Here are some facts.
In week 2 of the 2014 season, the Ohio State Buckeyes lost by two touchdowns to the unranked Virginia Tech Hokies. Ohio State dropped from 8th to 22nd in the AP poll. Alabama waited an additional week in 2015 before being upset at home by the #15 ranked Ole Miss Rebels. They dropped from 2nd to 12th in the rankings. Numerous articles were written about what these losses meant and how it would kill off their playoff aspirations.
Not only did both these teams make the playoffs but they both won the National Championship game.
On the other hand, teams fall away as the season goes on. Mississippi State were ranked number 1 in the country for four straight weeks in 2014 having overcome three top ten ranked teams in as many weeks. Led by a certain Dak Prescott, the Bulldogs were a fairytale story. In fact the Bulldogs became the quickest team to rise from outside the top 25 to the number 1 spot. This was until they ran into Alabama. The Bulldogs threw everything at the Crimson Tide but Alabama, and their home field advantage, were just too strong. This didn’t remove Mississippi State out of playoff contention but a further loss to Ole Miss on the final day of the season certainly did. Mississippi State didn’t even go on to win their bowl game that year losing 49 to 34 against Georgia Tech.
A dozen more examples can be made of teams who appeared to be destined for playoff consideration, only for one or more late losses to take them out of the picture.
This season has started off with three power houses leading from the front. Alabama, Ohio State and Louisville. The first two are not really surprises. Not only are they the only two teams to have won the National Championship in its playoff guise but they are filled with blue chip prospects. Yet Alabama’s total humiliation of USC and the Buckeyes surprisingly comfortable win over Oklahoma have ramped up the hype around these programs.
Yet neither of these teams have made a splash like Louisville. Their 63 to 20 domination of Florida State is by far the most notable win of this college season. Lamar Jackson has thrown, run and just flat out scored himself to the top of the Heisman conversation and their defence has played well above the name recognition of their recruiting class. Its not unfair to say that the Cardinals looked unstoppable against the Seminoles and the hyperbole around that performance is completely justified.
However all three teams have challenges to keep their place.
The Southeastern Conference (SEC) where Alabama play is full of ranked teams. Back to back trips to Arkansas and Tennessee would be a daunting task for most teams but they follow that up with #10 ranked Texas A&M at home and then a tricky trip to Baton Rouge against long time rivals LSU. It may be that coming away with three wins out of four could be enough for the Crimson Tide as the quality of schedule is so very high. However this puts huge pressure on them to perform in every game and one slip up would just increase that ten-fold. Especially if the loss is against A&M as the Aggies are also unbeaten so far and have their own playoff aspirations.
Ohio State and Louisville have far less strenuous schedules but that puts all the more pressure on one game as both, incidentally, have their main rivals ranked #4 and #5 in the current rankings. Louisville will have their biggest test in week 5 as they go to the Clemson Tigers in what is surely going to be the deciding game of the ACC Atlantic. The Buckeyes have a much longer wait as they won’t host Michigan until the final week of the regular season. In both cases, a great season can be completely tarnished and almost certainly ended by a loss in that game. Neither have the strength of schedule to recover and its doubtful that two teams from the same power 5 conference would make it into the final four.
Of course Ohio State’s game with Michigan might not be as important if #8 Michigan State play spoiler first. The ‘other’ team in the Big 10 East play both teams before the already heralded last day clash and the still unbeaten Spartans could have already walked away with the division title.
Other teams also have the chance to come to prominence. Stanford have been steady in their opening games but that includes knocking off USC in the process. The Washington Huskies have had a cake walk schedule so far but have dominated when others have faltered. Both have a great chance to post a clean record this year against a seemingly weakened PAC-12. Their main opposition will be each other. They have a showdown at Husky Stadium in week 5.
Houston are another team who could rise late. They’ve made a splash on the opening weekend when they took down Oklahoma. Now they have the chance to run the table on their relatively week non-power 5 conference in preparation for a late season game with Louisville. The Cougars are in prime position to steal all of the Cardinals kudos and their place in the playoffs.
Texas are one of the wildest teams in college football at the moment. Their 50 to 43 loss at Cal is certainly a set back but they have ample opportunity against sides like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor to out together a playoff resumé. Equally Baylor have that same opportunity were they to win out and they don’t have a loss on their record. There is even the possibility that the once great Miami Hurricanes rising back to the spotlight. Their ACC Coastal schedule means they miss the heavy hitters in the Atlantic division but do have the opportunity to put away some high profile names including Florida State. If others falter, there is no reason why they couldn’t slide into contention.
Historically, only 50% of teams ranked in the top 4 at the quarter mark of the season have gone on to reach the playoffs. There is so much quality in lower ranked teams that surprises are not all that shocking. Yet it is so easy to watch these top three teams perform at such a high level and believe that they will waltz their way into the end of season tournament.
They might just do that but there is still a lot of football to go.