Which 1-Loss Teams Still Have Viable College Football Playoff Aspirations?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystSeptember 24, 2019

Notre Dame QB Ian Book
Notre Dame QB Ian BookJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

For the time being, there's hope that the College Football Playoff will consist entirely of 13-0 teams. Clemson's perfect season seems far more likely to happen than not. Oklahoma looks equally unstoppable. The Big Ten and the SEC both have five undefeated teams still standing. And, who knows? California might pull off a miracle and become the first Pac-12 team to run the table since Oregon in 2010.

This is college football, though, where improbable upsets lurk around every corner. With eight to 10 contests remaining on every schedule, unblemished records are still faint lights at the end of long tunnels. And with each loss-column zero that turns into a one over the next 11 weeks, the inevitability of defeated teams reaching the CFP grows stronger.

Coverage of this sport is a reactionary pressure cooker. Every marquee win is billed as a statement victory and/or a program-changer, and every team's first loss is viewed as a College Football Playoff disqualifier that usually puts the head coach on the hot seat. In the blink of an eye, the national perception of a team can shift from "The sky is the limit" to "The sky is falling."

But this is a 15-week marathon and not a 15-minute sprint.

One loss isn't necessarily a CFP death sentence.

If anything, it's a rite of passage in most seasons.

Last year was an anomaly with three undefeated teams reaching the playoff. (Not to mention 12-0 UCF, which was left in the lurch at No. 8 in the final rankings.) In the first four seasons of the playoff era, only three of the 16 that received invitations to the national semifinals did so with perfect records. And all three of those teamsFlorida State in 2014, Clemson in 2015 and Alabama in 2016ended up losing, meaning a team with one loss won the first four CFP titles.

What's more, most of those one-loss playoff teams suffered their defeats in the first half of the season. Eight teams in the past five years have gotten in despite losses suffered on or before October 13, including Oklahoma as last year's lone CFP competitor with a defeat.

In 2014, Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech in Week 2. The following year, Alabama lost to Ole Miss in Week 3. Both of those teams went on to win the national championship. 

So who did we prematurely bury this September?


1. Oregon Ducks

Oregon QB Justin Herbert
Oregon QB Justin HerbertThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Ducks lost their opener on a neutral field against a still-undefeated Auburn, but there's no question they were the better team for the first 40 minutes. An inexplicable drop of a touchdown pass, a subsequent missed field goal and a backbreaking fumble inside the Auburn 10 kept Oregon from blowing that game wide-open, and it still led 21-6 late in the third quarter before Auburn came to life.

Given how that contest played out and how good Auburn has looked since then, that's one of the most forgivable defeats thus far. And Oregon has responded to that early L by holding three consecutive opponents without a touchdown, beating Nevada, Montana and Stanford by a combined margin of 133-15.

Because of potential No. 1 overall draft pick Justin Herbertwho has a 2019 stat line with a 74.4 percent completion rate, 281.8 yards per game, 14 touchdowns and no interceptionsOregon will keep getting a lot of national attention. That's going to result in more people falling in love with this defense and believing that this team could at least put up a fight against an Alabama or a Clemson.

As far as the remaining schedule is concerned, there's enough meat on there to get respect but not so much that a second loss feels inevitable. The Ducks host Cal in Week 6, have three consecutive challenges at Washington, against Washington State and at USC in Weeks 8-10 and would presumably draw either Utah or USC in the Pac-12 championship.

ESPN's Football Power Index gives Oregon a 13.6 percent chance of winning out, good for the eighth-highest percentage in the nation. The Ducks would still need some help to finish in the top four, but it's feasible.


2. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Speaking of winning out, Notre Dame is No. 2 on that list with a 32.8 percent chance.

Just like Oregon, the Fighting Irish lost by six away from home to a title contender from the SEC. In this case, it was a true road game against No. 3 Georgia in which quarterback Ian Book and Co. had a chance at the end. They got the ball back at midfield with two minutes remaining, but Georgia brought pressure and blanketed wide receiver Chase Claypool to put a quick end to what would have been a national-landscape-altering touchdown drive.

Notre Dame was significantly more impressive than expected in that prime-time showdown. Both Louisville and New Mexico had rushed for more than 200 yards and multiple touchdowns against the defense, but the Fighting Irish clamped down on one of the best rushing attacks in the nation.

And on a night when Notre Dame showed it was better than we thought, its remaining opponents did the opposite.

Prior to Week 4, that October 26 road game against Michigan felt like a likely loss or a coin-flip proposition at best, but now it looks like a matchup the Irish should win. Week 5 opponent Virginia barely survived at home against Old Dominion and will get annihilated in South Bend, Indiana, if it plays with a similar lack of focus. Boston College didn't exactly smoke Rutgers. And Stanford looked like it didn't even want to play against Oregon.

Unless Michigan turns a corner in the next month, that 32.8 percent chance seems way too low. At this point, it would be a big surprise if Notre Dame loses again. The unknown is whether it'll be enough, considering the Irish won't face another team currently ranked higher than 18th and won't have that one final chance to make a positive impression during conference championship week.


3. Texas Longhorns

The final one-loss team with a conceivable path to the top four is Texasalthough the FPI puts the Longhorns' chances of winning out at 0.7 percent. Such is life in the Big 12, where the only team with multiple losses is 2-2 Kansas.

Texas QB Sam Ehlinger (11) and head coach Tom Herman
Texas QB Sam Ehlinger (11) and head coach Tom HermanEric Gay/Associated Press

Though the odds are stacked against the Longhorns, it doesn't seem that unlikely for this high-powered offense to win its next nine games (including the Big 12 championship). They have scored at least 36 points in every gameincluding the 45-38 loss to current AP No. 4 LSUand Oklahoma is the only team left on the schedule that is likely to keep pace with that type of scoring assault.

They get the Sooners on a "neutral" site in Texas for a rivalry that always seems to come right down to the wire. And the Longhorns will get the only other currently ranked Big 12 team (No. 24 Kansas State) at home. Road games against TCU, Iowa State and Baylor could go sideways for Texas, but those teams lost to SMU, almost lost to Northern Iowa and barely showed up against Rice, respectively. It's hard to trust any of them in any location.

The problem, of course, is that Texas would presumably need to beat Oklahoma twice in order to finish at 12-1, and that Jalen Hurts-led bunch is in the top four nationally in points per game (55.7) for the fifth consecutive season.

Sam Ehlinger threw for more than 300 yards and had two touchdowns in each contest against the Sooners last year and rushed for a total of 114 yards and five touchdowns. Yet the Longhorns needed a last-second field goal to win the regular-season game and lost by two possessions in the Big 12 championship. He'll need to bring his A-game and then some.

If they were to get it done, though, it would be more impressive than anything that Notre Dame or Oregon could achieve the rest of the way. A one-loss Alabama, Auburn, Georgia or LSU would probably be ranked ahead of a one-loss Texas, but it would be almost impossible to deny the Longhorns a spot in the playoff with a sweep of the Sooners.


Also Worth Mentioning

Michigan, Michigan State and Mississippi State would have even stronger resumes than Texas if they could successfully navigate brutal schedules in their loaded divisions. And if all hell breaks loose and we're entertaining the possibility of two-loss SEC or Big Ten teams making the playoff, one of the Pac-12's many other 3-1 teams (Washington, Utah, USC, Washington State or Arizona State) could sneak into the hunt by not losing again.

Considering the combination of the proverbial eye test, remaining schedules and current AP rankings, though, Oregon, Notre Dame and Texas are head-and-shoulders ahead of that pack in the search for one-loss title contenders.


Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.


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