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Looking at the 2017 College Football Playoff chase

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Playoffs?

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington
It’s all about the trophy.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s talk playoffs, shall we?

Heather Dinich of ESPN raised some Pacific Northwest eyebrows this morning when she published an article by arguing that the PAC 12 is on the outside looking in on the college football playoff race due to two factors:

  1. UW is playing a weak-ass schedule
  2. USC posted a loss

Holding aside the obvious observation that USC losing by less than a touchdown on the road to another ranked team is a no-shame proposition, there is not a lot of actual substance behind anything that Dinich wrote.

For example, there isn’t any kind of analysis on how the SEC has been weakened by a series of results that have weakened (or will weaken) the collective resumes of the teams involved and those who they will play. Those include:

#25 LSU falling to Troy (week 5)

#17 Florida getting smoked by #11 Michigan in Gainesville (week 1)

Texas A&M giving up the biggest fourth quarter lead in the history of the SEC to UCLA (week 1)

#13 Auburn losing to #2 Clemson (week 2)

#15 Georgia barely squeaking by what we know now is a not good Notre Dame team (week 2)

Tennessee taking meaningful losses to both Florida (who got crushed by Michigan) and Georgia

Ole Miss falling to a bad Cal team (week 3)

Not exactly stellar.

But the inconsistencies don’t end there. What about the almighty Big Ten? The conference that gave us Ohio State as a playoff team despite the fact that it didn’t even win its own conference? They haven’t exactly put together a great resume outside of the Michigan win over Florida noted above.

Penn State needed a last-play miracle to beat Iowa (week 4) who then went on to lose to a bad Michigan St team

Oklahoma nearly doubled up Ohio State in Columbus (week 2)

Michigan State got destroyed by Notre Dame (week 4)

We can go on and on here. Needless the say, the facts don’t back up the argument that the PAC 12 is the weak link of the Power 5 and, therefore, any loss by one team in the PAC to another “weakens” the conference. In fact, the records of Power 5 teams against other Power 5 teams can now be mostly assessed and, guess what?

  1. PAC 12: 7-2
  2. Big Ten: 7-6
  3. SEC: 7-6
  4. Big 12: 2-3
  5. ACC: 4-9

Regardless of the facts, I think we must admit that there is a PAC 12 bias out there and it permeates not just the media but also the College Football Playoff Selection Committee.

The question, then, remains: what does UW have to do to get to the playoffs?

Well, duh, “win” is the right answer. An undefeated UW team would be about as near a lock as you could get no matter what the media personalities like Heather Dinich have to say about it.

The better question may be “who are the biggest threats” to UW in the playoff chase. That is an eminently more difficult question to answer. There are still about 90 teams who are technically eligible for the playoffs. Fortunately, UW has already established a superior position over most of them (or will have to in order to make the playoffs) and, thus, we don’t need to pay any attention to them. For example, UW will effectively have already had to eliminate any remaining PAC 12 candidate (WSU, USC and Utah being the only valid threats remaining) in order to even be a legit candidate themselves.

To answer this question, I suggest that we tranche the various candidates by their various “threat level”. Before we do so, let us simplify the exercise by making a couple of assumptions.

The first assumption is that Alabama is in. I don’t think that this is a huge stretch given the fact that the SEC seems to be really weak this season and Alabama seems to be really good.

The second assumption is that Clemson is also in. The Tigers have a terrific strength of schedule and have already raked up three wins over top 15 teams. It might also be the case that Clemson will have an even more impressive resume than ‘Bama by the end of it all and end up with the #1 overall seed.

It is obvious that one or both of those two could fall at some point in the season. The net effect of either of those scenarios is that everyone behind them would just get bumped up. So let’s take a look at the college football playoff chase through the eyes of Husky fans.

Threat Level: Red

(these teams are probably ahead of UW right now)

Penn State, Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma

Each of the teams above will likely be slotted ahead of UW if they win out over the course of the regular season. The good news is that this task sounds easier than what it is.

Michigan, PSU and tOSU still have to play one another in the regular season. This can get complicated, but the worst case scenario for UW is if Penn State wins both and represents the East in the Big Ten championship as an undefeated. Assuming no other losses to conference foes, the best case is if Penn State loses both, Michigan loses to tOSU and the Buckeyes lose in the conference championship. Any of these three will almost certainly be ahead of UW if they win the Big Ten with a max of one loss on their record.

Georgia is a real threat thanks to the fact that they are in the overrated SEC AND the media is desperate to create an SEC EAST foil to Alabama’s dominance in the West. Georgia will have some challenges in their schedule before they can get there. Florida is out there (10/28) as is a road trip to Auburn (11/11). The odds are pretty good that Georgia will suffer one loss if not more before reaching the SEC championship.

Oklahoma will definitely make it to the playoffs if they win the Big 12. Their dominating win over tOSU will carry them in even if they drop one game along the way. They only cease being a threat to UW once they lose twice or if they don’t win the Big 12.

Threat Level: Yellow

(teams that are behind UW now but would pass them if UW suffers one loss before the P12 title)

Auburn, Wisconsin, TCU, Oklahoma State, Notre Dame

If UW, or any PAC 12 champion, were to drop a single regular season game, their competition for a playoff spot would increase. The door could be opened for a conference non-champion to be included at the expense of the PAC 12 champ.

Auburn is the clearest threat in this regard. The Tigers benefit from the SEC bias. If they run the table against everyone on the schedule not named Alabama, they could easily be selected as a second SEC team in the final four as their two losses would be to Clemson and the Tide. Running that table might be tough, though. A three game road trip through Ole Miss, TAMU and Arkansas looks tough. Plus the home contest against Georgia noted above. The Tigers couldn’t survive another non-Alabama loss.

Wisconsin is interesting. If they limit their losses to just one and win the Big Ten outright, they’ll be in. If they accomplish that by handing either PSU or Michigan either team’s only loss on the season, they may very well create an argument to include two Big Ten teams in the playoffs. Again, this is only valid if the PAC 12 team is a one-loss team. But it is a very possible scenario. Given Wisconsin’s relatively easy remaining schedule, I’ll be watching out for this.

TCU and OKST are lingering as threats that could knock Oklahoma out of the Big 12 title. TCU is the bigger threat given that they are undefeated right now. If they run the table, they’ll be in (and might be in over an undefeated UW). A one-loss OKST Big 12 champ would also bump a one-loss UW given that they’d have to beat Oklahoma at least once as well as another highly ranked Big 12 team to do so.

Notre Dame has a tough road to hoe with Stanford, USC and NC State still on the calendar. However, they are a clear threat if they run the table and present the committee with a resume whose only blemish is a one-point loss to Georgia. I have to think that another loss anywhere on the schedule - which is highly likely - basically eliminates them. But we’ll have to keep an eye on them until that happens.

Projecting the Playoffs (as of week 5)

Right now, I have the playoffs working out like this:

  • Sugar (New Orleans): No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State
  • Rose (Pasadena, CA): No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Washington

In this scenario, I’m making the following assumptions:

  1. UW runs the table and goes undefeated through the PAC 12 championship
  2. Ohio State runs the table and wins the Big Ten with one loss overall
  3. Oklahoma takes a loss along the way, whether or not in the Big 12 championship

Nothing else really matters if these high probability scenarios play out. In the case that both Oklahoma and Penn State both win out, the odds of UW getting excluded and ending up in the Fiesta Bowl increase dramatically.

There are still a lot of twists and turns left to play out. We’ll check back in on how these are all playing out after a couple more weeks of action.