Saturday night’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game was hyped as the Greatest Opener of All Time, but things turned pretty one-sided in the second half as No. 1 Alabama methodically rolled over No. 3 Florida State en route to the 24-7 victory. Worse yet for the Seminoles, their starting quarterback, 2016 ACC Rookie of the Year Deondre Francois, is now out for the season with a knee injury. Is there any hope left for FSU’s season?
First things first: Losing Francois is a huge blow, one that will seriously damage what was one of the nation’s most lethal offenses a year ago. In fact, losing the game and Francois in the same week dropped the Noles to No. 10 in the AP Top 25 Poll. But if there is a silver lining for FSU (and for the other ranked teams that lost their opener, including Florida, West Virginia and Texas) it’s that teams who get a loss out of the way early do have a better chance of making the College Football Playoff than ones who lose late in the season — provided they can run the table from here out.
Going into Saturday’s matchup, we knew one of those two highly ranked teams would emerge from their opener with a loss. And it might have seemed like the stakes were ratcheted up to do-or-die status for the Tide and Noles right out of the gate. After all, no eventual national champ has lost in Week 1 since Miami in 1983. But that’s mainly because contending teams practically never schedule such difficult games to begin the season. According to our Elo ratings, if Alabama wins the national title, they’ll have played the toughest opening-week opponent of any champ since Michigan faced Colorado in 1997. And if FSU can somehow rally with a new QB under center, they’ll have faced the toughest opening foe in the entire AP Poll era.1
In reality, losing early isn’t a death sentence in college football — it’s actually better, assuming it ends up being a team’s only loss of the season. That’s especially true in the age of the four-team College Football Playoff, which gives one-loss teams more leeway than the old two-team Bowl Championship Series system did. I collected data on power-conference teams2 that had only one non-bowl loss in a season going back to the start of the BCS in 1998 and calculated what percentage of the way into their schedule the loss took place. For one-loss teams that ended up in the AP Poll’s pre-bowl top four (a good proxy for who would make the College Football Playoff), the median loss came about 58 percent of the way into the season; for those that didn’t, the loss came 75 percent of the way into the schedule. In a 12-game slate, that’s a difference of about two weeks.
Two weeks might not seem like too much — and, indeed, we can see that sometimes teams lost in their final game before the bowls and still managed a top-four slot in the AP’s rankings. But more often, one-loss teams who finished in the top four did their losing in the early phase of the schedule, when there was more time remaining in the season to reverse the damage.
We can see the negative effect of a loss in each successive week of the season by running a logistic regression on the same data set, using it to predict the probability a one-loss team would finish in the AP’s top four by season’s end, depending on when that loss occurred (and controlling for factors such as the team’s quality and the margin of the loss). Here’s what that model would predict for a team like Florida State, with a 1785 Elo and a 17-point defeat in its loss, if it were to go undefeated in the rest of its games:
All else being equal, an opening-game loss still leaves you with a decent chance of making the top four, whereas a late-season loss all but torpedoes any chance of getting the playoff nod.
Now, the big, obvious assumption here is that a team will win all of its other games. That’s a much tougher proposition if you start the season 0-1 and are staring down the rest of your schedule with little margin for error. (There’s a reason that no team in our data set lost its first game and went on to finish in the AP’s top four by the end of the regular season.) Two-loss major-conference schools can still occasionally make the playoff, but far more often they get lost in the numbers game at the top of the rankings.
In Florida State’s case, their path back to the playoff was made much more complicated by Francois’s injury. ESPN’s Football Power Index only gives the Seminoles a 6 percent chance of winning out against their remaining schedule, which means all of this is probably moot for them.
But the trends of the past should also ease anxiety levels for hopeful fans of other early-season losers, including those who fell last week and teams like Oklahoma and Auburn, who won in Week 1 but face brutally difficult tests in Week 2 — at Ohio State and at Clemson, respectively — and are unlikely to survive the first two weeks unscathed. History says that, as long as a team keeps winning, an early loss isn’t the end of the world — it might actually be a positive, if they’re vying for the playoff with teams whose losses came much later in the season.