Week 13 in college football — aka rivalry week — promises to be one of the most chaotic of the year, with dozens of teams playing hatred-filled games that will have major College Football Playoff implications. No. 2 Clemson travels to face in-state rival South Carolina; No. 7 Georgia hits the road for its annual meeting with Georgia Tech; and No. 9 Ohio State heads to the Big House to face “That Team Up North.” But of all those high-intensity games, it’s the one between Alabama and Auburn that has the most riding on it.
The Iron Bowl has given fans some of the most spectacular college football moments in recent memory, including “The Drive” in 2009, when Greg McElroy drove Alabama back to a 26-21 win at Jordan-Hare Stadium via a touchdown with less than 90 seconds left. Or “The Camback” in 2010, when Auburn, led by Cam Newton, stormed back from 24 points down in Tuscaloosa to stay undefeated (they’d eventually go on to win the National Championship). And most famously, there was the “Kick Six” in 2013, when Alabama took a 57-yard field goal attempt with one second remaining, but the ball fell short, and Auburn’s Chris Davis ran it back 109 yards to win the game.
But this Saturday’s Iron Bowl could top all of those others, given its importance and the sheer quality of this year’s Tide and Tigers squads. For starters, these two teams are the best they’ve been in decades. We can measure how strong a given matchup is using our Elo ratings, which assign each team a score based on their quality at any given moment. And currently, Alabama boasts the No. 1 Elo in the country (what else is new?) while Auburn ranks sixth. If we combine those Elo ratings using their harmonic mean — which allows us to look for matchups where both teams have high ratings — we find that this year’s Iron Bowl features the greatest combination of Alabama and Auburn squads since at least 19881:
And the stakes of this particular Iron Bowl could scarcely be higher. Not only will the winner go to the SEC title game as West division champ,2 but the outcome will also have a big influence on who ultimately makes the College Football Playoff.
According to the FiveThirtyEight CFP prediction model, Alabama and Auburn are two of the eight remaining teams in the country with at least a 20 percent probability of making the CFP. If Bama wins, that would bump the Tide’s playoff odds from 67 percent to 84 percent; if they lose, that number falls to 42 percent (meaning ’Bama might well miss the CFP for the first time). The stakes are even higher for Auburn: If the Tigers prevail, their odds will rise from 21 percent to 52 percent, but a loss would effectively eliminate them from the CFP race. And the ripple effects extend beyond the SEC, as seven other teams figure to see their playoff probabilities shift by at least 1.5 percentage points depending on what happens on the Plains.
|CHANGE IN CFP CHANCES IF …|
|TEAM||CURRENT CFP CHANCE||BAMA WINS||AUB WINS||CFP SWING|
So with 62.4 percentage points of total CFP probability on the line — in terms of how much the game projects to swing our model’s odds across every team in the country — Alabama-Auburn is easily the most important game remaining in the regular season:
|HOME TEAM||AWAY TEAM|
|DAY||SCHOOL||ELO RATING||WIN PROB.||SCHOOL||ELO RATING||TOTAL SWING|
In terms of ridiculous, heart-stopping finishes, it would be hard for Saturday’s game to top the 2013 edition, which ranked second in terms of combined Elo ratings, so don’t hold your breath for another miraculous kick six. But even though we don’t know how it will end, this Iron Bowl is set up to be special. The teams are at their best, the winner will likely go to the College Football Playoff while the loser will likely stay home, and the game’s outcome could help throw the rest of the country into chaos. The Alabama-Auburn rivalry is legendary and the game would still be tense even if both teams were 2-9 — but with the road to the national championship passing squarely through Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday, this season’s edition should be one for the ages.
Check out our latest college football predictions.
CORRECTION (Nov. 22, 9:30 a.m.): A previous version of the third table in this story reversed the home and away teams for several games: Auburn-Alabama, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh-Miami, South Carolina-Clemson, and Stanford-Notre Dame. The table has been updated.