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Where losing really hurts, especially now for College Football Playoff

College football is much more punitive than the NFL, where a .500 team could win the Super Bowl

There is an interesting race taking place in the NFL that would get laughed out of college football's fun house.

New Orleans and Atlanta share the NFC South Division lead with 4-7 records, a half game ahead of Carolina at 3-7-1.

Tampa Bay, at 2-9, is only two games out of first place.

All four teams could still win the Super Bowl.

It reminds me of a line from the 1980s, when the Los Angeles Rams team I covered somehow found itself leading the NFC West.

"We're in first place," guard Dennis Harrah proclaimed, "and we stink."

The NFL and college games operate under completely different constructs, of course.

The NFL is built on socialist principles articulated by former commissioner Pete Rozelle and his "League Think" philosophy of propping up the weak for the overall competitive good.

Parity is king in the NFL, where the optimal model is climate-controlled temperatures and 8-8 records.

College football doesn't just hate parity, it weans out the weak and spits on its losers.

Florida has already fired Will Muschamp even though the Gators have six victories with a chance to knock off Florida State on Saturday.

The Cincinnati Bengals are belles of the AFC North at 7-3-1, while some USC fans are skewering first-year coach Steve Sarkisian for his 7-4 start.

College football is a divide-and-conquer operation. Its patron saint should be Ayn Rand.

If the have-nots don't like the status quo, they have to file antitrust lawsuits.

New Orleans lost its seventh NFL game Monday, at home to Baltimore, and stayed in the thick of contention.

Ohio State lost one game at this season, at home to Virginia Tech, and could be left out of the four-team playoff.

Marshall, at 11-0, only this week cracked the College Football Playoff top 25.

Those of us who follow college football are not complaining — we actually want to preserve this.

We savor the exacting cost of defeat and the understanding that this is what makes it the best regular season in sports.

We know the risk of expanding a four-team playoff to eight is that victory will be devalued.

We know there is a sweet spot in there somewhere and that we might even be in it.

We want our losers to suffer the way Florida State will if it dares to lose one game. The selection committee isn't particularly happy with the way Florida State is winning.

Only one school in the 16-year era of the Bowl Championship Series — Louisiana State in 2007 — won the national championship with two losses.

Let's keep it that way. The four-team playoff may prove to be slightly more forgiving, but let's not make this a confessional booth.

It appears two-loss UCLA could sneak its way into the field, but it will require a blood and sweat crawl. To be considered, the Bruins must win one of the nation's best conferences with the nation's toughest schedule.

Conversely, two-loss Missouri could win the Southeastern Conference this year and get left out because of an unforgivable home defeat to Indiana.

The new playoff, thank goodness, hasn't polluted a process where defeat could be a death knell for every contending team from here to Dec. 7.

Every major conference still has stake in a high stakes game:

Pac-12

Four schools have a shot at the playoff. Oregon controls its own destiny but can lose it all with a slip-up Saturday against Oregon State. UCLA's path to the Pac-12 title, and a probable playoff spot, requires a hairpin, two-game parlay against Stanford and Oregon. The Bruins have lost their last 12 games against these two foes.

The Arizona State-Arizona winner Friday has a sliver's chance of the playoff, but only if Stanford defeats UCLA. In that scenario, the South Division champion would have to upend Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and hope for help.

Big Ten

Ohio State has overcome a September home loss to Virginia Tech to be in contention, but the Buckeyes need two wins to claim the Big Ten title and then must hope that's good enough to beat out a one-loss Big 12 Conference winner.

Ohio State remained No. 6 in the College Football Playoff ranking this week, sandwiched between Texas Christian and Baylor.

No one-loss team in the final discussion will have a worse defeat than Ohio State's, although committee chairman Jeff Long hinted this week the Virginia Tech loss might not be insurmountable.

Southeastern

A fantastic array of scenarios awaits the First Family of American football conferences. The SEC could get two playoff entries from the SEC West if Alabama and Mississippi State win Saturday games against Auburn and Mississippi.

But trouble looms if Alabama and Mississippi State lose and Missouri, with that Indiana loss hanging over its head, wins the SEC.

That might leave the SEC at home.

Atlantic Coast

Only in college football can a school win 27 straight games and have to sweat out an election. Florida State is 11-0 but eking out too many games, in the weakest power league, to satisfy everyone on the committee. Long said some members "think about that as a possible negative."

It seems clear the committee has put Florida State on notice. One loss and the Seminoles are O-U-T.

Big 12

It's too soon to say whether not playing a championship game will cost the conference. Baylor will clinch the title with closing wins against Texas Tech and Kansas State, and also owns the tiebreaker against TCU.

An interesting playoff-spot battle possibility involves one-loss Baylor vs. one-loss Mississippi State (if the Bulldogs don't win the SEC West).

Both schools played patsy nonconference schedules. Would the committee choose Baylor for winning a major conference, or Mississippi State for losing college football's best division?

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Twitter: @DufresneLATimes

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