No team ever wants to lose obviously. Yet as Week 3 approaches, at least four College Football Playoff hopefuls are guaranteed to suffer the agony of defeat Saturday. In a loaded slate of games, four matchups pit ranked teams against one another: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 19 Ole Miss, No. 2 Florida State vs. No. 10 Louisville, No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 14 Oklahoma and No. 12 Michigan State vs. No. 18 Notre Dame.
For the Rebels, Sooners and Fighting Irish, the stakes are clear. All three teams have lost already this season, and while it’s possible a two-loss team could win its conference and make the playoff, two defeats in the first three weeks of the season seems like a nearly impossible blow to come back from. Essentially, a loss Saturday ends their shot of achieving their goals this season.
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For the other five teams, the potential consequences of a defeat are less certain. As two years of data has shown, one-loss teams can clearly make the playoff, so none of them would be outright eliminated if they fail to win. However, they would have to finish out the bulk of their season with no margin for error.
So amongst the eight teams playing in the biggest games of Week 3, which one can most afford a loss and still reach its goals this year? SI.com’s college football experts weigh in.
It has to be Alabama because the Crimson Tide have lost to Ole Miss in each of the past two seasons and still won the SEC title and made the playoff. This feels like the year the Tide strike back, though.
It also seems like Ohio State is playing with a little bit of house money against Oklahoma. If the Buckeyes lose Saturday and then ran the table, the committee probably would be pretty forgiving to a young team that was playing its first difficult road game against a quality opponent that absolutely had to win to keep its own playoff hopes alive.
Pete Thamel: Alabama
We have a two-year data set of College Football Playoffs. And in that span, early-season losses by both Ohio State and Alabama didn't derail their chances to win a national title. Either team could slip up this week and still find itself on track. And that's especially true for Alabama, as the SEC isn't shaping up to be the same gauntlet we've been accustomed to for the past decade. Either one can stub their toe this weekend, find themselves and be back in the playoff race when it matters—at the end.
Lindsay Schnell: Alabama or Florida State
My gut says Alabama, but you could make a case for Florida State, too. Alabama is always going to get the benefit of the doubt; four national championships in seven seasons has its benefits. The Tide lost to Ole Miss last year, and it worked out pretty well for them by the end of the 2015 season, so why would this go-round be any different?
With the Seminoles, they have a good enough remaining schedule—especially if Clemson gets its act together and the showdown Oct. 29 lives up the hype—that the CFP committee would overlook a Week 3 stumble.
But, there's a caveat to all this: No one can afford to get run off the field this weekend.
Brian Hamilton: Michigan State
It's very simple: This is a mid-September game that will have absolutely zero effect on the Spartans' ability to win a Big Ten championship. Wins against Michigan and Ohio State effectively wipe this loss from anyone's memory, given where the games fall in the calendar. (Oct. 29 and Nov. 19, respectively.) Plus, there's another chance for a nice non-conference victory when BYU visits in early October anyway. If the Spartans beat the Wolverines and the Buckeyes en route to a second straight Big Ten championship game victory, it's doubtful they'll get punished much for the one loss they suffered a long, long time before then.
I'm going to go with Alabama, if it were to win out. We've seen a one-loss Crimson Tide team make the playoff each of the past two seasons, and both times that loss has been to Ole Miss. I don't see why that couldn't happen again this year (not that I'm necessarily picking Alabama to lose), although I'm not sure Nick Saban would agree with me that anything other than perfection constitutes Alabama achieving its goals.
Colin Becht: Florida State
Making the playoff requires the right mix of talent and strength of schedule. The rest of the season will reveal the Seminoles’ talent (the early returns are promising), but they seem to be in the sweet spot in terms of schedule difficulty. The improved standing of the ACC means that the ‘Noles can’t be criticized for a weak conference slate; however, apart Clemson and possibly Miami, there are still few games Florida State really is in significant danger of losing outside of this weekend’s matchup with Louisville.
Essentially, if the ‘Noles go 11–1 in the regular season with a loss to the Cardinals, there’s a strong likelihood they’ll be in playoff position. Either they’ll have still won the ACC Atlantic and need only to beat the ACC Coastal champion in the conference title game to secure a top-four spot, or they’ll have lost the Atlantic because Louisville went undefeated. In the latter case, a one-loss team whose only defeat is to an undefeated squad would likely still make the playoff. The worst-case scenario is that Louisville also goes 11–1 but takes Florida State’s spot in the ACC title game by virtue of its head-to-head win, but that’s relatively low-likelihood outcome to be the Seminoles’ worst-case scenario.
Note that much of this same analysis could be applied to the Cardinals if they lose this weekend, but they face a slightly more difficult path due to their Nov. 17 nonconference trip to Houston.
Whether Nick Saban was trying to send a message to his team following its 38–10 rout of Western Kentucky this weekend by saying he didn't know if he's ever been “this disappointed after winning a game, maybe ever” is beside the point. Saban doesn't want to lose to Ole Miss for the third consecutive season, but if he does, Alabama can probably rebound to make the playoff anyway. Should the Tide drop a close one in Oxford, they'll have most of their conference schedule—including four games against teams currently ranked in the Associated Press poll—to convince the selection committee they deserve a spot in the final four. If Alabama's going to lose this season, it's probably better that it happen now than later. The Tide almost certainly will be in the discussion for a CFP berth, and a mid-September road loss to a good Ole Miss squad is unlikely to keep them from getting one.
Ben Estes: Alabama
I’m letting history be my guide here. Alabama lost to Ole Miss in 2014…and went on to win the SEC and make the playoff. Alabama lost to Ole Miss in 2015…and went on to win the SEC and make the playoff. I believe this year’s Rebels are a solid bet to lose at least two games in the SEC, so there’s no reason to believe the Tide can’t follow the same pattern this season.