Let’s play a game.
There are two teams in college football. Both of them are in the College Football Playoff, and both have the same record of 12-1. In fact, they are so supposedly similar that they are only separated by one spot in the rankings. There is only one difference between them, though: their out-of-conference schedules. Here they are: one team is Team A, the other Team B.
Bowling Green (W, 77-10)
Rutgers (W, 48-13)
|Tulsa (W, 48-3)||
Idaho (W, 59-14)
|@Oklahoma (W, 45-24)||
Portland State (W, 41-3)
As you can see, Team B’s schedule is significantly weaker than that of Team A. By now, you’ve probably guessed it: Team A is Ohio State. Team B is Washington.
Let me preface just about everything I am about to say by expressing that Washington looked awfully good at the end of this season. The Huskies blew through their final three opponents, including a road win against Washington State and a Pac-12 title game triumph over Colorado. However, their best opponent on the schedule (USC) easily handled them on November 12th. Washington checks all of the boxes when it comes to being a Playoff team (one loss, conference champion, talent), but does that mean they should actually be in the Playoff? Let’s take a closer look.
For starters, the three teams that were contending for the final Playoff spot were Washington, Penn State, and Michigan. Penn State and Michigan both had two losses, but the former won the Big Ten Championship Game over Wisconsin. In fact, the presence of those two teams in the conference title game was and is a testament to the strength of the conference; both the Big Ten’s two best teams, Michigan and Ohio State, were unable to make their own conference’s championship game because the conference was just too good. Additionally, the Big Ten had four of the top eight teams in the final Playoff rankings. The Big Ten kinda sorta cannibalized itself at the end of the season, and it’s clear that two of the three teams competing for the fourth spot played in college football’s best conference. As for Washington…. not so much.
The Pac-12 had its fair share of struggles this season, as established powers such as UCLA, Oregon, and Stanford all struggled to some degree over the course of the year. Unfortunately for the Huskies, this weakness manifested itself in their schedule. Washington’s best regular season game was easily a home tilt with USC in week twelve. The Trojans defeated Washington, 26-13, but that’s not all they did: they showed that it is entirely possible to handle the Huskies in all facets of the game, even on their home turf. Even though Chris Pedersen’s team was undefeated at the time, that game should have sent major warning signals to the Playoff Committee. It didn’t.
Instead, the Committee only dropped Washington two spots; in fairness, week twelve also happened to be the week that Clemson lost at home to Pittsburgh and Michigan lost on the road against Iowa. When that is taken into consideration, Washington’s loss is the best out of the three. Also, Michigan did not drop after that loss and Clemson only dropped two spots as well. So the committee was very fair to Washington then, but why were the Huskies that highly ranked in the first place?
No, really, I’m serious: when your best in-conference win is Stanford and your best out-of-conference win is Rutgers, why was Washington the fourth-best team in the country? Granted, they did look very impressive until the USC game, but how could you know for sure that the Huskies could hold their own against any team in America? And let’s go back to the aforementioned out-of-conference schedule. If we’re really splitting hairs, the Huskies’ out-of-conference slate was not as good as Western Michigan’s. And once again, I’m completely serious.
Another facet to the anti-Washington argument is this: should we value winning, the eye test, or a team’s resume in our assessment of said team? Personally, I believe that we should use all three, but we should also use another measuring stick: common sense. And common sense is what takes us back to the last Saturday of November in Columbus, Ohio.
On that day, Michigan and Ohio State squared off in the rivalry so amazing that it is literally referred to as “The Game”. In The Game, the Wolverines and the Buckeyes went back-and-forth and eventually needed overtime to decide a winner. In the second overtime, Michigan kicked a field goal on their possession; Ohio State was faced with a fourth-and-one on their possession and opted to go for it to keep the game alive. The best rivalry in college football hung in the balance. The call was a run up the middle for quarterback J.T. Barrett. Michigan’s defensive line got a push and came in contact with Barrett just short of the line to gain. And then, college football’s game of the year came down to this spot:
Good luck trying to decipher that one. I thought the spot was correct, but chances are we will never know for sure. Ohio State got the first down and a touchdown on their very next play. The Game was over, as was Michigan’s Playoff chances.
Here is my fundamental point: Michigan was ranked third that week in the Playoff rankings. In watching that game, what in the world could convince you that the Wolverines did not deserve one of the four spots? They went on the road to play the second-ranked team in the country, held their own, nearly won, and the entire game literally came down to that spot! I know that we want every game to count for something, but the result could have been very different if not for just one play. And yet, Michigan tumbled to fifth after that defeat, and their not making the conference championship game doomed their hopes of a national title. Washington, on the other hand, destroyed Colorado (who, full disclosure, is a ten-win team) and held on to the fourth and final spot in the Playoff.
The objective of the College Football Playoff is to get the best four teams, no matter what. Unfortunately, the Playoff committee did not do that this year. Michigan deserved the fourth spot over Washington, regardless of the fact that they have two losses.
They were clearly better than Washington this season, and that shouldn’t change just because of their record alone.