In the final minutes of Virginia Tech’s win over Ohio State in Week 2 of the 2014 college football season, the internet erupted with proclamations of Ohio State’s elimination from the first-ever College Football Playoff picture. Thirteen weeks later, Ohio State earned the fourth seed and the rest is history.
At the time of Ohio State’s loss, it appeared highly possible a one-loss team, one who lost to what was believed to be (and proved to be) a mediocre Virginia Tech team, would miss the playoff. Three one-loss teams—Alabama, Oregon, and Ohio State—made the playoff in 2014, the first of four straight years with at least three one-loss playoff teams.
In the first four years of the playoff, only three of 16 teams were undefeated. And even with a parade of undefeated playoff teams since 2018, through the first six years of the four-team field, only nine of 24 teams have been undefeated. No two-loss team have made the playoff, though four have finished No. 5: Penn State in 2016, Ohio State in 2017, Georgia in 2018, and Georgia in 2019.
Despite close calls, a two-loss playoff team still feels strange, doesn’t it? No data supports my feeling…but no data supported the playoff elimination of a one-loss team in 2014. And six years later, we could see the first-ever two-loss team.
The most likely playoff scenario:
Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State make the field as undefeated or one-loss conference champions. En route to their respective appearances, every other team in each of their respective conferences has at least two losses (or is COVID-ridden Wisconsin, which I’ll get to): Alabama beats a one- or two-loss SEC East champion in the SEC Championship, Clemson beats a one- or two-loss second-place ACC team in the ACC Championship, and Ohio State beats Michigan and Penn State in the regular season and a non-Wisconsin team in the Big Ten Championship.
If Wisconsin doesn’t play six conference games, they aren’t eligible for the Big Ten Championship per the Big Ten’s 2020 rules. After a COVID outbreak forced the cancellation of two games, the Badgers are another cancellation away from that scenario, which would put an irrelevant Big Ten West team in the Big Ten Championship.
In the Big 12, Oklahoma State is the only team with fewer than two losses. And with Oklahoma and a potential Big 12 Championship opponent on the schedule, the Cowboys have a tough path to 10-1.
In the Pac-12, we don’t know how the playoff committee will evaluate a seven-game résumé. If a Pac-12 champion is 7-0 or 6-1, is that enough to finish above a two-loss Georgia? Or a two-loss Georgia, two-loss Miami (FL), two-loss Notre Dame, or two-loss Big 12 Champion? Is it even enough to finish above an 11-0 Cincinnati?
Obviously, we don’t know, and don’t listen to anyone who claims to know how the committee will evaluate anything this season. But we do know there’s a good chance for the first-ever two-loss playoff participant in 2020.