AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn fans were still giddily cavorting on the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium, celebrating their team’s 26-14 defrocking of almighty Alabama, when Nick Saban started subtly campaigning for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“I’m still very proud of what this team has been able to accomplish this year, winning 11 games.”
“This team has overcome a lot of adversity.”
“I don’t think one game defines who you are.”
And the coach of the Crimson Tide was ready for the direct question when it came.
“I think this team deserves the opportunity to get in the playoff,” he said, “because of what they’ve accomplished and been able to do.”
There’s just one problem with that statement — this Alabama team hasn’t accomplished all that much. Yes, an 11-1 season is outstanding. But the opposition has not been great. And that’s why it’s conceivable that we can have a playoff without the Crimson Tide for the first time in the four-year history of the event.
Coming into this weekend, Alabama’s strength of schedule was 63rd nationally, according to the Sagarin Ratings. That was the lowest of anyone in the Sagarin Top 15. Upon close inspection, there’s not much meat on Alabama’s bone.
The season-opening victory over Florida State lost currency as the Seminoles lost games — six of them total. The next seven games all were against teams currently unranked. The crossover opponents from the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division were Vanderbilt and Tennessee, which went a combined 9-15 and were 1-15 in conference play (the lone league victory was Vandy beating the Volunteers on Saturday). The Tide did beat LSU and Mississippi State earlier this month, but that’s it in terms of opponents who are in last week’s CFP selection committee Top 25.
And this one loss? It was a no-doubter. Auburn outgained Alabama by 133 yards. The Tide led for a total of 10 minutes and 10 seconds, and trailed for 29:09. This looked like a team unaccustomed to playing close games, making mistake after mistake in a raucous environment that clearly affected the visitors’ poise. (When Alabama prematurely snapped the ball for big losses on consecutive fourth-quarter plays, you knew the Tide was shaken.)
So ‘Bama is on the brink. And powerless to do anything about it between now and Selection Sunday, Dec. 3.
“It’s a waiting game,” said center Bradley Bozeman. “We kind of took it out of our own hands.”
This is a first in the playoff era. The past three years, Alabama bossed its way into the field in no-doubt fashion — the Crimson Tide were the top seeds in 2014 and ’16 and the No. 2 seed in ’15, winning the SEC easily each time. Now they will watch Auburn and Georgia battle for that title, then sit around nervously a week from Sunday hoping they get the call.
“I’m not used to this,” defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick admitted.
The two-loss Tigers are a very good team, especially at home. If you’re comparing defeats, Alabama has the best of the one-loss teams: better than Oklahoma losing at home to 7-5 Iowa State; Clemson losing to 4-8 Syracuse; Miami losing to 5-7 Pittsburgh; and Georgia being blown out on this same field by Auburn.
But all those teams have at least one win better than Alabama’s best. Oklahoma beat Ohio State on the road; Clemson beat Auburn; Miami and Georgia both beat Notre Dame.
And Alabama will not have a league title. The committee wisely showed last year that a conference championship is not a must for playoff inclusion, when it let in Ohio State, yet it’s still an accomplishment that is part of the evaluation process.
In all likelihood, Alabama will need another precedent-breaking committee decision — to invite two teams from the same conference. The winner of Auburn-Georgia almost certainly is getting in the playoff, and the winner of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game between Clemson and Miami would seem to be well-positioned for inclusion as well. If Oklahoma beats TCU to win the Big 12, the Sooners likely would lock up a bid. So it could come down to a beauty contest between Alabama and the Big Ten champion, either unbeaten Wisconsin or two-loss Ohio State.
In that instance, ’Bama fans may find themselves in the uncomfortable position of rooting really hard for Urban Meyer and his Buckeyes. The playoff can create strange bedfellows and odd allegiances.
Alabama fans will, of course, argue that a single loss to a Top 10 team is no reason to drop from No. 1 to No. 5. The rest of the nation, having endured a decade of ‘Bama fatigue, will have some serious backlash for the committee if the Tide doesn’t drop out of the bracket.
That debate will be boiling hot between now and Tuesday night, when the next committee Top 25 is revealed. Expect the TV ratings for this installment of the rankings to be huge, with everyone tuning in to see where the 21st century kingpins of college football are slotted. And then the debate will be even hotter coming out of the show.
The playoff has been a successful vehicle for making the best regular season in sports even more interesting. But the one thing the playoff has lacked is Alabama drama. Now that drama is here, and everyone will be taking sides.
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