Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey could be a Heisman contender. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Playoffs, Heisman? Stanford has shot

What’s fascinating here, so very funny, is that Stanford usually does the snubbing. No American university has a lower acceptance rate these days, with only 5.1 percent of applicants receiving happy letters last year, slightly fewer than Harvard and Yale. So what happens over the coming weeks if Stanford’s football team, which might be the country’s best, and dazzling weapon Christian McCaffrey, who might be the country’s best player, are snubbed by decision-makers judging Stanford for a change?

How will the Farm handle the unfamiliar taste of rej … rejec … rejection?

The best way to handle this conundrum is not to call influential alumni Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who run and fix the world at Google. Or sing the fight song and exchange secret handshakes with a certain Stanford business professor named Condoleezza Rice, who somehow is allowed to be on the College Football Playoff selection committee. No, you simply get the ball to McCaffrey as often as possible — say, on every down — and proceed to manhandle Oregon, Cal, Notre Dame and likely Utah the next four Saturdays without ever having to board an airplane.

Do that, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Stanford is among the final four teams playing for the national championship, with the announcement coming Dec. 6, or if McCaffrey is delivering a Heisman Trophy winner’s speech the following weekend in New York.

Anything short of that and, well, you’re leaving decisions to subjective voters who might not understand why Stanford was miserable in a season-opening loss at Northwestern, or why McCaffrey should win the Heisman when so many of Stanford’s games ended after midnight in the East, long after the old farts were in bed.

As we stand today, at a university pursuing the unprecedented melding of academic predominance with a national football title, both the Cardinal and their all-purpose dynamo have work to do. Stanford rose to No. 7 in the latest CFP rankings but not high enough to eliminate a gloomy possibility: That No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Ohio State and one of two Big 12 teams — No. 6 Baylor and No. 8 Oklahoma State — will win out, leaving David Shaw’s team fifth for a four-team bracket. That’s why it’s useless to spend time stewing over rankings when Stanford can capitalize on building its resume in nationally televised moments against quality opponents, none bigger than Notre Dame, which is ranked No. 4 and comes to Stanford Stadium two nights after Thanksgiving in what smacks of a play-in game.

To Shaw’s credit, he doesn’t watch the rankings shows when they air every Tuesday. He’s busy. “I won’t watch the first show, the second show, or the third show, or how many shows there are,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of stuff to do, let’s put it that way.”

He’d also rather expand the playoff field to eight, which would limit the biggest disappointment to the No. 9 team instead of a No. 5 team probably more equipped to win it all. “I’m a big fan of leaving it the way that it is for a couple of years because I still think we need to iron out a bunch of things,” Shaw said. “But don’t get me wrong, it’s still 100 times better than what we had before.”

Unlike the previous system, the mostly useless Bowl Championship Series, the new playoff format still allows a team like Stanford a shot at a national title despite an early September hiccup at Northwestern. In fact, in what might be a case of Rice kicking selection committee chairman Jeff Long under the table, Stanford was commended for accepting such an imposing challenge — a 9 a.m. Pacific Time kickoff against an estimable program, currently ranked 18th — even though the Cardinal were lifeless in a 16-6 loss.

“Yeah, I think it is a significant thing,” Long said. “Now, every committee member would weigh that differently, but I think it is worth noting that they played at 9 a.m. Pacific Time. I think we would not be doing our due diligence if we didn’t recognize that.”

Wow. Try explaining that to Oklahoma State, which is unbeaten and just clobbered the previous No. 8, TCU, but is ranked behind one-loss Stanford. It’s another example of why Rice, who may or may not have had influence in the 9 a.m. discussions, shouldn’t be serving on this committee as long as she’s working for Stanford. The very appearance of a conflict of interest doesn’t help her, the university, the selection committee or ESPN, which owns and operates the college football machine.

Still, those who think the committee is in the bag for Stanford, based on last year’s Big 12 snubbing for a CFP berth and overall irritation about that conference’s lack of a title game, should be careful. Even if the Cardinal take care of down but dangerous Oregon, Cal and Jared Goff, Notre Dame and then Utah in the Pac-12 title game at Levi’s Stadium, Long made clear that an unbeaten Big 12 champ would have three wins over top-15 teams at that point. No matter how much the committee is down on the Big 12, it can’t omit an unbeaten champ and send one-loss Stanford.

Again, the smartest mission is to ignore the gnarly politics and just bombard the remaining competition. Maybe Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh does a favor for Stanford, his old stomping grounds, and knocks out Ohio State. Maybe Alabama loses to Florida. Maybe we have a case of Clemsoning.

Or, maybe McCaffrey just overcomes all the noise by himself. Doesn’t he do everything else? Handoffs, catches, kickoff returns, punt returns, a touchdown pass last week? What a shame that media knuckleheads in the East and South don’t regard anything or anyone west of Texas as being relevant. They’re missing out on one of the most electric shows in college football history. If he wasn’t a real live human, you’d think McCaffrey was a Silicon Valley creation, a cyborg with sprinter’s speed who sends defenders flying with one hip move, makes the acrobatic seem routine and is good for at least two or three long romps each game.

The Heisman voters want numbers, of course. He’s providing them: 2,174 all-purpose yards through nine games, meaning he could break the all-time record of 3,250 yards by Barry Sanders, father of McCaffrey’s Stanford backfield mate by the same name. Second on the list is Reggie Bush (2,890), who wore No. 5 at USC, the reason McCaffrey wears No. 5. Before last weekend, LSU running back Leonard Fournette was the frontrunner. After he was limited to 31 yards by Alabama’s defense, the race is wide open. And no one is beating McCaffrey in a race, as you now can see on Stanford’s official McCaffrey-for-Heisman promotional website: WildCaff.com.

“He’s played himself into the Heisman conversation. We want to support him. It’s a really good sidebar to what we have going as an entire team,” Shaw said. “Christian’s earned so much respect on the football team, and it’s not just on game day — it’s how he practices, prepares, how serious he took his off-season and his training. He finishes every play in practice 20-30 yards down the field and sprints to get back into the huddle for the next play. All the yards and touchdowns … none of that matters. It’s all about the next play and what he needs to do for this football team.”

Someone has to hype up McCaffrey. He’s certainly not going to promote himself. Has he even thought about the bronze stiff-arm figurine?

“I haven’t. I’ve tried to limit all of that talk and focus on becoming 1-0 each week,” he said.

He will talk all day about the team — such as how the Cardinal learned from the Northwestern loss. “The morale of our team is stronger because of that game,” he said. “It’s allowed us to look at ourselves in the mirror and realize who we are and what we have to do to win games.”

And when the team runs onto the field, tradition dictates that one Stanford player carry the American flag. Guess who?

The All-American kid.

Someone who’d be one hell of an entertainer on New Year Eve’s, in the national semifinals.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

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