2021 College Football: Probability Of Making The Playoffs

Everyone who pays attention to college football knows that four teams – Alabama of the SEC, Clemson of the ACC, Oklahoma of the Big 12, and Ohio State of the Big Ten – are Stats Insider’s top favourites to make the College Football Playoff

They are favoured to win their respective conferences and rise above the rest. The four-team playoff is now seven years old, and both Alabama and Clemson have missed the playoff just once. Clemson has reached the playoff six straight years due to its iron grip on the ACC. That doesn’t seem likely to end this year, though perhaps the departure of Trevor Lawrence to the NFL could create instability for the Tigers. 

Ultimately, there is a top tier in college football, and then a second tier of teams trying to break through. This analysis, which includes Stats Insider’s College Football Playoff projections, will look at the second tier of teams trying to upend the status quo in college football. 

If any team other than Georgia makes the playoff from this list of teams below, it will rate as a significant surprise. Let’s get a fuller glimpse of these potential party-crashers.

RELATED: Check out all of Stats Insider's College Football season projections


Stats Insider Playoff Projection: 18.9%

If Oregon has first-in-line status among the outsiders trying to break into the top four, a primary reason is that the Ducks’ foremost competitor in the Pac-12 North Division has suffered a huge, season-changing injury. Washington Huskies linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui will miss at least nine games this season, possibly the full season, due to an injury. Oregon is vulnerable on offense, but Washington’s lack of its best defensive player gives the Ducks the path to the North Division title. The Pac-12 North champion has beaten the Pac-12 South champion nine out of 10 times. Oregon is the legitimate favourite to win the Pac-12. If it catches a break, it could leap into the playoff. The Ducks play Ohio State this year and, while not favoured to beat the Buckeyes, could vault themselves into a great position if they can upset the Buckeyes.


Stats Insider Playoff Projection: 17.9%

The Bulldogs made three straight SEC Championship Game appearances from 2017 through 2019, but Florida won the SEC East Division last year. Georgia quarterback J.T. Daniels did not get a chance to beat the Gators last year. He will get a chance this year. That could be the difference for the Bulldogs in their quest to earn a date with Alabama in the SEC title game this December. Georgia plays Clemson in a Week 1 showdown. If the Bulldogs win that game, they become a likely playoff team. If they lose to Clemson, their odds go down.


Stats Insider Playoff Projection: 15.3%

The Badgers were crushed by injuries on offense last season, especially at wide receiver. If Wisconsin can get through this year healthy, the Badgers should return to their status as the prime challenger to Ohio State in the Big Ten. An encouraging piece of news for Wisconsin is that its defense was strong last season. UW’s struggles were not pervasive throughout the whole roster; it was just an offensive problem. The key is that quarterback Graham Mertz makes better reads and feels more comfortable within head coach Paul Chryst’s offensive system. 

Iowa State

Stats Insider Playoff Projection: 14.8%

The Cyclones came very close to winning the Big 12 Championship Game last year. They defeated Oklahoma in the regular season but lost the rematch. Iowa State returns its key offensive starters this year – Brock Purdy at quarterback and Breece Hall at running back – which gives coach Matt Campbell a strong chance of upsetting Oklahoma and becoming the Big 12’s representative in the College Football Playoff. Stats Insider has the Cyclones in the national top 10 for a very good set of reasons. Iowa State isn’t a traditional college football power, but the Cyclones have earned their place in the sport heading into a highly consequential season.


Stats Insider Playoff Projection: 14%

The injury to Zion Tupuola-Fetui, their best defensive player, hurts the Washington Huskies a lot. This team needs to lean on its defense to be great. Washington’s defenses have carried most of the workload for the program in recent years. That dynamic will likely have to remain in place this year for UW to thrive. Dylan Morris is a largely untested quarterback who – due to the pandemic – didn’t get to play a lot last season. Pac-12 teams played roughly half a season, whereas SEC, ACC, and Big 12 teams played 10 or more games. The offensive limitations of this team are hard to ignore.

Notre Dame

Stats Insider Playoff Projection: 12.6%

The Fighting Irish had an excellent defense last season. It was the main reason why Notre Dame was able to beat Clemson in the regular season (ND split two games with the Tigers) and advance to the College Football Playoff. Going back-to-back will be hard, but Notre Dame has built enough depth to at least make this a conversation. The Irish will have to replace quarterback Ian Book. That won’t be easy. The defense has to remain as strong in 2021 as it was in 2020 for this team to return to the playoff. Any noticeable regression will likely hurt the Irish this season.


Stats Insider Playoff Projection: 10.2%

The Trojans know that quarterback Kedon Slovis was not fully healthy last year. His shoulder wasn’t fully fit. His arm strength wasn’t all there. He lacked zip on his passes. Slovis has said in the offseason that his arm feels a lot better than it did a year ago. If that is true, USC’s ceiling becomes a lot higher, and the Trojans’ offense has a right to expect a much better season than what it endured in 2020. USC head coach Clay Helton is on the hot seat. USC is expected to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game and win at least 10 games. If the Trojans can beat Notre Dame on the road, they would have a legitimate chance of making the playoff, provided they win the Pac-12 championship.

North Carolina 

Stats Insider Playoff Projection: 10.1%

If you are looking for a Heisman Trophy contender, you can’t do much better than North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell. He and Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler are likely to duel for this prestigious individual award all year. However, Howell can’t focus on that. He has to make use of a quality offensive line and compensate for the loss of running back Javonte Williams, who was a versatile playmaker last season. North Carolina, if it beats Miami, should win the ACC Coastal Division and earn a date with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. A win there could propel the Tar Heels into the playoff if they have only one loss (12-1 record).


Stats Insider Playoff Projection: 9.7%

The Gators first have to get past Georgia in the SEC East. Then they would have to beat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game to make the playoff. Losing Kyle Pitts will limit what this offense can do. The Gators have to be significantly better on defense this year, compared to 2020, in order to have a legitimate chance of making the playoff. 


Stats Insider Playoff Projection: 9.7%

The Hawkeyes regularly have a high-level defense which can compete with the best offenses in the country. Their offense often holds them back and will need to find big plays in the passing game to seriously threaten Wisconsin and league favorite Ohio State in the Big Ten this year.


Stats Insider Playoff Projection: 9%

Steve Sarkisian, former USC and Washington head coach, has spent most of the past five years on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama. He also spent time on the Atlanta Falcons’ staff in the NFL. Texas has struggled over the past 11 seasons. The Longhorns haven’t won a conference championship since 2009. Sarkisian now gets a chance to resurrect the Texas program. All eyes will be on Sark as he tries to prove to his critics that he can be a great college head coach after years of success as an offensive coordinator. 

Texas will also replace quarterback Sam Ehlinger this season who has been the starter over the past four seasons. It’s very rare that happens in college football. Texas hopes that Sarkisian can make adjustments which create a smooth transition for the Longhorns’ offense.


Stats Insider Playoff Projection: 8.1%

Utah went into the transfer portal and acquired former Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer, who led Baylor to the Big 12 Championship Game against Oklahoma in 2019, one win short of the College Football Playoff. If Brewer lives up to preseason expectations, Utah could vault past USC and make the Pac-12 Championship Game, most likely against Oregon. Utah played Oregon in the 2019 Pac-12 title game. A rematch is a distinct possibility in 2021.

Arizona State

Stats Insider Playoff Projection: 7.7%

The Sun Devils bring back quarterback Jayden Daniels, one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12. They have a strong defensive line and secondary and did not lose many starters from last year’s team. The weakness of the roster is at wide receiver. If ASU can find quality pass catchers who can make plays down the field, the Sun Devils could beat USC and Utah for the Pac-12 South Division title and earn a shot at the playoff in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Texas A&M

Stats Insider Playoff Projection: 7.4%

The Aggies benefited from the abrupt decline of LSU and Auburn last year. They finished second in the SEC West and reached the Orange Bowl, which they won against North Carolina. A&M is unlikely to beat Alabama in the SEC, but if A&M wins every other game on its schedule, it could still make the playoff. Georgia, however, would represent an obstacle. A&M will likely need a lot of help – and chaos – to find its way to the playoff quartet this season.

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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