Do not despair, Cardinal fans. You probably have looked at the first College Football Playoff Committee’s rankings and scratched your head, wondered how those dang Irish are six spots in front of Stanford despite being ranked lower in last week’s AP poll, wondered why Utah is so close on our heels and maybe even cried a little on the inside.
But this is the first of six weekly rankings. As you likely remember from last year, teams can rise quickly (Ohio State was No. 16 in the first CFP ranking last year and finished national champions) or fall quickly (TCU went from No. 3 to No. 6 in the final ranking after winning its final game 55-3). Assuming Stanford goes undefeated (and this is a tremendous assumption), there are numerous routes to the playoff.
First, the selection committee has shown an affinity for strength of schedule, and a win over a one-loss Notre Dame team ranked third or fourth could allow Stanford to usurp the last CFP spot. Alabama’s current ranking at fourth, over eight different FBS undefeated teams, shows that the committee has no qualms about placing a one-loss team ahead of other less established but perfect ones. Stanford also draws instant comparisons to Ohio State last year with an early-season loss and then an extended winning streak, so the selection committee will take note of that subconsciously, if not more so.
Stanford has two ranked opponents left on its schedule, assuming the Cardinal make the Pac-12 Championship. If the Cardinal follow up a big win against Notre Dame with a Pac-12 Championship victory against a top-10 side like Utah, the committee would be hard pressed to leave the Cardinal out.
Looking at the remaining schedules of all the top-10 teams, everyone will eventually play each other in the regular season or a conference championship game, except for Clemson. That means that at most, the four other Power 5 conferences will have one undefeated team each at the end of the season.
Thus arises the worst-case scenario: What if every other conference champion is undefeated? Ostensibly the one-loss Pac-12 champion would be the team omitted. But the selection committee was established to reconcile cases just like this, to arbitrate where neither computer nor poll has gone before, to use its fiduciary jurisprudence to discern the indiscernible, to read between and within the lines, unlike any manly creation.
And the selection committee can and would decide to put a one-loss Stanford team in front of an undefeated Clemson in the following scenario.
The two greatest differentiating factors between the teams are strength of schedule and common opponents. According to the CFP criteria, Stanford would have wins against four different opponents who were at one time ranked in the top 10, compared with Clemson’s two (USC, UCLA, Notre Dame and Utah compared with just Notre Dame and Florida State). And the teams’ only common opponent is the Irish. Clemson needed to foil a two-point conversion at the game’s conclusion to squeak by with a 24-22 victory at home. Can Stanford put on an impressive display against Notre Dame? If it can, if it dismantles a third-ranked Irish team, there should be little comparison between Stanford, who survived a grueling Pac-12 slate undefeated, and a Clemson side that struggled at times against weaker ACC opposition.
In fact, one could even argue that Stanford should finish ranked third, over the eventual Big 10 conference champion, as well. If Stanford embarrasses Utah in the Pac-12 championship, a team that beat a one- two-loss Michigan team, why not? Michigan will be contending for the Big 10 championship, and the Cardinal are better just as good as Michigan State and probably Ohio State as well.
Overall, things are not looking quite as gloomy as Stanford’s initial committee ranking may say. Even if my initial “tremendous assumption” is wrong, Stanford is likely headed to the Rose Bowl. And the Cardinal have a Heisman candidate in Christian McCaffrey and a senior quarterback in Kevin Hogan who is determined to surmount any obstacle. As the Cardinal look ahead to a three-game homestead to end the regular season against Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame, what more could we ask for? Just keep calm, and Cardinal on.
Despite Michael Spelfogel’s advice to “keep calm,” he certainly wasn’t when Stanford almost lost on Saturday. Give him advice for how not to lose 20 years off his life from the stress of being a Stanford football fan at mspel ‘at’ stanford.edu.