Upset Weekend Gives Washington A Small Path to CFB Playoff

CBS SEATTLE – Last week, the nation was stunned after Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to become the 45th President of the United States.

Entering Tuesday, international news agency Reuters gave Clinton a 90 percent chance to win the election. Yet as the day turned into evening, the mantra of many political analysts became “Donald Trump has a very small path to the presidency.”

But the national surprises, at least in the world of college football, weren’t over yet.

Heading into the weekend, four undefeated teams sat atop the AP College Football rankings. Yet just like Tuesday, everything that could go wrong for the favorites, did go wrong.

For the first time since 1985, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th AP ranked teams all lost on the same day. No. 2 Michigan fell at unranked Iowa, No. 3 Clemson was upset at home in a shootout against Pittsburgh, and No. 4 Washington were outmatched at home by No. 20 USC. Michigan and Clemson, while losing to unranked teams, can take solace in the fact that the games came down to a field goal, as both Iowa and Pitt kicked game winners in the final moments.

According to ESPN, the combined win probability of the 3 teams was 87 percent and the likelihood that all three teams would lose was just .18 percent.

For Washington, the loss was especially tough.

Undefeated and playing at a high level, the prospect of competing for a national title has surround the Huskies program for most of the season. The general consensus for Washington was simple: win and you’re in.

With the Huskies weak non-conference schedule paired with the less impressive appearance of the Pac-12 this season, the belief was that UW would need to run the table in 2016 to get a spot in the College Football Playoff.

In front of a sellout crowd on the banks of Lake Washington, the Huskies saw their perfect season end with a 26-13 loss to USC. Hampered by a defense missing sack leader Joe Mathis, along with losing top linebacker Azeem Victor to a leg injury early in the second quarter, the Washington defense still seemed to do just enough. The top-ranked passing defense in the Pac-12 held USC’s offense, who had scored at least 40 points in four of their previous five games, to 26 points.

However the offense, led by Heisman candidate quarterback Jake Browning, found little momentum throughout the game. Outside of a 70 yard touchdown pass to John Ross, Washington managed just 4.3 yards per play for 276 total yards.

Head coach Chris Peterson, while admitting the pain of the loss, zeroed in on refocusing for their games ahead.

“In this league you have to have your fastball going each week or you get knocked off,” Peterson said. “So it is about learning from this situation and once we stop feeling sorry for ourselves in about 24 hours and regroup, [we] figure out how we grow from this and get better.”

Falling to 9-1 on Saturday was seen by many as the end of Washington’s playoff run. However, the other results of the weekend along with a recent Pac-12 performance uptick, including Tuesday’s College Football Playoff rankings, have begged a familiar question:

Do the Huskies have a very narrow path?

The short answer: Yes. But there are some hoops they would need to jump through.

Win Both Remaining Regular Season Games

This is absolutely non-negotiable. If a one-loss Pac-12 team has an outside shot to make the playoffs, a two-loss team might as well forget about it.

This weekend’s match-up at home against Arizona State is both a “must win” as well as a “should win” game for UW, but both Clemson and Michigan would tell you not to overlook any unranked opponent. A win in this game includes doing something the Huskies haven’t done in almost 15 years: beating ASU, as the Sun Devils have amassed a 10-game winning-streak going back to 2002.

The final regular season win also includes beating one of the hottest teams in Pac-12 in Washington State. The Cougars started out 2016 in a rut, losing to FBS opponent Eastern Washington as well as Boise State. Yet since then, Washington State is 8-0 and atop the Pac-12 North. They will close out the season with their toughest stretch, with No. 10 Colorado and then No. 6 Washington. But the Cougs have turned a corner, and behind one of the best offenses in college football, slowing them down will be tough.

Win The Pac-12 Championship

This is also non-negotiable, but dependent on winning out in the regular season.

Most likely opponents include Pac-12 South front-runner No. 10 Colorado, who lead by a game. However, the Championship could also include No. 13 USC, who handed Colorado their sole conference loss so far, and No. 12 Utah. Colorado and Utah square off in the regular season finale which could determine who represents the south.

Each of these teams would be a tough match up for the Huskies, yet each also provides the Dawgs with something to gain. Assuming a win for Washington, a rematch with USC would negate the Huskies one loss on the season; and against both Colorado and Utah, teams who would have to win out to get their, UW would gain the quality win, most likely against a top-10 ranked team.

All three of the potential match-ups in the Pac-12 Championship could provide the Huskies with a signature win over a highly ranked team, in a year where the national narrative is negative towards the conference.

These are the things the Huskies can control as they near the end of the season. There are also some outcomes that would benefit Washington elsewhere in the country.

1. Alabama Wins the SEC

The Crimson Tide officially locked up the SEC West last weekend heading into a non-conference match up against Chatanooga this weekend. They still have to play No. 15 Auburn in the regular season finale, and then most likely a showdown with No. 23 Florida in the SEC Championship. But, Alabama has 6 wins over top-25 teams this year, so there is no reason to believe they can’t take care of business in both games.

However, a loss in the SEC title game would be disastrous to Washington. Putting the committee in a position to chose between college football darling Alabama and a team that beat them to win the SEC crown would not bode well for the Huskies.

2. Clemson Wins the ACC

Where the Pac-12 might miss the dominant allure of an Oregon or Stanford at the top for national recognition, the ACC lacks the depth of the conference as a whole.

Outside of Clemson and Louisville battling at the top for most of the season, an edge Clemson has since it defeated Louisville back on Oct. 2nd, there’s not much left that fills out the conference. Florida State has dropped off from the title contender of the past having lost three games so far this season.

Realistically, only one of these teams makes the playoff. Louisville has been a featured heavily throughout the college football season, but much of that has come because of their quarterback, Heisman front-runner Lamar Jackson. The Cardinals have just one win over a top-25 team all season long, a huge mark against the team’s strength of schedule. Clemson winning out would ensure a place in the ACC title game and a matchup against either North Carolina or Virgina Tech, both of whom recently dropped out of the CFP rankings.

3. Big-Ten East Team Wins Big-Ten

Arguable the most profitable outcome for Washington would be for Ohio State to take the Big Ten crown. The Buckeyes command an immense amount of respect from the world of college football, and for good reason. However, despite sitting at No. 2 in the CFP rankings, Ohio State is not in the drivers seat for their own conference.

Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State all sit atop the Big-Ten East with a 6-1 conference record. However, Penn State holds the tiebreak with an October upset win over the Buckeyes. Michigan and OSU square off in two weeks to end the regular season. Even if Ohio State beats Michigan and wins out, at 11-1, they would not go to the Big-Ten title game. With Penn State’s final two games against Big Ten East cellar dwellers Rutgers and Michigan State, barring a Michigan win over Ohio State, the Nitanny Lions would be the East representative in the title game.

If you’re a Washington fan, the Big-Ten should scare you half to death. And here’s why…

The most likely scenario in which the playoff committee would push out a one-loss Pac-12 champion in Washington, should results hold, is if two teams from the Big-Ten were to get in.

If Penn State wins the Big-Ten, the Nittany Lions regular season win over Ohio State make a solid case for Penn State getting in OVER Ohio State.

However, if No. 7 Wisconsin, the projected winner from the Big-Ten West, wins the conference, it becomes a lot trickier. The Badgers lost earlier this season to Ohio State, and so the committee would be forced to decide the Final Four on this question: Can you keep out the winner of the Big-Ten, arguable the strongest conference in college football in 2016, or can you keep out the one-loss team that beat the Big-Ten champ.

* * * *

So what does this all mean? Despite what many thought coming out of a loss to USC, Washington has a small path to the playoffs.

There’s no guarantees.
No gimmes.
No promises.

The Huskies potentially have three games left. After dropping their perfect season, you can bet they are going to be more motivated than ever to take care of business against three teams the should beat.

But prepare yourselves, Washington fans.

Upsets happen. And while sometimes they can work in your favor, if you’re the one falling, they can leave you… well… upset.

More from Tyler Gunhus
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