Stanford’s Not-So-Inconceivable Path to the Playoff

By: Ben Leonard

For those of you who wrote off Stanford’s playoff hopes after their heartbreaking loss against Oregon on Saturday (myself included): it’s not over yet! And I’m not just being a homer.

As the highest ranked two-loss team, the committee really values Stanford. It’s hard to blame them: the loss against Northwestern is a distant memory, and they had several chances to put away Oregon.

That’s why they’re still in this thing at #11. Granted, they have to win out, which will be no easy task. Cal is struggling, but crazy things happen in Big Games. And in case you didn’t know, Notre Dame is squarely in the committee’s top four. And then after that, they would have to take on Utah team that will likely be in the top fifteen.

But assuming a perfect finish, Stanford only needs a few dominos to fall, because so many teams are guaranteed to lose ahead of them. Late losses bury teams in the committee’s eyes, with the apparent exception of Stanford. Here are the teams in contention with Stanford with their remaining schedules and projected title game opponents:

  1. Clemson (Wake Forest, South Carolina, ACC Championship Game (UNC))
  2. Alabama (Charleston Southern (classic SEC), Auburn, SEC Championship game (Florida))
  3. Ohio State (Michigan State, Michigan, Big Ten Championship Game (Iowa)
  4. Notre Dame (Boston College, Stanford)
  5. Iowa (Purdue, Nebraska, Ohio State)
  6. Oklahoma State (Baylor, Oklahoma)
  7. Oklahoma (TCU, Oklahoma State)
  8. Florida (Florida Atlantic (sigh), Florida State, Alabama (SEC title game))
  9. Michigan State (Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa in Big 12 title (unlikely))
  10. Baylor (OKSU, TCU, Texas)
  11. Stanford
  12. Michigan (Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa (very unlikely))

Given that a head-to-head win over Notre Dame would knock the Irish out, that leaves nine teams in front of Stanford, at least four of which are guaranteed to loseYes, that’s right, guaranteed to lose.

First, in the SEC, either Alabama or Florida will lose the conference championship game. It’s also given that either Ohio State or Michigan State will fall, dropping them from contention. And then when the victor likely goes to the Big Ten title game, they or Iowa will lose, dropping a third team from the mix.

Basically, it comes down to the Big 12 for Stanford. In the conference of mediocre defense and weak schedules, there are three teams ahead of Stanford, two of which have head-to-head match-ups: Baylor vs. OKSU and OKSU vs. Oklahoma.

If Stanford wins out, they are likely to snag a spot because two of the three probably will lose, helping Stanford reach that magic number. If OKSU wins out, they eliminate Baylor and Oklahoma, giving them that magic number of five eliminated teams ahead of them. Similarly, if OKSU beats just one of the two, it will be eliminated along with one other team, also giving them the magic number. But here’s the tricky part: if Oklahoma and Baylor both beat OKSU, it potentially leaves two Big-12 teams ahead of Stanford, which could leave them on the outside looking in. Oklahoma and Baylor could easily lose to TCU as well, knocking them out.

I know it’s confusing, but Stanford fans should root for one team to run away with the Big 12 (probably Oklahoma State) and chaos cannibalizing the rest of the teams. The rest is guaranteed. And just to fuel Stanford’s hopes, this assumes every team wins out besides those “guaranteed” games, which probably won’t happen. It’s college football, after all!

All Stanford can do is take care of business in its next three games.

Cover Image: Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan (8) during an NCAA college football game against Oregon Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Stanford, Calif.  (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)