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reviewing Washington’s College Football Playoffs scenarios

The Huskies still have a shot.

NCAA Football: Fresno State at Washington
Fistbumps and high fives could still happen for UW as they work for a spot in NCAA’s final four.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Two wild weekends in college football have left fans all across the nation asking a simple question:

Does anybody really want to get into the playoffs?

For four years, fans have been duped every single year into thinking that somehow playoff candidates are determined by how teams stand after week 8 of the regular season. How many times have we heard the phrase uttered “oh, they are out of it now”. Or “they’ve blown their chance at the playoffs”. Or “they are going to have to go undefeated to make it in”.

More times than not those refrains fail to recognize the actual (short) history of the college football playoff selection process or the realities that “contending teams” have to face as they close out the final third of each of their schedules.

First, let’s debunk the notion that you need to be in the top 4 at the time of the first CFP rankings (week 9) in order to have a decent chance to get in. History does not bear that out. In fact, there have been only 5 playoff teams in the three-year history of the event that started out in the top four of the first CFP rankings.

Below you can see each of the playoff teams by year, their overall record before the post-season, their seeding and their initial seed at the time of the first ranking update.

CFP teams 2014

Team Alabama Oregon Florida State Ohio State
Team Alabama Oregon Florida State Ohio State
Record 12-1 12-1 13-0 12-1
Final Seed 1 2 3 4
Starting Seed 6 5 2 16

CFP teams 2015

Team Clemson Alabama Michigan St Oklahoma
Team Clemson Alabama Michigan St Oklahoma
Record 13-0 12-1 12-1 11-1
Final Seed 1 2 3 4
Starting Seed 1 4 7 15

CFP teams 2016

Team Alabama Clemson Ohio State Washington
Team Alabama Clemson Ohio State Washington
Record 13-0 12-1 11-1 12-1
Final Seed 1 2 3 4
Starting Seed 1 2 6 5

There are a couple of other revelations that can be derived from this simple analysis which are germane to this discussion.

  • Only three undefeated teams have ever made it all the way into the playoffs ... one per season
  • No two loss teams have ever gotten in
  • No conference has ever sent two teams to the playoffs
  • Only one team - Ohio State last year - did not win its conference title
  • Only three teams - Michigan St (2015), Clemson (2016) and Washington (2016) - were able to suffer a loss after the first rankings came out and still make the playoffs. Only UW suffered a loss to a ranked team (USC). Clemson (lost to Pitt) and Michigan St (lost to Nebraska) were able to survive late season losses to unranked teams and still make the cut.

So, using history as a guide, we can infer a few assumptions about how this season might turn out.

  1. It is highly unlikely that any more than one team gets through undefeated
  2. A two-loss team almost certainly won’t get in
  3. The committee has a strong bias AGAINST admitting two teams from the same conference
  4. It is possible but not advisable to lose a game between the first ranking and the last. In the case of this season, the only team that might be able to get away with that feat would be Alabama or, possibly, Penn State.

Can the Huskies make it into the CFP?

Yes. In fact, there are several scenarios where this is possible. I’ve outlined these scenarios below. All of those scenarios, however, involve certain assumptions get made about the Huskies performance from here on out. Those assumptions include:

  1. UW must win out including the PAC 12 championship. No question.
  2. UW must continue to have a “bankable” strength that appeals to the committee. Right now they have that with the way that their Defense has played (third in the nation in scoring D behind Alabama, first in defensive TDs surrendered).
  3. UW’s offense has to be serviceable such that it is not viewed as a negative in the assessment process
  4. UW can have some close games, but a “lucky” or fluke win would be harmful

The Washington Playoff Scenarios

(in order of least-to-most likely to happen)

5. The Chaos Scenario

This is my catch-all scenario group for any scenario that involves two teams from the same conference getting in or any scenario involving zombie apocalypse. If there were ever to be a two-team scenario, it most likely would be a result of an SEC team beating an undefeated Alabama in the SEC championship. But there are other scenarios involving the SEC (an Alabama regular season loss) and the B1G (a Penn State/Ohio State conundrum where one of them wins the conference but loses to the other).

NCAA Football: Missouri at Georgia
Georgia is emerging as a significant player in the drama of UW’s race to the playoffs.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

If UW stays clean from now to the end of the season, chaos ahead of them in the polls would certainly take the attention off of a 6-point road defeat in the first half of the season. In this way, confusion in other conferences helps a UW team that would have accomplished a straightforward win of the PAC.

What would “chaos” look like, you ask? I’d argue that three (maybe even two) of the following happening would make a one-loss UW PAC 12 champ a lock:

  • one more loss by Clemson
  • one more loss by Ohio State
  • a menage-a-trois where Penn State-Michigan-Ohio State each beat one another over the next six weeks
  • a one-loss Wisconsin (as a B1G champ) that loses to a team like Iowa or Michigan at the end of the season
  • two more losses from Georgia (@ Florida? @ Auburn? @ GA Tech?) including the SEC championship (per FPI, Georgia has the #6 most difficult strength of schedule remaining in the nation)
  • TCU loses an ugly game along the way and still wins the BIG (#8 most difficult remaining SOS)
  • Notre Dame falls to Stanford but then beats Miami in Miami

There are probably other scenarios you could loop in here. The point being is that chaos affecting the other conferences between now and the final selection would make UW (as a PAC 12 champion with one loss) look like a team that is “taking care of business” and is as stable as any other team going into the playoffs.

In fact, you could even see variations of this scenario where UW finishes as the two-seed. It’s not that crazy, even if there a couple of confluent factors that must be realized.

4. Bounced B1G Scenario

The B1G is not a lock to make the playoffs.

For example, a one-loss Wisconsin as champion (noted above) would make it very easy to pass on the B1G given how weak Wisconsin’s strength of schedule looks (their loss would obviously be more “fresh” than UW’s), especially if they get the chance to beat Michigan State out of the East.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan
UW fans should be rooting for Michigan State to create chaos in the B1G
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

It is also possible that a two-loss Eastern team could end up as champion. The most likely scenario for this involves Ohio State beating Penn State but losing to both of the Michigan schools. It also involves Penn State dropping one other game to someone other than Michigan State. The way the tie-breakers work in the B1G would almost assuredly result in Penn State winning the East as a two-loss team (they would have a W over the next-highest division rival). A two-loss Penn State team would, in that scenario, look like a team that backed into the B1G championship.

A quickly-developing B1G situation is the Michigan State as Eastern Champ scenario. This works if MSU can get through back to back games vs PSU and @ Ohio State. The key for making this a scenario where the B1G is locked out is that Michigan State must take at least one more loss on their way to their championship as they are currently undefeated in the B1G.

Needless to say, the B1G not getting in seems like a stretch. If it were to happen, it would be because of all the confusion and debate that the logjam of four teams (Ohio St, Penn St, Wisconsin, Michigan St) would sow among committee members. These kinds of situations can really cause division and prevent the formation of a consensus on any one team.

3. The Rematch Scenario

In this scenario, ASU builds off of their huge wins over Washington and Utah and goes on a march all the way to the PAC 12 South division title. As we imagine it, their rematch against Washington would be a markedly different outcome than the first with Washington’s O coming to life, taking advantage of UW’s stifling D, and easily dispatching the Sun Devils for their second straight title.

This is an ideal scenario for Washington in that demonstrates the Tempe game was a fluke not unlike Clemson’s loss to Pitt last year and makes it very easy for the committee to do what they want to do anyhow which is put the PAC into the playoffs.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Utah
Manny Wilkins has an excellent chance to lead ASU to a South division title and a possible rematch with UW.
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Following USC’s blowout loss to Notre Dame, this scenario is starting to look more and more plausible. The Sun Devils clearly control their own destiny and their schedule is quite favorable. They host USC next week. If they get by that game, their schedule lightens up significantly with vs. Colorado, @ UCLA, @ Oregon St, and vs. Arizona as their home stretch. Add it all up and their remaining SOS (per FPI) is ranked is ranked 53rd in the nation compared to Arizona’s 38th and USC’s 24th.

The chips are falling in place for the Devils. Crazier things have happened.

2. Awful ACC Scenario

How bad is the ACC? Let’s put it this way, of the three top teams projected coming into the season, none are undefeated. Furthermore:

  • One has lost to Syracuse
  • One is 2-3 in conference
  • One has only two wins on the entire season

You could make a very valid argument that the ACC is the worst conference among the Power 5 right now. The ESPN-driven, east coast biased, fish wrap writers who make up the polling might not be so convinced, but the data supporting this notion is starting to mount.

There is a very plausible scenario where the ACC gets left out of the playoffs. It would involve a ranked NC State defeating Clemson at home in a couple of weeks and going on to win the Atlantic division. Keep in mind that NC State has already lost to South Carolina and could well lose to Notre Dame next weekend. Even if they win the ACC outright, a two-loss team would have a hard time bumping UW out.

To further enrich this scenario, consider that Miami - undefeated right now and the clear leader in the Coastal - still has a difficult schedule ahead with Virginia Tech and Notre Dame ahead. If they lose just one game along the way (especially if it is ugly), it is very possible that UW would pass them given our assumptions above.

1. Bailing on the Big 12 Scenario

Narrow (lucky?) wins yesterday by Oklahoma over K-State and Oklahoma State over Texas should serve as a reminder that the parity in the Big 12 is razor thin. None of the current contenders (Oklahoma, OKST or TCU) seem to want to play defense and all of them have shown that their offenses can be controlled for spurts of time.

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Texas Christian
The Big 12 could be left behind, but someone has to beat TCU first.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The problem for the PAC 12 is that Oklahoma served up a road win against Ohio State that has the effect of raising the prestige of the conference overall. That glow was dimmed a little when Oklahoma got beat at home Iowa State, but it remains a factor.

The best situation for UW, assuming they win out with no questionable wins, is for Iowa State to win the Big 12 regular season.

Don’t laugh. This is not out of the question.

Iowa State has one conference loss but, because they have a win over Oklahoma and have both TCU and OKST ahead, they literally control their own destiny. I admit it is a stretch, but the possibility can’t be ignored that a two loss Iowa State goes to the Big 12 championship sowing playoff chaos in its wake.

If you want to limit it to the main contenders - TCU, OKST and Oklahoma - there are a couple of scenarios where the PAC jumps the Big 12. The best involves the Big 12 champ having two losses. There are several scenarios where this can happen: OKST can lose one more along the way (not to Oklahoma) but get a rematch with TCU ... Oklahoma could beat OKST, lose to TCU and still see TCU in the championship ... TCU could lose one more to anybody but fall in the Big 12 championship to a two loss team.

You catch my drift.

We’ll know a whole lot more in two weeks when the Oklahoma schools meet up (in Stillwater) and TCU takes on Texas. Until then, just know that there is a ton of football to be played in the Big 12.

Ok, but does Washington control its own playoff destiny?

If this were the 2014, 2015, or 2016 seasons, UW would absolutely control its own destiny.

Sadly, in 2017, they do not.

There are as many scenarios where UW handles their business but still fails to make the playoffs. Maybe as many of those scenarios as there are where they get in.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Notre Dame
After whipping USC, Notre Dame is a problem for the PAC 12 playoff hopes.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest threats to UW not getting in involve them competing with several other one-loss conference champions or a one-loss Notre Dame. Considering the fact that we are actually rooting for Notre Dame to have success in taking out some ACC competition (but losing to Stanford), the line we are walking starts to get pretty narrow.

In addition, there is the whole two-team issue. Should Georgia win out but fall in the SEC championship, it is going to be very difficult to keep them out given their win over Notre Dame. While we know that the committee looks down on a two-team scenario, we also have seen them admit a non conference champ once before.

Finally, there is the whole Notre Dame threat. They will get dinged for not playing in a conference championship. However, if they do what we want them to do by taking out Miami and NC State and then go on to beat Stanford, they will have a stellar case. This assumes that their one-point loss to Georgia still looks good by the end of the year. If it does, they could consume one of those precious four spots and create a scenario where two power five conference champs are left out.

At best, I see the situation for UW looking like a 50/50 proposition right now. It is absolutely true that a number of things have to fall into place for UW to get in. However, if they take care of their remaining schedule, history suggests that a number of things would have to happen to keep them out.

So stay tuned. There is, as they say, much football left to be played.