An Early-Season Call For Calm

One of my favorite memories of last college football season didn't involve a play. It was just after the Ohio State/Virginia Tech game, when I tried to console my friend Kevin, the biggest Buckeyes fan I know, via text.

"Season's over," he said.

"That might not be true, you could still win the conference."

"It's over."

Now, the fact that I ended up being right was not just what made it memorable. What that exchange, and the surprising season that followed, revealed to me is that the traditional rules about how a season unfolded just didn't apply anymore.

Under the BCS, my friend would have been right, when it comes to contending for a national title. Losing to a distinctly average team from the most ho-hum of the five major conferences at home would have disqualified a team from being in the top two come December, especially when that conference's winner went through the regular season and conference title game undefeated.

In the playoff era, the selection committee showed last year that if you make a really strong case for playoff inclusion at the end of the year with dominant performances in your toughest tests, and play a decent schedule, they'll include you with a bad loss.

Fast forward to Week 1 of this season, and it appears that the lessons of last year haven't been learned by many, who feel that style points need to be banked from the jump if you're a ranked team hoping to play in a national semifinal on New Year's Eve. This can particularly be seen in the response to TCU's win Thursday evening against Minnesota.

I understand that TCU fans are still smarting about being left out of the playoff last year, and feel like they probably need to win every game by 20 to make absolutely sure of it this year. But I'm here to offer a plea for sanity for them and every other team who hopes to be selected on Dec. 6.

Here's what fans of a major conference Top 25 team should be hoping for from their team if they want to be in the playoff: win your conference and have less than two losses overall. That's it.

It's extremely hard to do no matter the season or schedule, but it is a template for being in the top four after conference championships are awarded.

Here's a list of the teams that have been below the top four before bowls with one loss and won their automatic qualifying conference outright. This includes the Big East/American when it was still considered a top league for bowl purposes:

2014: Baylor

2013: Baylor (had a Nov. 23 loss to Oklahoma State)

2012: Kansas State (Nov. 17 loss to Baylor)

2011: None

2010: Wisconsin

2009: None

2008: USC

2007: None

2006: Louisville (Nov. 9 loss to Rutgers)

2005: West Virginia

Yes, it does happen. But it's pretty rare if you don't lose in November. It should also be noted that the last two teams on this list were in the old Big East by the time it was already seen as a step down from the other five.

I probably mention it on this site every single year, but as every season begins, I feel compelled to say it again. There's no sport like college football in America. There's no preseason. It's so short that, in less than three months, playoff teams will be picked.

It can feel even shorter than that, considering that conference play won't get into high gear until later this month. In Week 1, there were just a handful of games between quality teams or traditional powers. BYU/Nebraska and Louisville/Auburn were the most suspenseful contests.

However, the games we might have learned the most about both teams were the Texas/Notre Dame and Stanford/Northwestern tilts.

In South Bend, a Notre Dame defense that returned 10 starters from 2014 manhandled a Texas team that figures to improve in Charlie Strong's second year. At QB, sophomore Malik Zaire might just live up to his hype as a highly touted recruit. If the Irish can through possible ACC champs Georgia Tech and Clemson early in their schedule, they're a definite playoff contender.

It was another story for Stanford. Coming into the season, big things were predicted for the Cardinal offense after finishing a disappointing 8-5 season strong with three straight wins. Instead, it looked like the same lackluster group that found ways to lose big games early last year against USC and Notre Dame in a 16-6 loss in Evanston.

For Northwestern, the rest of the non-conference schedule looks manageable, and playing in the Big Ten West gives the Wildcats a chance at a winning Big Ten record.

It is understandable to possibly blow one game or week out of proportion. After all, they proportionally mean more to the season than any other sport. But in the playoff era, one loss relatively early in the season may not be the disaster it was once thought to be in the past.

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