For elite teams, one loss is crucial

It matters little how it happens: one loss can be all it takes in college football to derail a season — or at the very least, set off the panic button.

Just ask Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve likely heard by now about how the Ducks dropped their Week 11 game to Stanford, which ruined Oregon’s hopes of playing for a BCS title for the second straight season. RB Tyler Gaffney’s superb rushing performance was complemented by a stifling Stanford defense, as the Cardinal handed Oregon its first defeat.

Unfortunately for the Ducks, one loss is all it takes in the collegiate game to send a season awry. NCAA football is a cruel game, and the expectations are so high for elite teams and their players that a season can come down to perfection or bust, both for team and individual accolades.

In the end, a short schedule plus a long list of teams make every win essential if you want to end up on top.

Bottom line: college football rewards perfection.

But sometimes it doesn’t even do that.

Just ask Ohio State, a team that hasn’t lost a football game since Jan. 2, 2011. Yet, the Buckeyes didn’t play for the national title last year, and they run the risk of enduring the same fate in 2013, too.

The previous 10 teams to meet in the BCS championship game have combined for just four losses — two of those belonged to Alabama, and they won both those national title games against undefeated Notre Dame and LSU squads. But most teams can hardly afford to tempt fate and lift the pedal from the metal at any point in a season, because any letup – as short as it may be — can prove destructive.

Yet, that brief chaos is exactly what can make college football so exciting: It’s an imperfect game played by imperfect humans and letups happen time and time again — and they will continue to do so. The only question is who will slip up next?

Will Baylor get surprised by Oklahoma State, which has already helped destroy Texas Tech’s once-promising season? Who knows, maybe the unthinkable will happen in Auburn when the Crimson Tide come to visit in Week 14?

With only four weeks remaining in the regular season schedule, nobody’s out of the woods yet. For the four undefeated teams with realistic hopes of playing for the national championship (Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor), here’s a warning in the form of five critical letups from teams this year. While the losses come in all shapes and forms, they all reinforce how important perfection can be in the current college football system.

Little else is acceptable.

Date: October 26, 2013

Type of loss: Matter of minutes

Performed by: the Missouri Tigers vs. South Carolina

Letup runtime: Approximately 12 minutes

The game in a photo:

Mizzou carried a 17-0 lead into the final frame before South Carolina woke up. After rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Gamecocks QB Connor Shaw threw for two touchdowns and in between Elliott Fry kicked a 20-yard field goal, as South Carolina forced overtime, then double overtime. In the second extra frame, Andrew Baggett missed a 24-yard attempt (above) while Fry was able to convert a 40-yard attempt to win the game for the Gamecocks.

If not for the loss, Mizzou could be the proud owner of an 8-0 record and have a two-game lead in the SEC East over the Gamecocks. Instead, South Carolina holds the head-to-head tiebreaker and can win the division if Mizzoou slips up vs. either Ole Miss or Texas A&M. And here’s one guess Johnny Football won’t go easy on the Tigers.

Date: October 12, 2013

Type of loss: Utah, who?

Performed by: the Stanford Cardinal vs. Utah

Letup runtime: Approximately one quarter, 1 minute

The game in a photo:

After UCLA dropped a 31-6 loss to the Utes two years ago, the Bruins can vouch that you shouldn’t count out the Utes on their home turf. You could also ask a 2010’s No. 15 Pittsburgh, which the Utes took to overtime and defeated 27-24. Apparently, Stanford didn’t get the memo on either upset.

Stanford entered the game ranked fifth in the country and a perfect 5-0. The two teams traded touchdowns over the course of the first quarter, the Utes matching Stanford’s scores twice.

But then Utah orchestrated an unanswered offensive surge, scoring a touchdown and two field goals and inflating the score to 27-14.

The Cardinal managed to get one TD back in the fourth quarter but then failed to score with four opportunities originating from the Utah 14-yard line in the final minutes of the game.

In the moment, the Cardinal knew the loss was significant. They felt the loss in the AP poll, dropping from 5 to 13.

But the defeat now stings even more in Week 12. After a win over the Ducks in Week 11, the Cardinal could have had a fantastic chance to play for the BCS title, had it not been for this brief lapse.

Date: October 18, 2013

Type of loss: We can spare to take off a quarter against an unranked team — can’t we?

Performed by: the Louisville Cardinals vs. UCF

Letup runtime: approximately one quarter, 5 minutes.

The game in a photo:

The excitement of Week 8 got off to a faster than expected start when UCF visited then-eighth-ranked Louisville. Cardinals QB Teddy Bridgewater and Co. started the game on the right foot, as Bridgewater threw two touchdowns in the first two quarters, the second on coming just 58 seconds before half. Louisville built on their lead early in the third and led by as much 28 points.

Then, the perfect Storm arrived.

UCF running back Storm Johnson found the end zone twice in less than a minute and 10 seconds, and suddenly the surging Knights had the momentum and the Cardinals back on their heels. Blake Bortles’ TD pass with 23 seconds remaining sealed the deal for UCF and closed the door on Louisville’s perfect season and BCS championship hopes.

The shocked Cardinals dropped in the AP poll by 10 spots, and Teddy Bridgewater’s marginal Heisman hopes have been pretty much dashed since.

Date: November 7, 2013

Type of loss: We’re so good that we only need a quarter to win.

Performed by: the Oregon Ducks vs. Stanford

Letup runtime: approximately three quarters.

The game in a photo:

Two weeks ago, the college football world was all abuzz about Marcus Mariota, who had produced 20 touchdowns with his arm plus nine rushing over the course of his previous eight games. Three bad quarters later – and despite throwing two touchdowns passes over the course of the final 10 minutes of the game — and he’s become more of a runner-up than a favorite in the Heisman race.

It doesn’t matter that he was playing with a MCL injury. Hurt or not, a bad game can significantly jeopardize your chances of being named the top football player in the country.

As for Oregon’s BCS title chances: forget about it — spare some unexpected falters from Ohio State, Baylor, Stanford, and Florida State.

Date: October 19, 2013

Type of loss: Let’s just forfeit

Performed by: the Clemson Tigers vs. Florida State

Letup runtime: approximately 60 minutes.

The game in a photo:

This one was a big picture loss, a stretch of subpar play that lasted the duration of the game. The most “successful” of Clemson’s first three drives was one they were forced to punt away – the other two were fumbles.

Capitalizing on the Tiger’s dreary start, Florida State quickly jumped out to a 17-0 lead over the course of the first 12 minutes of the game. Before three minutes had run off the clock in the fourth quarter. they were up 48-7.

The Tigers trailed by as much as 44 points in this one, and this single loss sent then-third-ranked Clemson back to the drawing board, extinguishing their promising start and putting QB Tajh Boyd’s Heisman hopes in a state of serious flux.