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This Could Be The Biggest Alabama-Auburn Matchup Ever

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:

On paper, this year’s Iron Bowl looks like the best in years

Highest combined Elo ratings (according to their harmonic mean) for Alabama-Auburn matchups, 1988-2017

SCORE ELO RATING
RK SEASON ALABAMA AUBURN ALABAMA AUBURN COMBINED
1 2017 ? ? 2374 2161 2262
2 2013 28 ✓34 2349 2096 2215
3 2016 ✓30 12 2468 1990 2204
4 2010 27 ✓28 2156 2210 2182
5 2014 ✓55 44 2300 1975 2125
6 1994 ✓21 14 2089 2108 2098
7 2015 ✓29 13 2390 1764 2030
8 2011 ✓42 14 2187 1864 2013
9 1989 20 ✓30 2051 1945 1996
10 1993 14 ✓22 1981 2004 1992

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.

How the Iron Bowl could change the playoff picture

Swings in each team’s chances of making the College Football Playoff depending on who wins the Alabama-Auburn game

CHANGE IN CFP CHANCES IF …
TEAM CURRENT CFP CHANCE BAMA WINS AUB WINS CFP SWING
Auburn 21.0% -20.6 +31.0 +/-24.7
Alabama 66.9 +16.6 -25.1 20.0
Ohio State 27.8 +3.2 -4.8 3.8
Georgia 32.2 -1.9 +2.8 2.2
TCU 11.0 +1.8 -2.7 2.1
Clemson 70.0 -1.7 +2.6 2.1
USC 9.5 +1.6 -2.4 1.9
Miami 51.1 -1.6 +2.4 1.9
Oklahoma 58.1 +1.2 -1.9 1.5
Notre Dame 1.1 +0.4 -0.7 0.5

As of Nov. 20, 2017. Includes teams where the average swing is at least +/- 0.5 percentage points

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:

The most important games of Week 13

According to total swing in all teams’ likelihood of making the College Football Playoff based on the game’s outcome

HOME TEAM AWAY TEAM
DAY SCHOOL ELO RATING WIN PROB. SCHOOL ELO RATING TOTAL SWING
Sat Auburn 2161 39.9% Alabama 2374 +/-62.4
Sat Michigan 1872 25.7 Ohio State 1992 25.5
Sat Georgia Tech 1654 23.7 Georgia 2122 19.4
Sat Oklahoma 2177 87.3 West Virginia 1734 16.5
Fri Pittsburgh 1500 15.6 Miami 2216 14.8
Sat South Carolina 1891 18.6 Clemson 2192 14.5
Sat Minnesota 1565 13.2 Wisconsin 2165 12.0
Sat Stanford 2004 44.3 Notre Dame 1997 10.4
Sat Washington 1961 76.5 Washington St. 1912 8.5
Sat Florida 1661 42.5 Florida State 1674 4.0

Elo ratings are scaled so that an average team has a rating of 1500.

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.

Footnotes

  1. Our Elo Ratings for college football only go back that far.

  2. Either Alabama will have an 8-0 conference record or the teams will be tied at 7-1 in conference games and Auburn would have a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Crimson Tide.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Daniel Levitt is a sports writer at FiveThirtyEight. He’s an alum of the University of Missouri.

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