Column: You knew the College Football Playoff was bound to take a turn for the bizarre

Jake Browning, Uchenna Nwosu
Washington quarterback Jake Browning just slips a pass around USC linebacker Uchenna Nwosu during their game Saturday.
(Otto Greule Jr. / Getty Images)

You had to know it wouldn’t be easy, simple or clean.

If there was any sense of order to this chaotic college football season, it came tumbling down like a house of cards with three of the top four teams losing Saturday within a few hours of one another.

“Things happen” is the way Washington Coach Chris Petersen put it after his fourth-ranked Huskies fell to USC.

Yet, for all the turmoil, the playoff picture might not have changed all that much, no matter what the new College Football Playoff ranking looks like on Tuesday.


Last week’s favorites still appear to have a clear shot at the postseason. Contenders hovering on the periphery still need help to get where they want to be.

And Alabama still looks like the safest bet, undefeated and sitting atop the heap.

“They’re an excellent football team and there’s a reason they are No. 1 in the country,” Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen said after his team lost, 51-3, to the Crimson Tide. “They play like it.”

As the regular season nears a conclusion, it might useful to remember the criteria by which the CFP system will choose four teams to vie for the national title.


The 12 men and women on the selection committee, who gather weekly to hash out a top 25 ranking, have been directed to emphasize not only wins and losses but also conference championships, strength of schedule and head-to-head results, among other things.

That is where Saturday’s upset victims — each of whom joined  the one-loss club — can find hope so long as they don’t stumble again.

No. 2 Clemson, which fell to Pittsburgh on a last-second field goal, can clinch a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game with a victory over Wake Forest next week.

“We grow and move on,” Coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’re still in control of our destiny.”

The same is true for No. 3 Michigan, which lost a similar nail-biter to Iowa later in the day. The Wolverines can secure the Big Ten Conference’s East Division by winning out and, at the same time, boost their strength of schedule with a victory over Ohio State.

The road gets a little narrower, a little curvier, for Washington, which suffered its first loss at home against USC.

The Huskies have played an easier schedule than other teams at the top of the rankings, which could hurt them.

Still, the Huskies can reach the Pac-12 Conference championship with two more wins, including a victory over unexpectedly tough Washington State in a rivalry game at the close of the regular season.


“Here is when we find out if we are the front-runners that only play well when things are going well,” quarterback Jake Browning said. “Are we going to respond and bounce back stronger? We will see what kind of team we are.”

As strange as this season has been, it probably makes sense that Ohio State, which started last week on the bubble at No. 5, did not benefit as much as might be expected from the bedlam.

If Michigan had kept winning, the Buckeyes could have secured a trip to the Big Ten championship game with a victory over their rivals. Now, under a complex tiebreaker, they need Penn State to lose again, which seems like a longshot with the Nittany Lions finishing against woeful Rutgers and Michigan State.

The Buckeyes might find a circular route to the playoff, one that bypasses the conference title game, if they defeat Michigan. But that leaves their fate entirely in the hands of the committee.

Similarly, No. 6 Louisville has its foot in the door again with only one loss but would probably have to leapfrog some teams that committee members already have deemed more worthy on strength of schedule.

Asked about the potential playoff machinations, Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson said: “We just need to win our games. We can’t think about that right now.”

Just behind the lead pack lurks a cluster of two-loss teams that have a chance.

No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 10 Penn State are back in the running. Even the beleaguered Big 12 Conference has a glimmer of hope with No. 11 Oklahoma in striking distance.


The most unsettling Saturday of the season marked the first time since 1985 that No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 lost on the same day. Michigan also fell to Iowa back then, with current Coach Jim Harbaugh at quarterback.

The upsets reordered the Associated Press top 25 poll on Sunday, with Ohio State rising to No. 2 and Louisville taking the third slot. Michigan, Clemson, Wisconsin and Washington followed, in that order.

But the only list that matters right now belongs to the CFP committee, and last weekend’s upsets reaffirmed that nothing can be taken for granted with that group.

A victory can make all the difference. A loss can change everything.

Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer pretty much summed it up when he said: “November’s here and we have a big one coming one week from today.”

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