On the first Saturday of December, Nick Saban is usually coaching Alabama in the SEC championship game. His teams have competed in seven of the past 11 and won six, and the event has been a ticket to the College Football Playoff in each of its first five years. But on Dec. 2, 2017, Saban had the day off — from coaching, at least. That night, after Georgia beat Auburn to win the SEC, Saban called into Scott Van Pelt’s show on ESPN to stump for his team to make the playoff. “I think if the four best teams get in this, we’ll get a lot of really strong consideration, and I think our team deserves to be in it,” he said.
In 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018, the Crimson Tide won the conference title game and rolled into the playoff. But that one weekend in 2017, after a loss in the regular-season finale at Auburn, remains the only one in which Alabama ranked outside the top four of the playoff committee’s rankings since Week 12 of 2014. Saban’s wish came true, and Alabama snuck into the playoff. But if the committee sticks to the precedent it set this week, Saban could have more lobbying to do.
In the committee’s first rankings of the season, Alabama (8-0) is No. 3, below No. 1 Ohio State (8-0) and No. 2 LSU (8-0) but ahead of No. 4 Penn State (8-0) and No. 5 Clemson (9-0). Alabama has been its usual dominant self — ranking No. 2 in ESPN’s Football Power Index and winning every game by at least three scores — but Saturday brings its toughest test of the season: a showdown against LSU and its record-setting offense. If Alabama were to fall in this matchup, it’s harder than ever to see a path for the Crimson Tide back into the top four.
Granted, this predicament hinges on Alabama losing a regular-season home game — something it has done only four times in the past 12 seasons. But there’s reason for concern: LSU has been every bit as dominant this season, has already won tough road games at Texas and Auburn and has a healthier quarterback.1 The Tigers haven’t beaten Alabama since 2011, but they haven’t had an offense like this year’s in that span.
If Alabama loses and both Penn State and Clemson win this weekend — at Minnesota and North Carolina State, respectively — Alabama would likely fall out of the top four. And at that point, there wouldn’t be much time or opportunity for the Tide to jump back in. The team’s next two weekends will see a trip to below-.500 Mississippi State and a guarantee game against Western Carolina. Then there’s the Iron Bowl at Auburn, which would be the last chance for Alabama to impress the committee against a top-25 team. Unless LSU were to lose twice in its closing stretch against Ole Miss, Arkansas and Texas A&M, the Tigers would advance to the SEC title game and deprive the Tide of another such opportunity.
If the regular season ends that way, the committee will have an even more controversial decision than the Alabama case from 2017. Saban’s team would likely be 1-1 against opponents ranked in the playoff committee’s top 25,2 with five of its other six SEC foes currently under .500. Its nonconference schedule is similarly ugly: Duke, New Mexico State, Southern Mississippi and Western Carolina. Alabama’s current strength of schedule ranks 53rd, and history has not been kind to one-loss, nonchampion teams in that position — so much so that the FiveThirtyEight playoff model gives a bonus to conference champions. The 2017 Alabama team was an outlier, along with the 2016 Ohio State team, because of their overall body of work. But there’s no precedent for a one-loss nonchampion qualifying with one top-25 win.
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With four weeks of the regular season left, so much depends on what happens to every other contender. Three SEC teams (LSU, Alabama and No. 6 Georgia) are now ahead of every team from both the Big 12 and the Pac-12. The committee showed some confidence in the oft-maligned Pac-12, ranking Oregon and Utah seventh and eighth, respectively. Then there’s Oklahoma, which just suffered its first loss at Kansas State. All three of those teams stand to gain if Alabama goes down this weekend, but they can also leave the door open for Alabama with another loss of their own.
Much of Saban’s case two years ago rested on the uninspiring competition: He told Van Pelt, “I would say that if we lost to a team in our conference that was not ranked by 30 points, that we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” referencing Ohio State’s 55-24 regular-season loss to Iowa that year. Saban also said, “We lost to Auburn at Auburn, which is a rivalry game for us, tough place to play. Georgia lost there by a whole bunch, too, a lot more than we did.” If history repeats itself, there would be plenty of room to gripe with Oregon’s season-opening loss to Auburn.
It’s likely that, for now, three playoff teams will be the Alabama-LSU winner, the Ohio State-Penn State winner3 and Clemson, which must only wipe out the rest of the weak ACC. If Alabama loses this weekend, the Tide can hope for some damage elsewhere — a second loss for the Pac-12 champion and perhaps a Georgia loss at Auburn next weekend — and then have a chance to back into the fourth spot. And the Tide could well deserve it, being a juggernaut as usual. After all, the 2017 team that Saban campaigned for ended up winning the national title.
No matter how November plays out, we could see in December exactly what the committee values, especially if it’s a choice between a one-loss SEC nonchampion, a one-loss Big Ten nonchampion, a one-loss Big 12 champion and a one-loss Pac-12 champion.
That might be the committee’s toughest ranking yet, and it would spark disagreement across the sport in any case. A scornful Pac-12 might argue that the playoff should expand and include automatic bids for every Power Five champion. In the SEC, meanwhile, nine of 14 coaches favor the current four-team setup, but leaving out one or two of the SEC’s top teams could change some minds. Saban said two years ago, “You want to get the four best teams in the playoff, and I think you got to look at the total body of work that the team did for the entire season,” and many would agree. But it’s not clear, for now, how the committee plans to do that.
Looking ahead: Week 11
Game of the Week: Alabama (49 percent playoff odds) vs. LSU (38 percent), 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday
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|Team||Current Playoff Odds||Wins||Loses||Weighted Diff.*|
What, were you expecting a game other than this to be the most important of the week? With a potential swing of 54.6 total points of College Football Playoff probability on the line, Saturday’s Alabama-LSU tilt is easily the most earth-shattering game of the season to date. Most of that swing is tied up in the two teams directly involved; although this isn’t quite a playoff elimination game, whichever team loses will see its playoff odds plummet into the teens, while the winner would rise to about 70 percent. (Among outside teams, Georgia would see a not-insignificant benefit from LSU winning, presumably because the Tigers would be slightly easier to beat if the two teams met in the SEC title game.) A playoff probability of 70 percent isn’t exactly a lock, either — there are other tough games waiting on each team’s schedule behind this one. But for now, this is one of those matchups to slap the ol’ “Game of the Century” moniker on.
That’s especially true with Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa looking ready to go after leaving Alabama’s Oct. 19 game against Tennessee early — and missing the following week entirely — due to an ankle sprain. Tagovailoa versus LSU’s Joe Burrow is a battle between the nation’s best and fourth-best QBs, respectively, according to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating, and the field will be littered with plenty of other talent destined for high NFL draft picks. With home-field advantage and a statistical edge on defense, we give Alabama a 63 percent chance of winning. But just as importantly, given the caliber of both offenses, this one should hopefully be a lot more fun to watch than the last two LSU-Bama games that looked as great on paper.
|Game||playoff odds at stake||Other Team Most Affected…||…and Who They Want to Win|
|2||Oklahoma-Iowa State||21.5||Utah||Iowa State|
|3||Penn State-Minnesota||18.5||Ohio State||Minnesota|
|7||Wake Forest-Virginia Tech||7.2||Clemson||Virginia Tech|
|9||Clemson-NC State||5.3||LSU||NC State|
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