The motto of the BCS used to be “every game matters.” The meaning was plain and clear, whether or not you agreed with its assessment. The point was that if a team wasn’t perfect, its chances of reaching the National Championship Game were now in the hands of the other teams that were still perfect. If everyone lost, then second chances can come. There were no byes, there were no free losses. Every game mattered — in theory, at least.
Judging by the popularity (or, more precisely, lack thereof) of the BCS among college football fans, it’s clear that for the most part the fans didn’t buy into the “every game matters” mantra. Whether that is because fans aren’t interested in a system where every game actually matters or whether a postseason tournament with just two teams is too small probably depends on the fan in question. The end result, though, was a move from the BCS to the College Football Playoff.
The Playoff, however, claims to keep a system where every game matters. Again, the point is that a team should never be able to take a week off. If a team bails on even a single game, that could be the end of that team’s Playoffs hopes. In theory, that’s been pretty true, though there has been one case — like Alabama in the SEC Championship Game this year — where we’ve been pretty sure that a team could make the Playoff even with a loss.
There is another meaning to the concept of “every game matters,” and it’s one that we cannot overlook. Every single game over the course of the season has a chance on impacting the entire season. How can that be? Let’s look at one game — or one play of one game — in particular and wonder if the Playoff would have looked different had that play ended differently. Am I exaggerating when I say that one play can change the entire season? Not in the slightest.
The big debate for this year’s Playoff — contrary to what Ohio State detractors still want to think — is whether Penn State or Washington would be the fourth team in this year’s Playoff. Kirby Hocutt didn’t tell us that it was a particularly agonizing decision, and Penn State having two losses was enough to keep it behind Washington. Obviously, Penn State’s loss to Pitt had a major impact on the season. If Penn State had won that game, the Nittany Lions may very well have been the fourth (or third) seed in this year’s Playoff. But there’s another play, one involving neither Penn State nor Washington, that may very well have impacted the committee’s decision — without us realizing it at all.
When Utah played BYU in Week 2, the Utes carried a seven-point lead into the final minute. BYU quarterback Taysom Hill scored a touchdown with just eight seconds left, and new coach Kalani Sitake decided to go for two and the win. BYU failed, Utah won, and neither team was really in the Playoff picture all season (Utah may have been on the fringe in October), so this game just fell by the wayside in our minds as another great college football highlight.
But what if BYU had won? Where would the season be then?
Well, to begin with, Utah definitely would not have been ranked coming into Week 4. USC’s loss to Utah would have looked worse, but that probably wouldn’t have affected USC’s ranking because USC’s current ranking comes from how the Trojans ended the season. What it might have affected, though, is how Washington was viewed.
Coming into Week 9, Washington was viewed as a well-coached and talented team that had been entirely untested. Stanford was struggling and had fallen our of public favor. Washington had not played another team of even mediocre value as an opponent in its first seven games. Washington’s game against Utah, even though it was a close one, did not make Washington look bad. The Huskies were facing a ranked team on the road, so any win in that case is a good win. When Washington won on a late touchdown return by Dante Pettis, that was when the media and college football conversation began to truly respect Washington.
If Utah had lost to BYU, though, Utah is 6-2 with no good wins coming into that game. It’s unlikely that Utah would have even been ranked. Then we would have seen Washington struggling on the road against a solid — but not ranked — team. Utah’s game against Colorado would have been viewed differently. Instead of Colorado barely beating a ranked team in a great game, it would have been Colorado struggling with a solid — but, again, unranked — team in a great game. And there is no way that the 7-5 Utes ranked to end the season.
Where would that leave us come Selection Sunday? Washington would have had one loss, but only two (Stanford and Colorado) wins against teams ranked at the end of the season. Colorado might have also been ranked a few spots lower, but that wouldn’t have made such a big difference. Still, if Utah isn’t ranked, then the comparison between Washington and Penn State gets tougher. Washington would be 2-1 against the CFP Top 25, with the best win being over Colorado, ranked somewhere from 10-12. Penn State would be 3-2 against the Top 25, including 2-1 against the Top 10.
Would that difference have been enough to jump Penn State over Washington? Maybe not. The committee has often been reluctant, at least at the top, to put two-loss teams over one-loss teams. On the other hand, the most underrated stat of the CFP era is that no Playoff team has ever ended the season with less than three wins against teams ranked in the final CFP ranking.
It’s really impossible to guess what would have happened, but it’s not unreasonable to think that the BYU/Utah game–and BYU’s missed two-point conversion in particular — changed the entire season. And that, in essence, is the true meaning of “every game matters.”