Hot Reads: How the Huskers Make the Playoff*
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: How the Huskers Make the Playoff*

November 22, 2016

*Nebraska’s not making the playoff. Let’s just get that in writing right off the top.

Now that we’ve done that, it is still theoretically possible. If you haven’t played around with Fivethirtyeight’s playoff prediction machine, it’s maddeningly fun. Sort of like a Rubik’s cube for football. At least it is for a team in Nebraska’s spot.

Right now, the Huskers are one of 16 teams still “alive” for the playoff at Fivethirtyeight and are given a “less than 1 percent” chance of getting there. Nebraska earned that status my making the playoff in at least 20 of 20,000 simulations of the rest of the season (0.1 percent).

I tried to figure out what scenario gave the Huskers that “less than 1 percent” chance, and it was awful. And great. Fivethirtyeight’s slick create-your-own-scenario simulator has an improbability governor, meaning if you got too crazy with your scenarios the magic machine would tell you “not gonna happen” and you had to pick something else.

Despite that, I was able to find one acceptable scenario that boosted the Huskers’ playoff chances all the way up to 1 percent. Here’s how it unfolds in the order in which you would watch football this holiday weekend.

FRIDAY: Nebraska beats Iowa, of course. That has to happen. From there Husker fans are rooting for Washington to beat Washington State and win the Pac-12 North. Western Michigan can win because even an undefeated Group of 5 team with two Big Ten wins is basically a non-factor in this discussion. (It’s not me, it’s the numbers.)

SATURDAY: In the early slot, Huskers fans are rooting for Ohio State to beat Michigan. This gives the Buckeyes a 92 percent chance of making the playoff because . . .

. . . the simulator won’t let me choose a Michigan State win over Penn State in the 2:30 games slot. So its Huskers-Nittany Lions in the Big Ten championship game because, of course, this is all dependent on Minnesota beating Wisconsin. From there, USC can beat Notre Dame and Alabama can beat Auburn on Saturday afternoon. At this point, Nebraska has a 3 percent chance of making the playoff. The best scenario at this point is a Penn State loss — Nebraska would then have the opportunity to beat Ohio State in Indy, giving it a 5 percent chance at the playoff — but football computer doesn’t like a Penn State loss there.

On to Saturday evening. Colorado beats Utah and wins the Pac-12 South. Clemson beats South Carolina, which doesn’t change anything. Florida State beats Florida, which is the only scenario (given everything above) the simulator allows. At the end of the weekend, Nebraska has a 2 percent chance of making the final four.

DEC. 3: Fast forward a week, and one of the real lynchpins here is Oklahoma-Oklahoma State. A Cowboys win boosts Nebraska’s odds all the way up to 6 percent, but that’s not allowed under improbability rules, so Sooners it is (Big 12 champs) and Nebraska’s got a 1-in-100 shot to make the playoff.

At that point, there are nine teams still alive according to Fivethirtyeight (percent): Alabama (96), Ohio State (92), Clemson (80), Washington (59), Oklahoma (45), Colorado (18), Penn State (7), Michigan (1) and Nebraska (1).

Doing anything further with the simulator causes it to break, but maybe we can eyeball it from here. Under these circumstances, Alabama has to be in regardless, so the Tide may as well win. Ohio State is also probably in. Clemson would need to lose in the ACC title game to either Virginia Tech or North Carolina (VT has the tiebreaker). That would probably eliminate the ACC. Colorado would need to beat Washington. Nebraska obviously has to beat Penn State.

That would theoretically leave the committee with two playoff spots open and comparing resumes from the following conference champions: Colorado (11-2), Oklahoma (10-2) and Nebraska (11-2).

So that’s how the Huskers’ maximize their tiny playoff odds in 16 easy steps. There are more favorable scenarios, certainly, but they don’t meet Fivethirtyeight’s threshold for probability.
The Grab Bag

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