CFP chase: Can LSU, Clemson and others afford a Week 1 loss?

CFP chase: Can LSU, Clemson and others afford a Week 1 loss?

You don’t have to wait until the Camping World Kickoff between Florida State and LSU on Sunday to see a game that will impact the College Football Playoff. In addition to the matchup in Orlando, Florida, Week 1 features multiple contenders in what could be some tricky matchups.

The CFP selection committee doesn’t release its first of six rankings until Halloween, but teams can begin to build their playoff résumés this week. Here are the top four highest-leverage games, according to ESPN analytics, and what’s at stake for each playoff contender.



LSU vs. Florida State, Sunday

The loser of this game (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) is in serious trouble, but not eliminated. LSU can lose and still win the SEC, and any team that wins the SEC is a near lock to finish in the top four. The problem is how difficult it will be for LSU to run the table and finish the regular season with one loss. LSU is at Alabama on Nov. 4, and ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Tide a 74.1% chance to win. That’s a game that will go a long way in determining the winner of the SEC West. If LSU finishes as a two-loss team that doesn’t win its division, it will be in the exact same predicament as Alabama last season — on the outside looking in.

According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, LSU’s chances of reaching the playoff will drop from 19% now to 6% with a loss on Sunday.

If Florida State loses, it would likely have to beat Clemson twice en route to winning the ACC title. FSU is at Clemson on Sept. 23, and ESPN’s FPI gives Clemson a 69.8% chance to win. Florida State could still go on to win the ACC and finish as a two-loss conference champion, but it would be a long shot at best for a top-four finish.

Without regular-season wins against LSU and Clemson, it will be difficult for the Noles to impress the selection committee, even with an ACC title. They would need to beat rival Florida and hope the Gators are a top-25 CFP team, and hope other ACC opponents are ranked. Even then, there likely will be other Power 5 champions with stronger résumés, or Notre Dame, to be measured against. With a loss, Florida State’s chances of reaching the CFP drop from 7% to 3%.

FPI says: LSU has a 64.7% chance to win.


Clemson at Duke, Monday

Clemson is a heavy favorite in this game (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), but if — if — there happened to be an upset, it would be devastating to the Tigers’ playoff chances. With Florida State, Notre Dame, North Carolina and a road trip to rival South Carolina — all likely top-25 opponents — on the schedule, it will be difficult for the Tigers to run the table and finish as one-loss ACC champs. The good news for the Tigers is those other opponents could also continue to keep Clemson in the conversation. The question is how the committee would perceive the loss to Duke. If the Blue Devils go on to finish as a top-25 team, that would help Clemson immensely. But if they finish below .500, it would stain Clemson’s résumé through Selection Day. Clemson enters the game with a 25% chance to reach the CFP, and that would drop to 6% with a loss.

FPI says: Clemson has an 86.8% chance to win.


If the Nittany Lions are going make the CFP for the first time under coach James Franklin, they have to leave no doubt they’re the better team in games like this. That doesn’t mean they have to run up the score, but if Penn State loses to Ohio State or Michigan and doesn’t win the East, games like this will go under the microscope in the case of a three-way tie. If West Virginia wins, (which would be a significant upset given the Mountaineers have yet to reach seven wins under coach Neal Brown), it’s hard not to call it an elimination game. Not only would it be a bad loss (at home!) for Penn State, but it would also put pressure on Franklin to beat Ohio State and Michigan in the same season — which he hasn’t been able to do. The Nittany Lions enter the game with a 13% chance to make the CFP, and that would drop to 2% with a loss, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor.

FPI says: Penn State has an 88.7% chance to win.


Ohio State at Indiana, Saturday

According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, no team in the country — including Alabama (56%) and Georgia (50%) — has a better chance to reach the CFP than Ohio State (71%). That would plummet to 34% with a loss, but it could be overcome if Ohio State were to run the table and win the Big Ten. The Buckeyes’ résumé would still include wins against Notre Dame, Penn State and Michigan — all likely CFP top 25 teams. If Ohio State can’t beat Indiana, though, how is it going to run the table?

It’s hard to imagine a one-loss Ohio State being left out of the CFP, even if that lone loss is an ugly one to Indiana, given all the other opportunities on the schedule to impress the committee. Where it gets a little dicey, though, is if there are other Power 5 conference champions that either a) went undefeated or b) had a “better” loss. It could also be tricky if there are multiple SEC teams in the conversation.

Remember, there are also common opponents that come into play, as Clemson and USC also face Notre Dame. A loss to IU would put pressure on Ohio State to not only beat the Irish, but to do it better than the other contenders could. Bottom line: A loss to IU would call into question whether the Buckeyes were truly top-four material this fall, and they’d face a heavy burden of proof for 11 straight weeks.

FPI says: Ohio State has a 97% chance to win.

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