4 Games That Could Determine the College Football Playoff

With one loss potentially keeping teams out of college football’s Final Four, a few games on the 2016 schedule appear likely to be de facto play-in games.

One of the most significant ways the college game differs from NFL is the sheer urgency week-to-week.

If you are a Group of 5 school and you lose, you have no chance at a national title. None. It doesn’t matter if that loss comes in early September or late November.

Single losses can also kill any championship hopes of Power 5 teams. Just ask TCU and Baylor, who both missed out on the inaugural college football playoffs by losing a single game in 2014. And a lone loss tanked the most talented team in the country last year, when Ohio State fell at home to a stingy Michigan State squad.

It’s certainly possible for a team with one loss to win it all. It’s happened the last two seasons. But your fate is determined by the whims of a 12-person committee. The easiest way to ensure a spot in the Final Four is to dominate early and keep winning right on through the conference championship game. The 2015 Clemson Tigers had some near misses, but their 13-0 run allowed them to enjoy Selection Sunday without breaking a sweat.

Knowing that a single contest can make or break a team’s chances of making the playoffs, here’s a look at four games between the projected college football elite that should have national title implications. In some cases, these will be de facto play-in games, with the winners punching their tickets to the playoffs and the losers settling for a bowl game sponsored by a department store or lawn care product.

Houston vs. Oklahoma (Sept. 3)

A Week 1 matchup with playoff ramifications? You bet. That’s because the Houston Cougars, the preseason darling from the Group of 5, and our 15th-rated team in 2015, has their most significant chance to make a statement on a national stage. With a win over Oklahoma, Houston inserts themselves into national title debate right away. A loss, and Houston’s dream -- and the hopes of the Group of 5 as a whole -- of making the college football playoffs is over. All by September 3rd.

The early advantage is clearly Oklahoma’s. The Sooners, who finished 2015 as numberFire’s second most efficient team, according to our nERD rankings, are a consensus 10-point favorite over the Cougars. The Sooners bring back Heisman finalist Baker Mayfield at quarterback and return stud running backs, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, to a rushing attack rated 30th last season by our metrics.

The metrics suggest the 10-point spread could actually be bigger. Analyzing preseason projections from four numbers-based systems -- Brian Fremeau’s FEI, ESPN’s FPI, Bill Connelly’s S&P+, and Ed Feng’s The Power Rank -- showed that in some cases the Sooners were power rated nearly 20 points better than Houston on the neutral field.

Neutral-Field Advantage Vegas Spread FEI FPI Feng S&P+
Oklahoma -10 20 25.1 16.2 22
Houston 10.4 6.2 5.2 4.4

Two key future indicators, sustained success and talent, favor Oklahoma. The Sooners rate as the 6th-best team according to F/+ five-year rankings and have ranked 16th in recruiting over the same five years, good for 2nd in the Big 12. Houston, on the other hand, rates only 47th in the five-year F/+ and 68th in five-year recruiting nationally.

Oklahoma needs to hope that the metrics are right. With a September game hosting Ohio State, traveling to TCU, and late-season home games against Baylor and Oklahoma State, the Sooners have a very thin margin for error. They cannot afford to lose to a Group of 5 team in Week 1 if they are to make a repeat trip to the College Football Playoffs.

Clemson at Florida State (Oct. 29)

Clemson-Florida State has all of the makings of the game of the year. Clemson’s offense, behind Heisman candidate Deshaun Watson and a handful of explosive skill players, will be challenged by what could be the nation’s best and most talented defense.

Clemson comes into 2016 ranked third in the country among the four metrics systems, with Florida State at fifth. While the Seminoles must win an opening-week, neutral-site game against Ole Miss, they are poised to enter their clash with Clemson undefeated. According to ESPN’s FPI, Florida State has at least a 70 percent win probability in their six games before facing Clemson, and that includes their opening matchup against the Rebels.

The Tigers' road is even less perilous. FPI projects a 70 percent win probability for the Tigers in Week 1 at Auburn and then at least an 81 percent chance to win each of their games heading into their October 29 showdown with Florida State.

The metrics-based systems’ power ratings suggest the game is a tossup, though Vegas has the Seminoles laying 3.5 points thanks to the home-field edge. South Point originally opened the game with Clemson as a small favorite.

Neutral-Field Advantage Vegas Spread FEI FPI Feng S&P+
Florida St -3.5 16 26.7 19.3 19.6
Clemson 23.5 24.9 16.3 24.2

This game could come down to the play of Florida State’s quarterback. It is unclear whether senior Sean Maguire or redshirt freshman Deondre Francois will be starting, but an inefficient and inconsistent passing attack kept the Seminoles offensive potential suppressed last season, despite running back Dalvin Cook rushing for 7.3 yards per carry. Florida State’s passing game finished just 38th in the nation in yards per game and 29th in efficiency, according to numberFire.

If Florida State is going to win the ACC, it starts with defending their home turf against the ACC’s reigning champion.

Alabama at LSU (Nov. 5)

It’s the Game of the Century every year. Of course, the secret is that -- despite the national hype and grand stage -- Alabama has owned LSU in their last five meetings. The Tigers’ last win came with the epic 9-6 overtime victory in Tuscaloosa in the 2011 regular season.

The metrics suggest this season could be different, though. This may be the Tigers’ year. LSU is projected by the four metrics systems as the second-best team in the nation behind only Alabama, and according to Bill Connelly’s, the Tigers bring back 92 percent of their 2015 production. That is best in the nation and worth a projected 9.4 points per game.

Vegas seems to agree. LSU is currently a 2.5-point favorite at the South Point over the Tide, numberFire’s top ranked team in 2015.

The addition of defensive wizard, Dave Aranda, will give LSU someone to match wits with Alabama offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin, who has emerged as football’s best play-caller. Aranda’s first order of business will be plugging a leaky run defense that got exposed for 250 yards by Alabama last fall.

Neutral-Field Advantage Vegas Spread FEI FPI Feng S&P+
LSU -2.5 23.6 25.5 17.3 24.4
Alabama 29 23 21.2 26.8

Kiffin won’t, however, have the services of Derrick Henry, whose Heisman campaign last season began in earnest when he ran around, over, and through LSU’s defense. Likely replacement Bo Scarbrough must establish himself as the next great Tide running back.

Alabama’s defense will once again try to bottle up Leonard Fournette, who mustered only 1.6 yards per carry against the Tide last season. If Alabama can force the Tigers’ Brandon Harris to beat them passing, it might be six wins in a row for Nick Saban and company.

Michigan at Ohio State (Nov. 26)

Despite their success under Urban Meyer, preseason expectations from the numbers-based systems are a bit reserved on the Buckeyes (rated 12th). That’s because Ohio State ranks dead last in the nation (128th) in Phil Steele’s returning experience metric. In all, Ohio State lost 16 starters, including an incredible 12 players taken in the NFL Draft.

All four metrics systems have Ohio State and Michigan power rated within a field goal of one another. Ohio State holds the slight edge, at least in Vegas, thanks to hosting the game at The Horseshoe.

Neutral-Field Advantage Vegas Spread FEI FPI Feng S&P+
Ohio State -3 15.4 16.5 12.1 16.4
Michigan 12.3 18.6 12.6 19.3

The good news for the Buckeyes is that -- outside of their trip to Norman in mid-September -- their schedule is manageable before ending the season against the Wolverines. The timing couldn’t be better for a team with a host of new contributors, most of them entering the season with a bunch of stars next to their name but little meaningful collegiate experience. Talent-wise, the Buckeyes appear to have the players to step up. Ohio State ranks fourth in five-year recruiting rankings.

Getting to Columbus undefeated may not be as daunting as it sounds for Michigan. FPI gives the Wolverines at least a 66 percent chance to win all 11 of their proceeding games, including road trips to Michigan State and Iowa.

A key for Michigan will be getting more efficiency out of their offense, which ranked 39th in passing and only 57th in rushing in 2015, according to our metrics.

Bill Connelly perhaps summed it up best in his Michigan preview: “Because last year's best Big Ten teams (Ohio State and Michigan State) are replacing breakthrough talent, this is the year for Michigan to make its move. The Wolverines aren't a slam dunk -- and they have to go to both East Lansing and Columbus -- but it's not hard to see why some think otherwise.”