How Top 1-Loss Teams Can Get Back in the College Football Playoff Mix

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistOctober 18, 2017

How Top 1-Loss Teams Can Get Back in the College Football Playoff Mix

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    Beginning with last Friday's shocking upsets of Clemson and Washington State, the recent slate of college football games should be forever known as the "What Happened!? Weekend."

    Once the flamethrowers were finished with the polls, five previously unbeaten teams had lost to unranked opponents. Three more Top 25 teams also lost to teams that weren't ranked. 

    If you're keeping count, Syracuse shocked Clemson, California dominated Wazzu, Arizona State stunned Washington, Boise State upended San Diego State and Memphis toppled Navy. LSU also beat Auburn and West Virginia beat Texas Tech.

    You may close your mouth now. Yes, it was crazy.

    So, even though there are still several teams sitting spotless, the College Football Playoff race is even more open than ever. In the past, a loss had many teams believing they were playing for conference titles at best, but now, postseason hopes and ultimate national championship dreams are still in play.

    Those one-loss teams have more work to do, but there are a few capable of finishing with the type of heavy lifting that it will take to join current favorites like Alabama, Penn State, Georgia, TCU and Wisconsin.

    Let's take a look at how some of the nation's top one-loss teams can get back in the thick of playoff talks.

Clemson Tigers

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    Where they went wrong

    You can use the excuse that star quarterback Kelly Bryant's injury had something to do with Syracuse's 27-24 stunner over the defending national champions Friday night, but just like Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told Syracuse.com's Chris Carlson: "This is a story about Syracuse."

    The postscript is about the Tigers, though. 

    This previously dominant defense gave up 440 total yards against the Orange and, perhaps more surprisingly, 162 on the ground. There were offensive issues, too, as the Tigers were just 2-of-11 in third-down situations and allowed four sacks.

    It was an imperfect storm for the champs.

                           

    The road ahead

    It's definitely not an easy road for the Tigers following this week's important bye to get Bryant healthy and work out the kinks of a disappointing loss.

    Clemson hosts Georgia Tech before traveling to North Carolina State and coming back home for the game against Florida State. After a break against The Citadel, the rivalry with South Carolina closes out the year. 

    That's four teams that are better or more talented than Syracuse. 

    Defensive coordinator Brent Venables needs to get his unit back to playing championship football, and Bryant must get healthy. If those things happen, Clemson is far from out of the race. Look for it to roll into the ACC Championship Game with just one loss.

Michigan Wolverines

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    Where they went wrong

    Michigan just can't seem to figure out the hated-rival Michigan State Spartans, and for whatever reason, MSU coach Mark Dantonio continues to have the Wolverines' number.

    In the 14-10 loss to the Spartans on Oct. 7, it was the same ol' story for coach Jim Harbaugh's team this year: The defense was dominant, but the Wolverines couldn't find a way to generate enough points for it to matter. That led to UM's eighth loss in the last 10 games against the Spartans.

    A team without strong quarterback play cannot afford to turn the ball over five times like the Wolverines did in that game.

                          

    The road ahead

    To be frank, it's brutal.

    But the good news for Michigan is if it can navigate this grueling slate, it'll be next to impossible to keep the Wolverines out of the final four.

    Beginning with this weekend's prime-time showdown in Happy Valley against No. 2 Penn State, the Wolverines have some made-for-magic showdowns. Minnesota and Maryland could wind up being intriguing games, and then Michigan closes the year at No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 6 Ohio State in the Big House.

    If the Wolverines can sweep the remainder of the season (and the conference championship game), they deserve to be there. Don't bet on it, though. That's a tremendous task. Whether it's John O'Korn or Wilton Speight, somebody has to seize this quarterback spot, or Michigan won't have a chance.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Where they went wrong

    It may have seemed at the time like an early-season loss that signified the beginning of the end for coach Brian Kelly, but a 20-19 home setback against Georgia is aging quite nicely.

    It's never good to lose in your home stadium, but the Bulldogs are still unbeaten and one of the top teams in the country. The Fighting Irish couldn't generate enough offense against Georgia's swarming defense. They also were penalized 63 yards and allowed 185 rushing yards.

    Again, the Bulldogs are a quality opponent, but this was a winnable game, and Notre Dame didn't get it done.

                        

    The road ahead

    The Irish rebounded from that loss and wound up beating Michigan State, 38-18, in a victory that looks like a feather in their cap. Other than that, they haven't played any quality opponents.

    That's about to change.

    Following last week's bye, Notre Dame will now face USC and North Carolina State in back-to-back weeks. Miami, Wake Forest, Navy and Stanford are all strong opponents that won't be easy to get past.

    If the Irish can make it through that slate unscathed, they'll belong in the playoffs. It's vital that quarterback Brandon Wimbush continues to progress in Chip Long's system, and the Irish must continue to play strong defense.

    Thus far, they're 14th nationally in scoring defense and 48th in total defense. But they're about to face some strong, diverse offenses.

Oklahoma Sooners

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    Where they went wrong

    On a crazy day in Norman, Oklahoma, the Sooners had no answers for superhuman linebacker/quarterback Joel Lanning in a 38-31 loss to the Cyclones on Oct. 7.

    The Sooners were strong offensively, but they had plenty of defensive deficiencies against the Iowa State spread offense. There were too many open running lanes, and when quarterbacks Kyle Kempt and Lanning went downfield to their huge receivers, OU's undersized secondary had no answers.

    This is the kind of game the Sooners must find a way to win if they're going to get back on track. There are no questions about Baker Mayfield and the Sooners' scoring attack. But there are defensive concerns, especially with some of the games remaining.

    The road ahead

    It's a promising sign that the Sooners got an inspired effort on both sides of the ball in a Red River Rivalry win over Texas this past weekend. But there are more talented teams left on the schedule than the Longhorns.

    Out of the six remaining games, five are stout. You wouldn't think Kansas State should hang with the Sooners, but the Wildcats are a different team in Manhattan, and that's where the game is this week.

    The real tests will come against Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and TCU in consecutive weeks beginning next weekend. After a reprieve against Kansas, OU closes the year against West Virginia. That's four dynamite offenses that are much better than Iowa State's.

    The Sooners must dial up some better game plans to slow down those teams, or they'll be shootouts like the game was in Norman.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Where they went wrong

    In a heavyweight battle in Stillwater, TCU announced its rightful spot among the nation's elite with a 44-31 win over the Cowboys back on Sept. 23.

    "You figure it out, you grow up, you come back tomorrow," OSU coach Mike Gundy told reporters.

    In that game, the Cowboys couldn't stop the run as Darius Anderson had 160 yards and three touchdowns. Also, the nation's most weapon-filled offense struggled against a good secondary, and Mason Rudolph threw two interceptions.

    The road ahead

    The Big 12 is a really good conference this year, and much like Oklahoma, the Cowboys will witness that firsthand over the next few weeks.

    Road trips to Texas and West Virginia greet them the next two weeks, followed by a "Bedlam" showdown with hated-rival Oklahoma. Iowa State and Kansas State are going to be potential grind-it-out games before a season-ending breather against Kansas.

    The nation's 64th-rated pass defense and rush defense must improve in those games. While Rudolph can post points with the best of them, you never want to get into a situation where every drive is a must-score. When that happens, all mistakes are magnified as they were against the Horned Frogs.

    Oklahoma State needs to prove it isn't just a cupcake-killer. The Cowboys need to show they can rise to the occasion in marquee games and play championship-level football on both sides of the ball, especially defense. This OSU team needs to do a better job of getting off the field. If not, it won't have a chance to play for meaningful postseason accolades.

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Where they went wrong

    Much like what happened with Clemson, the early-season loss to Oklahoma was a case of an elite defense having an off night and no answer for an opponent.

    Only, in the Buckeyes' case, it was a dominant unit in the Baker Mayfield-led Sooners, where Clemson's was against Syracuse. OU torched the Buckeyes' inexperienced secondary, and it wasn't really close. It got ugly in a hurry.

    Nevertheless, a 31-16 loss to the Sooners counts as only one defeat, and it was early enough in the season where it likely won't matter if OSU handles its business.

    To be fair to the defense, it wasn't just that side of the ball that failed against Oklahoma. J.T. Barrett has begun to grasp new coordinator Kevin Wilson's scheme, but it was ugly at that point in the season. Is the maturation because the Buckeyes are playing worse teams or because Barrett is getting it?

    If the answer is the latter, the Buckeyes are going to be a team to watch come playoff time. 

                          

    The road ahead

    Coach Urban Meyer's team will lay back and relax this week, probably catching the prime-time showdown between Penn State and Michigan on its bye week.

    Next weekend, OSU will take on Penn State in Columbus. Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan also await Ohio State down the road, along with the conference championship game. With the way the Buckeyes offense is playing lately, it's going to be tough for any of those teams to hang.

    The Buckeyes have scored 38, 54, 56, 62 and 56 in the games since then. The schedule is going to get tougher, but the Wilson hire is beginning to look like gold for Meyer.

    If the Buckeyes get past PSU next week (and they would probably be favored if they played today), look for them to run the table and be one of the last four teams standing.

USC Trojans

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    Where they went wrong

    If there was one place the Trojans thought they'd be solid this year, it was the quarterback position, where Sam Darnold was a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite.

    He's taken plenty of lumps, especially when it comes to turnovers. Though he only tossed one pick in a 30-27 loss to Washington State in Pullman, he was terrible. He completed barely 50 percent of his passes for only 164 yards.

    When WSU quarterback Luke Falk threw the ball, he found open airways against USC's secondary, winding up with 340 yards. This is the 91st-rated pass defense in the country, and there's no way the Trojans can continue such mediocrity and play for a national championship.

                       

    The road ahead

    The bottom line is when the ball is in the air for them and their opponents, the Trojans must be a lot better than what they've been.

    They should feel very fortunate to be 6-1 right now.

    This weekend, the Trojans play No. 13 Notre Dame, and then a suddenly surprising Arizona State team hosts USC. Arizona, Colorado and UCLA close out a manageable season for coach Clay Helton's team, but all of those games can be lost without a more effective Darnold and a much improved pass defense.

    It still looks like the Pac-12 South is USC's to lose, but unless it addresses these areas of concern, whatever team comes out of the North can end the Trojans' championship hopes. If the Trojans run the table, though, they'll be a media darling, especially if Darnold returns to award-winning form.

Virginia Tech Hokies

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    Where they went wrong

    In a 31-17 loss to Clemson back on Sept. 30, freshman quarterback Josh Jackson played like one, tossing two interceptions after getting off to a torrid start.

    Also, Hokies legendary defensive coordinator Bud Foster had few answers for Kelly Bryant as Clemson's dual-threat quarterback took over that game. The Hokies get the slight nod over North Carolina State as the other ACC team on this list, though, because both of those things are fixable.

    Jackson is improving game by game, but he really struggled against Clemson's vaunted front seven. The Tigers pressured Jackson most of the night, and he threw a pick-six to Dorian O'Daniel in the process. When you play against a team like Clemson, the effort needs to be perfect.

    Tech's wasn't. But with a few games for Jackson and Co. to mature on offense, it may be a different story if they meet again in the ACC Championship Game.

                      

    The road ahead

    The Hokies should handle North Carolina this weekend, and though Duke won't be easy, Virginia Tech should have the upper hand in that one, too.

    A mighty test will come Nov. 4 against No. 8 Miami, as that looks like perhaps one of the two biggest remaining ACC games of the season, along with Clemson-North Carolina State. A game against Georgia Tech on Nov. 11 won't be easy, either.

    The Wolfpack still must get past Clemson to get into the conference championship game, so the Hokies have a clearer path. 

    Finally, with the job Bronco Mendenhall is doing at Virginia, the season-ending rivalry is intriguing for VT, too. 

    If the Hokies can make it through that schedule unscathed and then upset a one-loss Clemson or NC State in the championship game, that may be a good enough resume to sway the committee and earn a berth in the College Football Playoff.

    That would put in bold print the outstanding job Justin Fuente is doing in Blacksburg.

Washington Huskies

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    Where they went wrong

    Was this just one of those games, or are there deep-rooted issues Washington needs to concern itself with following a lackluster 13-7 loss to Arizona State?

    The Sun Devils dominated Jake Browning, who threw for just 139 yards. The Huskies missed two field goals of less than 30 yards, and they suffered costly penalties. They couldn't protect Browning, who was sacked five times and again showed his inconsistency against good pass defenses.

    This is beginning to become a trend.

    "A tough day at the office," Washington coach Chris Petersen said in his postgame press conference. "We could not get any rhythm going whatsoever and when we did we get a penalty and couldn't capitalize in the red zone.

    "One of the more frustrating nights we have had in a long time on offense."

                      

    The road ahead

    Nothing's easy from here on out. The Huskies should be able to handle UCLA, though Josh Rosen is playing as well as any quarterback in the country, and a shootout is dangerous territory for anybody.

    But the division is now wide open after the Huskies' loss this past weekend. They're tied in the loss column with Stanford and Washington State, both of which remain on the schedule. A tough Utah team also looms as well.

    There can't be any more offensive lapses like Washington suffered against Arizona State, and Browning needs to play like the upperclassman leader he is.

    The offensive line must improve its protection from the loss against ASU and get back to the team that had allowed its signal-caller to be sacked just six times in the season's first six games.

    This is still a very good Washington team, and there is time and opportunities to turn the national attention back toward Seattle. But Saturday's loss was an ugly blow to any playoff hopes.

Washington State Cougars

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    Where they went wrong

    Everywhere.

    After a late-night, rousing victory over USC a couple of weeks ago on a Friday night, the Cougars again played on that night following Clemson's upset last weekend. Maybe they forgot they had a game a day early.

    California embarrassed them, 37-3, in a game that was never close. 

    Senior quarterback Luke Falk had played like a Heisman Trophy candidate, but the Bears intercepted him five times in a dominant defensive performance. Also, a Cougars defense that has looked stout most of the season had few answers against Cal. Cal head coach Justin Wilcox continues to do a nice job in his first year.

    Once Washington State tasted a little success, it choked on it. 

    "There's no bright spot. We were pathetic," Cougars coach Mike Leach said after the game. "We're a bunch of pathetic front-runners."

    Ouch.

                      

    The road ahead

    Let's see if Leach's words can motivate his team. The Cougars looked like one of the nation's top teams for much of the season, and all of a sudden, they looked like an awful team last week.

    Is it a coincidence or a sign of things to come?

    With Colorado and Arizona in the next two weeks, those are teams WSU should beat before the season-ending gauntlet against Utah, Stanford and Washington. Those last three weeks are when the division is going to be won, but the Cougars can't afford to lose focus the next two weeks.

    When that happens, Leach's team isn't talented or deep enough to overcome it, as last weekend proved. Falk needs to be sharp, and they need to play with the lead.

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of Sports Reference and cfbstats, and recruiting data courtesy of Scout.

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.