November Blessings and Football’s Dreaded If Onlys

Stanford and San Diego State, the two college programs that serve as settings in A COACH AT HEART, survived dangerous October schedules and now, in late November, celebrate.

The Cardinal’s 35-22 victory over Cal clinched the Pac-12 North division title and a berth in the league’s championship game at nearby Levi’s Stadium in a game that should make running back Christian McCaffrey a Heisman Trophy finalist. Their opponent will be the UCLA-USC winner.

The Aztecs won the West Division title in the Mountain West before even setting foot on the field as the only other contender, Nevada, lost. SDSU went on to plaster UNLV 52-14 and will play Air Force, likely in Colorado Springs.

Both teams put in the work, achieved dominance over their opponents, and now receive their rewards.

But, oh, what could have been. They say there is nothing sadder than being a one-loss football team. While Stanford and San Diego State have, so far, two and three losses respectively, each have moments they will live to regret during the off-season.

If only.

For Stanford, it will be a pair of botched center-quarterback exchanges in a showdown with Oregon. Stanford was trading punches with the Ducks and had chances to pull ahead when the weirdness took place. The Cardinal was moving the ball well at the time, so they probably left anywhere from six to 14 points from the scoreboard in what turned out to be a two-point loss.

Losing a Pac-12 North game wasn’t a huge deal since Stanford clinched the division a week later. But the setback killed almost any chance the Cardinal had at appearing in the national championship playoffs. Going into the Oregon game, Stanford was seventh in the playoff rankings, with the top four at the end of the season invited to participate. In the past two weeks, a pair of teams ahead of them — Ohio State and Baylor — lost. A third team, Notre Dame, is about to visit Stanford Stadium in what could have been a showdown for a playoff spot. Instead, the Cardinal slipped to 11th and, while they’ll be higher after beating Cal, it’s likely they’ll only be playing spoiler against the Irish.

If only.

On a seven-game win streak, San Diego State is starting to pick up scattered Top 25 votes but remain well down the list. That’s partly because there is very little respect for the division they play in, and because of a September home loss against lowly South Alabama that had a restless fan base calling for Coach Rocky Long’s head. If the Aztecs had found a way to hold off the Jaguars, they would be nearing the Top 25, if not in it now.

Instead, you have a situation where one of the hottest teams outside a power conference is not even close to consideration for the so-called “Group of 5” slot in the New Year’s bowl games. They can win their last two games by wide margins and the best they can hope for is the Las Vegas Bowl, which isn’t bad but organizers might be considering BYU instead.

If only.

Stanford and SDSU aren’t the only teams that are both celebrating and gnashing their teeth.

— Michigan State would be undefeated if it’s normally stiff defense hadn’t collapsed in the fourth quarter of a one-point loss at Nebraska, though the Spartans might be able to get into the playoffs by defeating Iowa for the Big Ten championship;

— Duke and Memphis have demonstrated how the football season is a marathon, not a sprint. The Blue Devils started 6-1 but never recovered from the Miami kickoff return debacle and lost four games in a row. The Tigers started the season 8-0 and were the media’s Flavor of the Month before they hit the meat of their schedule and suffered three straight losses. LSU started 7-0 and is now 7-3.

— Big 12 contenders for the league title and playoffs have all lost their quarterbacks to injury — Baylor, TCU, and now Oklahoma.

Here’s how I see the playoffs right now. I can’t imagine Clemson or Alabama losing in the end of their regular seasons. A third spot will go to the Iowa-Michigan State Big Ten championship winner. The fourth will go to Notre Dame, if the Irish beat Stanford, or to the Big 12 winner.




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