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A Guide to One-Loss Playoff Stress

Take a deep breath, and remember everything’s going to be okay. (Probably.)

Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

My beloved alma mater just lost their first game in the regular season. Are they out of the college football playoff race?

Did you actually go there or are you calling them your alma mater because your AIM screen name contained a reference to the school? Doesn’t really matter to me, I’m just curious.

I don’t have to answer that.

Fair enough. Look, we’re very close friends and I value the unspoken connection we have, but I need you to remind me which team you root for.

A Group of Five team.

Oh yeah, they’re out. They were probably out before that loss, assuming they weren’t in the middle of a three-seasons-long undefeated streak featuring bowl wins over some of the bigger names in the sport. Even then, they were gonna need to beat a couple of Power Five teams this year and get some help.

Wait, is your team Army or Navy or Air Force? The academies would likely get left out even if they went undefeated, but it’d be politically dicier for the Playoff Committee to snub the troops. It’s not like when they leave out UCF, Facebook starts going crazy with “THESE BOYS SACRIFICE FOR OUR TANNING BED FREEDOMS!” posts.

SIR. I root for a Power Five team. You really think I’d ask you about a G5 team making the Playoff with a loss?

See, this is what I like about this friendship. You’re always keeping me on my toes!

Anyways, no, they’re not out with one loss.

But an unranked team just beat them!

How did that make you feel?

Scared! Angry! Unsure as to why I allowed myself to be vulnerable in the first place!

And all of those feelings are valid! But you should know something: Of the 15 teams that have made the Playoff with one loss, nine lost to an opponent that wasn’t ranked at the time.

Those unranked teams ended up being good though, right?

Some did! 2014 Arizona beat Oregon and wound up winning ten games and the Pac-12 South. Penn State wasn’t in the top 25 when they handed Ohio State a loss, and the Nittany Lions went on to claim the Big Ten Championship. (But not a playoff spot. I would not bring this up around them unless you’re ready for an hour of AND ANOTHER THING-ing.)

Then again, 2015 Nebraska beat Michigan State and only finished 6-7, and that’s with a bowl win over UCLA. That same year, Charlie Strong got to wear a gold cowboy hat after Texas knocked off Oklahoma which he could have worn to watch every bowl game because the 5-7 Longhorns weren’t playing in any of them. And 2017 Clemson lost to an eventual 4-8 Syracuse.

There’s something kind of comforting about that. Even if you have a bad day*, college football wants you* to know that you still have worth!

Well, did those teams all lose early and then claw back? What if my team lost late in the season?

They’re still not out.

Are you just saying whatever you think will make me feel better?

Would that I had that kind of emotional generosity! Eight of the teams who made the Playoff with one loss took that L in the second half of the season. That defeat at the hands of Syracuse was Clemson’s seventh game of 2017, and Michigan State’s loss to the Huskers was the ninth game for the 2015 Spartans. Washington, Georgia, and Clemson have all made the Playoff after starting 9-0 and then losing for the first time. Heck, Alabama lost the Iron Bowl before the final playoff rankings in 2017 and still got in!

There’s one exception to this rule: Your team can’t suffer their first loss in the conference championship. Nobody’s gotten a playoff bid yet with that particular permutation of 12-1, though the only teams to attempt the feat so far are 2015 Iowa and 2017 Wisconsin. Eventually, some team will probably pull this off, and everyone will congratulate them on their innovative playoff navigation.

Huh. Ok, I think you’ve convinced me. This one loss isn’t the end of the world.

Well … no, never mind.

I knew you’d do this.

Look, it’s probably nothing, but every team that’s made the Playoff with one loss was ranked in the top 10 when they stumbled. In fact, most of them were in the top five.

But nobody knows if that matters! The six one-loss P5 teams that haven’t gotten a Playoff spot were all ranked that highly too, so it’s not as though being well-regarded when you lose is a Get Out Of Jail Free card. The teams that lose their first game when they’re ranked in the teens or twenties don’t finish the rest of the year undefeated.

We need somebody to take a loss while they’re in that range and then run the table. Do this for science, Texas A&M!

The only conclusion you can draw is that good teams aren’t out of the Playoff with one loss but mediocre and bad teams are because they won’t stop at one. I have that about right?

You do. I spent twenty years in school to deliver that extremely learned piece of wisdom to you.

So why did a Fox Sports personality insist that my team is out of the Playoff??

What about the hiring history of Fox Sports makes you think “good at prognostication” is a relevant employment factor?

*Only one, though. Two bad days and you’re garbage.

**Again, not applicable if you’re a G5 team.