USC Sports

Column: Stanford’s bid for playoff, McCaffrey’s trophy, dashed at the wire

Stanford’s bid for playoff, McCaffrey’s trophy, dashed at the wire

Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey scores the second of two touchdowns against USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the Pac-12 Championship game at Levi’s Stadium on Saturday.

(Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

Stanford won the Pac-12 Conference title on a Saturday night when sophomore tailback Christian McCaffrey shattered the single-season record for all-purpose yards.

This record was not held by Barry Snodgrass, it was held by Barry Sanders.

“The guy I had posted on my wall growing up,” McCaffrey said.

Many years, a night like this would earn you a shot at the national title and all but cinch the Heisman Trophy — but not this night, this year.


Stanford needed more than victory and, for McCaffrey, even unparalleled brilliance might not have sealed the deal.

In the end, after all was bled and won, Stanford and McCaffrey likely came up spectacularly short.

The Cardinal defeated USC at Levi’s Stadium, 41-22, but didn’t get what it needed most — help.

Stanford entered the day No. 7 in the College Football Playoff ranking and within striking distance of the four-team playoff.


Help, though, never arrived. The last thing Stanford wanted was form holding — but it held.

Stanford wanted No. 2 Alabama to lose to Florida, but Alabama won.

Stanford needed No. 1 Clemson to lose to North Carolina, but Clemson won.

Those two wins closed the playoff door.

Clemson and Stanford played at approximately the same time. Writers in the press box could watch Stanford’s fate play out, simultaneously, on two big screens.

Breaking down USC’s 41-22 defeat by Stanford with Bill Plaschke, Chris Dufresne, Gary Klein and Lindsey Thiry. 

Stanford Coach David Shaw, however, did not have that luxury.

“No idea,” he said when asked if he was monitoring the Clemson score. “I didn’t know until five minutes before I walked up here.”


Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Michigan State likely will be announced Sunday as this year’s four-team playoff field.

The Big Ten title game was hardly a scoring fest, but it didn’t matter. The Iowa-Michigan State winner was going to earn a playoff spot no matter what Stanford did.

Michigan State scored late to pull out a 16-13 win.

Stanford, in lieu of a possible semifinal berth, won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Rose Bowl.

Remember when Pasadena was the pot at the end of your rainbow?

“If the worst that we do is go to the Rose Bowl, I think that’s pretty cool,” Shaw said.

Yet, this year’s game will be played a day after the national semifinal games in the Orange and Cotton bowls.


The Rose is pigskin postscript.

Shaw used his postgame time to advocate for an eight-team playoff.

“Eventually we’ll get there,” he said. “We’re not there now, but it’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Only in modern college football, starting with the Bowl Championship Series in 1998, has Granddaddy become a consolation prize.

In 1998, UCLA lost a chance to play in the first BCS title game with a gut-punch defeat at Miami. The Rose Bowl backup plan was absorbed while many Bruins players wept in the locker room.

Stanford’s trip to Pasadena will be more joyous. It was earned with a well-fought win over a national program. It earned Stanford its third Pac-12 championship. The Cardinal will play a fine Big Ten opponent on Jan. 1, either Iowa or defending national champion Ohio State.

Yet, it is only human to wonder what might have been. Stanford finishes its 11-2 regular season with two regrettable losses. The Cardinal opened the season with a 10-point loss at Northwestern that kicked off at 9 a.m. West Coast time.

That one was eventually forgiven. The game that will haunt Stanford is the Nov. 14 home loss to Oregon. The Cardinal fell, 38-36, with time expiring on a failed two-point conversion that could have forced overtime.

Stanford also fumbled on two fourth-quarter center-snap exchanges.

“Our guys didn’t worry about anything else,” Shaw said of any lost opportunities.

Stanford did its job Saturday, so did McCaffrey, but no one else pitched in. The selection committee, and a few Heisman voters, may have knocked off early to get some sleep.

Clemson began the day No. 1 in the CFP ranking, followed by Alabama, Oklahoma and Iowa. Michigan State was fifth, followed by Ohio State and Stanford.

Alabama eliminated some of the drama by defeating Florida, 29-15, in the Southeastern Conference title game.

It wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t matter. Alabama (12-1) earned a playoff spot and now will await its seeding and semifinal assignment.

Heisman Trophy favorite Derrick Henry reiterated his case with another bruising effort, gaining 189 yards in 44 carries.

Henry has carried the ball 90 times in the last two weeks. Already the leader in most Heisman straw polls, it’s difficult to imagine him losing ground.

Quarterback Deshaun Watson also had a huge night in Clemson’s win over North Carolina.

The Heisman race may be for second place, even on a night when McCaffrey darted, dashed and passed his way into the history books. He finished with 461 all-purpose yards to break the single-season record of 3,250 yards, established by Sanders at Oklahoma State in 1988.

“It’s a huge honor,” McCaffrey said. “It’s an extremely exciting feat for me. I couldn’t do it without my teammates. I can’t tell you how much I love those guys.”

McCaffrey ran, passed and also threw for a touchdown.

“He’s a matchup nightmare,” USC Coach Clay Helton said.

McCaffrey may end up, though, as the third Stanford player to finish second since Jim Plunkett won the school’s only Heisman in 1970.

He would join John Elway, Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck.

Gerhart, in 2009, lost the closest Heisman vote in history to Alabama tailback Mark Ingram.

Shaw called McCaffrey the best player in the nation.

“I don’t know if there is any question,” Shaw said. “There is nobody in the nation doing what he’s doing.”

McCaffrey and Stanford did everything Saturday but shut the lights out at Levi’s Stadium.

It might not have been enough.

Go beyond the scoreboard

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