Four years into the College Football Playoff system, very few hard-and-fast rules have been established, but one of them is this: a 2-loss team isn’t getting in.
In 2016, 2-loss Big Ten champion Penn State and 2-loss Big 12 champion Oklahoma were passed over in favor of a 1-loss Ohio State team that A) didn’t even win its division, and B) lost to Penn State. Despite all that, the Buckeyes still got in over the Lions. The CFP selection committee returned the favor last year, when 2-loss Big Ten champion Ohio State was kept at home in favor of a 1-loss Alabama team that also didn’t win its division, much less its conference.
This tracks with the historical thinking in college football, where the last two 2-loss national champions are LSU in 2007 (in perhaps the craziest season in college football history) and Minnesota way back in 1960. No matter how much time passes, no matter how much the system changes, the conventional wisdom remains the same: you’re (most likely*) eliminated from the title hunt when your second loss goes final.
Which is what makes Auburn-Washington so interesting, because it’s an intersectional game pitting powers of the South and the West, meeting for the first time, each with legitimate national title hopes — the coaches ranked Washington sixth in their preseason poll, and Auburn 10th. However, both teams are probably losing at least once after Sept. 1, and “probably” is a dramatic understatement.
Since the Pac-12 split into two divisions and added a championship game in 2011, not one team has run though its regular season with a 9-0 record. In fact, since the Pac-12 moved to a 9-game schedule in 2006 — a span of 12 total seasons, or 134 separate, individual campaigns — only one team has run through its conference schedule with a perfect record: Chip Kelly’s 2010 Oregon squad that reached the BCS National Championship, and those Ducks didn’t have to turn around and play a conference title game.
So it’s safe to say Washington is going to lose at least once after Week 1.
It’s equally safe to assume that Auburn is going to drop a game after Week 1 as well. Even if we assume the Tigers traipse through a string of games against LSU, Arkansas, Mississippi State (on the road), Tennessee, Ole Miss (on the road) and Texas A&M unscathed, their finishing kick is laughably cruel: a trip to Georgia on Nov. 10, a visit to Alabama on Nov. 24 and then, if the Tigers are fortunate enough to win both games, a likely rematch with Georgia in Atlanta on Dec. 1.
(* If there is a path for a 2-loss team to reach the Playoff, it’s this: Auburn loses to Washington, loses to an undefeated Georgia on Nov. 10, beats Alabama and then wins the rematch with the Dawgs on Dec. 1. Good luck threading that needle.)
With the stakes firmly established, there’s also this: Auburn-Washington shakes up to be a fascinating game.
It’s a rare meeting of experienced, established quarterbacks.
Washington’s Jake Browning is a 4-year starter, paired with a rare 4-year starter at running back in Myles Gaskin. He’ll pair against Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham, a Baylor transfer who stands as the Tigers’ first veteran, established quarterback since Nick Marshall in 2014. It’s also the first time of Gus Malzahn’s 6-year tenure he has returned both coordinators from the year prior, while Bush Hamdan makes his debut as Washington’s offensive coordinator and Jimmy Lake debuts as the Huskies’ defensive coordinator after two years as the co-coordinator.
And then there’s this, after a 1-8 postseason last year, it’s a crucial opportunity not just for Washington, but for the entire Pac-12.
“Every game we want to win,” Lake told the Seattle Times in April, “but this for sure is going to (attract) a lot more eyeballs. It’s going to be on a national scene against probably a top-five opponent, a team that beat both of the teams that were in the national championship last year. It’s definitely going to be a challenge for us, and I know the guys are excited. This is why you come to Washington — to play big games like this.”
“Our kids, they understand who Auburn is,” Chris Petersen added. “We’re talking about playing the best of the best right now. So our kids, they know that. I don’t have to say a word about that.”
Played at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it’s a virtual home game for Auburn. But if there’s any team that can overcome such a gargantuan “neutral site” disadvantage, it’s these Huskies. Recall the 2011 opener, when Peterson’s Boise State team, led a senior quarterback in Kellen Moore, trekked to Atlanta and knocked off Georgia.
The Auburn-Washington opener is another example of all that’s right with college football, a game on Sept. 1 that will still matter tremendously on Dec. 1.
You can’t win your way into the national championship discussion with an Opening Saturday, but you can lose your way out of it. And either Auburn or Washington is going to do just that.
Bring on the season.