Sticking to Sports
Saturday in October
At the tail end of a sunny fall afternoon in Eugene, the Oregon Ducks executed a seldom seen play, the old fashion double ice. As regulation waned, first-year Ducks’ coach Mario Cristobal called not one but two timeouts in an attempt to freeze University of Washington kicker Peyton Henry. Henry, in whom Washington coach Chris Peterson had just enough faith to try from 37 yards with seconds to go in a tie game, entered the game seven for 10 on the season with a long of just 31 yards. After Cristobal signaled for the first timeout and the referees whistled the play dead, Washington proceeded with the snap, hold and kick. Whether they legitimately could not hear the whistle due to the din of the Autzen Stadium crowd or just wanted a practice attempt (as any kicking unit getting “iced” ought to) is indeterminable. Henry missed his practice try at the field goal. As he lined up for his second chance, Cristobal called his final timeout. Again, Washington executed snap, hold and kick after the whistle. On his second practice attempt, Henry converted. One-for-two on dress rehearsals, Henry lined up for his third go-round, this time knowing with relative certainty that it would be the attempt of record. The kick wobbled wide right, and the game wore on into overtime.
To his credit, Henry made his only kick of the extra session, albeit from 22 yards. However, it wasn’t enough. On the drive ensuing Henry’s successful try, Justin Herbert, an early favorite among scouts to hear his name called first at this spring’s NFL Draft, led the Ducks to a game-winning touchdown, a six-yard run from C.J. Verdell.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that there is something funny about college football, a sport whose play-off format mandates a thoroughly unscientific, transitive analysis of its contenders’ respective resumes. Well, Ohio State beat Oklahoma, but they lost twice. ’Bama lost to Auburn but “passed the eye test” and has an unparalleled pedigree as far as recent history goes. Georgia lost to Auburn in the regular season, but they beat them to win the SEC Championship. It happens every year. There isn’t any way to know the right answer, but it makes for an awfully fun debate.
In late September, Oregon did something else we hardly see in college football; they physically dominated David Shaw’s Stanford team. We expect to see Stanford play football in a phone booth, packing their line together with narrow splits and running it straight ahead. And yet the Ducks dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise given that Cristobal came to Eugene by way of Alabama, where he coached Nick Saban’s perennially dominant offensive line. If there is a coach in the country who knows what an elite line looks like, it is Cristobal. While they dominated, the Ducks lost two critical fumbles—one of which was returned eighty yards for a touchdown—and, with them, the game. Anyone who watched would say that the Ducks, despite losing, looked like the best team in the Pac-12, and Stanford appeared flawed and solidly outside championship consideration.
All the same, when the Cardinal headed to South Bend, Indiana to take on Notre Dame the following week, they boasted the nation’s No. 7 ranking. Notre Dame hammered Stanford, and unlike with Oregon, their ostensible dominance appeared on the scoreboard. The Irish earned what will appear on paper, and quite loudly in Irish fans’ discussions of their team’s résumé come late November, a win over a top-10 team.
In the early going, the Ducks ended up with a result that felt worse than they deserved, yet they went on to salvage a win, benefiting from a missed kick you probably expect to be made more often than not. Meanwhile, Stanford benefited from a few fortuitously timed fumbles against Oregon, artificially boosting their own ranking and incidentally strengthening Notre Dame’s post-season chances.
No other sport can match college football’s chaos. In the early season, I laughed to see some talking heads claim that the season would be a bore, that Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Ohio State were on a crash course for the playoff. I honestly cannot imagine anyone who has ever followed a season in college football thinking that. It never ends up that simple. For reference, three teams in the top 10 lost this week, including No.2 Georgia. What we have, unofficially, is a bizarre double-elimination tournament. If you are a Power Five team and win your conference, you will probably end up in the playoffs but it isn’t guaranteed. If you run the table, you will probably end up in but you might not get the bid—sorry, UCF. If you lose two games, you probably won’t get in, but you just might. It is a sport of startlingly few certainties.
The other lesson here is that it simply isn’t worth it to get worked up over the early season rankings. We know that what we see now will change radically, and with roughly half a season still to play, we do not know exactly which teams will end up playoff contenders as the season draws to a close. It is remarkably easy to take a look at an early October edition of the Associated Press poll and lose your mind that your team slots in behind Wisconsin, when the Badgers lost at home to BYU and you lost to somebody with playoff aspirations. However, I’d urge you to resist this temptation and actually take a few minutes to come up with your own top 25 poll. I’m confident by the time you get to about 13, you’ll be struggling to provide any semblance of cogency behind your rankings. I pity anyone who watches enough football to say confidently that Colorado would beat NC State on a neutral field, or say it with any evidence to support that claim.
By the time conference championship games are played, the picture will likely remain rather muddy. Like everyone else, I’d rather college football not limit itself to four teams in its playoff. And yet, the College Football Playoff committee will come up with four lucky winners with golden tickets to its two semi-finals. Fans of spurned teams and conferences, the tribalism of college football extending beyond school affiliation and into conference allegiance, will cry foul and some will rejoice in their good fortune. It isn’t perfect, but, for now, it’s the best we’ve got, so why not enjoy it?