Predicting When Every Undefeated College Football Team Will Lose
Normally, the Monday after the first weekend in October is the perfect time to start trying to figure out which undefeated college football teams will last the longest with a zero in the loss column.
At this point in the 2018 season, there were 11 undefeated teams remaining.
Seventy-one if you count all the teams who haven't started playing yet; 19 if you only count those with at least one win.
In light of those large numbers, perhaps we should have pushed this back a few weeks. But, hey, let's have some fun by forecasting the first loss of the season for every* remaining undefeated team that has either already played games or at least has games on the calendar in the next two months.
We'll cover the Power Five leagues first, then the Group of Five leagues and, lastly, the intriguing Independents.
*The Mid-American Conference has announced it will start playing on Nov. 4, but it has not yet released a schedule. Without that information, the 12 teams from the MAC were omitted from this exercise.
Miami Hurricanes (3-0)
First Loss: Oct. 10 at Clemson
Virginia Tech Hokies (2-0)
First Loss: Oct. 10 at North Carolina
There are four undefeated-versus-undefeated showdowns in Week 6, and two of them are happening in the ACC.
Miami at Clemson is the College GameDay-drawing headliner, pitting the No. 1 team in the country against a Hurricanes squad that has vaulted from unranked to AP No. 7 in about a month's time. Aside from Florida's Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts, Miami's D'Eriq King to Brevin Jordan connection might be the best currently playing. And that Hurricanes run game has improved by leaps and bounds from where it was one season ago. Still, Clemson is going to be heavily favored.
Virginia Tech at North Carolina is more of a tossup, but UNC is the pick at home. Tar Heels QB Sam Howell should pick apart a Hokies secondary that has been ravaged by COVID-19 protocols, VT's QB situation has been shaky at best, and North Carolina's front seven will have more resistance than Virginia Tech's run game has faced yet this season.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (2-0)
First Loss: Nov. 7 vs. Clemson
It's hard to know what to make of Notre Dame at this point. The Fighting Irish didn't look great in their opener against Duke. They then throttled South Florida, but the Bulls clearly aren't very good. And that Sep. 19 game was the last time Notre Dame played. This might be a legitimate College Football Playoff contender, but it's too early to tell.
Over the next month, we'll get a much better sense of what Notre Dame is bringing to the table, and perhaps that will convince us to pick the Fighting Irish at home against Clemson. For now, though, got to project the Tigers get the W.
North Carolina Tar Heels (2-0)
First Loss: Nov. 27 vs. Notre Dame
Remember a few years ago when Miami started 10-0 only to lose each of its final three games? North Carolina could be headed for a similar fate.
The Tar Heels haven't looked like a Top 10-caliber team thus far, but they won't need to deal with any of the ACC's ranked teams until Thanksgiving weekend. At that point, though, they have back-to-back games against Notre Dame (home) and Miami (road). They could head into the home stretch with an 8-0 record and College Football Playoff dreams, but it will likely turn into a slightly disappointing 8-2 record in a hurry.
Clemson Tigers (3-0)
First Loss: None
It has been almost three full years since Clemson's last loss during the regular season—Oct. 13, 2017, at Syracuse. The competition within the ACC is much better than it has been for the past two years, but it still looks like Clemson is at the head of the class with some room to spare.
The road game against Notre Dame will be a significant challenge. The regular-season finale at Virginia Tech won't be a cakewalk. And whether they draw Notre Dame, Miami or North Carolina in the ACC championship, that game could trip up the Tigers. But Clemson is likely going to enter the College Football Playoff with an unblemished record for the third consecutive year.
Oklahoma State Cowboys (3-0)
First Loss: Nov. 21 at Oklahoma
And then there was one.
Last year, Oklahoma made it until late October before suffering its first loss, and Baylor made it to mid-November. But it's already "Oklahoma State or Bust" for the Big 12 this year.
Maybe not for the College Football Playoff. If Texas managed to right the ship and win out from here, it could still have a strong case for at least the No. 4 seed. But as far as undefeated regular seasons are concerned, the Cowboys are all that's left.
The good news is Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace finally got rolling this week. The former rushed for 145 yards and two touchdowns. The latter made nine catches for 148 yards and two scores. Neither one had accomplished all that much in the first two games against Tulsa and West Virginia, each of which was a tossup until late in the fourth quarter.
The bad news is that offensive breakthrough happened against lowly Kansas, so who really cares?
But the best news is now the Cowboys have a week off to get Spencer Sanders right. Their starting quarterback suffered a high ankle sprain in the first quarter of the opener against Tulsa and hasn't been seen since. By the time they next take the field against Baylor on Oct. 17, though, maybe he'll be good to go. Nothing against freshman QB Shane Illingworth, but Sanders is the guy they want out there if they're going to keep a zero in the loss column as long as possible.
To that end, they might make a run deep into the regular season. They can win at Baylor in two weeks. They can also win subsequent home games against Iowa State and Texas. The Nov. 7 game at Kansas State is where things get dicey. And if they make it to the Nov. 21 game at Oklahoma (aka Bedlam), that's where the quest for perfection comes to an end. The Sooners have been mediocre thus far, but that young team should improve substantially over the next seven weeks and should win that rivalry game.
With the first game of its season still nearly three weeks away, technically the entire Big Ten is still undefeated. So let's quickly work our way through the schedule and figure out when each of the 14 teams is most likely to take that first L—if at all. (I'm projecting the team listed first to lose in each matchup.)
Nebraska at Ohio State
Maryland at Northwestern
Rutgers at Michigan State
Illinois at Wisconsin
Purdue vs. Iowa
Indiana vs. Penn State
Michigan at Minnesota
The only tough call here is that Michigan-Minnesota game. But with the Wolverines playing on the road and breaking in a new starting quarterback, we've got to give the edge to the Golden Gophers. Michigan will be a major factor in how the Big Ten shakes out overall, though. Jim Harbaugh's guys host Wisconsin (Nov. 14) and Penn State (Nov. 28) before the regular-season finale at Ohio State (Dec. 12). Even though we have the Wolverines losing their opener, it wouldn't be a huge surprise if they win the next six to enter "The Game" with a chance to win the division.
Northwestern at Iowa
Michigan State at Michigan
Penn State vs. Ohio State
Ohio State at Penn State might be the most important game of the entire 2020 season—Big Ten or otherwise—as the winner will immediately become the heavy favorite to win the B1G's East Division. And it should be an amazing game. During the 2018 game in Happy Valley, Ohio State erased a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit to win by one. Two years prior, a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown punctuated a 17-0 fourth-quarter run as the Nittany Lions pulled off the upset. Two years before that, it took two overtimes for the Buckeyes to get the win. Look for OSU QB Justin Fields to be the difference in another gem.
Wisconsin at Michigan
Iowa at Minnesota
Nothing fancy here. Two hard-nosed games between teams that, along with Ohio State, ranked top five in the Big Ten in yards allowed per game last season. Going with the home team in both cases, and not expecting any of these four teams to eclipse 21 points.
Nov. 28: Minnesota at Wisconsin
Like Ohio State-Penn State, this game probably decides who wins the West Division. But Wisconsin has won nine of the last 10 games in this ancient rivalry, each one by a double-digit margin. Leaning in the direction of the Badgers here. But if Minnesota does win that opener against Michigan, this should be the only loss the Golden Gophers suffer all season.
Won't lose (at least) until College Football Playoff: Ohio State
Like the Big Ten, the start of Pac-12 play is still a distant reality. At least the former plays this month. The Pac-12 won't take the field until November. But we did get our first look at the full Pac-12 schedule on Saturday morning, so let's figure out when everyone is going down.
Arizona at Utah
Stanford at Oregon
Washington State at Oregon State
Colorado vs. UCLA
Washington at California
Arizona State at USC
Oregon State at Washington
UCLA vs. Utah
California at Arizona State
While the Pac-12 is nowhere close to the Big Ten or SEC in terms of quality depth, what a brutal two-week start to the season for both Cal and Arizona State.
It's probably going to be somewhat of a down year for Washington, but opening the year against a Huskies team that has held opponents below 20 points per game in five consecutive seasons is quite the challenge for Cal. Needing to then play a road game against a very good Arizona State team—which won at Cal last September—makes a 2-0 start look nearly impossible for the Golden Bears.
But 2-0 probably isn't happening for the Sun Devils, either, as that opener on the road against USC is a likely loss. Trojans QB Kedon Slovis had four passing touchdowns in the first quarter of last year's meeting, and he may well have a "Remember me, Heisman voters?" type of initial performance against Arizona State.
Nov. 21: USC at Utah
USC has the talent to run the table, but some lot of good that has done the Trojans lately. The last time they started a season 5-0 was in 2006, and this road game against Utah will ensure that trend continues. USC lost at Utah in 2018, 2016 and 2014.
Nov. 28: Utah at Arizona State
Back-to-back games against both of their fellow Pac-12 South contenders will be too much for the Utes to handle, and this loss would make the final two weeks of the Pac-12 season a bit more intriguing. At this point, Arizona State, USC and Utah would potentially all be tied at 3-1. Each finishes the season with two games against teams in the projected bottom half of the league, so a three-way 5-1 tie is feasible.
Dec. 5: Oregon at California
I'm extremely skeptical about Oregon as the favorite to win the Pac-12. Between the players who exhausted their final year of eligibility and the one who have opted out of this fall season, the Ducks need to replace their starting quarterback, their entire starting offensive line (including tight end Jacob Breeland), their leading tackler and three of their four best defensive backs. That's a lot.
But their November schedule (vs. Stanford, at Washington State, vs. UCLA, at Oregon State) is quite favorable, so they should be able to get into December before dropping a game. This road trip to Cal is going to be a problem, though. In fact, this result would A) eliminate the Pac-12 from the CFP conversation and B) likely make Cal the North Division champion.
It only took two weeks for 10 SEC teams to taste defeat. Most of those results were expected, but Mississippi State was involved in the two big stunners, upsetting LSU on the road before losing a home game against Arkansas. Hail State, and all hail the Mike Leach experience.
Of the SEC's four remaining undefeated teams, how many will make it to Halloween before a loss?
Tennessee Volunteers (2-0)
First Loss: Oct. 10 at Georgia
Dating back to last October, Tennessee has won eight consecutive games. Only Air Force (nine) has a longer active winning streak than the Volunteers. Regardless of where things go from here, that's quite the turnaround for a team that had only won nine of its last 29 games prior to starting that streak.
Unfortunately, that streak is about to come to an end, courtesy of Georgia.
The Bulldogs have won the last three meetings in this series by a combined score of 122-26, and Georgia made one heck of a statement in its 27-6 win over Auburn on Saturday. Maybe Tennessee benefits from this being a trap game for Georgia, directly between big showdowns with Auburn and Alabama. But if the Bulldogs and their defense are invested in this game, Tennessee tastes defeat for the first time in more than 350 days.
Georgia Bulldogs (2-0)
First Loss: Oct. 17 at Alabama
Georgia was able to defend its way to victory against long-downtrodden Arkansas and an Auburn team that is struggling on offense after replacing all five of its starting offensive linemen and its leading rusher from last season. But trying to shut down Alabama's offense in Tuscaloosa is another story entirely.
The Crimson Tide have scored at least 35 points in 15 consecutive games, and they showcased a new weapon in the 52-24 victory over Texas A&M, where John Metchie III made five catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns. The unknown at wide receiver beyond Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith was the only feasible weakness in this offense, but Metchie's emergence put a quick end to that theory.
Georgia will be able to win a lot of games with Stetson Bennett at quarterback, but it's next to impossible to beat Alabama while getting 200 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions from your passing game.
Florida Gators (2-0)
First Loss: Oct. 17 vs. LSU
Thus far, Florida's high-efficiency passing attack has been more than enough to make up for mediocre defense against mediocre (by SEC standards) opponents—Ole Miss and South Carolina. But what happens when Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts have to deal with a defense that didn't rank in the bottom three in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game in 2019?
Two weeks ago, the Week 6 road game against Texas A&M seemed like it was going to be a serious test. Looks like the Aggies are a hot mess, though, and that the Gators should be able to win that one.
The subsequent home game against LSU might be a different story. LSU's defense got torched by Mississippi State in the season opener, but the Tigers were without All-American cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. for that game. Blanket Pitts with that star and LSU is going to get some stops. And while Myles Brennan is no Joe Burrow, he has averaged 341 yards and 3.5 touchdowns through the first two games. That would be more than enough to pull off the upset over Top 5 Florida.
Alabama Crimson Tide (2-0)
First Loss: None
Alabama will eventually be challenged, likely several times. Heck, all four remaining games in October—at Ole Miss, vs. Georgia, at Tennessee, vs. Mississippi State—could be problems. But as long as the offensive core of Mac Jones, Najee Harris, Waddle, Smith and Metchie can avoid injury/COVID-19, it's hard to see this team taking a loss during the regular season.
The home game against Georgia and road game against LSU are the two likeliest spots for the Crimson Tide to let one slip away, but they're probably going to be favored by at least a touchdown in every regular-season game.
Houston Cougars (0-0)
First Loss: Oct. 16 vs. BYU
One of these days, Houston will finally have a game that isn't postponed. But it won't be long after that before the Cougars acquire some losses. Three of the next five games on their schedule are against BYU, UCF and Cincinnati. Unless they have made drastic improvements on defense compared to their past two seasons, they'll probably lose all three of those games, starting with BYU in Week 7.
Temple Owls (0-0)
First Loss: Oct. 24 at Memphis
Temple's abbreviated season will get underway this Saturday at Navy. One week after that, the Owls will host South Florida. With so many key offensive players from last season returning, there's a good chance they win both of those contests. But the subsequent four-game gauntlet—at Memphis, at Tulane, vs. SMU, at UCF—is bound to result in multiple losses.
SMU Mustangs (4-0)
First Loss: Oct. 24 vs. Cincinnati
After all the talk about the AAC having a three-horse race between Cincinnati, Memphis and UCF, the Mustangs have crashed the party with a vengeance. SMU beat Memphis just a few hours before UCF lost to Tulsa, so now it looks like the Cincinnati-SMU game may decide who gets the No. 1 seed in the AAC championship.
SMU's offense is the real deal, but the defense will be its undoing. Both North Texas and Memphis eclipsed 500 total yards against the Mustangs. If Cincinnati gets anywhere close to that total on offense, the Bearcats will win in a blowout.
Cincinnati Bearcats (3-0)
First Loss: Nov. 21 at UCF
Per usual under Luke Fickell, Cincinnati is stout on defense. The Bearcats held both Army and South Florida below 300 total yards, and they already have seven interceptions through three games.
Do they have the offense to beat UCF in Orlando, though? Even in the loss to Tulsa, the Knights had 455 yards of total offense and scored 26 points against a solid defense. And UCF has put up at least 24 points in each of its last four meetings with Cincinnati. That might be too much for a Cincinnati team that only scored 24 against Army and 28 against South Florida.
Conference USA has three undefeated teams, but they have played a combined total of three games because of a litany of COVID-19 postponements. Are these teams actually good or have they just skated by on account of the lack of games played?
Rice Owls (0-0)
First Loss: Oct. 24 vs. Middle Tennessee
Rice—which has won three or fewer games in each of the past four seasons—has postponed the start of its season twice. The Owls were originally supposed to open the year on Sept. 3 against Houston, and they were subsequently supposed to get things started against Marshall this past Saturday. The new plan is for Rice to play its first game against Middle Tennessee on Oct. 24.
When the Owls do finally make their season debut, it will likely be a loss, because of the combination of rust and the lack of success over the past few years. Maybe they can win the home game against MTSU, but they will probably lose the road game against Southern Mississippi the following week.
Florida Atlantic Owls (1-0)
First Loss: Oct. 24 at Marshall
FAU finally played its first game this past Saturday against Charlotte, and early returns weren't great. The Owls won the game, but they were shut out in the first half and had to make a red-zone stand on defense in the final 30 seconds in order to survive. Running back B.J. Emmons left with a stinger injury in the first quarter and they weren't able to get rolling on offense without him.
With Lane Kiffin now at Ole Miss, the offense was noticeably less dynamic. Maybe it was just the late start to the season, but it didn't look like the same team of the past few years.
FAU has a winnable road game against Southern Miss next week, but the game at Marshall later this month should result in the first loss.
Marshall Thundering Herd (2-0)
First Loss: None
There's no chance of Marshall sneaking into the College Football Playoff conversation, and it might not even make a compelling case for a New Year's Six bowl. But after a 59-0 win over Eastern Kentucky and a 17-7 upset of Appalachian State, it's hard to pinpoint a spot in Conference USA play where the Thundering Herd could lose.
Five weeks ago, the Oct. 10 road game against Western Kentucky looked like a likely loss, but the Hilltoppers have really struggled thus far and barely look like a threat to Brenden Knox and Co.
In fact, no one on the remaining schedule looks like much of a threat, which means Marshall should carry an 8-0 record into the Conference USA title game.
Just like the Big Ten and Pac-12, let's take more of a rapid-fire trip through the has-not-yet-begun Mountain West schedule.
Utah State at Boise State
UNLV at San Diego State
San Jose State vs. Air Force
New Mexico at Colorado State
Fresno State vs. Hawaii
Wyoming at Nevada
Hawaii at Wyoming
Colorado State at Fresno State
Air Force vs. Boise State
Nov. 7: Boise State vs. BYU
Nov. 21: Nevada vs. San Diego State
Dec. 12: San Diego State at BYU
Boise State looks like the best team in the Mountain West Conference, but its schedule is brutal. The Broncos have tough road games against Air Force (Oct. 31) and Wyoming (Dec. 12), plus the logistically difficult road game against Hawaii (Nov. 21) in the middle of a season devoid of bye weeks. However, the biggest challenge appears to be the rivalry game against a BYU team that has defeated its first three opponents 148-24.
San Diego State's league schedule is much more forgiving than Boise State's. The Aztecs don't need to face Air Force, Boise State or Wyoming, and they get both Colorado State and Hawaii at home. Maybe they drop one of the back-to-back road games against Nevada and Colorado State, but there's a good chance they carry a 7-0 record into the regular-season finale at BYU.
It would be kind of funny if Boise State and San Diego State meet in the MWC championship with mutual 7-0 league records and losses to BYU.
On the one hand, there are only two undefeated teams in the Sun Belt: Coastal Carolina and Louisiana.
On the other hand, holy cow, it's early October and there are multiple undefeated Sun Belt teams.
Last year, Appalachian State was the only team to make it this far without a blemish. In 2018, all 10 teams had suffered at least one loss by Sept. 15. The year before that, 11 of the 12 teams had lost at least once by Sept. 9. The lone exception was Coastal Carolina, which started 1-0 before losing in nine consecutive weeks.
Uncharted territory for the Sun Belt, but how much longer will it last?
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (3-0)
First loss: Oct. 17 at Louisiana
Coastal made some early waves in jumping out to an early 28-0 lead in a late-night victory over Kansas on Sept. 12. And that offense has continued thriving. The Chanticleers put up 43 points in a win over Campbell, followed by 52 this past weekend against Arkansas State.
Can they do it against a decent defense, though? And can the defense hold its own against a multi-dimensional offense?
Probably not, but we'll find out in their next game, at Louisiana in Week 7.
Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns (3-0)
First loss: Dec. 4/5 at Appalachian State
At some point, Louisiana's ridiculous luck will run out. But for the time being, it has been one of the most entertaining rides of the year.
After a somewhat comfortable road win over Iowa State, the Ragin' Cajuns had to overcome a two-touchdown, second-half deficit to force overtime and ultimately defeat Georgia State. One week later, they needed a last-second, 53-yard field goal from a kicker who had missed four of his first six attempts of the season.
Eventually, though, they travel to Appalachian State, which has had their number since they became conference foes. The Mountaineers are 8-0 in this series, including four wins in the past two seasons.
This game was originally scheduled for Oct. 7, but it was postponed a few days ago. Most likely, it will be rescheduled for the first weekend of December, as neither team has an open date until then. Louisiana may well run the table until then, though.
Thus far, there are only three Independents playing this fall. Two of them are undefeated, though, and one of them might run the table.
Liberty Flames (3-0)
First Loss: Oct. 17 at Syracuse
Liberty opened the season with close wins over C-USA's Western Kentucky and Florida International before an easy win over North Alabama on Saturday. But road games against the ACC's Syracuse (Oct. 17), Virginia Tech (Nov. 7) and North Carolina State (Nov. 21) will eventually result in multiple losses.
The Flames do have a respectable offense led by Auburn transfer QB Malik Willis (though he missed the North Alabama game with an elbow injury), but Liberty's defense has allowed at least 44 points in four of its last five games against Power Five opponents—including a 44-34 loss to Rutgers last year. Maybe Willis and Co. can sneak by Syracuse (unlikely), but there's no way they get through that Virginia Tech game with a zero in the loss column.
BYU Cougars (3-0)
First Loss: None
BYU might be one of the 10 best teams in the country, and it definitely does not play one of the 10 toughest schedules.
Led by wildly efficient quarterback Zach Wilson, the Cougars made mincemeat of Navy (55-3), Troy (48-7) and Louisiana Tech (45-14). Wilson has completed 60 of 71 pass attempts for 961 yards and six touchdowns with five rushing touchdowns to boot. So that's 11 incomplete passes and 11 total touchdowns. Not too shabby.
Aside from the Nov. 7 road game against Boise State—and maybe the previously postponed road game against Army, if and when they reschedule that for either Nov. 28 or Dec. 5—no opponent on BYU's schedule has the defensive prowess to slow this team down.
Would an undefeated season be enough to get BYU into the College Football Playoff mix? I highly doubt it, since it doesn't play a single game against a current AP Top 25 team. But with the Pac-12 only playing seven games and the Big 12 looking atrocious as a whole, maybe the Cougars finish the season in the Top 10 of the CFP rankings and claims a national championship.
They would certainly have a "Hey, we tried to schedule aggressively!" argument. It's not their fault that their original September schedule (at Utah, vs. Michigan State, at Arizona State, at Minnesota) turned into a dumpster fire when everyone canceled or substantially truncated nonconference play. Doesn't change the fact that the Boise State game will be their only chance to prove much of anything. If they annihilate the Broncos, though, the CFP conversation could get interesting.