Washington entered Thanksgiving weekend still very much in control of their own playoff destiny, but hoping to get some help in establishing some breathing room. How did it go?
Well, let’s put it in Thanksgiving Dinner terms. The Apple Pie was the perfect balance of tart and sweet. However, the bird was overdone, the stuffing was too dry, and your mother shamed you into taking on an extra helping of Aunt Joan’s green bean casserole.
The Huskies took care of their business in convincing fashion against the Washington State Cougars in the Apple Cup. Their 45-17 victory was completed in exactly the right manner to support UW’s claim that at least so far, they have dominated their conference schedule in a manner superior to any other potential Power 5 conference champion. Given that most analysts agree that the Pac-12 is one of the best conferences top to bottom (as evidenced by six ranked teams heading into last weekend), this is a powerful claim.
Beyond that, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Consider:
- Ohio State beat Michigan in 2OT. Forgetting for a second how lucky Ohio State was to even get that game to overtime (two self-inflicted Wolverine turnovers turned into 14 Buckeye points), the win creates a powerful argument for a non-conference champion, one-loss Ohio State team to go to the playoffs.
- Penn State whipped Michigan State to win the Big Ten East.
- Wisconsin beat Minnesota to win the Big Ten West.
- Clemson destroyed South Carolina, thus maintaining their position over UW in the rankings.
Other factors developed which affect UW: USC’s big win over Notre Dame (making the USC loss look more reasonable), Florida State crushed Florida (basically killing Florida as a contender), and Colorado beating Utah (creating a top-ten matchup in the Pac-12 championship), but those Big Ten and ACC developments are the most important to UW in the race for the playoffs.
So, where do we stand?
When the committee releases its updated standings this week, I would bet that they look something like this:
- Alabama (12-0)
- Ohio State (11-1)
- Clemson (11-1)
- Washington (11-1)
The next teams up will be some combination of Penn State, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Colorado.
Notice anything interesting about that list? All those teams but one will be playing one more game. Only Ohio State, even with their oft-cited “four top 25 wins” résumé (as if this is something unique), has been eliminated from conference championship consideration. Nevertheless, it will be Ohio State that causes the selection committee and Husky fans everywhere the most consternation.
By choosing to keep both Michigan and Ohio State ahead of Penn State in the rankings leading up to this past weekend, the committee has allowed themselves to get stuck in a trap.
We know that either Penn State or Wisconsin will win the Big Ten. When the dust settles, what will the committee do with that? Will they replace Ohio State with the champion? Will they take Ohio State over the champion? Will they take neither and introduce a team like Oklahoma into the mix? Will they take both Ohio State and the Big Ten champ?
If the final option is the one that is selected, than somebody in the current top four would need to drop out. Right now, that looks like Washington should the Huskies win the Pac-12.
Trying to ascribe logic to the inner workings of the playoff selection committee is like trying to ascribe favorable reviews to a Vin Diesel movie. It’s not happening, folks, but some germane observations need to be made.
The first is a reminder that the rankings are not a continuous evolution as much as they are a snapshot of a moment in time. The implication being that just because Ohio State has a top four résumé after Week 13, they are not assured of having one after Week 14.
The second is that the committee has already established a precedent that conference championships are a major deciding factor. If you get to the point where you are assessing a conference champion UW against a conference non-champion in Ohio State, that trophy is a major consideration. UW’s résumé would then include a conference championship, a more difficult in-conference schedule, a loss to a highly ranked USC team, and very impressive defensive/offensive stats balance. Ohio State’s body of work would have a loss to a similar caliber opponent, no conference championship, but the better out-of-conference win (Oklahoma).
Finally, the committee will be meeting together to watch all of the conference championships this weekend. That they will all be together and taking the games in as a group will have a powerful effect on the collective psyche of the committee and will most certainly amplify perceptions of the teams that who are actually playing, especially those that do well.
The bottom line is that the Huskies are not assured of anything. Even they beat Colorado, one would have to think that their odds of getting into the playoffs are still very good. If they happen to do so in cold-blooded, highly-efficient fashion, they are sure to get credit for as much from the captive playoff committee audience. Should they win in a close one or via some obscure play, then fear not. The Rose Bowl is then your worst case scenario.
There are still a few weird what-ifs that could evolve which would screw up everything. Obviously, the Huskies could lose. Clemson could very well lose to a red-hot Virginia Tech team (which would be great for UW). Alabama could lose to Florida in the SEC championship (which would be a major conundrum). Wisconsin (who sits behind Penn State) could destroy the Nittany Lions, creating a mind-bending Wisconsin-beat-Penn State-who-beat-tOSU-who-beat-Wisconsin thing. How the committee might deal with one of these scenarios is like my wife’s hot turkey soup. You know the basic ingredients, but you have no idea how it will all come together.
Either way, you know it will be delicious.