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Stanford’s path to the Playoff: Week 13 edition

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WE HAVE THE AXE! Yes, it is safe and secure in Palo Alto for another year after a terrific all-around performance from Stanford on Saturday night. The Cardinal were quick to shake off any demons from the crushing loss the week before to Oregon. Powered by another historic day by sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey, Stanford has won the North, booked a short trip down the 101 to Levi’s Stadium a fortnight from now and has a chance to play in the Rose Bowl, or more…

The ellipsis, though, conveys something much larger than just three dots, something larger than just the team or the players and even the loyal fans; it’s something that Stanford football has aspired to since its first Rose Bowl appearance over a century ago and something that Stanford University has aspired to since Leland’s and Jane’s charter of this great institution: its national preeminence, peerlessness atop all of the national rankings, be it academic or athletic.

It’s what drives all Stanford students, and what will drive the Cardinal to the second College Football Playoff.

This week, Stanford is ranked ninth in the country. While the rise in the rankings is encouraging, a few teams ahead of Stanford are of particular concern, namely Notre Dame at No. 6, our opponent a few days from now. Stanford must beat Notre Dame convincingly, and Stanford must win the Pac-12 Championship against either of the L.A. schools. Stanford also has to get a little help from other teams.

Oklahoma at No. 3 is the biggest threat, because the Sooners inexplicably were moved up three spots and are in the Big 12, the conference most likely to be left out other than the Pac-12. Seeing as the Sooners were a tipped ball away from losing last week, have an underwhelming resume compared to Michigan State (No. 5) and undefeated Iowa (No. 4) and lost in their only common game with the Irish  (17-24 at Texas, while Notre Dame beat Texas 38-3), their ranking is mind-boggling.

The only rational explanation I could theorize is that the selection committee likes putting Big 12 teams at third in the rankings until the very last release, and then dropping them to sixth to exact maximum torment, like it did with TCU last year. Either way, Stanford fans need to root for previously unbeaten Oklahoma State (No. 11) to upset its rivals at home in the Bedlam game this weekend.

Elsewhere rivalry games create chaos, and No. 2 Alabama, No. 1 Clemson and No. 8 Ohio State all have rivalry games. The Iron and Palmetto bowls with the two top-ranked teams are not likely to produce upsets, but if either team trips up this week or in its respective conference championship game, that would open the door just wide enough for a two-loss Stanford team to sneak in.

If No. 11 Michigan beats the Buckeyes, that would eliminate another team ahead of Stanford and also set up a possible Rose Bowl matchup between mentor Jim Harbaugh and protégé David Shaw. Since neither Michigan nor Ohio State is likely to play in the Big Ten championship, neither threatens the Cardinal too much in the playoff hunt. The loser of the Big Ten Championship is likely to drop below the winner of this game and the winner of the Big Ten will almost certainly play in a semifinal game, so this rivalry game at the Big House is almost a Rose Bowl play-in game. If the Cardinal were to miss out on the playoff, a matchup against Michigan sounds much more appealing than Iowa.

The only other team ahead of Stanford is No. 7 Baylor, which plays at TCU this week and then home against Texas in conference championship week. If the Bears lose either of these games, they are a non-factor, but even if they win out, they will likely not win the Big 12, and the committee has shown a propensity to pick conference champions, so Stanford should still make it ahead of them.

One other game to watch is USC vs. UCLA this weekend. Stanford will play the winner next week in Santa Clara and look to impress the committee in that game. Root for No. 22 UCLA, because the Bruins would have a higher ranking going into the Pac-12 Championship Game, and Stanford matches up much better against them than USC. If Stanford can make a great leap forward in the final weekend, then it will have to win like Ohio State did last year (59-0 over Wisconsin). UCLA makes that much more possible than USC.

One thing to take to heart is that not all of these scenarios must occur — just one or two must. So keep your TV tuned all day Saturday and watch and hope for upsets and a good Stanford victory and No. 5 in the Stanford backfield (wildcaff.com).

Ask Michael Spelfogel about his feelings towards TCU’s two-point conversion attempt against Oklahoma last week at mspel ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Stanford moved up two whole places from last week’s poll! That means we’re that much closer to a Playoff berth, right?

Whoa there. Cool your jets. While it’s true that Stanford is two spots closer to the elusive final four and a lot of the dominoes that I mentioned last week did indeed fall Stanford’s way, just ask TCU how little these preliminary rankings mean (in case you don’t remember, the Horned Frogs were No. 3 in the second-to-last poll last year and won 55-3 before falling all the way to No. 6 in the final poll). So don’t get your hopes up just yet.

It also doesn’t help that arguably the most crucial domino that Stanford needed to fall its way — Utah beating UCLA — didn’t happen last week, meaning that Stanford’s opponent in the Pac-12 Championship (the winner of USC-UCLA) will almost certainly be unranked after a loss to Stanford.

Given that the ACC, Big Ten and SEC champions will all be coming off cushy wins against top-15 opponents, that certainly won’t be a good look for the Cardinal, essentially nullifying the advantage Stanford gets from playing in a championship game (unlike the Big 12 or Notre Dame).

Oh. Well, when you put it that way, it makes it sound like things are already over.

Remember that it ain’t over until it’s over. That being said… the chances are pretty slim at this point. There would need to be a pretty healthy dose of chaos above Stanford in the next two weeks in order for a path to open up. A one-loss Stanford would be looking really good at this point, but… Oregon.

🙁

Don’t be sad. If Stanford wins out, the worst the Cardinal can do is the Rose Bowl. We’re not Oregon. We will never get to a point where the Rose Bowl isn’t good enough for us. Besides, a Stanford-Ohio State or Stanford-Michigan matchup on Jan. 1 would be positively dope.

All right, now that the pressing stuff is out of the way, let’s get to the part where I tell you who you should be rooting for in this week’s games. As with last week, here are the base assumptions regarding the different conferences and how I figure they’ll play into the Playoff picture (and as with last week, I’m not here to argue about this):

  • An undefeated Group of Five team will not make the Playoff. Given that there are no longer any undefeated Group of Five teams left, this is not a problem.
  • A two-loss SEC champion is still in, even if it’s Florida with its shitty near-losses to Vanderbilt and Florida Atlantic. Such is life.
  • A one-loss Big Ten champion is in unless its name is Iowa, since a one-loss Big Ten champion Iowa would mean that Iowa lost to Nebraska on Saturday, which would be too big of a loss too late in the year for the Hawkeyes to recover.
  • People are trying to argue otherwise, but I’m still pretty confident that a one-loss ACC champion would be out. Consider that Clemson’s only good wins of the year are against Notre Dame and Florida State, and try and argue how that’s a better resume than that of Stanford. I dare you.
  • A one-loss Big 12 champion would be iffy to get in over Stanford. Oklahoma is the exception here. TCU is on the verge of dropping out of the polls altogether, nobody really liked Oklahoma State too much in the first place and Baylor might not get a big enough boost from beating TCU.

Of course, all of this is null and void if Stanford doesn’t beat Notre Dame, so you should obviously be rooting for that to happen as well. Obvious matchups (like Clemson or Alabama losing) will be omitted for brevity.

Week 13

(20) Washington State at Washington

A Washington win here would be better for the Pac-12 because it would mean that 10 of the 12 teams in the conference would be bowl-eligible (seriously, that would be sweet) but a Wazzu triumph helps Stanford out more because you want as many of Stanford’s opponents to be ranked as possible. You should be rooting for a healthy dose of Mike Leach pirate magic and for the Wazzu offensive line to keep Luke Falk’s backup from getting broken in half on any of his 150 pass attempts.

(4) Iowa at Nebraska

A Nebraska win would be great for Stanford. Since Iowa already has the Big Ten West locked up, this would give the opportunity for a one-loss Iowa to win the Big Ten, which would boot the Big Ten out of the Playoff given how much people love to hate Iowa. (Rightfully so, because Iowa is inferior to my home state of Minnesota in every meaningful way.)

Oregon State at (17) Oregon

Let’s keep the Ducks ranked, too for good measure. Make that loss as quality as possible.

(16) Northwestern vs. Illinois

The other loss, too.

(7) Baylor at (19) TCU

A Baylor loss makes the elites of the Big 12 look weaker as a whole. You need to hope that the Pac-12 isn’t the only conference that’s good at cannibalizing itself at the most inopportune times (thanks a lot, Oregon).

(8) Ohio State at (10) Michigan

Let’s hope Michigan doesn’t lay an egg, because you want a two-loss Michigan to win the Big Ten. Also, Jim Harbaugh doesn’t believe in laying eggs.

“The [laying an egg] analogy doesn’t resonate with me. I don’t really like comparing humans to chickens or any other type of animal.” – Jim Harbaugh

Penn State at (5) Michigan State

This is the other thing that needs to happen for Michigan to win the Big Ten East. You need to hope that Christian Hackenberg’s offensive line can pass protect for more than half a second on any given down.

(22) UCLA at USC

Jim Mora gets night sweats thinking about having to face Stanford again.

(18) Ole Miss at (21) Mississippi State

A three-loss SEC champion Ole Miss would leave the SEC out of the Playoff and the South on the verge of secession. In case you’re wondering, those are both good things. (This also requires an Alabama loss.)

(3) Oklahoma at (11) Oklahoma State

You need to hope that Bedlam lives up to its name. An Oklahoma loss makes things a lot easier for Stanford.

South Florida at UCF

Can we make sure that Stanford’s only current non-conference win isn’t complete garbage?

***

As always, remember that the outcomes of these games are completely out of your (or my) hands and as such, don’t be angry if the results don’t come out favorably towards Stanford’s quest for the Playoff. Remember, if Stanford hadn’t lost to Oregon, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. Don’t let this column get your hopes up too much — it’s just a road map as to what you should be rooting for.

Happy cheering!

Ask Do-Hyoung Park about the insecurities he faces about being from a state such as Minnesota at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Michael Spelfogel is a staff writer in the sports section at The Stanford Daily. He can be contacted at mspel 'at' stanford.edu.