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Washington’s College Playoff Hopes Are Still Alive

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The odds are slim, but there is a plausible path for the Huskies to reach the Playoff

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff-Selection Sunday Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t that long ago when we couldn’t stop thinking about it. Expectations were high. Aspirations were even higher. Words like ‘elite’ and ‘dynasty’ crept into our lexicon, even as we tried to shoo them away like flies hovering the watermelon bowl at your summer picnic. No matter how much we try, they just kept coming back.

And why not? The pieces were all assembled. The puzzle was finally starting to come together. No more mocking the program for it’s cupcakes. No more questioning whether the talent was assembled. No more wondering if the inexperience of youth was going to be to much of a damper. No more speculating about how they would withstand the bright lights of the national spotlight.

The 2018 Huskies were a contender.

They finally had a Playoff worthy schedule. They finally boasted a roster with depth at just about every position. The young stars who took their lumps in the 2016 Playoff were now experienced stars on a senior-laden roster. A team that once considered a post-season appearance against Southern Miss “a big-time opportunity” had moved on to opponents like Auburn ... Penn State ... Alabama.

Steel sharpens steel. Right?

This was supposed to be the year. Right?

Seven games into the season, the Playoff hopes for this team and all the fans that support it seemed to have gone out the window. Two losses to two teams neither of which are as good as their reputations pretty much spoiled that aspiration. No CFB team has ever made the Playoff with two losses. So that is pretty much that. Right?

Well, maybe. But maybe not.

I received an email earlier this week from a fan who pointed to me that 538 is still projecting a heartbeat in UW’s quest to make into the Final Four this season. In fact, with odds standing at 10%, I’d say the heartbeat is a little bit greater than a dull pulse inside a rotting corpse.

There is still a chance. But how?

The first thing that we have to keep in mind about the College Football Playoff is that it is all about being among “the best” in the eyes of the selection committee. Resumé matters only in the context of providing spotlights for teams to demonstrate just how good they are when tested. However, this is not a contest about who most deserves to advance. It is about who looks like they belong.

With that in mind, there is no rule against a two-loss team making the Playoff. The reason it hasn’t happened is because losses by definition look bad. However - and this is the key to the UW’s slim Playoff hopes - some losses look worse than others.

Washington lost in the opening weekend in what was essentially a road contest against an SEC team that many believe boast one of the best defensive fronts in the nation. It was a super close game watched by just about everyone in the nation (including the selection committee members) in which the Huskies in many ways outplayed Auburn. Nothing about it was remotely “bad”.

Loss #2 came on the road after a previous road game against a ranked opponent coming off a BYE week. That game was decided by the foot of a walk-on freshman kicker and the shoot-out that college football calls overtime. Also not a “bad” look to anybody who actually watched.

Compare and contrast that to Georgia’s blowout loss to LSU. Or Oklahoma’s “no D” loss to Texas. Or Texas’s inexplicable loss to Maryland (seriously? Maryland?). Or the demolition that was Ohio State’s blowout loss to Purdue last weekend.

UW may have two losses. But their two losses combined may not be as injurious as some of those other games end up being to those who lost them.

In order for Washington to still find a path into the Playoff and to become the first two-loss team to ever do so, they must get some help. And I’m not talking about a “let me hold the door open for you ma’am” kind of assistance. I’m talking about “my car just flipped over into the ravine and my shattered legs are pinned under it” kind of help.

Yes, it’s a long shot. But it is possible.

There are five principles that have to work out for UW beyond the obvious “must win every game left on its schedule, preferably in convincing fashion” observation.

  1. Notre Dame has to lose one (preferably two)
  2. UCF must go away
  3. The Big 12 champ must have two losses
  4. The SEC cannot threaten to send a second team
  5. The Big Ten must have a clear top team

That seems like trying to swallow an elephant. So let’s take this bite by bite.

Principles 1 and 2 are relatively straight forward. Both Notre Dame and UCF are undefeated. UCF probably can’t suffer a single loss if they hope to get in. But I wouldn’t underestimate the political pressure on the committee to avoid passing over UCF if the resumé is sufficient. Being a group of 5 team, UCF might be the only team who would benefit from the “they deserve a shot” argument.

Notre Dame is through the hard part of their schedule. But, as it turns out, the cake walk that was supposed to be Syracuse, FSU, Northwestern and USC (not in that order) doesn’t look so easy anymore. Should Notre Dame lose one of those games (especially if they lose it badly), they could get surpassed by a two-loss, conference champion Washington. It would be a close call and much would depend on circumstances. But I wouldn’t write it off.

The Big 12 situation is already working out the way UW needs it to. There are three teams still with one loss in that conference. West Virginia still has to play two of those teams with at Texas and vs Oklahoma still ahead. Texas is about to start a tough run of at OKST, vs West Virginia and at Texas Tech. Oklahoma has road trips to Texas Tech and West Virginia in addition to a home rivalry game against OKST. The opportunity for cannibalization here is remarkable. A conference championship involving at least one team with two losses is almost a certainty. This makes the opportunity for a Big 12 champ having two losses about a 50/50 proposition.

So that leaves us with the SEC and the Big Ten. There are a ton of moving parts to unpack here. The SEC has already established precedent by sending two teams to the Playoff and it seemed to work in the committee’s favor last year. In order for that to not be a comfortable fall-back, the end state of the conference has to be “Alabama and everyone else”. Let’s just assume that Florida and Kentucky - each with one loss right now - go away on their own as seems likely. That leaves us with Georgia and LSU as the biggest threats.

What is important about these two teams is that they could still look better than UW if either of them end with two losses. However, they will have the presumed disadvantage of not holding a conference championship (if either does beat Alabama on the way to winning the SEC, forget about it). Therefore, UW needs each of them to lose while playing unimpressively. And that second loss probably shouldn’t be to Alabama.

Georgia has two real opportunities to fail. They host Florida this weekend and then, tah-dah, they host Auburn in two weeks. If Georgia loses to Auburn in anyway equal or worse than UW did, it would be a killer. I suppose they could fall in the road trip to Kentucky, but I’m guessing not.

LSU getting killed by Alabama this weekend could qualify as an unimpressive second loss. And, in reality, it probably would be enough given that it would eliminate LSU (probably) from SEC title game contention. If that doesn’t happen and somehow LSU beats ‘Bama, then the next best hope is LSU falling in their last game at Texas A&M with ‘Bama moving on to the SEC championship. If that doesn’t happen and LSU goes to the SEC title game, I can almost guarantee you that two SEC teams end up in the Playoff.

Finally, we arrive at the Big Ten. There are a few scenarios where the Big Ten could get knocked out of the Playoff altogether, but they are too remote to even mention. The concern here is that the Big Ten could still send two teams (e.g. their champ plus the loser of tOSU / Michigan game) if both of those teams finish with one loss. Ohio State’s loss to Purdue significantly reduces that risk as it sets them up for elimination if they lose to Michigan in a few weeks, but it doesn’t end the threat.

UW’s dream CFP scenario probably relies on Michigan both beating tOSU and then going on to win the Big Ten. That would imply that they handed a third loss to Penn State as well as another loss to whomever wins the Big Ten West. All of that netted out would guarantee that the Big Ten only sends one team to the CFP.

If all of these scenarios materialize, the final playoff picture would look like:

  1. Alabama
  2. Clemson (I don’t really see a threat to Clemson in the ACC, even in their weakened state)
  3. Michigan

Competition for the fourth spot would then be:

  • UW - PAC 12 champ whose two losses were a road game vs Auburn and an OT loss at a ranked Oregon team following an Oregon BYE
  • Ohio State - two losses, non-champ, got crushed by unranked Purdue
  • Notre Dame - one loss likely to an unranked team, no 13th data point
  • Two-loss Georgia or LSU, neither of whom win the SEC
  • Two-loss Big 12 champ

Washington would still be a long shot in this scenario. I would think that, depending on the nature of Notre Dame’s loss, they would still be the favorite. If the Big 12 two-loss champ were Oklahoma, they might still get credit for their brand or (maybe) for their OOC win over UCLA. The committee thus would probably defer to the Sooners.

That said, UW would have to be in the discussion. They’d certainly be ranked ahead of Ohio State. They’d probably be ranked ahead of either SEC team. If the the Big 12 champ is any team other than Oklahoma, you would have to think that Washington would be ahead of them. Notre Dame is the difficult one.

I admit that all of this is speculation of the wildest fashion. But these scenarios are not so far outside the realm of possibility that they shouldn’t at least be evaluated. Of course, we’ll have another set of games this weekend whose outcomes are sure to shake up the position of all these pieces on the grand chess board of the College Football Playoff.

And we’ll have this discussion all over again.