The premise appears to be simple for the Washington Huskies: Beat Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game and they’re among the four teams eligible for the national semifinals.
But when it comes to college football’s half-baked version of a playoff, there is no such thing as simple.
The No. 4 Huskies not only need to win Friday night, they need to win by a margin comfortable enough to keep No. 5 Michigan out of the picture. During an interview the other day on ESPN Radio, College Football Playoff chairman Kirby Hocutt described the separation between Washington and Michigan as “very, very small.”
Added Hocutt, who has noted the Huskies’ soft nonconference schedule: “I know that some of the selection committee members were struggling with who they thought the best football team was for those two spots this week.”
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The Wolverines finished their regular season last Saturday with a double-overtime defeat that hinged on a disputed fourth-down spot at Ohio State. The fact some of the 12 voters remain torn between Washington and Michigan suggests the Huskies could win and yet end up on the outside looking in if the victory is decided by, say, a controversial call in double-overtime.
Style points count. For that matter, all kinds of points count, which poses a conundrum at odds with Chris Petersen’s reluctance to run up the score.
The philosophy is sound: Keeping starters on the field during the fourth quarter of a blowout presents an unnecessary injury risk and, besides, it’s poor sportsmanship. But with voters waffling about Washington, I’ve got to think they’ll be more impressed with a 30-3 pummeling of Colorado than a 10-9 squeaker.
After the Apple Cup last Friday in Pullman, Petersen was asked about margin-of-victory significance.
“I don’t know about that stuff, I really don’t,” he said. “I really don’t think they care about how teams win, which I hope is true, because I don’t think that’s what this thing is all about, trying to score as many points as you can on somebody.”
Upon returning to Seattle, Petersen sounded like a coach who’s got faith in the football-justice system.
“I feel pretty good, pretty confident,” he said of the ramifications of winning the conference title. “I’ve always said — everywhere I’ve been — that if we take care of business, people usually do the right thing. Our whole focus is on Colorado. We’ve got a big hurdle there, and if we get over that hurdle, yeah.”
I don’t share Petersen’s confidence. If the recent presidential election told us anything — and the election told us a ton — it’s that predicting the last-minute whims of voters is as imprecise as predicting where the crows end up when they fly in formation off the power line.
A dozen administrators will convene this weekend for the purpose of determining college football’s Final Four. Alabama and Ohio State are locks. Clemson is in as well, presuming the heavily favored Tigers get past Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game on Saturday.
So it comes down to Washington and Michigan for the fourth slot, and Michigan is idle. Conventional wisdom holds that a Huskies victory over the nation’s No. 9 ranked team should answer any qualms related to their not-so-strong schedule.
But when 12 people bring their subjective observations into a room, behind a closed door, there are no assurances wisdom will prevail.
Because Washington still has a game to play and Michigan’s case is closed, the Huskies would seem to control their destiny. Far from it.
Their destiny belongs to a jury that on Friday will regard the team’s 13th game of the season as a pass-or-fail final exam.
“Just win, baby,” is a battle cry eternally associated with Al Davis, late owner of the Oakland/Los Angeles/Headed-For-Somewhere-Under-The-Rainbow Raiders.
For Chris Petersen and the Huskies, the “Just win, baby” bar has been raised to a new and altogether strange place.
Just win emphatically, baby.