Power 5 conferences and Notre Dame. Because of this, conferences have bolstered themselves through realignment (producing a conference championship game) and schools are looking harder at scheduling tougher out of conference games to jockey for position. In the last article, the 2015 Conference Power Rankings were reviewed. This will focus on breaking down the Power 5 a bit deeper and take a look at the top contenders from the rest of the conferences in Part 2.

The data used is based on several iterations of simulating each game an FBS team will play. Strength of schedule is based on the power rankings of each team’s opponents at the time of the game. The simulations gave a win probability and estimated point spread to update rankings each week. The parity of some conferences may be a surprise to some. What follows is a team’s chance to win their respective division, each team’s conference strength of schedule. Each conference will be broken down as the series continues.

1. SEC

The SEC-West is easily the toughest division in the FBS. A team coming out of this division undefeated will be a battle-tested, very difficult team to beat in the SEC Championship. Alabama is still the favorite, but top to bottom, the preseason polls will have most if not all of these teams in their top 25. The CSR Preseason Rankings have them ranked in the top 28.

At this early point in the preseason, Georgia and Missouri are the early favorites to win the East. Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida, and Kentucky are expected to be improved, will they be improved to the level of the top 2? Not likely. The litmus test game will be Alabama at Georgia; potentially matching up the two favorites to win their respective divisions.

The West, as stated before, is a "war zone" of good teams with playoff aspirations. The winner of the SEC will undoubtedly have a playoff berth.

2. PAC-12

This is a conference of parity, much like the SEC. Oregon is 61% likely to win the PAC-12 North. Stanford and Arizona State are the only significant road conference games the Ducks have. The PAC-12 North is one of the weakest division in the P5; unfortunately for other conferences, one of the best teams in the country will likely go undefeated in conference and make a good case for the playoffs.

The PAC-12 South is essentially wide open; with the exception of Colorado, there are teams capable of competing. The data suggests UCLA, Arizona State with USC a close third winning the South crown. A lot of polls have USC ranked very high in the preseason. While they are an excellent team and have plenty of talent returning, the Trojans have not proven themselves just yet and have the toughest conference schedule of any contender.

3. Big 12

The Big12 appears to be one of the more interesting conference races of the season. TCU and Baylor bot were left out of the playoffs last season. Their out of conference schedules were the downfall. This says a lot, that the conference is not as strong as it needs to be on its own. With that, realizing out of conference schedules are made years in advance, the Big 12 teams appear to believe they have an in by virtue of being the Big 12.

Of the contenders, only TCU and Oklahoma have scheduled any good competition OOC; TCU @ Minnesota and OU @ Tennessee are the marquee games for the contenders.

TCU, by most preseason polls are 2nd to Ohio State; the difficulty is the while the conference is still reasonably strong at number 3, any team making it to the playoffs from the Big 12 will have to essentially run the table to be in the mix for the playoffs.

4. ACC

The ACC-Atlantic is one of the stronger divisions in the FBS. Florida State and Clemson are the two favorites for this division but Louisville has a favorable conference schedule for them to take the crown as well. NC State is an up and coming team; hosting Louisville and Clemson could prove more pivotal than previously thought on the outcome of the Atlantic.

The Coastal is Georgia Techs to lose, but cross divisional games with Florida State and Clemson could prove detrimental to the Yellow Jackets. Duke and Virginia Tech are expected to compete. The two teams to watch in the Coastal division are Miami and Pittsburgh; they could be underrated by most.

More analysis will be provided in Part 3 and in future articles that break down each conference.

5. BIG 10

The BIG 10 is ironically the weakest of the P5 conferences; with Ohio State being ranked a consensus preseason #1, it creates parody in the landscape of college football. Michigan State is the team that could beat the Buckeyes, but will have to do it at the "Shoe". Michigan made the sexy hire of Jim Harbaugh, but seriously cannot expect a tremendous turn around in year one, or can they?

Wisconsin is nearly a lock for the West crown at this point; they have the easiest conference schedule of all of the BIG 10 teams. Could this be a repeat of last season?

In Part 3, a more in-depth review of the contending teams will be conducted. The parity, as it appears now, is the BIG 10-East and PAC-12 North have two of the top teams in the country and their divisional strengths are two of the weakest of the P5. If the probabilities hold out, there will be the SEC, Big 12, and ACC playing for the last two spots along with Notre Dame.