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Washington’s Path to the College Football Playoff

There is a way, but it won’t be easy.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Congratulations! You survived the monotony of another offseason and the slow torture of Fall Camp. You’ve also had to suffer through the tease that is Week Zero (thanks for nothing, Arizona). It is now official: game week is upon us.

Washington breaks camp with a newly minted quarterback (the cannon-armed Jacob Eason), an explosive playmaker in the backfield (the rocket-legged Salvon Ahmed), a finely tuned defensive secondary and an emerging pass rush. All the pieces are in place for the #13 ranked Huskies to make a charge at what could become their third conference championship in four seasons.

But with the momentum that comes out of a furious fourth quarter rally against Ohio State in the 2018 Rose Bowl, a roster stacked with a depth of talent it hasn’t enjoyed since the nineties, and a schedule that puts most of their most challenging opponents in Husky Stadium, should UW be thinking bigger? Should they be thinking ... dare I say it ... playoffs?

Yes, I’m going there. And let’s not fool ourselves; Chris Petersen and his staff are going there too. They know that they have a roster that can make a run and that they have a schedule that could help them along. So, we need to talk about it.

I get that this is an exercise in self-flagellation and that the superstitious among you are probably throwing your phones across the room by now. But the truth of the matter is that the path to the playoffs for Washington likely involves taking a specific route worthy of some break down. Let’s get into it.

With five years and 20 teams worth of the CFP under our belts, there are some clear observations beyond the published selection criteria that we can make about tendencies and traits that help increase the likelihood of being selected by the CFP Committee. The most obvious is “not losing”.

I use the phrase “not losing” in place of “winning” because the committee tends to punish losses, even close losses against good opponents, disproportionately to how it gives credit for wins, even those that come against FCS teams played in the month of November (Esssss Eeeeeeee Seeeeee, y’all). No team has ever made it into the CFP with more than one loss. That bar is easy enough to understand.

But simply “not losing” isn’t enough. Consider that we’ve had seven one-loss teams and two undefeated teams (UCF in 2017 and 2018) who ultimately were not selected. The Committee really wants to see Power 5 teams and they want to seem them win their division (that is, unless you play in the SEC and then it doesn’t matter). 16 of the 19 CFP teams that have come out of Power 5 conferences (independent Notre Dame was a playoff team last year) won their conference. So winning it all is a must if the Huskies want to get into the Final Four. Failure to do so, even if they get through the regular season undefeated, is likely disqualifying.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington
Things didn’t go so well the first time UW made the CFP when they took on Alabama in the 2016 Peach Bowl.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

There is another important qualification that UW has already satisfied: preseason rankings. The lowest preseason ranked team to ever get into the CFP (Oklahoma) debuted at #20 and, by the time the first CFP ranking came out, had risen to #14. After five years, I think we can say that there is definitely a bias in the selection process against “new blood” teams that come out of nowhere in any given season. That is, of course, unless that team comes out of the SEC. Thus, I would argue that any P12 team not safely inside of the top 20 right now (looking at you Stanford and WSU) is probably already out of the race. The only exception to this would be in the case of a perfect regular season.

Oh yeah, what about the perfect season possibility?

Those undefeated seasons in the PAC are rarities. In fact, the PAC 12 has never had one. Since UW’s perfect 1991 season, there has only been three other undefeated (regular season) PAC 10 teams - the 1996 ASU team under Bruce Snyder, the 2004 USC team under Pete Carroll, and the 2010 Chip Kelly led Ducks. Keep in mind that none of those teams had to play a 13th game. So betting on 13-0 for any Best Coast team is a fool’s bet.

Whomever wins the PAC will almost certainly have at least one loss. That does raise the $10 million question: could a one-loss PAC 12 champion get passed over in the CFP selection process?

The answer to that is probably “yes” although that scenario has yet to actually have ever happened. The two times that the PAC has produced a one-loss champion in the playoff era (Oregon 2014, Washington 2016) both resulted in CFP selections. However, that UW selection comes with an asterisk. In 2016, there were only four ranked teams with one loss or fewer. Even still, UW was nearly passed over that year in favor of a two-loss Penn State team that had a 39 point defeat at the hands of Michigan on their resume. That Penn State nearly got selected ahead of UW, despite two losses, was a testament to how unfavorably the Committee perceived the weak out of conference schedule that UW played that year.

Hey, guess what? ...

... UW has another weak out of conference schedule this year. That plus UW’s poor showings in each of their last three bowl games will almost certainly bias the Committee against them should Washington have to put their one-loss resume up against some other one-loss team (e.g. Ohio State, Penn State or Oklahoma), even if that team doesn’t claim a conference championship (Alabama? Georgia?). Fortunately, the PAC 12 is a stronger conference this year and already boasts five ranked teams (though no top 10) with USC hovering on the outside. Four or five games against ranked conference foes should help alleviate some of the “weak schedule” debate, but it does imply that UW will have to win each those games. Ironically, it would be easier for UW to make the playoff with a loss to a mid-level PAC team than to miss the opportunity for a win over a ranked PAC opponent.

So, when you add it all up, here is UW’s path to the playoffs:

  • No slip ups against OOC competition
  • They must beat Cal in Week 2. To not do so could well knock them out of the top 20 too early in the season.
  • Rack up wins against all of their ranked or nearly-ranked competitors. Those games will probably be: USC, @ Stan, Oregon, Utah, WSU (that’s a lot of home games!)
  • If they are to lose a game, better to drop a close one either @ Arizona or @ Colorado. Both games are on the road and against teams with a Heisman kind of talent (Khalil Tate, Laviska Shenault) on the roster which might create a little committee sympathy. They could withstand a loss to an Oregon or a Stanford but I suspect to do so would take away a tiebreaker in any “last team in” debate
  • Hope Utah makes it to the PAC 12 Championship preferably as a top 10 team. UW has to beat them both times.
  • Win the PAC 12 championship. The more convincing the better

Is it likely that any PAC 12 team, much less UW, will punch a ticket to the Final Four this year?

I guess it kind of depends. Both Oregon and Utah probably have better paths than Washington in that they both get a crack at a signature win on the road in Seattle. If you just go by the win probabilities posted by Bill Connelly in his UW preview, the odds of Washington getting the requisite number of wins (for the sake of argument, assume they lose @ Arizona and that they play Utah in the P12 title game) is south of 10%. So that’s not really great.

But probabilities are only part of the story. The other part of it is all of the moving pieces that come from what is happening with other teams and in other conferences. The PAC is particularly focused on the Big Ten and how the battle royale between Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State plays out. Two loss champs out of the Big Ten are more common than you’d think and that is what would likely have to happen for UW to win a “last team in” debate.

The race in the Big 12 could get interesting if it turns out that Texas really is ready to challenge Oklahoma. If so, a two-loss Big 12 champ wouldn’t be out of the question. I suppose that a watchful eye will also have to be kept on whether or not there is an upstart in the SEC (Georgia? Florida?) who might finally hang a loss on Alabama in the SEC championship and create a two-team-from-the-SEC debate.

There it is: your path the CFP. Despite a great roster and ideal schedule, the road to the college football playoff is still a daunting one for the Huskies. But these things are not supposed to be easy. It is what makes them so special for the fans and players alike.

What do you think? Are you excited about thinking about the CFP and how the Huskies might earn their way there? Do you see the topic as taboo and wish not to jinx anything? Are you old school and prefer us just to talk about the prize that we can control: the Rose Bowl? Check in with your thoughts on the subject below.