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A look back at the one-loss teams that made and missed the College Football Playoff

Later tonight the College Football Playoff selection committee will release their first batch of weekly rankings to give fans an inside look at how the committee is viewing the college football season so far. The committee may look at the season in a slightly different way form the traditional poll logic tends to at times as it falls on using analytical data a bit more than the voters submitting ballots for the AP top 25 or the Super 16 poll and so on. And while the only ranking that really matters form the committee will come at the end of the season, it is still interesting to see just how they are processing their information and compare and contrast how it compares to the general consensus among college football analysts and fans.

The top few spots in this week’s rankings feel pretty straightforward with Alabama and Georgia likely to pull the top two spots in some order, and it would not be shocking to see Georgia slide in ahead of the Crimson Tide. The other two spot in the top four may end up going to Ohio State and Notre Dame, but that is purely speculation. But that brings us to an interesting discussion. How exactly is this committee going to rank the one-loss teams in the field? With a good handful of one-loss teams to weigh and compare against each other, this will be our first glimpse as to how exactly this committee feels about the teams that have one loss on their resume so far.

What will the separation be between Ohio State and Oklahoma? The Sooners won at Ohio State but lost at home as a heavy favorite against Iowa State. That game was back in Week 2 and the Buckeyes have been surging ever since, including last weekend’s miraculous comeback against Penn State. Speaking of which, where exactly does Penn State fall without too much to brag about in the win column and a one-point loss on the road as an underdog against Ohio State? Does Penn State now have the loss that won’t hurt them as much as others? Or is that Notre Dame, fresh off back-to-back home wins against ranked opponents and having only suffered a close loss at home against a Georgia team that has been roughing up everybody else in their path? Clemson was kicking butt and taking names earlier this season but the defending national champions are not quite playing at the same level they were the past two years. With a road loss with an injured quarterback, where will the Tigers fall? And this is just scratching the surface.

Rather than sift through the one-loss teams and try to rank them and argue why they should or should not be in the top four when the first rankings come out from the committee, I wanted to take a look back at the brief history of one-loss teams that did and did not make the College Football Playoff and see if we can find anything that seems to stick. Every season tells a different story, but are there any patterns when it comes to figuring out which one-loss teams are deemed worthy of the playoff and which are not?

Let’s begin with the 2014 season, where the controversy seemingly got off to a fast start.

2014: When Two “One True Champions” Are Passed Over

Who made it: Alabama (12-1), Oregon (12-1), Ohio State (13-1)

Who missed it: TCU (11-1), Baylor (11-1), Marshall (12-1)

Let me get this one out of the way real quick. Conference USA champion Marshall wasn’t going to stand a chance of making the College Football Playoff.

We did not have to wait long at all for our first bit of controversy in the selection process for the inaugural College Football Playoff. TCU and Baylor shared the Big 12 title with identical 11-1 records. With no extra data point with the absence of a Big 12 championship game, the Horned Frogs and Bears had no other choice but to go out in their regular season finales and leave a lasting impression with the committee and hope for some upsets in the conference championship games. And with Ohio State moving up past TCU in the next-to-last playoff rankings, the writing appeared to be on the wall. Ohio State let the writing dry with a 59-0 drubbing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game to state their case at the end of the season.

The controversy here was Ohio State had suffered the worst loss of the three teams vying for the fourth and final spot in the rankings (Alabama as a one-loss SEC champion was a given for the top seed; Oregon as a one-loss Pac-12 champion was slotted second without much debate; ACC champion Florida State was undefeated and figured to be a lock for one of the four spots). Ohio State lost a home game in Week 2 to unranked Virginia Tech, who went on to lose at home the following week to unranked East Carolina and end the year with a 7-6 record. The Week 2 loss, on the same day a handful of other Big Ten teams took key losses, became the early elimination point for many critics of the conference. As we know by now, one game in the loss column hardly means anything in this new playoff era.

TCU’s lone loss was on the road at Baylor, a 61-58 shootout. Baylor would lose by 14 on the road against unranked West Virginia, who went on to finish the season 7-6. You could argue that of the three, TCU’s loss was the least damaging given the playoff rankings at the end of the season. This TCU team also had wins against ranked Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and West Virginia (while the Mountaineers enjoyed a brief stay in the AP poll). More importantly, TCU was winning many of their games in decisive fashion (just ask Texas Tech, who lost 82-27, or Texas after a 48-10 setback against the Horned Frogs). In almost any given year, that body of work would have helped push TCU into the College Football Playoff. So why was it not enough in 2014?

While 11-1 TCU was impressive, they were not going to pass Alabama or Oregon, two of the top teams all season long. And the allure of a defending BCS national champion in Florida State was difficult to overcome. But what was it about Ohio State? The Buckeyes only had two wins against ranked opponents, and one of those came in the Big Ten Championship Game. The other team was a Michigan State team that went on to beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, but using that for the argument for Ohio State is using the benefit of hindsight. What likely came into play were a few different factors. First, Ohio State had won 11 straight games from the time they lost to the Hokies to winning the Big Ten championship game in blowout fashion so bad it made Gary Andersen look for an escape to Oregon State. One of those wins was a primetime game on ABC at Penn State, which to this day is singled out as a bit of a turning point for Ohio State in that 2014 run. But just a few weeks later they went on the road and defeated a very good Michigan State team by 12 points, again on ABC. Ohio State was on ABC five times for a national telecast since the Virginia Tech team. TCU was playing a good handful of their game son FOX or the newly created FS1, which to this day still struggles to compete head-to-head in the ratings game as what ABC and ESPN can deliver. It was even worse then.

But the committee should not have had this hurdle to overcome. They had access to all the data and games they needed to do their job. So why Ohio State over TCU? Even though Ohio State had already passed by TCU in the ranking, the main tipping point may have been the Big Ten championship game. The Big 12’s plan to utilize a round-robin conference schedule and declare one true champion had just blown up in the conference’s face, frustrating TCU and Baylor fans to this day. It also came down to the strength of schedule. In the end, Ohio State established the edge thanks in part to playing Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.

This is actually where scheduling Virginia Tech may have actually benefitted Ohio State too. The Hokies won six games in the regular season. But Ohio State also scheduled Navy (7-5 in regular season) on a neutral field in Baltimore, and Cincinnati (9-3 in regular season and, ironically, lost to Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl). TCU’s non-conference schedule included a 30-7 home win against the Big Ten’s Minnesota (8-4 in the regular season), but the Gophers also lost at home to the Buckeyes to essentially cancel that one out. TCU’s other non-conference games were against 1-11 SMU and an FCS school, Samford. Advantage: Buckeyes.

2015: The Relatively Easy Year

Who made it: Alabama (13-1), Michigan State (12-1), Oklahoma (11-1)

Who missed it: Iowa (12-1), Ohio State (11-1), Houston (12-1)

For the selection committee, Year 2 of the College Football Playoff was kind and had everything pretty much fall into place for the committee. The ACC once again had an undefeated conference champion, but this time it was Clemson and the Tigers took the No. 1 seed without any debate. And the one-loss teams fell into place without much controversy at all with the Big Ten having some interesting conversations but none that made it worth quibbling over much.

Ohio State, the defending national champions, lost just one game all season long. It came at home in late November against Michigan State. The Spartans, who had been clipped by one point in mid-October by Nebraska in Lincoln, used that head-to-head tiebreaker to go to the Big Ten championship game with just the lone loss. There, they faced a 12-0 Iowa for what was essentially a College Football Playoff quarterfinal, as it was pretty clear the winner of the game would be going to the College Football Playoff. Iowa was ranked fourth by the selection committee going into the Big Ten championship game, and Michigan State was fifth. The stage was set and body coudl question it. And with Oklahoma at 10-1 going into their regular season finale ranked third by the committee, their job was simple as well. Win and they would be in.

The hindsight argument comes into play here once again though. Michigan State was shutout in the College Football Playoff semifinal by Alabama, leaving Ohio State fans to question whether they should have been invited to the College Football Playoff for a second straight season. The only loss they had was against the Spartans on a last-second game-winning field goal. Ohio State was arguably the best team in the Big Ten in the 2015 season, but they were held back by the head-to-head tiebreaker favoring Michigan State. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, the strengths they had to stay ahead of TCU the previous year were not there in 2015 when being compared against Michigan State or even Iowa. Sure, Ohio State beat Virginia Tech this season, this time in Blacksburg in dominant fashion, but the Hokies were still only a 6-win team. And Hawaii, NIU and Western Michigan couldn’t quite set the bar that was set the previous season even with a clean run through each. Ohio State won just one game against a ranked opponent, No. 12 Michigan (42-13), but it wasn’t enough. Not without the Big Ten championship game this time, although a dominating performance against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl coupled with the Spartans’ no-show against Alabama left many to question the selection committee once again. To this point, the allure of a conference championship carried some weight. Perhaps it was the results of this playoff season that led to some of the decision-making to come a year later.

But before moving to the 2016 season, there was one other one-loss team to mention that got left out. It was Houston, of the American Athletic Conference. Houston would get in on the New Years Six fun with a matchup against Florida State, and if not for an awful road loss at UConn, we could very well have been discussing the Cougars as a playoff team at 13-0. It still likely would have been a long shot considering how the rest of the playoff picture came together, but having three wins against top 25 competition and a conference championship would have made them worthy of consideration at the very least this season. Ranked 13th in the AP poll before their 20-17 loss at UConn, the Cougars were looking to be on a mission.

2016: When Conference Titles Were Sorta Diminished

Who made it: Clemson (12-1), Washington (12-1), Ohio State (11-1)

Who missed it: Nobody, buuuuuuuuut…

Ohio State stepped back into the spotlight once again to stir up the pot when it came to the College Football Playoff last year. This time they created a unique scenario the selection committee was forced to deal with. For starters, an undefeated Alabama with the SEC championship was the easy lock for the No. 1 seed, followed by one-loss ACC champion Clemson at No. 2. After that, things got a little interesting.

For the second straight season, Ohio State finished the regular season at 11-1 and missing out on the Big Ten championship game due to a head-to-head tiebreaker in conference play. This time it was Penn State getting in ahead of the Buckeyes thanks in large part to a surprising upset in mid-Octoebr by way of a blocked field goal being returned for a touchdown. That moemnt catapulted Penn State to go on a tear the rest of the way and win the Big Ten, but the Nittany Lions had already lost two games before facing the Buckeyes. This presented a tricky question for the selection committee as it now had to chosoe between a one-loss Ohio State or a two-loss Big Ten champion that had defeated the Buckeyes head-to-head. In the end, Ohio State was the best choice for the committee given what they knew at that point in time. Here’s what they knew…

Ohio State had one loss, and Penn State had two. While head-to-head should come into play, this was not exactly an equal comparison being made. Ohio State had victories over the Big 12 champion on their home field (Oklahoma) and a road win against a top 10 Wisconsin team. The Buckeyes also had one key thing Penn State did not; a win against Michigan. A 30-27 victory over a No. 3 Michigan was the cherry on top of an otherwise wildly successful regular season. Penn State’s win against Ohio State was legitimate, but Ohio State had dominated the Nittany Lions in almost every area except the scoreboard (sound familiar?). Ohio State just could not put Penn State away and it cost them the game. Penn State lost a game earlier in the year to Pitt, but so did eventual national champion Clemson (on Clemson’s home field too), so it was not the Week 2 setback in western PA that cost Penn State. ultimately, it was the 49-10 horror in Ann Arbor against Michigan. Penn State was physically beatup in that game and riddled with injuries and a stocked and experienced Michigan teed off on them from the start for a long afternoon. The Penn State team that took the field in Michigan Stadium was clearly not the same one that went on to win the Big Ten and play in one of the best Rose Bowls we’ve ever seen, but it was tough to overlook as one of the worst losses any of the playoff contenders had on their resume.

So Ohio State getting in over Penn State was understandable, even though Ohio State suffered a similar fate against Clemson that Michigan State had the previous year against Clemson. Penn State probably would not have beaten Clemson or Alabama, but they probably would have scored at least a few points.

But, as the seedings showed, Penn State wasn’t just passed up for Ohio State, the third seed. They also fell behind one-loss Pac-12 champion Washington. The Huskies played a weak schedule compared to Penn State’s and had suffered their lone loss later in the year than Penn State. But Washington had played its way into the playoff conversation all season long and was deemed worthy of their chance even though a case could be made for Penn State even with two losses to get in over the Huskies.

The playoff committee got this one right, but the precedent was set for a non-conference or non-division champion getting into the four-team field as long as they have an impressive enough body-of-work. Ohio State did in 2016, hands down.

2017: What Will We Learn This Year?

So who’s next to make it or be left out? What have we learned from the past three seasons? We will get our first idea of what teams could potentially be in some trouble later tonight, but with so many key games coming up in the next month, things could sort out by themselves on the field once more. But I think the most important lesson comes back to a thought I have shared time and time again. Every season is going to be different, and what transpired one season may not necessarily carry over to the next season.

After Penn State lost at Ohio State this past weekend, countless Nittany Lions fans reminded me Penn State is still in the playoff picture because Ohio State was in it last year. And while I do not disagree at all Penn State is still on the radar (I still have them IN the playoff), the logic is not exactly the same here given Penn State doesn’t have the signature victories to rely on that Ohio State did a year ago. Penn State really needed to hold on to their lead in Columbus to have an inside track to the playoff. Right now, there are many pieces not under Penn State’s control and they may need more help than Ohio State did a year ago.

If you have one loss and play in a power conference (or are Notre Dame), then you still are on the playoff radar. Do everything you can to avoid a second loss, because no team in the playoff the past three years has entered with two losses.

About the Author

Kevin McGuire
Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Also a contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
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  1. […] one of those teams went on to play in the playoff, and it was Michigan State that did so with a victory over undefeated Iowa in the Big Ten championship game to get the final push in. The Spartans managed to get there on the strength of a last-second road […]