Peterson: No, the Pac-12's College Football Playoff hopes aren't dead yet
Immediately after the game and then again earlier this week, my colleague Jon Gold wrote that Utah’s 43-42 win over USC all but killed the Pac-12’s hopes of making it to the College Football Playoff this year.
Consider this the dissenting opinion.
In broad strokes, the discourse in the aftermath of the USC-Utah game was as glowing an endorsement of an expanded CFP as there is. The game itself was a tremendous matchup, a game I’d been waiting for since the schedule was announced back in December, and yet somehow a game that still lived up to expectations. One go-for-broke call at the end decided things between two excellent teams.
And all anyone talked about after was (if not the officiating) the CFP implications. As someone who generally enjoys watching college football games, the more of these kinds we can get the better off we are, and a restricted CFP disadvantages teams/leagues from playing/scheduling them. It’s no coincidence Alabama has faced Georgia in the regular season only twice since 2008 and has faced Florida in the regular season only four times since 2006.
But we’re here to talk about the CFP, so let’s talk about the CFP.
No two-loss team has ever made the field.
Twenty one-loss teams have made the field.
Twelve unbeaten teams have made the field.
No unbeaten Power Five champion has ever been left out of the field.
In the first category, we have Utah. The Utes’ season-opening loss to Florida didn’t put them out of the discussion but it did blow up their margins. A loss in the Pac-12 would end the conversation. The loss came to UCLA and Utah still has five games to play. A return to the Rose Bowl is looking like the best that can come of the year. Kyle Whittingham still believes no one makes it through the league schedule unscathed. We’ll see.
In the second category — the one-loss teams — the Pac-12 has two sides with no room for error but still plenty left to fight for: USC and Oregon.
The Trojans’ loss is to a team that has been viewed as one of the country’s best all throughout the season. Utah was top-10 to begin the year, ranked as the highest one-loss team in the country until the UCLA game, and then still slotted in the Top 25 after a shockingly bad defensive performance in the loss to the Bruins. If USC were to run the table, its lone loss being to a defending conference champion and a team that spent nearly the entire season ranked would absolutely not disqualify it from the CFP.
USC remains seventh nationally in Sagarin, one spot ahead of unbeaten Clemson, two and three spots ahead of Utah and Oregon, and five and six spots ahead of unbeaten Ole Miss and unbeaten TCU. USC is 10th in FPI, three spots ahead of TCU, and given the eighth-best chance of any team still to make the CFP.
The Ducks’ lone loss is to a team that currently sits at No. 1 in both the AP and the Coaches poll. The Playoff committee has on numerous occasions proven open to the idea of a team faltering early, catching fire late, and deserving a spot in the field because of it.
In 2014, No. 8 Ohio State lost at home to an unranked Virginia Tech team. The Hokies followed that win up immediately with losses to East Carolina and Georgia Tech before finishing the regular season 6-6. Ohio State won its next 11 games and went to the CFP, eventually defeating Oregon in the national championship.
This is Georgia we’re talking about. In Week 1 with an entirely new coaching staff and a new quarterback. The CFP committee, if they want to, can find reasons to explain the lopsided nature of the game in ways that aren’t so damaging to the Ducks.
For both of these teams, style points will matter down the stretch. Oregon can’t have another Washington State game. Ideally, it would need to do to UCLA or Utah what it did to BYU in its other ranked matchup. USC would need to put that beautiful buzzsaw of an offense to work for four quarters in a Pac-12 title game and create a wave of momentum.
And finally, in the latter two categories — the unbeaten P5 teams — the Pac-12 has one left standing. UCLA played cupcakes in the nonconference schedule, but go compare strength of schedules and come back to me and tell me the difference between what UCLA has and what a team like Clemson has is severe enough to leave out a Pac-12 champion with ranked wins over Washington, Utah, Oregon, USC, and then whoever it would be again in the title game.
If the Bruins win out, they aren’t getting left out because they played an HBCU. (Imagine the optics of setting that precedent.)
If the Bruins have a single loss — and it would depend on who that loss was to and what it looked like, of course — they’re also not immediately dismissed.
Because the other piece of this is looking at what’s ahead for everyone else.
From Gold’s column earlier this week:
UCLA currently sits as the second-lowest-ranked undefeated Power 5 team, ahead of just Syracuse, and one spot ahead of the second-highest-ranked one-loss team: Oregon. Say the Bruins pull off the upset in Autzen Stadium and the six teams ahead of them with games this weekend all win, too, UCLA isn’t going to jump eighth-ranked TCU, seventh-ranked Ole Miss, sixth-ranked Alabama, or fifth-ranked Clemson.
The Bruins would need the undefeated TCU and Clemson to have a slip-up, not to mention two of the four SEC teams and at least one of the two Big Ten contenders.
There are seven unbeaten teams ahead of UCLA in the current AP Top 25 — TCU, Ole Miss, Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio State, and Georgia. It’s not about looking at who UCLA has to jump with wins, it’s about looking at who is ultimately going to stumble ahead of UCLA.
None of the models buy TCU, which has been flirting with danger for weeks, as a legitimate top-10 team. Not Sagarin (13th), not FPI (13th), and not SP+ (23rd). They still have to go to Texas and Baylor in back-to-back weeks in November, and then play one of Kansas State, Texas, or Oklahoma State (whom they beat by three already) again in the Big 12 championship.
Ole Miss plays Alabama on Nov. 12. The winner will likely represent the West in the SEC title game, and would face either Tennessee or Georgia. The Vols and Bulldogs still play each other in the regular season. The SEC cannot send multiple unbeaten teams to the CFP.
And then there’s the Buckeye-Wolverine game at the end of the Big Ten’s regular season that will leave the loser without so much as an appearance in its conference title game.
Both the Horned Frogs and Rebels have less than a 1% chance of winning out, according to FPI. Tennessee has a 5.2% chance of winning out.
More likely than not, we’ll be sitting at the end of the season with one or two unbeaten teams and a number of one-loss teams who can and will be picked apart in every which way because that’s what happens just about every other year.
That makes these remaining six weeks for the Pac-12 important, not meaningless. What the Pac-12 has lost is its margin, not its life.