We are merely one month into the season, yet the College Football Playoff landscape is already beginning to take shape. In the Pac-12, that takes the form of four teams, all of which are undefeated. In the North, Stanford and Washington both remain unbeaten. In the South, it is Arizona State and Utah that remain unblemished.
Although the Pac-12 was snubbed last year of a Playoff spot, this year appears to be different. Despite USC’s destruction at the hands of Alabama, other teams in the conference have fared well in non-conference games. Cal upset Texas, Stanford beat Kansas State handily and the league is 3-0 this year against Big 12 teams. The Big 12 could be in trouble, with only two unbeaten teams remaining, and preseason favorite Oklahoma suffering two humiliating losses. Look for these two conferences to continue to fight it out in national rankings and a coveted spot in the Playoff.
With the continued strength of the Pac-12, it is likely that the conference champion will be selected for the third annual College Football Playoff. For Stanford, the road back to the championship game is a tough one. This season’s schedule is distinctly more difficult than last year’s. With only four home games left and many tough tests on the road, we will soon know what Stanford is made of.
But if last week’s fourth quarter is any hint, we do have a lot to look forward to. New quarterback Ryan Burns performed his best under pressure, delivering a perfect two-minute drill drive, which is exactly the resiliency the playoff committee will look for come next month when the rankings are released. Despite early struggles, Burns and the Stanford offense were able to turn it around at the very end for an electrifying victory at the Rose Bowl.
Now with consecutive victories against both L.A. powerhouses, Stanford turns to Pacific Northwest foe Washington in a game that could prove to be season-defining. This game is so important, not only because both Stanford and Washington are highly ranked but because they are also both undefeated and in the North division.
The loser of the game also loses the tiebreaker between the teams. That means that for the loser to come back and eventually play in the conference championship game, the winner would have to lose two conference games in the last half of its schedule. Although not unprecedented, a Husky victory over Stanford and then collapse seems unlikely. Washington’s remaining games aren’t likely to yield many losses for such a good team. They do have trips to Oregon, Cal, Utah and in-state rival Washington State left, though.
Regardless of other outcomes, this Friday’s game is more important than any of Stanford’s remaining games, more than its trip to South Bend or even Big Game. With a victory this week, Stanford will emerge as the clear-cut frontrunner for the Pac-12 and, likewise, a spot in the College Football Playoff.
AP and Coaches Poll rankings have thus far undervalued Stanford. Ranked No. 7 and 6, respectively, by the two polls, there is still work to be done. But with other top-ranked teams facing off this week and next, Stanford has the opportunity to elevate its status as one of the top contenders not only in the conference but in the nation as a whole.
This weekend will provide us more clarity in the College Football Playoff race. We will see the emergence of one team in the Pac-12 North as the favorite. If Christian McCaffrey and Ryan Burns can rekindle the fourth-quarter magic of last week, the Cardinal will become the team to beat on the West Coast.
Contact Michael Spelfogel at mspel ‘at’ stanford.edu.