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Domino theory: Stanford-UCLA and FSU-USF in a larger context

John Hefti/Icon Sportswire
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The first month of the 2016 college football season has been endlessly fascinating — not just in terms of setting the stage for what’s to come, but because so many top teams have challenged themselves out of conference.

This trend continues on Saturday when the Florida State Seminoles face the South Florida Bulls in a noon (Eastern time) clash with a main-event feel.

It is easy to think that FSU-USF is a Sunshine State showdown, an event that matters only for Floridians. Especially since Florida State is now the bearer of a 43-point loss — which immediately places a team in the back of the line for the College Football Playoff — it is understandable that fans in other regions of the country would downplay the significance of Noles-Bulls.

However, specific fan bases — and conference commissioners — should be greatly interested in what happens in Tampa.

This is part of the magic of a college football season, and how it comes together — one game played in the southeastern corner of the country affects the magnitude of a game played in Southern California.

That game — which will start roughly four and a half hours after FSU-USF ends — is the tussle between the Stanford Cardinal and the UCLA Bruins in the Rose Bowl stadium.

How are games in Tampa and Pasadena strongly linked? Behold the wonder of college football.

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Here’s a question for Larry Scott and Pac-12 fans:

Is it better for your conference if Stanford or UCLA wins this Saturday?

In an immediate context, the answer is clear: A Stanford win gives the Pac-12 an unbeaten team with a 2-0 record against the Los Angeles schools, a team with a legitimate chance of going unbeaten and therefore being a lock to represent the conference in the College Football Playoff. The Pac-12 missed the playoff last year and sorely needs to get back into the playoff. Based on that reality, Larry Scott needs the Cardinal to beat UCLA.

However, a larger line of analysis suggests that UCLA could win and not prevent Stanford from reaching the Promised Land.

Enter FSU-USF.

Florida State's Dalvin Cook tries to escape the pursuit of South Florida's Eric Lee in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015 in Tallahassee, Fla. Florida State won the game 34-14. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

Florida State’s Dalvin Cook tries to escape the pursuit of South Florida’s Eric Lee in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015 in Tallahassee, Fla. Florida State won the game 34-14. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

The plot thickens with this development on Tuesday:

Florida State would obviously need to beat USF to keep this scenario within the realm of possibility. If one considers the idea that at the end of the 12-game slate, Louisville will be No. 4, Florida State will be No. 6, and Clemson will be No. 8, the ACC is setting itself up for trouble with that drawing. What if Clemson (or whichever team is third in the College Football Playoff rankings in the ACC Atlantic at the time) is selected?

Stanford, if having one loss (but only one loss), would stand a very good chance of getting into the CFP over that one-loss ACC team.

Readers will jump in and say, “Wait a minute — the Big 12 is so bad this year that the Pac-12 doesn’t need to worry about the ACC. A one-loss Pac-12 team will get in, since no one in the Big 12 will have only one loss, barring a miracle.”

The South Florida Bulls would like a word, as would The American.

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Houston beat Oklahoma. Yes, Oklahoma is damaged goods at this point, but if the Sooners win the Big 12, that becomes a quality win for the Cougars. If South Florida similarly beats Florida State, and Florida State finishes 10-2 with wins over Clemson and Ole Miss, FSU becomes a high-value scalp for the Bulls.

The American could enjoy this scenario:

Unbeaten Houston versus unbeaten South Florida for the AAC championship.

If the UH-USF winner can tout not just an unbeaten record, but a huge non-conference poker chip plus the head-to-head win over the other, the Group of Five could very well produce its first playoff representative, which would in turn make the Pac-12-versus-ACC battle a fight for the fourth and final playoff spot.

Then consider this scenario: Louisville beats Houston later in the season and finishes 11-1, losing to Clemson. Louisville’s wins over Florida State and Houston carry the Cards above Clemson and FSU in the rankings, but that aforementioned drawing selects Clemson, locking Louisville out of the playoff. Houston then beats South Florida in the AAC title game to make its case for the playoff. A one-loss Houston team — viewed by many to have no chance at the playoff — could remain in contention.

Would UH likely get in under that set of circumstances? Who knows? Would UH have a chance? Probably.

This is where Pac-12 fans are faced with a dilemma in Stanford-UCLA.

Yes, a Stanford win helps the Pac-12 within the context of 2016, but it is very much in the Pac-12’s best long-term interests to have UCLA awaken from its slumber and become the big-boy program it was under Terry Donahue in the 1980s. A robust UCLA and USC give the Pac-12 its highest national profile, plus the more specific benefit of placing a strong Pac-12 South champion against Stanford (or any North champion) in the league’s conference title game.

The plot complication — if not yet made sufficiently clear — is this: UCLA could win and promote the Pac-12’s long-term goals, but a one-loss Stanford could still make the playoff, giving the league the best of both worlds.

What the Pac-12 would have to consider:

1) The possibility of a three-way ACC Atlantic tie and the drawing which might flow from it (if the three teams are within five ranking spots of each other).

2) Houston potentially being playoff-worthy with one loss.

3) Houston and South Florida both being unbeaten heading into the AAC title game, which would make The American a likely representative in the playoff if Stanford is not unbeaten.

South Florida and Houston both figure into college football domino theory -- and where Stanford fits in the mix. -- Icon Sportswire

South Florida and Houston both figure into college football domino theory — and where Stanford fits in the mix. — Icon Sportswire

The bottom line is this: The Pac-12 will be very happy if Florida State beats USF.

The American would lose a playoff contender (USF), and Houston’s potential playoff resume would be weakened, making it harder for the Cougars to make the playoff with one loss (which Louisville could give them). Florida State is still damaged from the 43-point loss to Louisville, and any subsequent stumble from the Noles would knock them out of the playoff chase. If the winner of the October 1 game between Louisville and Clemson loses down the line, the ACC champion would face a more difficult path to the playoff, though a diminished Houston resume would still bolster the ACC’s overall cause.

The Pac-12, though, would stand to benefit the most from all the carnage — possibly to the extent that UCLA could revive itself and yet not prevent Stanford from making the playoff.

Does Larry Scott want to be greedy, or does he want to make sure Stanford gets in this year? Do Pac-12 fans share that outlook (Washington fans excepted, of course)?

It’s worth thinking about.

College football domino theory is fascinating, isn’t it?

Domino theory: Stanford-UCLA and FSU-USF in a larger context

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