An assistant professor who teaches college simulation classes and has dabbled in college basketball bracketology in the past has created a statistical model to help predict which college football teams will comprise the first-ever four-team playoff this year.

It's early. There is a lot of football to be played. But the top seven teams in the model, churned out this week in the first set of projections, are: Florida State, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame and ... Minnesota?

Yes, the Gophers. We'd be skeptical, too, but the professor in question, Laura McLay, teaches at the University of Wisconsin. (The Badgers, by the way, are nowhere to be found in the Top 25.) Though McLay is originally from Illinois and therefore doesn't "have this animosity toward Minnesota that everyone else in Wisconsin does," she stands by the results — with some caveats, of course.

"Minnesota does look like the team that doesn't belong," she said Thursday. "But they do have a chance. I'd put it that way."

The model takes into account not only games played but 10,000 simulations for how the rest of the season will play out. And as of right now, the model says the Gophers have about a 14 percent chance of being one of the last four teams standing.

McLay did note that the accuracy of the model will improve as the season progresses. Most teams have only played six or seven games, meaning the factors that determine strength of schedule and other data that goes into the model are limited.

"Being No. 7 in the ranking right now doesn't mean much," McLay said. "Being seventh with a week to go is much more meaningful."

But McLay, who did her undergrad and graduate work at the University of Illinois — "Somehow I'm still a college football fan," she quipped, adding she is not optimistic about this weekend's Gophers-Illini game — noted the easier path the Gophers have in the Big Ten West compared to teams in the Big Ten East.

And just because a team doesn't seem like it belongs based on tradition and other rankings doesn't mean that's true. After all, McLay's intent was to take the human element out of the equation in order to accurately forecast a playoff. Whether the Gophers remain that high, or even creep into the top four, remains to be seen.

"We're going to update it every week," McLay said, "and see what happens."

michael rand