The surest way to win a national title in college football is to go undefeated. If that isn’t possible, losing early in the year is preferable to losing late and losing to a good team is better than losing to a bad team. This is basic stuff. But a look at every champion since 1990 reveals another thing title-conscious teams must avoid at all costs: losing in the non-conference.
Twelve of the past 27 champions have had at least one loss. Only four of those came in non-conference play. Just one — Ohio State to Virginia Tech in 2014 — occurred in the BCS or College Football Playoff era. One needs to go back to 1996 to find the next example: Florida falling toFlorida State in the regular season finale. In 1993, the Seminoles were on the other side, rebounding from a defeat against Notre Dame in mid-November. Colorado bounced back from a September stumble against Illinois and a tie against Tennessee (when they were still a thing) in 1990, before getting five downs at Missouri.
The existence of a four-team playoff has made overcoming any loss more realistic. Ohio State’s run to the title came as the No. 4 seed, meaning the Hokie horribleness would have been disqualifying in prior years. Broadly, however, nonconference games have been de facto elimination games.
What’s interesting about this year’s slate of marquee crossovers is that the losing sides will — at least on paper — still have a clear path to the playoff and potential title.
Florida State-Alabama in Week 1 is not an eliminator as a one-loss ACC or SEC winner will assuredly be in. The same could be said for Auburn-Clemson. Oklahoma-Ohio State is murkier thanks to the uncertainty of the Big 12 but the Buckeyes would still have life should they falter. Even the vanquished side of Michigan-Florida could work themselves back into the picture and earn a spot by ripping off 12 straight.
Again, the path of least resistance is to win them all. Since 1990, less than half of national title winners have been able to do that. They’ve shown it’s easier to withstand a conference loss than one outside of it. This year could challenge that trend.