Every morning, we simulate the rest of the college football season 20,000 times. I’ve peered into these parallel worlds, and let me tell you, some of the simulations are kind of wild. We’ve got some where Indiana wins the Big Ten. There are others where Kentucky wins the SEC. There’s at least one where Louisiana — that’s it, there’s no word after Louisiana — reaches the playoff.
Thirteen months ago, we might have said the simulations that had LSU winning the national championship were a bit unrealistic. They play in Tuscaloosa, how’s that going to happen? South Carolina over Georgia in Athens? Zero shot. Wisconsin losing to Illinois?
That’s the thing about college football — the unlikely is never impossible. That’s why we play it out.
And that’s what we’re doing today. We’re simulating the SEC season and College Football Playoff. You can easily find all our projections at espn.com/fpi every day; but here, we are going to walk through one of these worlds — simulation No. 20 — to see how it all shakes out. It could be wild, like our single simulation of March Madness that resulted in a Wisconsin-BYU final. It could be fairly chalky, like our single simulation of the 2020 NFL season that ended in a Chiefs repeat. But, because it’s college football, we know it won’t be boring.
Kentucky delivers the first upset of the SEC season, taking down Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium by eight points. It’s a devastating loss for the Tigers, who enter the season as a long shot playoff candidate, with an 11% chance, according to FPI. Bo Nix, entering his second season in Auburn and with more expectations on his shoulders, throws two interceptions in the loss.
Tennessee picks up a road victory in Columbia, and Texas A&M squeaks by with a too-close-for-comfort win against Vanderbilt. The Aggies led by just a point before Kellen Mond threw a touchdown with four minutes to go to extend the lead to eight. Elsewhere, expectations largely hold.
Auburn’s season is effectively over before it has really begun. What most assumed would be a close game between Georgia and Auburn was anything but. Kirby Smart’s team ran around the Tigers and handed Gus Malzahn his second loss in as many games to open the season — this time by 23 points. The win helped answer this question for the Bulldogs, too: How would they fare without Jamie Newman?
The answer appears to be, just fine.
In Starkville, Mike Leach had his first winnable game as Mississippi State’s head coach (following a loss at LSU in Week 4), but it turned ugly. Arkansas pulled away from the Bulldogs in the second half and won by 16.
Leach gets that first Mississippi State win, generating enough offense to best Kentucky by six in Lexington.
Meanwhile, LSU, which hasn’t had a significant test after losing last season’s stars to the NFL (Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Justin Jefferson, plus 2020 opt-out Ja’Marr Chase), gets a bit of a scare from Mizzou. Ed Orgeron’s team holds on for the win, but a team with title defense aspirations can’t feel good about a six-point victory against Missouri at Tiger Stadium.
Florida has no such problem against Texas A&M, as Kyle Trask leads an explosive offensive effort en route to a 32-point road win in College Station.
It’s the 2018 SEC championship game all over again, including the result. Georgia fought to the end but, as is so often the case, Alabama found a way. QB Mac Jones leads a winning drive and the Bulldogs are unable to answer in the waning seconds. The loss hurts Georgia’s playoff hopes, but a cross-divisional loss ends no team’s chances.
As for LSU-Florida, it turned out their Week 6 results did not foreshadow what was to come between these two heavyweights. The Gators had an opportunity to take control of the SEC East with the Georgia loss, but they instead dropped their contest against LSU. The divisional race is too close to call.
Florida nearly lost twice in a row — potentially overlooking Missouri after a tough game against LSU — by allowing Mizzou to hang around all game. The Tigers had an opportunity to win with a long field goal attempt in the final seconds, but the kick flew wide right and the Gators hung on for the win to stay alive in the divisional race.
The title defense is on. LSU defeats Auburn, with Myles Brennan just besting Nix for a narrow victory. After already dismissing Florida, the Tigers’ last difficult challenge is a big one: Alabama. But Orgeron’s team enters the contest undefeated and will be staring at a fairly clear lane toward the playoff with a win.
Arkansas’ surprise win on the road against Texas A&M gives the Razorbacks a nice 3-2 start to 2020, rebounding from two opening losses against Auburn and Georgia. The Sam Pittman era is going well early.
It looks as if we’ve got a changing of the guard in the SEC East. Florida wins convincingly against Georgia in Jacksonville at what one hopes will only figuratively be the world’s largest outdoor cocktail party. It’s a two-touchdown win for Florida coach Dan Mullen, who now has his eyes set on the SEC crown.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt picks up its first win of the season versus Mississippi State, Texas A&M picks up its fourth loss and Arkansas nabs another victory.
Suddenly, that title defense isn’t looking too hot. LSU almost pulled it off, but Nick Saban got the best of Orgeron and Alabama now is firmly in control of the division. Barring a collapse by the Crimson Tide, LSU will have to hope for help from outside the SEC if it wants to return to the playoff.
Oh, Bulldogs. The season already was getting away from Georgia, which was apparently never able to recover from losing its expected starter in Newman. But it got ugly this week. Mississippi State, struggling in Leach’s first season, pulled out a miraculous performance to stun Georgia in Athens.
Florida is officially heading to the SEC championship game.
Alabama wins the Iron Bowl, barely. The Tide are the SEC’s lone remaining undefeated team, and the number of narrow victories is concerning to fans with high standards in Tuscaloosa (and hurts their FPI rating, too!). But, record-wise, Saban and his team are on track. Talk has turned to these scenarios: What would happen if Alabama lost against Florida in the SEC championship game? Would the Tide still get in?
The divisional races are settled but, in a shortened season, these final games still represent something important for teams not going on to the conference championship. LSU beats Ole Miss to secure a 9-1 record, which is potentially important. Should Alabama win the SEC championship game, LSU could have a shot at a second SEC playoff spot with only one loss to the conference champion.
Auburn’s win over A&M secures a winning record for the Tigers. Though Arkansas lost expectedly against Alabama, the Razorbacks finish the season at .500.
SEC championship game
Florida shocks Bama! Tide fans might have feigned concern heading into the contest, but few actually thought Florida could pull off this upset. And this wasn’t a nail-biter, either. Led by Trask, Florida posted a solid 16-point defeat and demonstrated it was clearly the better team. With the the Gators locking a playoff spot, their win sends shockwaves through college football, as it is now Saban’s team that will nervously await the committee’s result.
Let’s take stock of the other conferences.
The Big Ten is easy: Ohio State went undefeated and beat Minnesota in the championship game. The Buckeyes will be in.
The Big 12 is also straightforward: Texas has emerged as an elite team that also went undefeated and won its conference championship game against TCU.
The ACC is messier: Notre Dame went undefeated in the regular season — including a win over Clemson — but the Tigers struck back in the championship game and took the conference.
And that has left the committee with a choice. Does it take Clemson, with its conference crown? Or Alabama, whose strength of record is significantly better with a loss but against a much tougher schedule?
Debates rage through the night, but, in the end, the committee selects … Alabama!
The Tide sneak in as the No. 4 seed and will face Texas in a national semifinal.
No. 1 Texas vs. No. 4 Alabama
For Texas and Alabama, the regular season was no mirage. The Longhorns stomped their way through the Big 12 schedule and went undefeated to earn the No. 1 seed from the selection committee. There is pregame hype of a close matchup, but Sam Ehlinger and Texas skate to a fairly easy victory.
No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Florida
Florida has pulled off the upset! In a tightly contested, back-and-forth affair, Trask leads the Gators to a winning field goal attempt in the final minute to book a ticket to the national championship game. Ohio State — for the second straight season — is sent packing after ending up oh-so-close in the semifinal.
No. 1 Texas vs. No. 3 Florida
The Gators have done it!
After struggling to break out of the SEC East during the first few years of the Mullen era, Florida has won the national title. They do so in convincing fashion, with Trask outplaying Ehlinger to the tune of a two-touchdown victory.
Florida wins the national championship in only 1.2% of our simulations, but none of that matters if the simulation that happens is one of the 1.2%. So congrats, Gators fans, you won it all. And if 2020 plays out a different way for Florida? Well you’ll always have that time when your 1% chance became reality — on the internet.
Lauren Poe contributed to this report.