Let's make one thing abundantly clear: It doesn't matter who you are, how talented your team is, who your coach is, what conference you play in or what your strength of schedule is. The most difficult thing to do in college football is go undefeated, and no italicized font in the world can stress that point enough.
So much has to go right for a team to go unbeaten. At the core, a team made up of 18- to 22-year-old players has to be perfect (or nearly perfect) every week. And so we ask: Can anyone in college football make it through the regular season unscathed?
The list of teams with the capability and the remaining schedule to remain unbeaten starts, and perhaps ends, with Clemson. If J.T. Barrett returns as Ohio State's starting quarterback, the Buckeyes could join that short list.
As for the Tigers, they are the No. 1 team in the land, with legitimate reason. In a season with no elite teams, Clemson is arguably the most complete. That's the most anyone can realistically expect out of a college football team this year.
Week 10 of the 2015 college football season was a sobering reminder of that fact. LSU, Memphis, Michigan State and TCU all lost Saturday, and all had College Football Playoff aspirations. That list of fallen unbeatens doesn't even include previously undefeated Toledo, which lost to Northern Illinois 32-27 on Tuesday—the same night the playoff selection committee released its first Top 25.
If seeing is believing, then J.B. Long of the Pac-12 Networks provides a solid visual of what happened this week:
Furthermore, of the six unbeaten teams remaining—Clemson, Ohio State, Baylor, Iowa, Oklahoma State and Houston—as many as four (Iowa vs. Ohio State, Baylor vs. Oklahoma State) may still have to face one another. The Buckeyes also have back-to-back games against Michigan State and Michigan, who are a combined 15-3.
Houston has a difficult November too, with games against Memphis and Navy, though the Cougars do get both teams at home.
As Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated tweeted, the odds of four teams finishing the regular season unscathed and providing clarity to the committee are, in a word, low:
Clemson has by far the easiest path to the playoff, but the Tigers have shown signs of vulnerability all the same. The stiff defense, which has ranked No. 1 nationally in several key categories, was burned on multiple occasions in a 56-41 win over North Carolina State in Week 9. Still, the Tigers found a way to respond offensively to the Wolfpack's surges every time.
The game against Florida State on Saturday was won in nearly polar opposite fashion. In a low-scoring, hard-hitting struggle, Clemson needed 10 fourth-quarter points while shutting out FSU to pull away.
It's not always going to be easy for college football's best teams. In fact, the lack of a dominant team almost ensures there will be a number of close calls. The truly important factor for remaining undefeated teams is asking a simple question with a difficult answer: Can you find a way to win when it matters?
That's something Clemson coach Dabo Swinney commented on after beating the Seminoles:
There's no room for fans to be incredulous about Swinney's comments. College football is so unpredictable that it's only natural we see a different team fall every week. Oklahoma's awful loss to Texas becomes even more inexplicable when you notice that the Sooners have been among the more impressive-looking teams since. The possibility of the Sooners winning the Big 12 remains real.
Florida housed Ole Miss at home in early October and then barely survived Vanderbilt a month later. Stanford lost to Northwestern in Week 1 yet could be the best one-loss team in college football.
Who knows with these teams?
And who knows with Clemson? The remaining schedule of Syracuse, Wake Forest and South Carolina looks more than passable, but what if the Gamecocks play rivalry spoiler for the ages? What if, heaven forbid, Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson gets hurt?
Baylor, for example, must navigate its remaining schedule, easily the hardest in college football, without quarterback Seth Russell. True freshman Jarrett Stidham looked more than capable of leading the offense against Kansas State on Thursday evening, but the Bears defense was so bad against the run that the Bears seem just as beatable as any other undefeated team.
|Remaining schedules for unbeaten teams|
|Team||Week 11||Week 12||Week 13||Week 14|
|Baylor||Oklahoma||at Oklahoma State||at TCU||Texas|
|Clemson||at Syracuse||Wake Forest||at South Carolina||ACC Championship Game|
|Houston||Memphis||at UConn||Navy||Possible AAC Championship Game|
|Iowa||Minnesota||Purdue||at Nebraska||Possible Big Ten Championship Game|
|Ohio State||at Illinois||Michigan State||at Michigan||Possible Big Ten Championship Game|
|Oklahoma State||at Iowa State||Baylor||Oklahoma||N/A|
Remember when Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer told everyone to relax and that the playoff rankings would sort themselves out? Well, it didn't even take a week for some of that cannibalization to begin.
Who are we to say Week 10 will be the only time that happens? That's a ton of meaningful football left to be played, and someone has to lose.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.