Mailbag: Is the Pac-12 Already Eliminated From the Playoff?

Does Cal's loss to Arizona State effectively eliminate the Pac-12 from the Playoff? What would it take for Michigan to fire Harbaugh?
By Laken Litman ,

Is the Pac-12 out of College Football Playoff contention? Will Jim Harbaugh make it through 2019? It’s October, you have questions, let’s get to them…

From Greg W: With California's loss to ASU, there are no more undefeated teams left in the cannibalistic Pac-12. Any realistic chance of a one-loss, Pac-12 champion Utah or Oregon (or any of the other 5 current one-loss teams) making a claim to the playoff or would a one-loss SEC team get that spot?

To answer this question, let’s start by listing the four one-loss Pac-12 teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25: No. 13 Oregon, No. 15 Washington, No. 17 Utah and No. 20 Arizona State.

Now, let’s assume the Ducks win out and win the Pac-12 championship. That would mean this team ended the season with road wins over Washington and Arizona State, and potentially beat Utah or USC for the conference title. Their worst loss would be the season-opener against then-No. 16 (and still undefeated) Auburn at a neutral site. That’s a pretty good resume.

But if the selection committee has to pick a fourth and final team to make the playoff, and the choices are one-loss, Pac-12 champion Oregon or a one-loss SEC champion (or non-champion), that last spot would likely go to the SEC. Two years ago, Alabama didn’t make the SEC title game after losing to Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide still made the playoff and beat Georgia in an all-time thriller for the national title. Whether that happens again or not, right now Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Auburn all have stronger strength of schedules than Oregon according to the Sagarin Ratings and ESPN’s Football Power Index. The selection committee values strength of schedule as one of their key “data points” when choosing the top four teams. So it’s more than likely a one-loss SEC champion (or non-champion) jumps a one-loss Pac-12 champion.

Let’s revisit this topic after conference championship week, shall we?

From @savages94: If Oklahoma, Ohio State and Clemson all run the table, will they all be in the Playoff?

This question is a good one to follow Greg W’s. If Oklahoma, Ohio State and Clemson all run the table, that means they went undefeated in the regular season and won their respective conference title games. The Selection Committee isn’t about to keep an undefeated Power 5 champion out of the playoff.

The main criteria used by the committee to select the four best teams are: conference championships, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and comparative outcomes of common opponents. Last year, Kirby Smart, Nick Saban and some pundits believed a two-loss Georgia team passed the “eye test” and looked more deserving of the final spot over an undefeated Notre Dame team and a one-loss Big 12 champion Oklahoma. As it pertains to this question, just because a team looks like it belongs doesn’t mean it will make the playoff since the committee seems set on following a relatively specific protocol.

This is a long way of saying that if Oklahoma, Ohio State and Clemson run the table, they will all be in the playoff. Your answer is yes.

From @mrmckee: Can you see any scenario play out where Jim Harbaugh doesn’t last the entire 2019 season? They look terrible and still have games against five ranked teams in Iowa, Notre Dame, Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State left on the schedule.

After getting throttled 35-14 by Wisconsin two weeks ago at Camp Randall, Harbaugh faced what was probably his harshest week of criticism since taking over in Ann Arbor. Everybody was genuinely confused and shocked how, in his fifth year at the helm, Michigan could look that bad against another ranked Big Ten opponent.

The Wolverines bounced back against a now Chris Ash-less Rutgers, which at least gave Harbaugh breathing room heading into this week’s matchup against No. 14 Iowa. But after the Hawkeyes, Michigan faces Illinois, No. 12 Penn State, No. 9 Notre Dame, Maryland, No. 25 Michigan State, Indiana, and ends with No. 4 Ohio State. That’s four more ranked opponents, and given what we’ve seen so far from Michigan, it’s safe to say we can’t comfortably chalk-up any of those four games as Ws yet.

But the reality in Ann Arbor is that even if Michigan finishes, let’s say, a disappointing 7-5, Harbaugh isn’t getting fired. The program desperately wants and needs him to succeed. The idea that Harbaugh wouldn’t make it to the Nov. 30 matchup against first-year head coach Ryan Day and Ohio State isn’t happening. If Harbaugh can piece together a 9-3, 10-2, or even an 8-4 season and beat the Buckeyes, he’ll certainly have bought himself more time. Michigan hasn’t beaten Ohio State since 2011 and has lost the last 16 of 18 matchups. Even if Michigan loses to its rival again, the odds of Harbaugh being fired are still very low.

Note: Questions were edited for style and grammar and/or condensed for clarity.

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