One of the weird lessons of the College Football Playoff over its first two years: If you must lose to someone, don't lose to a good team.
In the playoff era, almost every Power Five contender gets a mulligan. That makes the end of the season more compelling than during the BCS era. But the key is having the right mulligan in order to find a path to the playoff that largely requires being a conference champion.
The top four in the first CFP Rankings on Tuesday seem to be clear, in some order: Alabama, Clemson, Michigan and Washington. In the 18 years of the BCS and CFP, there has never been a season in which four major conferences produced an undefeated champion. Only twice were there three unbeatens (2004 and 2009).
Translation: Some highly ranked teams are likely going to lose. We know Louisville, Texas A&M and Ohio State are lurking, but that's not what this list is about. Who has the best shot to be this year's Ohio State or Oklahoma? Who can be the team to make the playoff that currently is considered under the radar?
In 2014, Ohio State went from No. 16 in the first CFP Rankings to the playoff and won the national title. The Buckeyes lost in Week 2 to mediocre Virginia Tech, which finished 7-6, but the defeat didn't impact Ohio State's path to the Big Ten championship.
Oklahoma entered the first 2015 CFP Rankings at No. 15 and kept climbing into the playoff. The Sooners lost in Week 5 to Texas, which finished 5-7, but Oklahoma impressed the CFP Selection Committee by closing the season with three straight ranked wins over Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State to capture the Big 12.
This CFP quirk that benefits teams losing to mediocre to bad teams is apparent this year with Louisville, which is currently No. 5 in the AP Top 25. The Cardinals barely lost to the wrong team (Clemson), which must somehow lose twice for Louisville to even play for the ACC championship.
Louisville would have been better off beating Clemson and losing to Virginia. The committee values who a team beats (particularly top-25 CFP opponents) more than who it lost to over the course of the season. There are still ways for Louisville to get into the playoff -- a two-loss Pac-12 champion might be the best hope -- but the truth is some of these teams listed below have a clearer path than the Cardinals.
Here's who I consider at the moment to be the best under-the-radar teams and with a foreseeable path to the playoff. Rankings listed below are where teams currently stand in the AP Top 25.
1. Wisconsin (6-2, No. 8): The Badgers won't be in the mid-teens for the first CFP Rankings like Ohio State and Oklahoma were, but they qualify for this list given their two losses. Wisconsin has wins over No. 9 Nebraska and No. 15 LSU and very close losses to No. 2 Michigan and No. 6 Ohio State. That might not scream top-four team at the moment, but if carnage happens, the Badgers are potentially positioned to take advantage.
To reach the Big Ten Championship Game, Wisconsin still needs Nebraska to lose again. That's certainly possible when the Cornhuskers play at Ohio State this week. Two-loss Wisconsin could get boosted by winning the Big Ten title against highly ranked Michigan or Ohio State one week after those teams square off in an emotional rivalry game.
Wisconsin currently has the third-ranked schedule in the country by Sagarin and the best for any CFP contender. The Badgers' résumé could look even better if LSU finishes the season strong with remaining games against No. 1 Alabama, No. 10 Florida and No. 7 Texas A&M. Despite a spotty passing game, Wisconsin would be a dangerous Big Ten Championship Game opponent for Ohio State or Michigan.
2. Auburn (6-2, No. 11): Gus Malzahn found his mojo again by turning over play-calling to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. Auburn could be a classic case of the committee believing a team has significantly improved over the course of the season. The Tigers, who started 1-2 with losses to No. 3 Clemson and No. 7 Texas A&M, averaged 372 rushing yards per game behind a dominant offensive line during a 4-0 October.
The biggest reason Auburn rates this high on the list is opportunity. The Tigers still play No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 26. If Auburn wins that game -- and yes, that's a big if -- the Tigers would be the SEC West champion if Texas A&M loses another game, such as to LSU.
A potential problem for Auburn is if it's in a three-way tie with Alabama and Texas A&M at 7-1 in the SEC. The tiebreaker would likely go all the way down to their SEC East opponents' league records. Alabama plays Tennessee and Kentucky (currently 6-5 combined SEC record), Texas A&M plays Tennessee and South Carolina (4-7), and Auburn plays Georgia and Vanderbilt (3-7). Kentucky, of all teams, could help Alabama by having improved in 2016.
3. LSU (5-2, No. 15): The Tigers are playing much better under Ed Orgeron and would fit perfectly into those Ohio State/Oklahoma initial CFP Rankings from years past. Granted, LSU is 3-0 under Orgeron by beating mediocre teams (Missouri, Southern Miss and Ole Miss), so there's more to prove. Like other teams on this list, LSU's inclusion here is about opportunity. Leonard Fournette is back and healthy, the passing game has shown a pulse, and the schedule exists for the chance to make a big jump.
Three of the Tigers' final four games are against No. 1 Alabama, No. 10 Florida and No. 7 Texas A&M. If LSU wins out -- again, another big if -- and Auburn loses the Iron Bowl, the Tigers would be SEC West champions and possibly face Florida again in the SEC Championship Game. (This might be a case where LSU would want a Florida rematch instead of Kentucky -- in order to have a more attractive opponent in Atlanta.)
LSU could be hurt by a two-loss Wisconsin that wins the Big Ten. Wisconsin beat LSU head to head. One-loss Alabama would still be in the conversation despite not winning the West. But a two-loss SEC champ that beats Alabama (whether it's LSU or Auburn) would get serious consideration given how dominant the Crimson Tide have been so far. You can't just forget two losses. But LSU's talking points would be that both of its defeats (Auburn and Wisconsin) came under Les Miles.
4. Nebraska (7-1, No. 9): Do I think Nebraska will win out? No. This is a much-improved team from 2015, but it may not be one that finishes with just a single loss. Right now, Nebraska's best win is Wyoming. The Cornhuskers' strength of schedule is currently ranked 59th by Sagarin.
Still, this is about opportunity. Nebraska likely controls its fate to make the playoff. The Cornhuskers are one game ahead of Wisconsin in the Big Ten West. If Nebraska wins out, it would be a one-loss Big Ten champion with victories at No. 6 Ohio State and on a neutral Big Ten championship field likely against No. 2 Michigan. Plus, the Cornhuskers' only loss would be in overtime at No. 8 Wisconsin.
Nebraska's remaining schedule: at Ohio State, vs. Minnesota, vs. Maryland, at Iowa. I tend to think Wisconsin will win the Big Ten West, but doing so requires the Cornhuskers losing somewhere. That may be this week, but they draw Ohio State at a good time considering the Buckeyes' recent struggles.
5. Florida (6-1, No. 10): The Gators are the top-10 team we probably know the least about, partly due to the weak SEC East and also the LSU postponement. Florida is second nationally in scoring defense and yards per play allowed, but five of its seven opponents are 78th or lower in scoring offense. The highest-ranked Florida opponent in scoring is No. 42 Missouri, which is only averaging 17.3 points in SEC games.
Florida is a rare example of a team entering November as the clear division favorite despite losing to the team considered to be its top challenger (Tennessee). That speaks to the Vols' free fall. I tend to think the Gators are about to lose some more. Still, a one-loss Florida that somehow wins the SEC will almost undoubtedly be in the playoff.
Florida's strength of schedule is currently ranked 66th by Sagarin. That's not good. But the Gators could close with a three-week stretch at No. 15 LSU, at No. 19 Florida State and possibly vs. No. 1 Alabama at the SEC Championship Game. The chances of winning all three are low for Florida. But the opportunity exists, and that's in part what this list is about.
6. Utah (7-2, No. 16), Colorado (6-2, No. 21), Washington State (6-2, No. 25): A two-loss Pac-12 champion would be the longest of long shots. Utah would have the best chance since it could avenge one of its losses by beating Washington in the Pac-12 Championship Game. That still requires overlooking the Utes' loss to Cal and nothing jumps out in their nonconference schedule (Southern Utah, BYU, San Jose State).
Colorado's 25th-ranked strength of schedule would go up by finishing against No. 25 Washington State, No. 16 Utah and potentially No. 4 Washington in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Buffaloes lost to Southern California and Michigan, a game in which Colorado led the Wolverines early in the second half on the road. Still, Colorado is a serious long shot.
Picking Washington State for the playoff would mean excusing the Cougars' 0-2 start against Eastern Washington and Boise State. That's virtually impossible to swallow. But if the Cougars won out, they could boast of going undefeated in the Pac-12 and finishing with wins over No. 21 Colorado, No. 4 Washington and the Pac-12 South champion.
7. West Virginia (6-1, No. 14), Oklahoma (6-2, No. 12): I've already written off the Big 12. I'm including West Virginia and Oklahoma on this list to explain why since some readers disagree. Even if the Pac-12 champion has multiple losses, I think there would be non-champions in the Big Ten, SEC or ACC that would get ranked higher than the Big 12 champ.
If much-improved West Virginia wins out, what is its best win? Beating Oklahoma, which is 22nd in strength of schedule, but lost to Houston and Ohio State and ranks 100th nationally in scoring defense? If Oklahoma wins out, what is its best win? Beating West Virginia, which is 31st in schedule strength, but claims best wins over Missouri (2-6) and BYU (4-4)?
The Big 12's best nonconference win this season will likely end up being Oklahoma State over Pittsburgh, a solid team that has an uphill climb to win the ACC Coastal Division. To be fair, the Pac-12 hasn't done great out of conference either. At least the Pac-12 beat the Big 12 (Stanford over Kansas State, Arizona State over Texas Tech, Cal over Texas).
The Big 12 went 19-11 (.633) in nonconference games. That's well behind the SEC (.786), ACC (.766), Big Ten (.762) and even the Pac-12 (.706). The committee views teams' schedule strength individually, as it should. Still, it's incredibly hard to think Big 12 conference wins moving forward have enough value given how poorly the Big 12 fared out of conference.
Even the two teams Oklahoma lost to -- Houston and Ohio State -- don't look as good as they did early in the season. Last year, Oklahoma had a nonconference win at Tennessee to help its case. So no, I don't think Oklahoma can be this year's Oklahoma.
Remember, there's going to be movement after the first CFP Rankings. Following the first rankings of 2014 and 2015, four of those eight top-four teams finished the season by losing at least half of their remaining games. Mississippi State 2014, Auburn 2014, Ole Miss 2014 and LSU 2015 ended with a combined 9-13 record. It was the height of too many SEC teams getting overrated.
Since this is a game played by 18- to 22-year-olds, crazy results will happen. Some team we're not talking about much now could be in the playoff come December.