Unlike ESPN, Don’t Count the Pac 12 Out
Maybe you woke up and, like me, watched Championship Drive on ESPN on Sunday morning. Following a week of upsets, I was curious to see how the new landscape would shake out for the talking heads. Surely their years of experience would supply me with some fresh insight I could not have thought of! The biggest thing I ended up learning: east coast bias is alive and well.
Each of the last three seasons, a team with a single loss has hoisted the CFP trophy. This has allowed for a margin of error that allows strong teams with a single blemish or hiccup to still play for it all. As evidenced by their postseason performance, one-loss teams can be among the most deserving of the bunch. Confusingly, the “experts” at ESPN all put their collective forks in the PAC 12’s playoff hopes after week 7. Their reasoning? No undefeated teams! Now doesn’t that sound dumb? It sounds even more far fetched when you consider that they place Michigan’s playoff hopes — you know, that team that Indiana took to OT and is holding open tryouts at QB — above any team from the PAC 12. Makes you wonder if they stay up late enough to watch any football on the west coast. Let’s dive in:
1) The PAC 12 is still very much alive:
Currently, the hopes for the conference rest with WSU, UW, and USC. With one loss apiece, there is a strong chance that the Pac 12 championship features two top-ten teams (or nearly top ten). A one loss Pac 12 champion will be hard to keep out given the relative strength of the conference and the 9 game conference slate each team plays. Though this setup cannibalizes the conference’s best team’s chances to run the table, it does create an added layer of schedule strength. Since ESPN likes to assume teams will win out when evaluating their playoff hopes, let’s do the same (keeping in mind UW and WSU meet the last game of the season). Let’s look at our contenders:
- USC: The Trojans represent the best hope for the PAC 12 for simple reasons. They have the best loss of the bunch (WSU on the road on a short week) as well as the strongest non-conference slate: Western Michigan (a top Group of 5 team), Texas (a couple plays away form beating both OU and USC), and Notre Dame (who features a top ten toughest schedule as well). The committee will take into consideration the degree of difficulty of the loss as well as the lack of bye week for USC. Running the table and beating a top con\tender from the North should be enough
- UW: The second best loss of the bunch. UW has benefitted from passing the eye test impressively despite their weak schedule (Rutgers, Montana, and Fresno State — yikes). The loss was bad, and the performance on offense was ugly, but a one score conference loss on the road can be overcome with an impressive run down the stretch, especially if a PAC 12 title game win comes against a one loss USC team. A road test against Stanford and a home game against Utah loom before the Apple Cup, but this also provides extra ammo for the voters if they can run the table
- WSU: The Cougars own both the worst loss (a 37–3 dismantling at the hands of Cal) and the best win (a Friday night victory over USC). They have passed the eyeball test in two of their weaker non conference matchups (Montana State and Nevada) and won a hard fought game over an solid Boise State team (who just beat San Diego State). The Cougars are behind the 8 ball and need big wins down the stretch against Utah, Stanford, and UW if they hope to have a shot. UW and USC running the table will help bolster their resume as well. Working against them is their FCS scheduling habit and the depth of their loss to Cal
2) The Big Ten is on the verge of cannibalizing itself
The bird brains at ESPN had two different hosts place two different Big Ten teams in their top 6. That was after naming Alabama AND Georgia both in the top 4 of each bracket (more on that later). Since these geniuses did not look at the Big Ten schedules, let’s do it for them. Conceivably there are 5 Big Ten teams on the bubble, and if one of them emerges with a single loss and a conference title, it’s a fair bet they get a nod, but two of them? Let’s see:
- Penn State: The Nittany Lions are currently in pole position, thanks to a strong finish last season, a Heisman front-runner at RB, and visually impressive non-conference wins over lesser foes. Pitt was a solid victory, and although they were big wins, we will see if the presence of Akron and Georgia State on the schedules hurts them at all. The difficult meat of the schedule is ahead, with Michigan coming to Happy Valley and road trips to both Ohio State and Michigan State. The schedule should be strong enough for one hiccup and a title game win to get them in, but where? A loss to Ohio State bumps them from the conference championship, a win eliminates OSU from CFP contention. Same goes for a loss or win against MSU (assuming they win out). A Michigan loss would put them in a tiebreaker situation for the division crown, and a win would bump the Wolverines from contention. For this scenario to work out for the Big Ten, it most likely bumps the rest of the contenders from the East out of the CFP hunt. Ohio State could create a scenario similar to last season with a win, but I expect the committee would not reward the Big Ten with two teams, similar to last year
- Ohio State: The Buckeyes have one of the strongest losses in the country (They are beginning to help voters forget the margin of defeat on their home field) and are without a conference blemish yet. They still control their destiny in the east, and the way they are playing suggests they could return the Big Ten title game. Michigan State and Penn State come to the Horseshoe, and the road trip to the Big House looks a little less scary watching the Wolverine’s offensive struggles against Indiana. Throw in a potentially undefeated Wisconsin in the title game, and the resume is strong enough. Still, the Buckeyes do not have a margin of error, as a two loss team in the playoff will be hard to sell without significant chaos. This scenario assumes wins over Michigan and Michigan State (knocking them out) and a win over Penn State (without a division title, out!). Again, the Big Ten is left with 1 team in
- Wisconsin: Hard to tell what we know about the Badgers. While they are #5 and undefeated, a true test is yet to present itself. Wins over Utah State, Florida Atlantic, and BYU are not as weak as some others across the country, but it certainly lacks the punch seen from other high profile wins. Even worse, Wisconsin misses Michigan State, Penn State, and Ohio State this season, and with them, significant chances to bolster their resume. Wisconsin’s mission is simple: Win and you’re in. They can run the table (they get Michigan at home) and would likely face OSU or PSU in the Big Ten title game. A win there would supply a top ten or top 5 victory, and they would have a guaranteed slot. Could a one loss PSU or OSU also be considered? Potentially. This represents the best chance for the Big Ten to get two teams in the top 6, and with a little chaos, two teams in the playoff
- Michigan: No one really assumes they are going to see Michigan in the playoff, not after merely surviving agains the Hoosiers, but stranger things have happened! Without a reliable passing offense, it will be up to their defense to help them through road trips to Penn State and Wisconsin as well as a visit from Ohio State. If the Wolverines can survive all that, as well as the return matchup with Wisconsin, they would be able to punch their ticket to the playoff. Their resume would include potentially 4 top ten victories, a strong loss to a ranked rivals, an above average non conference slate (with wins over Cincinnati, Air Force, and Florida) and a conference title. Of course, this scenario knocks all other potential contenders in the Big Ten from the list, handing two losses to Wisconsin and OSU while blocking Penn State from the conference title game. PSU might still be strong enough for the top 6 at that point, but not the CFP.
- Michigan State: The Spartans have the longest road ahead, and their ranking reflects that. Could they run the table and get in? Potentially. A solid defeat at the hands of Notre Dame and a non conference slate that includes Bowling Green will hurt, but resume paddlers loom. In addition to a win over Michigan (who they are cheering on to win out), MSU faces Penn State at home and travels on the road against the Buckeyes. As with other Big Ten West members, they can also potentially count on a top 5 matchup in the Big 10 title game. That’s a strong resume, and one hard to ignore. In the nightmare scenario for the CFP of 5 one-loss conference champions, it would be up there. This scenario bumps OSU (2 losses), Wisconsin (no conference title), Michigan (no division title), and leaves PSU out of the CFP (but potentially in the top 6)
Of course, all of these scenarios assume neat little paths for each team to quietly win out and take home the conference crown. In reality, a one loss champion might be the best Big 10 can hope for. Penn State faces the toughest part of their schedule in consecutive weeks, their Big Ten East partners have no margin for error and multiple tests reminding, and Wisconsin, if they avoid any upsets, has to beat one of them in a conference championship. While the Pac 12 (hopefully) has their cannibalization out of the way early, the conference chaos sure to ensue will (hopefully) leave one team in the good graces of the CFP. Worst case scenario: a two-loss champion, which is not beyond this season.
3) Who represents the Big 12?
The Big 12 still has 3 teams in contention: TCU, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State. Given the round robin nature of the Big 12 schedule, we get to see these teams head to head and then the top 2 go at it one more time (weird, but let’s go with it). Let’s see where each team stands:
- TCU: The Horned Frogs have already passed two of their toughest tests — a 44 -31 victory over #10 Oklahoma State and a 31–24 win over #24 West Virginia. While the non conference slate includes snoozer victories over Jackson State and SMU, there was also the scheduling of SEC foe Arkansas to applaud. Ahead, TCU faces Iowa State on the road (who took down Oklahoma), a dangerous Texas squad at home, and then a road test in Norman against the Sooners. The season finishes with games against Texas Tech and Baylor before the Big 12 title game. Asking the Horned Frogs to run the table and then face Oklahoma State or Oklahoma in the title game might be a bit much, but it looks like they can survive a loss given their schedule. With Oklahoma and OSU both suffering conference losses, TCU can afford a loss to OU knowing that the Bedlam series will add another loss for one of the other contenders. A one-loss or undefeated Horned Frogs squad will likely run into a rematch with the winner of Bedlam, and in either scenario a win puts them in solid CFP contention.
- Oklahoma: Owners of both the worst loss (a shocking upset from Iowa State at home) and best win (a 31–16 decisive victory over OSU), Oklahoma has no margin for error to get into the playoff, especially considering their other non conference matchups involved UTEP and Tulane. And while Oklahoma is still riding on the coattails of that Buckeye victory, they have close calls against Baylor and Texas that look worse and worse as those teams continue to lose. With a win over TCU, a Bedlam victory, and a win in the Big 12 title game, there should be room for Oklahoma in the CFP final four — that win over Ohio State is too good to ignore, and should overcome the blemish that was the Iowa State shocker. For fans around the country, this looks like the most likely scenario.
- Oklahoma State: The Cowboys kicked off the year with pastings of Tulsa, and South Alabama, which certainly does not do them any favors in the minds of the voters, but they also ran right through a respectable Pitt squad 59–21, and pasted Baylor (who gave OU fits) 59–16. Right now, the biggest thing standing in OSU’s way is a 44–31 loss at home to TCU and their weak non-conference schedule. Given their current schedule to date, it seems their large margins of victory are the only thing keeping them in the top ten ahead of USC. The next 5 weeks will be telling for Oklahoma State: at Texas, at WVU, Bedlam, Iowa State, and playing host to Kansas State. If the Pokes can win out, it not only knocks OU from contention, but it sets up a rematch with TCU and a shot at redemption. One more victory, and OSU would have a strong case for playoff inclusion
So who gets in from the Big 12? Too early to tell. OU would have the best overall resume against other 1 loss champs given their win over Ohio State, but any further projections are just speculation.
4) The ACC should be fine, but we’ll see
As long as the ACC has a one loss Clemson team (or an undefeated! Miami), and as long as that team runs the table all the way to a conference title, the ACC will get a team in. 2 things are working against the ACC this season: Florida State’s season getting derailed, and NC State’s relative lack of notoriety.
- Clemson: The defending champs benefit from their brand name and their close in over Auburn. Although they only play 8 conference games and have Kent State and Citadel on the schedule, that is partially made up for with the inclusion of Auburn and South Carolina. And the Iowa State sized upset to Syracuse can be overcome with big wins against Louisville (fading fast), Virginia Tech, and a potential undefeated Miami in the ACC title game. Remaining on the schedule is a showdown with NC State and a big name matchup with Florida State (still loaded with talent). The margin of error is not there anymore, but Clemson is in if they win
- Miami: Another brand name program with their destiny in their hands, the Hurricanes are just hoping their magic can last for the second half of the season. After narrow wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech, Miami faces both Notre Dame and Virginia Tech in back to back weeks. Assuming they don’t stumble in a separate ACC contest, these tests can provide both the resume boost or “quality loss” necessary for a playoff contender. That also includes a showdown with Clemson in the ACC title game that could instantly propel Miami into the CFP discussion. That being said, the marking for error is small. Outside of Notre Dame, the non conference slate includes Bethoom-Cookman, Arkansas State (cancelled due to the hurricane), and Toledo. This weak slate can be overcome, but it will take impressive victories down the stretch and the “right” loss if it comes to that
- NC State: The Wolfpack are in contention, but like Michigan State in the Big Ten, they are looking up at contenders in more favorable positions. The year started off with an inglorious loss to South Carolina (experiencing struggles of their own this year), before wins against Furman and Marshall (yikes) and close wins against a struggling Florida State and Syracuse (mostly mediocre this season). Despite the big wins over Pitt and Louisville in recent weeks, both programs are experiencing middling seasons and don’t provide a boost to NC State’s resume. The next two weeks involved tests at Notre Dame and hosting Clemson. Wins against both provide NC State respectability, but any loss is fatal to their CFP hopes. Even running the table, you could see another 1 loss champion leapfrogging NC State, especially if the wrong team (not Miami) meets them in the ACC title game
5) The SEC only deserves one team
It looks like Georgia and Alabama are on a collision course in the SEC title game. Every single AP voter has Alabama #1, and the majority of them have Georgia in the top 4. The wunderkinds at ESPN have both in their playoff, and why not — the SEC is their cash cow. They know where their bread is buttered. But forcing 2 teams from a single conference at the expense of multiple power 5 champs would be undeniably reason for revolt. The only scenarios where we might see this take place is if Georgia beats Alabama in Atlanta OR if multiple conference champs have 2 losses.
- Alabama: Saban has the machine rolling once again, and it is hard to argue with their unanimous spot atop the rankings. Short of the Georgia game and the Iron Bowl, their toughest tests are behind them. Let’s pencil them in
- Georgia. The Bulldogs are the toast of the college football world with their 4 recent smothering in SEC play. It’s convenient to ignore their non conference slate against Apppalachian State (it’s not 2007) and Samford as they continue to roll. They also have a feather in their cap with a win on the road against Notre Dame early in the season. The only remaining test on the schedule is Auburn, and despite the weakness of the SEC East, Georgia would have the sterling resume of a top CFP contender… if they win their conference. And yes, I get it, Ohio State made it in last year despite not even winning their division, but consider that their division title holder Penn State had a weak non conference slate and an embarrassing loss to Michigan, they beat the others division champ, Wisconsin, who had two losses, and the Buckeyes themselves boasted a commanding win over top ten Oklahoma and a top ten loss in Penn State. Furthermore, no additional conference champs or runners up presented a case to overcomes Ohio State’s resume (Big 12 champ OU, who they spanked in Norman, had 2 losses)… which brings me back to Georgia. If they happen to suffer a single blemish against Bama, they would need help.
Of course, with all of this, plenty of assumption and speculation is necessary, which is why the notion that any conference is “done” with three one loss teams is absurd. ESPN revealed their ridiculous and self-serving east coast bias by rushing to pronounce an entire conference done with so many weeks left in the season. Explain that the road got tougher but don’t do a disservice to your viewers with such lazy analysis