3 Two-Loss Teams That Can Sneak Into the College Football Playoff

With three of the top four teams suffering upset losses last week, the door has been left slightly ajar for some two-loss teams in the hunt for conference titles and a playoff spot.

For fans of college football chaos, there was really nothing like the 2007 season. That year, three times teams ranked first and second in the BCS lost, including each of the final two weeks of the season.

On conference championship Saturday it was both Missouri (number one) and West Virginia (number two) that fell, propelling SEC Champion LSU and Big Ten Champion Ohio State into the title game.

In addition to being the most unpredictable season in recent memory, 2007 stands out as the only year in which a two-loss team captured the Crystal Ball.

In theory, with the Final Four-style playoff, this new era of college football provides a two-loss team even greater opportunity to reach the Promised Land. This is especially true considering the stated value the Playoff Selection Committee places on conference champions.

With the 2016 postseason only a few weeks away, we know who the favorites are. Alabama is essentially in. Clemson has a clear path to the playoff, even with its loss at home against Pitt last weekend.

But consider that there are four two-loss teams in the Committee’s top 10 this week. At this same point last season, there were zero. Combine regular season parity among college football’s second tier with a chaotic final few weeks, and it is not far-fetched that a two-loss team could slip into playoff for the first time.

After all, a staggering number of them are in the hunt for Power 5 conference championships.

Here is a look at three of perhaps the most likely two-loss playoff candidates with three weeks remaining until Selection Sunday.


CFP Rank: 7
numberFire Rank: 9
ESPN FPI Odds to Win Out: 32.1%

The Wisconsin Badgers surprised college football experts in Week 1 when they downed LSU at Lambeau Field as a double-digit underdog. Anyone who was expecting some regression in the weeks that followed has been sorely disappointed. Wisconsin’s 8-2 mark is even more impressive when you consider they have played the ninth most difficult schedule, according to Brian Fremeau’s FEI.

While the Playoff Selection Committee focuses more on quality wins than quality losses, it is hard to ignore that the Badgers’ only two blemishes have come at the hands of Michigan and Ohio State, two teams currently inside the Committee’s top 4. The Buckeyes and Wolverines are also number one and number two in the nation, respectively, according to numberFire’s nERD efficiency rating. SB Nation’s statistics maven Bill Connelly stated it best this week on Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody: “(The Badgers) have pretty much the perfect two-loss resumé right now.”

According to Connelly’s metrics, Wisconsin’s “win expectancy” -- that is how likely a team is to win a game based on the contest’s key statistics -- against Ohio State was 49%. It was essentially a coin-flip game that the Badgers lost. Michigan, though, more thoroughly dominated the Badgers, despite the 14-7 final score. Wisconsin’s win expectancy was just 2%, which is to say that the Badgers were very lucky to only lose by a touchdown.

Those points may be moot if the Badgers can win the Big Ten. Currently, Wisconsin, behind a defense that is rated third in Defensive S&P+ and third in points per game allowed, has the inside track on representing the Big Ten West in the conference’s title game.

Date Opponent S&P+ Win Probability FPI Win Probability
19-Nov at Purdue 97% 95%
26-Nov Minnesota 84% 87%

Winning their final two games would likely leave Wisconsin a victory away from college football’s Final Four. Beating Michigan or Ohio State won’t be easy, but there is a chance that the Badgers could avoid both of those two conference powerhouses altogether.

That would pit Wisconsin against another surprising Big Ten foe, one that -- according to the analytics -- should be far more beatable.

Penn State

CFP Rank: 8
numberFire Rank: 13
ESPN FPI Odds to Win Out: 51.3%

On the other side of the Big Ten, Penn State is putting together one of the most surprising runs of the 2016 season. Coach James Franklin has a rejuvenated offense to thank. Bringing aboard Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead as Penn State’s offensive coordinator didn’t get the hype that other hires did this offseason. But it is proving to be a revolutionary move, as Moorhead’s unit has leapt to 29th in Offensive S&P+.

Along with the production of workhorse running back Saquon Barkley, a key has been the emergence of first-year starter Trace McSorley. He is currently leading numberFire’s 11th most efficient passing attack and has accounted for 16 total touchdowns versus just 2 turnovers during Penn State’s six-game win streak. This, after McSorley fumbled eight times in Penn State’s three non-conference games.

Unlike Wisconsin, Penn State’s playoff dreams rest on the Ohio State-Michigan outcome. And let’s just say for at least one week, the Nittany Lions are going to be enormous Buckeye fans. That’s because Penn State would have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Buckeyes, if Urban Meyer’s squad can beat Michigan and finish conference play with just one loss.

Penn State would just have to take care of two hapless opponents to close the regular season, Rutgers and Michigan State.

Date Opponent S&P+ Win Probability FPI Win Probability
19-Nov at Rutgers 96% 94%
26-Nov Michigan State 87% 83%

ESPN’s metrics give Penn State a slightly better than 50% chance to win their regular season games and the Big Ten Championship Game. That would give Penn State victories over Ohio State, Iowa, and probably Wisconsin on their playoff resumé. Those quality wins, along with the Big Ten hardware, may make it difficult for the Committee to keep the Nittany Lions out of the Final Four.


CFP Rank: 9
numberFire Rank: 16
ESPN FPI Odds to Win Out: 40%

We know the Committee wants to reward teams that have played a challenging non-conference schedule. But if there is a case study about loading up too heavily on excellent out-of-conference opponents, it’s this year’s Oklahoma Sooners.

Sure, Oklahoma couldn’t have predicted how good Houston was going to be when they scheduled the season-opening game in 2014. But two drubbings at the hands of Ohio State and Houston before the calendar turned to October had many writing off the Sooners.

Yet, here we are in mid-November and the two-loss Sooners are still clinging to life in the playoff chase. It may still not be enough, but the Sooners capturing the Big 12 crown, undefeated in league play, would certainly keep them on the Committee’s radar.

If you listened to Playoff Committee chair Kirby Hocutt on Tuesday night, it’s two key bullet points on Oklahoma’s resumé that are keeping the Sooners alive. “Oklahoma is a team that has a tremendous offense,” Hocutt said. “They've continued to bounce back from two early-season losses. They're on a seven-game winning streak. The Committee believes that Oklahoma is deserving of that 9 spot.”

The numbers back up Hocutt’s assertion that the Sooner offense has been tremendous. According to nERD, Oklahoma features the 3rd=best pass offense and the 16th-best rushing offense in the nation. In all, Oklahoma averages 7.57 yards per play, behind only Louisiana Tech and Louisville in the entire FBS.

Oklahoma is now perfect in conference play -- averaging 48 points per contest against Big 12 opponents -- and will need only two more wins to capture their second consecutive conference title. It won’t be easy against West Virginia and Oklahoma State, which are both ranked in the top 15 by the Playoff Committee.

Date Opponent S&P+ Win Probability FPI Win Probability
19-Nov at West Virginia 59% 54%
3-Dec Oklahoma State 73% 73%

Those two wins would likely be the Sooners’ best of the season, though. And with a conference title in hand, Oklahoma would be well-positioned to vault into the top four should chaos rule the college football landscape over the next two weeks.