Road to the playoff: Alabama’s hopes rest on beating Auburn, then getting help

Depending on what happens in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday and in Atlanta a week later, one of the hottest debates of the College Football Playoff era could rage anew: Should a team that doesn’t even reach its conference championship game make the four-team playoff?

Alabama is ranked No. 5 by the CFP selection committee again this week, one spot behind where the Crimson Tide  must be to reach the playoff for a sixth consecutive year.

Alabama’s hopes hinge on whether it beats Auburn on Saturday, whether LSU beats Georgia in the SEC Championship game Dec. 7 and, if those two things happen, whether the committee would decide to rank a one-loss Bama team that didn’t reach its league title game ahead of the champions of two other power conferences.

“It’d be a real tough discussion in that room, an intriguing discussion,” said Peach Bowl Inc. president and CEO Gary Stokan, referring to the room in Grapevine, Texas, where the 13-member committee deliberates. “It’d be great to be in that room to be a part of it.”

When the playoff was created, the decision was made not to limit the field to conference champions. Conferences wanted the potential to put more than one team in the playoff.

The protocol established for the selection committee states that the group should have “enough flexibility and discretion to select a non-champion ... under circumstances where that particular (team) is unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country.” But the protocol also states that the committee should place an emphasis on conference championships, among other factors, when deciding between similar teams.

So what could lead the committee to conclude that Alabama, without star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (out for the season after a Nov. 16 hip injury), is “unequivocally” one of the four best teams as opposed to one of two or more “similar” teams vying for the final spot?

First, the Crimson Tide — behind backup quarterback Mac Jones — must beat its arch-rival, No. 15 Auburn, to finish the regular season 11-1. If Alabama loses at Auburn, the Tide’s playoff chances end. If Alabama wins, its chances survive for at least another week.

Next, LSU would have to beat Georgia in the SEC Championship game. If LSU does that (and also beats Texas A&M on Saturday), the committee might look favorably at an Alabama team whose only loss was to LSU by five points. But if Georgia beats LSU (and Georgia Tech), the Bulldogs will reach the playoff. And if the committee takes a second SEC team in that scenario, it would be LSU, not Alabama.

Even if Alabama beats Auburn and LSU beats Georgia, the committee still would have to weigh the Crimson Tide against other conference champions on Selection Day.

Say, for the sake of argument, that the teams currently ranked Nos. 1-2-3 — Ohio State, LSU and Clemson — win their conference championship games and reach the playoff. Based on its protocol, the committee would have to consider Alabama “unequivocally” better than the Pac-12 or Big 12 champion to put the Crimson Tide in the fourth spot.

It would help Alabama in that scenario if the Pac-12 and the Big 12 champions have two losses apiece, but right now three teams in those leagues have only one loss — No. 6 Utah of the Pac-12 and No. 7 Oklahoma and No. 9 Baylor of the Big 12. Although ranked one spot behind Alabama this week, Utah has a clearer path to the top four — if the Utes close the regular season with a win over Colorado and then beat Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and if LSU beats Georgia.

Alabama’s schedule won’t help its case. Entering the Auburn game, Bama hasn’t beaten a team ranked in the playoff committee’s top 25 this season, losing to the only one it has played so far (LSU). So the Crimson Tide needs an impressive win over Auburn to bolster its resume.

“If Alabama goes in there and plays well and Mac Jones plays well personally, it could take away a little bit of that anxiety the committee might have about Alabama playing with a second-string quarterback,” Stokan said.

The committee won’t reveal how it might view potential scenarios regarding Alabama or any other team.

“We don’t project,” committee chair Rob Mullens said. “We don’t look ahead.

“Obviously, there’s so many things that can happen. Our job is to focus on the results that we have on the week that we do the rankings.”

One thing for sure: You can remove Alabama from all playoff discussions if Auburn wins Saturday.

“Maybe as it should be, a lot comes down to this game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said at his news conference earlier this week. “It’s kind of a season within a season, so to speak.”

Now on to the rest of our weekly update of college football’s road to the playoff:


The final Saturday of the regular season brings no shortage of games with playoff implications.

Ohio State, which surpassed LSU for the No. 1 spot in the selection committee’s rankings this week, plays at rival Michigan. The Wolverines are ranked No. 13.

LSU will be at home against Texas A&M, the Aggies’ fourth game this season against teams currently ranked in the committee’s top five. They lost to Clemson (24-10), Georgia (19-13) and Alabama (47-28).

The Nos. 3 and 4 teams play their in-state rivals – Clemson at South Carolina and Georgia at Georgia Tech.

In addition to Georgia and Alabama, four other one-loss teams still in the playoff picture to varying degrees – No. 6 Utah, No. 7 Oklahoma, No. 8 Minnesota and No. 9 Baylor – must win their regular-season finales to keep their hopes alive. Utah hosts Colorado; Oklahoma visits No. 21 Oklahoma State; Minnesota hosts No. 12 Wisconsin for the Big Ten West Division title; and Baylor visits Kansas.

“As we all know, something invariably will happen these next two weeks that will cause chaos (in the playoff race),” Stokan said.


Q: How big a factor is Clemson’s schedule in the No. 3 Tigers being ranked behind Ohio State and LSU? 

A: "That's certainly a piece of it," said Mullens, the selection committee chair. "When you look at them, they have been dominant. They're a very balanced team on offense and defense. But the teams at 1 and 2 have three wins over highly ranked opponents, and that is a separator."

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