Leading Off

October 27, 2014

They Can Win For Losing

The slugfest in Tallahassee was a classic. Notre Dame seemed to score a go-ahead touchdown with 13 seconds left, but a controversial offensive pass interference call took the points off the board. Florida State won 31--27, though the result didn't truly settle which team was better. If only they could meet again, possibly on a neutral field....

Maybe they will.

While we always knew the first College Football Playoff wouldn't include four undefeated teams, at least early in the season we could fill in the brackets with unbeatens. Not anymore. Only four remain, and one—Marshall—doesn't play a single Power Five conference team and has almost no shot at a spot. Two others, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, clash on Nov. 29, which means one is guaranteed to take a loss.

So it's time to scrutinize defeats as closely as wins. That's what the Playoff Selection Committee will do when it meets this weekend to compile the first official ranking.

The Irish's loss is not a deal-breaker: If they finish 11--1 (including wins and at Arizona State and at USC), they'll have an excellent case, especially if Florida State goes 13--0. But what about Alabama? The Crimson Tide's 23--17 stumble at Ole Miss on Oct. 4 won't carry much shame if the Rebels keep rolling. After struggling past Arkansas 14--13, Bama returned home last Saturday and annihilated Texas A&M 59--0. More wins like that, and the Tide too will have a case.

Meanwhile, the two best teams in the Big Ten remain on a collision course. If Michigan State beats Ohio State on Nov. 8 in East Lansing, the Spartans' 46--27 loss at Oregon should look respectable—as long as the Ducks keep winning. But if the Buckeyes beat the Spartans, OSU might have a tough time convincing committee members that a team that bowed at home 35--21 to Virginia Tech (4--3) deserves to play for the national title.

Out west, Oregon allowed 12 combined sacks in a 38--31 win at Washington State and a 31--24 home loss to Arizona, but the return of left tackle Jake Fisher has given QB Marcus Mariota time to breathe. The Oregon O-line allowed just three sacks in beating UCLA and Washington by a combined score of 87--50.

Then there is the Big 12, where preseason favorite Oklahoma checked out of the playoff race last Saturday with its second loss in three weeks and defending champ Baylor got whacked 41--27 at West Virginia. Kansas State, which beat Oklahoma 31--30 in Norman, is the only team without a conference loss, and the Wildcats would make a fine playoff candidate if they win the Big 12 title. Unfortunately they also went down 20--14 at home to Auburn (which suffered its one loss three weeks later at Mississippi State, 38--23). If the teams finish with matching records, the head-to-head victory will likely lift Auburn over the Wildcats.

When the committee (down to 12 members after Archie Manning took a leave of absence because of upcoming knee surgery) gathers in Grapevine, Texas, the discussion will hang on losses—not how bad they were but how good they are.

PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDThe view from the Goodyear blimp showed more than 82,000 packed into Doak Campbell Stadium to see Florida State remain one of four unbeatens in the FBS. PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH KEN INNESS ZUMAPRESS.COMKevin White's one-hander helped West Virginia deal Baylor its first loss, 41--27. PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH JASON PARKHURST FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDJameis Winston took the hit and threw a pick, but the Seminoles hung on to clip Notre Dame. PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDHigh-flying Kansas State knocked the Sooners out of the playoff with a 31--30 upset in Norman. PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH KEVIN C. COX GETTY IMAGESAfter two down weeks the Crimson Tide battered Boone Niederhofer and Texas A&M 59-zip. PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY AARON ONTIVEROZ THE DENVER POST/GETTY IMAGESThat Magic Touch Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning received congratulations from coach John Fox after setting the NFL record for career touchdown passes, on Sunday in Denver. The historic 509th TD—an eight-yard toss to wideout Demaryius Thomas (insets)—lifted Manning past Brett Favre, and he didn't stop there: Manning hit Thomas on another 40-yarder to finish with four scores in a 42--17 win over the 49ers. PHOTOJACK DEMPSEY/ AP (MANNING)[See caption above] PHOTOJUSTIN EDMONDS/GETTY IMAGES (THOMAS)[See caption above]

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