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The odds of your team winning the national title aren’t good. They’re probably worse than you even realize.
This isn’t your fault. You are a person, and people are notoriously bad at understanding probability. There are employed coaches who punt from the opponent’s 38-yard line on fourth-and-short, and despite failing basic math in front of thousands of people, they still make millions of dollars. We get along without understanding the odds.
Then again, maybe being odds-illiterate is our fault. Understanding our teams’ chances of winning a championship could be explained on a whiteboard in a few minutes, if someone wanted to give a micro-lecture on “here’s why Nebraska won’t ever win a title again, and no, I don’t want to hear about how Scott Frost has a PLAN.”
Maybe we don’t understand how bad the odds are because of how they make us feel.
This rejection of the odds on an emotional level isn’t limited to football at all. For instance: 62% of Americans believe they will become millionaires, both because people want to believe in hard work and their own talent, and because they don’t really know how much money a million dollars is in the grand scheme of things. Did you know a million dollars in cash doesn’t even fill a briefcase, space-wise? (SEC bagmen: yes, yes we did know that.)
The odds of becoming a millionaire in the United States stand at about one in 30. That one lucky millionaire either already is or will surely be you, reader, both because I want good things for you, and because I will need someone to borrow from when the Great Hunger arrives, when bloggers are thrown into the streets with only laptops and Allbirds shoes.
To put this in college football terms:
You stand the same chance of becoming a millionaire as 30/1 national title contender Notre Dame has of winning the 2020 national championship, based on current national odds.
That might make you feel better if you drop into the college football shop once a decade and remember Notre Dame as a team that wins championships. It won’t comfort the more frequent visitor who remembers the following:
- Notre Dame’s last title happened 32 years ago and should have a solid IRA and two kids by now.
- Their title appearances since have been unmitigated skullthumpings by laughably superior competition.
- Their coach indeed looks like he has recently signed with Shady Records.
That is making fun of Notre Dame for the sake of making fun of Notre Dame, sure. But even consistent championship-caliber teams — like Alabama and Clemson, programs with records of national contention — suffer under the odds.
This is especially true when you compare them to the chances of non-football things happening to you in real life, based on numbers from the CDC or this book.
- At 9/2, betting on Alabama to win the 2020 title is still more of a risk than putting money on the 38% chance of a passenger surviving any plane crash.
- Oklahoma winning this year’s Playoff (20/1) has about as much of a chance of happening as an applicant getting accepted to Harvard.
- About one of every seven Americans will die of a heart attack, something the Georgia Bulldogs — with 7/1 championship odds for 2020 — might swear were higher after watching Georgia lose to South Carolina’s third-string QB in 2019.
The further you go, the worse it gets. At 60/1 odds, BASE jumping’s chances of ending in a fatality are still a safer bet than putting money on Wisconsin (80/1) to win it all. Related: If you combine the two activities, you deserve whatever happens to you and are absolutely uninsurable in any way afterwards. (You were definitely uninsurable before. We just have proof now.)
Those are bad odds for money, worse for hope.
Yet they’re not as desperate as it gets, even for Power 5 programs who ostensibly have chances of consideration just because of the company they keep.
- Nebraska (100/1) is about as likely as dying in a car crash in a lifetime (1 in 103).
- In a more personal accident simile, West Virginia’s rough chances (500/1) would be equivalent to your lifetime chances of being hit by a car (1 in 556).
- It’s far more likely that you’ll file for bankruptcy once in your lifetime (1 in 427) than see Louisville win a national title in 2020 (500/1).
The comps for the outer ring and their chances of making it to a playoff are something else, the deepest kind of abysmal. It’s not that non-Power 5 teams or second-tier big conference programs have zero chance. It is that the only comparisons cover some strange and dangerous territory.
Betting on Navy (2000/1) to win the championship is about as likely as impregnating your partner after getting a vasectomy. There is a cut blocking joke here, but we are too mature to make it.
At 10000/1 odds, USF has about as much of a shot as you do of getting seriously injured by a toilet this year. Exploding toilet injuries are indeed hilarious, but there’s nothing funny about being the team whose national success is an exploding toilet. That’s especially true for teams like USF, a program that tasted the top five as recently as 2007, and who has harbored ambitions beyond just the War on I-4.
Navy might have realistic expectations, sure, but Rutgers? Rutgers just hired Greg Schiano, someone pulling down $4 million a year to coach a program with terrible odds of doing … well, anything. When Schiano reintroduced himself at a basketball game on December 14, he said the Scarlet Knights’ goal was to “get to #1.”
He said this despite speaking at Rutgers, a place where he’d only needed five and a half years of work, the collapse of the old Big East, some remarkable patience by the administration, and circumstantial luck to get the Scarlet Knights to a #7 ranking in 2006.
Schiano is saying what coaches have to say, but Rutgers being good in the Zombie Big East in 2006 constituted a minor miracle. The Scarlet Knights becoming even decent in the current Big Ten would represent an actual wonder. Becoming #1 would be an event of astronomical rarity.
With 2020 odds at 1000/1, Rutgers’ chances are about the chances anyone has in their lifetime of drowning. You already knew that was true in your heart, didn’t you?
I don’t want to say Rutgers’ hopes are in vain, or even that they’re symptomatic of how everyone misunderstands odds. I can’t do that, because even at something like 30/1, the average American’s embrace of delusion seems downright rational, compared to what some college football programs believe is possible. Outside the circle of the select, to hope for gold status in college football is an act of mathematical insanity.
If putting a dollar on Wisconsin is comparable to BASE jumping, then putting $4 million on Schiano feels infinitely more unhinged. Teams like Arkansas and NC State are at the same roulette table with everyone else, but they’re putting the mortgage on one number while smoking in a dinner jacket soaked with gasoline. They do this every year against loaded hands. Somehow, it’s never called madness.
Actually, comparing the madness of football ambition to roulette doesn’t work.
The odds of NC State winning the title are one in 1,000. The odds of winning roulette are one in 35. Compared to college football, roulette presents a safe investment.