Stoppage Time: The games have to matter

How Stanford ended up on the wrong end of committee mistakes for the second straight year.

USC goalkeeper Anna Smith punches out a corner kick in a 2021 matchup between USC and Stanford at McAlister Field in Los Angeles.

“Stoppage Time” is a column by Samuel Reno about NCAA Women’s Soccer.

If you’re reading this in November of 2022, then you know Stanford just lost – eliminated from the NCAA Tournament on penalty kicks by sixth-seeded BYU.

On the surface, there’s nothing notable about the No. 3 seed Cardinal dropping a result to a top-20 Cougars team no stranger to postseason success. But Stanford, after losing just twice all year, had to play this home game in Chapel Hill, N.C.

That’s the difference between a second or third seed in the NCAA Tournament – hosting second and third round games or not. When minor differences in seeding matter this much, the committee must do better.

And when it comes to Stanford over the last two seasons, they simply have not. The games – for lack of better words – have to matter.

That pair of aforementioned Cardinal losses both came on the road at the hands of Northwestern and USC – who each spent extended time in the top 10. Stanford’s only other blemishes came in split-decisions at Santa Clara – coming off back-to-back College Cup appearances – and at Cal – a result that clinched the outright Pac-12 title.

Yet, the committee decided the Cardinal were no better than ninth-best when setting the field of 64. So let’s look at how Stanford’s resume stacks up with the eight ahead of them, and look just a little deeper than the RPI.

We’ll start by eliminating the schools who dropped the same or fewer results, which takes out all four No. 1 seeds in UCLA, Alabama, Florida State and Notre Dame, as well as No. 2 seed Saint Louis.

That leaves us with Duke, North Carolina and Penn State. The Nittany Lions lost four games this season – including a head-to-head 2-0 defeat at Stanford on Sept. 1 – and drew another three.

Duke also lost a quartet of contests while the Tar Heels dropped a trio – each losing on their home field to top-seeded UCLA. For comparison’s sake, Stanford took down the then-unbeaten No. 1 Bruins 1-0 on Oct. 14.

Stanford won more games and lost fewer than three of the committee’s No. 2 seeds, one of which the Cardinal beat earlier this season. Yet the committee slotted them on the No. 3 line, a statement of separation that directly contradicts the results on the field.

A season ago, Stanford finished the 2021 campaign with five losses. Four of those were road losses against top-10 opposition – No. 5 Duke, No. 2 North Carolina (in overtime), No. 5 UCLA and No. 10 USC (in overtime).

It was a schedule that also included a 3-1 drubbing of the defending champions in No. 11 Santa Clara. Their reward for facing five top-11 opponents, winning one of them and forcing overtime in another pair?

A first round trip to Santa Clara, who, like Stanford, also dropped five games – including a head-to-head loss to the Cardinal. Sound familiar?

Even if Stanford had ridden out of Broncos’ Country alive, they were set – had UCLA avoided a first-round upset to UC Irvine – to travel to Westwood for their second and third round matchups.

The selection committee has made a habit of seeding almost exactly according to the RPI, a useful tool for quantifying some of the nuance that can be missing from a win-loss record.

But at some point, the games have to matter. At some point, the committee must be held accountable to look deeper than a mathematical calculation, especially when their decisions have such a massive impact on how the tournament plays out.

There have been numerous other questionable decisions made by the committee along the same lines – unbeaten UCLA earning No. 2 seed in 2021, two-loss and No. 2 seed North Carolina having to face South Carolina in round one of the same tournament…

Boasting some of the most talented rosters in the country over the last two seasons, no school has been as hard done by the committee as Stanford. And just as it did a season ago, the Cardinal’s 2022 season ended far sooner than it should have.

While, of course, Stanford could have rendered the committee’s missteps meaningless by taking care of business inside the lines, poor decisions outside of them made that task undeniably more difficult – an extra hurdle its regular season resumes should, like other top programs, exempt them from having to clear.

The games… have to matter.