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Spelfogel: Stanford football badly wounded, but not dead in its playoff push

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For those of you who have not watched last weekend’s Stanford football game, don’t waste your time. Stanford was embarrassed at Washington by a final score of 44-6. It was the worst defeat for the Cardinal since 2007, and the team was outmaneuvered in all phases of the game. From the offensive line, to pass defense, play calling and coaching — and the negative turnover ratio and penalties — Stanford was manhandled unlike any time in recent memory. The most competitive aspect of the game for Stanford might have been the coin toss.

And while Washington has established itself as the preeminent candidate for the Pac-12 Championship Game and thus the college football playoff, Stanford slumped to No. 15 in the AP rankings and fourth among teams with a loss. Last week, I wrote about how this game was the most important of the season. But despite the loss, does Stanford still have a shot at making the College Football Playoff?

That question is harder to answer given the current state of the football team and the logjam of colleges ahead of Stanford right now. But the short answer? Yes, absolutely.

First, Stanford needs to get healthy. Stanford needs to have its starting cornerbacks Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks back and healthy and defending the pass attack, as well as other key players. Coach Shaw needs to fix the offensive line, and quickly. It’s no secret that Christian McCaffrey, shockingly, has not scored a touchdown on a true road game in his career. We need to improve on both sides of the ball, and let the young talent that coach Shaw and Stanford have nurtured grow into its full potential.  

Next week will provide just the necessary environment. Back in the comforts of home, the Cardinal will face a Washington State team with a rampant aerial assault commanded by Luke Falk, possibly the most potent of the Pac 12’s quarterbacks. The Cougars dropped 50-plus points in each of the last two weeks, so their offense must not be underestimated. But the Cougars’ defense has just the type of holes that Christian McCaffrey has been able to exploit in the past. Expect next week’s game to have fireworks. If Stanford can contain Luke Falk and protect Burns and McCaffrey enough to allow them the space to operate, the game will be a positive one for Stanford.

Looking to the College Football Playoff landscape, this game, and every game for the remainder of the season, is a must win. Most pundits agree that a one-loss Power 5 team is a near lock for the playoff. But with Washington effectively two games in front of Stanford because of the tiebreaker, things get much more hazy.

The most obvious path to the playoff for the Cardinal would be to win out and have Washington to lose two of its remaining seven games. With trips to Oregon, Utah, Cal and in-state rival Washington State, this remains a distinct possibility.

But short of this, there are other possibilities, too. For example, what if Washington and Stanford both win out? Would the playoff committee select two Pac-12 teams? There is a precedent in having two teams from the same conference in the top 4 of the rankings at season’s end, but with a loss as bad as last week’s, this seems somewhat unlikely.

But what if Stanford wins out and Washington loses in the Pac-12 Championship Game to a two-loss team from the South division? This seems like a likelier scenario. In the South, all teams already have one loss, and both Colorado and Utah are ranked far below Stanford. So if Stanford keeps on winning, it would most certainly be ranked above a two-loss Pac-12 champion. In this scenario, the CFP committee would have cause to pass over the conference champion and select Stanford.

Out of the teams in the top 20 right now, only Clemson, Baylor and Boise State do not have games left on their schedules against teams ranked higher than Stanford. That means that there is sure to be a ton of movement in the rankings, both before the first official CFP rankings are released and the end of the season.

As the season progresses, if Stanford continues to rack up wins, the playoff committee might forgive Stanford’s one bad loss. It was a short week on rest, Stanford had a ton of injuries and Washington is an all-around great team. Stanford definitely still has a shot at the playoffs, but it needs to be wary of teams around it while taking care of its own business.

Contact Michael Spelfogel at mspel ‘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.