Peterson: Was Stanford football a playoff-worthy team from 2010-14?

Sept. 3, 2015, 8:13 p.m.

It’s year two of the College Football Playoff era and it’s safe to say that year one was a resounding success. The Big 12 might disagree, but few question Ohio State’s legitimacy as champion – a result that would not have happened in the BCS system – and the excitement that came from adding two semifinals to the mix while still maintaining the integrity of the college football regular season.

The institution of the new playoff system causes one to wonder, what would college football have been like for the last decade and a half if the four-team playoff was in place instead of the BCS system? Specifically for Stanford, taking a look at the Cardinal’s four-year BCS bowl run provides interesting thought.

Because we’re only one year into the committee era, it’s very difficult to forecast how the committee would have picked finalists in several intriguing scenarios which we haven’t yet seen the committee deal with. However, I’ll take you through how each year could have been different in a playoff format and give my best guess as to what the playoff would have ultimately looked like.


Undefeated Auburn, Oregon and TCU undoubtedly deserved the top-three seeds in the playoff, and much like the first real edition of the playoff, the only debate centered around which one-loss team was best qualified for the fourth spot. As the BCS No. 4 team and AP No. 5 team, Stanford certainly had a claim to the position.

The decision would have boiled down to Stanford and three one-loss, co-champion Big Ten teams – Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Wisconsin beat Ohio State and Michigan State beat Wisconsin, but Wisconsin seemed to be the consensus favorite in the polls and was ultimately the Big Ten’s representative in the Rose Bowl. For simplicity, let’s boil the debate down to Stanford and Wisconsin.

Reflecting on this choice four years later, it’s exceedingly difficult to separate the two sides. Sure, Wisconsin was a “co-champion,” but Stanford finished 11-1 with a loss to 11-1 Oregon and Wisconsin finished 11-1 with a loss to 11-1 Michigan State – it just so happened that the Pac-10 used head-to-head to award an outright champion while the Big Ten declared the three 11-1 teams as co-champions.

Wisconsin might have owned a slight advantage in strength of schedule with victories over two ranked teams, against then-No. 1 Ohio State and then-No. 13 Iowa, while Stanford only had a single victory over ranked opposition, against then-No. 13 Arizona. Both teams’ sole loss came on the road against top-10 opposition. Stanford outscored opponents by 22.9 points per game and Wisconsin was just behind at 21.0 points per game.

Most likely, the committee would have chosen Wisconsin and given the playoff a Big Ten team rather than two Pac-10 teams. But just imagine the scenario if Stanford made the playoff: the Heisman runner-up facing off against the winner in a game of grand implications. Sound familiar? Maybe Stanford, like Vince Young and Texas against USC, would have come away victorious against Cam Newton and Auburn. Then, a rematch with the Oregon Ducks and a chance for Andrew Luck to solve the “Oregon problem” on the world’s biggest stage could have been waiting if the Ducks knocked off the Horned Frogs. Wow, the drama that could have been for Stanford.

Would all this – Stanford squeaking into the playoff and beating Auburn to face Oregon in an all-Pac-10 final – have happened? Realistically, no. But it’s a fun hypothetical.

For the 2010 season, I would have given Stanford a 25 percent chance at making the playoff and forecast that the committee would have rated them fifth.


Another year and another hot debate would have emerged as to whether Stanford should be in the playoff.

According to Phil Steele, who went in-depth on why the four-team playoff is the best system in his recent college football magazine, it would have been a relatively easy choice to pick undefeated LSU and the only three one-loss teams in Power 5 conferences – Alabama, Oklahoma State and Stanford – to go to the playoff. Virtually every poll, including the BCS and AP, agreed and ranked Stanford at No. 4 heading into bowl season.

However, Stanford didn’t win its conference. That distinction for the now-Pac-12 belonged to No. 5 Oregon, which had losses to two-loss USC and undefeated LSU. Despite holding two losses, Oregon might have garnered praise from the committee for being the conference champion and owning the head-to-head advantage with Stanford. Additionally, the fact that it lost to LSU might not have been counted against it, since the Ducks scheduled a top-notch out-of-conference opponent and still won their conference.

On Stanford’s side, though, was the fact that whoever gained the No. 4 spot would face LSU, and Oregon had already lost to LSU that season. Would that be enough for the committee to give the nod to a Pac-12 team that didn’t win the conference over the one that did? Who knows.

My guess, which is bound to be unpopular among Stanford fans, is that today’s committee would choose Oregon. That being said, this season certainly was Stanford’s most deserving and I believe its best chance to get in, and it’s probably a toss-up as to whether the Card would have made it or not.

Hypothetically, even in a playoff, I don’t think Stanford stood much of a chance of taking down Alabama and it has already been determined that Oklahoma State would win that matchup (yes, we could throw more hypothetical situations here about Jordan Williamson, but there are already way too many “ifs” for me to delve further into this).

For the 2011 season, I would have given Stanford a 45 percent chance at making the playoff and forecast that the committee would have rated them fifth.


Unexpectedly, I believe Stanford might have had a serious chance in 2012.

Undefeated Notre Dame and one-loss Alabama would have been shoo-ins. Four one-loss teams were also all in the mix and were all ranked higher than Stanford – Big-12 champ Kansas State, Florida, Georgia and Oregon. As a one-loss conference champion, Kansas State probably would have been included – besides, there would have been an uproar if three SEC teams were chosen. In 2012, the Pac-12 wasn’t considered the behemoth that it is now – only three Pac-12 schools finished in the AP Top 25 – so I doubt a two-loss Pac-12 champion could overcome a one-loss Big-12 champion for a spot.

No. 7 Stanford, though, would have been in the mix for that final spot because, unlike the three one-loss teams ranked higher than it, it was a conference champion. The same argument I applied for Oregon making the playoff in 2011 applies to Stanford here. Though the Cardinal finished with one more loss, they were the conference champion, owned the head-to-head matchup and only earned that extra loss by playing the nation’s top team in an out-of-conference game. By similar reasoning, I’d argue that the committee would slot Stanford over Oregon.

The final decision would have boiled down to Stanford or a one-loss SEC team that didn’t win its conference. Again, this is a decision that we haven’t yet seen the committee make: a two-loss conference champion versus a one-loss team that didn’t win its conference but did hail from football’s best conference. Because of the SEC’s reputation in 2012, odds are that Florida or Georgia would have made it.

However, the committee does appear to be valuing conference champions much higher than the BCS rankings did. Stanford’s biggest arguments would have been its status as a conference champion and the fact that Georgia had already lost to Alabama, another team in the playoff.

If the Cardinal did earn that No. 4 spot, I would absolutely pick them to beat Notre Dame in a rematch and advance to the national championship game against Alabama. But I don’t think that anyone could have beaten Alabama in that game.

For the 2012 season, I would have given Stanford a 35 percent chance of making the playoff and forecast that the committee would have rated them sixth.


Despite Stanford’s No. 5 standing entering the bowl season, this year appears like it was Stanford’s worst chance at making a playoff.

Undefeated Florida State and one-loss SEC champ Auburn clearly earned the top-two spots. Michigan State, a one-loss Big Ten champion who had just knocked off undefeated Ohio State, would have made it. Similar to 2012, Stanford would have been up against a one-loss SEC team for the final spot, but this time it was defending national champion Alabama. Also in the discussion would have been one-loss Big 12 Champion Baylor, so the Cardinal would have had to overcome a one-loss conference champion and a one-loss defending national champion as a two-loss team. I couldn’t see that happening, especially considering the SEC’s still-dominant standing in the conference world.

For the 2013 season, I would have given Stanford a 10 percent chance at making the playoff and forecast that the committee would have rated them fifth.


Sadly, it’s extremely possible that Stanford might have been the No. 5 team in each one of these four-team playoff discussions. Could you imagine how devastating that would have been to the program? Though initially the thought of a playoff during Stanford’s four-year run sounds tantalizing for a team that just narrowly missed out on national title games, on closer examination, Stanford fans might be glad the playoff didn’t come until 2014.

Michael Peterson’s pessimism regarding Stanford’s playoff chances seems to have continued this year, as he recently predicted that Stanford would enter bowl season with three losses after losing the Pac-12 championship. If you think he needs to believe in the power of David Shaw a little bit more, send him an email at mrpeters ‘at’

Michael Peterson is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily. He has served as a beat reporter for football, baseball and men’s soccer and also does play-by-play broadcasting of football and baseball for KZSU. Michael is a senior from Rancho Santa Margarita, California majoring in computer science. To contact him, please email him at mrpeters ‘at’

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