Here is the moment when Alabama may have saved its 2019 College Football Playoff hopes. The Crimson Tide were trailing late against LSU on Saturday, but quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had lifted Bama out of late-game deficits before. On the first play from scrimmage after the Tigers had scored a touchdown that seemingly iced the game, Tagovailoa dropped back and looked for the man who once made him a hero—wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who sprinted past Georgia on Tua’s 41-yard national-title-winning pass in January 2018. In this case, Tagovailoa let the ball fly and his bomb nestled calmly into Smith’s arms, perfectly in stride. Smith sprinted untouched to the end zone; when he crossed the goal line, Bama’s newfangled light display went into effect, and it felt as if the cheers of the Tuscaloosa crowd were short-circuiting Bryant-Denny Stadium.
A few moments later, the game ended and Alabama lost 46-41. Tagovailoa’s touchdown merely cut a 12-point deficit to five. The Tide never touched the ball again, falling to LSU for the first time since 2011. Joe Burrow and the Tigers remained undefeated, while Bama dropped to 8-1.
Over the course of the College Football Playoff era, we’ve learned that one loss doesn’t end a team’s championship hopes. In fact, even though the Tide have lost three regular-season games since the system replaced the BCS in 2014, they’ve been part of the four-team field in each year of the playoff’s existence. The only thing that truly ends a team’s playoff hopes is a bad loss—and when Alabama was down 33-13 at halftime against LSU, it sure seemed like a bad loss was on the table. Then the Tide scored touchdowns on four consecutive possessions to close the game, culminating with that 85-yard pass to Smith. A hideous blowout turned into a respectable defeat. Even though Bama never led or even had the ball in the second half with the opportunity to take the lead, the game was described as a “shootout” in headlines across the country.
In most sports, this wouldn’t matter. Wins are wins, losses are losses. The teams with the best records move on, and everybody else goes home. But college football is different. It is the only sport in which losing by a little can be the mark of a champion.
The College Football Playoff selection committee’s decision-making over the past five years has been inconsistent. But one thing has stayed constant: No team has ever gotten its ass kicked and gone on to make the playoff.
Last year, Ohio State went 12-1, with the loss by 29 points to Purdue. That margin certainly felt like the reason 12-1 Oklahoma made the playoff and 12-1 Ohio State didn’t. There are lots of factors that ostensibly go into the committee’s final assessment, but in 2018 it may have been this simple: Oklahoma’s lone regular-season loss was a 48-45 defeat at the hands of ranked rival Texas, whereas Ohio State got wrecked by four touchdowns against unranked Purdue. The Sooners and Buckeyes wound up with the same record, but Ohio State was routed by a team that finished the regular season 6-6.
What makes this comparison interesting is that Oklahoma’s loss could’ve been bad. The Sooners trailed Texas by 21 points in that game with just nine minutes to go. But Kyler Murray led Oklahoma on three touchdown drives to tie the score before the Longhorns kicked a game-winning field goal with nine seconds left. We don’t know how nuanced the committee’s conversations are, but it’s reasonable to believe that it treated that result differently than it would’ve had the game ended Texas 45, Oklahoma 24.
Alabama has saved its season with a close loss before, too. In 2015, the Tide trailed Ole Miss 43-24 midway through the fourth quarter of a September matchup. But then Bama scored a touchdown, recovered an onside kick, and scored another touchdown to salvage a 43-37 final. It ultimately made the playoff over one-loss Iowa and one-loss Ohio State. That not-quite-enough rally might have been the difference.
When an elite team loses a game, college football fans want to feel like the season has shifted in some cosmic and unforgettable way. That line of thinking is a holdover from the era when there was no true championship game and pollsters were tasked with deciding which of the nation’s various undefeated teams seemed best. Even during the BCS era, six teams that lost regular-season games won championships. Perhaps none was more famous than the 2011 Alabama squad that dropped a close game to LSU in November before rolling over the Tigers for the title.
With the four-team playoff system, it’s a virtual lock that at least one team with a regular-season loss will have the chance to compete for the national championship. In the five years of the playoff, 14 of the 20 teams selected have had at least one loss. This isn’t entirely the committee’s fault—there simply hasn’t been a season in which four power-conference teams have gone undefeated. (Last season there were three unbeaten power-conference teams plus undefeated UCF, but one-loss Oklahoma got the final spot over the Knights. Don’t get me started.) This year, it once again seems like a one-loss team will make the field. It’s possible that LSU, Clemson, Baylor, and either Ohio State or Minnesota will all finish undefeated, but I don’t expect Baylor to beat Oklahoma twice. In every year except for 2016—when there were exactly four zero- or one-loss power-conference teams—the committee has had to decide which one-loss teams to accept and turn away.
The committee made clear that it paid attention to margin of victory in its very first season, as it included eventual national champion Ohio State in the playoff largely because of the Buckeyes’ 59-0 blowout of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Since then, it’s made clear that it monitors the margin of losses, too. Of the 14 regular-season losses by eventual playoff teams, 10 were decided by one possession. There are a few outliers, but all have explanations: In 2017, Georgia lost to Auburn by 23 points, but then blew out the Tigers in an SEC title game rematch. In 2014, Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech by 14—but the Buckeyes were playing with a backup QB, J.T. Barrett, after Braxton Miller went down with a season-ending injury. Ohio State rebounded by winning its next 13 games (including the 59-0 beatdown of the Badgers). In 2016, Washington lost to an unranked USC team by 13 points—but that was the season in which there were precisely four zero- or one-loss teams, so Washington didn’t need to compete with any other one-loss teams that lost more competitive games.
The committee’s ability to distinguish between a close loss and a blowout is objectively good from a decision-making perspective. There seem to be two points of view on how a committee should handle its deliberations: the one that says advanced metrics should play a major role, and the one that favors “the eye test” above all else. But one thing that both statistical algorithms and sports opinion-havers can agree on is that a team should be graded more harshly when it gets run off the field than when it loses by a slim margin. The entire point of advanced college football ranking models is to determine which teams are superior when several have identical records, and the formulas give precedence to decisive wins over fluky ones. And anyone who’s ever listened to a sports radio show knows the difference in discourse when discussing a blowout and a thriller.
But the quality-of-victory—and quality-of-loss—conversation is not part of how other sports determine their champions. If two MLB teams competing for a postseason spot end the regular season with the same record, they take part in a one-game playoff. (They already played 162, so why not?) NFL and NBA teams that finish a regular season with the same record are separated using a long list of tiebreakers: first head-to-head results, then divisional records, then conference records, then strength of schedule, etc. Margin of victory only comes into play way down the road. In both leagues, point differential comes into play after six other tiebreakers, meaning it is virtually never invoked. The NFL has never gotten past the third tiebreaker.
There is one other prominent sport that relies on a selection committee: college basketball, in which this group of people picks 36 of the 68 teams in a given March Madness field. But that committee tends to focus on the win-and-loss factors of a team’s résumé—which quality opponents it beat, and which bad opponents it lost to—rather than how sizable those wins and losses were. This committee uses margin-of-result-related algorithms, like Ken Pomeroy’s ratings; in those, however, the sample size of a 30-game season is large enough that a single loss coming by five points instead of 25 doesn’t change a ton. And besides, teams on the verge of being excluded from the NCAA basketball bracket probably weren’t going to win it all anyway. The difference between the 36th- and 37th-best at-large team is less significant than the difference between the fourth- and fifth-best.
College football remains the only sport capable of creating the strange feeling that Saturday’s game brought. Alabama lost, and the world wanted to throw this dynasty a funeral. But it couldn’t, because it was obvious that the way the loss happened meant that the Crimson Tide’s heart was still beating. The difference between a big loss and a narrow one being a factor in shaping a season’s championship field makes college football more rational—but it can also feel like we’re rewarding the wrong things. A playoff contender losing on a zany walk-off score to an inferior opponent feels like it should be a season-defining moment; a desperation touchdown in a two-score game feels like it should not be.
If nothing else, there is one major upside to the emphasis that college football places on close losses: For the rest of time, we can laugh at the fact that Ohio State once missed the playoff because it lost by 29 to Purdue.