How wrong we were: The changing narratives of the first playoff season
If there is one thing fans and analysts learned from the first year of the College Football Playoff system, it is how little we really knew during the course of the regular season. While Florida State’s spot in the top four was never in serious jeopardy -- though there was plenty of speculation that the unbeaten Seminoles could eventually drop out of the field -- each of the other playoff teams witnessed the supposed demise of their chances at some point during the fall.
As the famous Mark Twain quote goes, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” So it was for Alabama, Oregon and Ohio State. Now that the bracket is set, let’s look back at just how wrong some of our assumptions were.
Sept. 6: Ohio State loses to Virginia Tech
Even before anyone knew how bad the Hokies would turn out to be -- this 35-21 win made Virginia Tech look like the clear ACC Coastal Division favorite, after all -- the Buckeyes’ loss seemed to eliminate them from playoff contention. Given the overall weakness of the Big Ten (Michigan State also fell to Oregon on Sept. 6, and Wisconsin lost to LSU a week earlier), a one-loss team from the conference appeared to stand little chance of finishing in the top four.
Even worse for Ohio State, the defeat seemed to show quarterback J.T. Barrett was ill-prepared for the spotlight. Barrett was serviceable in the Buckeyes’ season-opening 34-17 win over Navy, but he collapsed under immense pressure from the Hokies, tossing three interceptions.
Oct. 2: Oregon loses to Arizona
The Wildcats beat Oregon 42-16 in 2013 to vanquish the Ducks' slim hopes of winning a national title. They appeared to do the same this fall by stunning Oregon 31-24 in Eugene. The Ducks' loss seemed to end not only the program’s playoff chances, but also Marcus Mariota’s Heisman Trophy hopes. The Oregon faithful was left soul-searching: When would its chance come again? Was Mark Helfrich the right coach to continue leading the team?
With so many challenging conference games still on the schedule, including one against Stanford, Oregon’s kryptonite of the previous two seasons, the odds of it finishing with just one loss at this juncture seemed unlikely.
Oct. 4: Alabama loses to Ole Miss
As with Oregon, a single loss seemed unlikely to eliminate Alabama from the playoff chase. Rather, Ole Miss’ 23-17 upset validated the Rebels as legitimate SEC West contenders with national title dreams of their own.
However, the bigger concern for the Crimson Tide was whether they could get through a league schedule that still included matchups with Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn. Posting an undefeated record the rest of the way would be a tall task, and the Tide had left themselves no margin for error.
Oct. 11: Alabama escapes Arkansas with a one-point win
Much to the chagrin of Nick Saban, the Tide’s 14-13 victory over Arkansas was perceived almost like a loss. On the heels of the result at Ole Miss, the narrow win over a Razorbacks team that hadn’t won a conference game in nearly two years seemed to confirm Alabama fans’ worst fears: The dynasty was over, Blake Sims was an unworthy successor to AJ McCarron and the Lane Kiffin experiment was a disaster. A second defeat, one that would fully destroy the Tide’s playoff hopes, appeared likely if Arkansas could pose this much of a problem.
Oct. 28: The playoff committee releases its first rankings
Although the first Top 25 renewed hope for Oregon and Alabama, it looked to be a deathblow for Ohio State. The committee ranked the Buckeyes at No. 16, the third-lowest of any one-loss Power Five team. With 12 spots separating Ohio State from the playoff, an almost unfathomable amount of chaos seemed necessary for it to climb into the top four.
Nov. 8: TCU routs Kansas State while Ohio State upsets Michigan State
The Buckeyes appeared to squash the Big Ten’s best shot for a playoff bid with a 49-37 win at Michigan State. Whereas the Spartans had climbed to No. 8 in the committee's rankings, Ohio State sat at a distant No. 14 entering the game.
Further damaging the Big Ten’s playoff hopes, TCU pummeled Kansas State 41-20, passing its last real test with flying colors. The Horned Frogs jumped to No. 4 the following Tuesday and seemed to secure a spot in the field, barring an upset.
Dec. 2: TCU climbs to No. 3 in the playoff rankings
While fans clamored for Baylor to pass TCU due to the Bears’ head-to-head 61-58 victory on Oct. 11, the committee continued to reward the Frogs for their tougher strength of schedule. In fact, it vaulted them ahead of undefeated Florida State to the No. 3 spot in the rankings. Even though TCU would play lowly Iowa State on the final day of the regular season, while Baylor and Ohio State would face much tougher competition, this seemed to clearly indicate the committee valued TCU above those other one-loss playoff hopefuls.
Dec. 6: TCU throttles Iowa State
TCU took care of business against the Cyclones with a dominant 55-3 win. Even if Ohio State downed Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and Baylor beat Kansas State later the same night, the idea of the No. 3 team falling two or more spots after routing its opponent seemed unlikely.
This year was always going to be a great learning experience, whether fans liked the results or not. Although there is certainly more to learn about how the playoff committee operates, the clear lesson is to assume much less finality.
With four teams now vying for college football's championship, a single loss is no longer the near-certain destruction to a contender's national title hopes that it once was. One defeat can ruin a team -- ask TCU and Baylor -- but for three playoff participants it was merely a detour on their path to the field.
In some years two losses may not even spell the end of a team's top-four hopes. Expect more premature eulogies in the seasons to come.