Playoff picture: Alabama’s path to the College Football Playoff


CW / Hannah Saad

James Ogletree | @jameslogletree, Sports Editor

Alabama has been in this situation before.

Four years ago it lost to Ole Miss, but six wins over top-25 teams earned the Crimson Tide a spot in the College Football Playoff (CFP). It won the national championship.

Two years ago it lost to Auburn, but after a Tigers loss to Georgia and Ohio State’s shocking loss to Iowa, the selection committee gave the No. 4 spot to the Crimson Tide, which won neither the SEC nor the SEC West. It won the national championship.

After the team’s 46-41 loss to LSU two weeks ago, coach Nick Saban said he knew his team might need some help to reach the playoff for the sixth straight year.

“We don’t really control our own destiny,” Saban said. “But if we finish the season the right way, we can see where it takes us.”

That help began shortly after the Crimson Tide’s 66-3 win over Western Carolina on Saturday. No. 4 Georgia looked shaky in a 19-13 win over Texas A&M, which was ranked No. 24 in the AP Poll. No. 6 Oregon fell to 5-5 Arizona State. No. 8 Penn State faded from playoff contention with its second loss. No. 9 Oklahoma outgained TCU by more than 300 yards but still barely survived. 

For all that help to matter, though, the Crimson Tide still must, to steal Saban’s words, finish the season the right way. For now, that means one thing: beat Auburn.

The Tigers, Alabama’s hated in-state rivals, were ranked No. 15 in the selection committee’s most recent ranking on Tuesday. They have a trio of “good losses,” having fallen at No. 1 LSU, vs. No. 4 Georgia and at No. 11 Florida. All three games were within one score in the fourth quarter.

Style points matter for the Crimson Tide, too; it’s not as simple as win-and-in. The more soundly it beats the Tigers, the less likely it is to be leapfrogged by potential one-loss conference champions Utah, Oklahoma or even Minnesota.

Of course, if it doesn’t beat Auburn, Alabama will be on the outside looking in and will play a game without a chance to win the national title for the first time in six years. The Sugar Bowl in New Orleans or Orange Bowl in Miami would be the most likely destinations.

ESPN college football analyst Jesse Palmer said during Tuesday’s live rankings release show that he felt Alabama would need a convincing win over Auburn to stave off the Utes.

If that scenario does unfold and Alabama gets the fourth spot over Utah, the committee would have chosen a non-division winner over a conference champion. 

How unprecedented would that be? 

Twenty teams have been selected to play in the College Football Playoff. Six of them were undefeated; no undefeated Power Five team has ever been left out. 

Twelve of the 20 were one-loss conference champions. Only two one-loss conference champs have ever been left out: TCU in 2014, which was a Big 12 regular season co-champion but didn’t have the benefit of a conference championship game, and Ohio State last year, which lost to Purdue by 29 and narrowly defeated Maryland and Nebraska.

That leaves two one-loss, non-conference champions that have made the playoff: 2016 Ohio State and 2017 Alabama. Those Buckeyes lost at eventual Big Ten champion Penn State, and Alabama lost to eventual SEC runner-up Auburn. 

(It’s worth noting that in both years, the door was left open for a non-conference champion to earn a spot by there being only three conference champions with one or zero losses.)

Thus, each of the 20 playoff teams in the CFP’s five years has either 1) gone undefeated, 2) won its conference with one loss, or 3) finished the regular season with one loss, which was on the road to a team that played in its conference championship and was ranked in the top seven of the final CFP rankings.

Alabama in 2019 fulfills none of those criteria.

There’s also the argument that the Crimson Tide should be demoted due to junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s season-ending hip injury.

It’s not unprecedented for a team to make the playoff without its starting QB; Ohio State did it with its third-stringer in 2014. A 59-0 win in the Big Ten Championship Game was enough to convince the committee that the Buckeyes deserved to jump from No. 5 to No. 4 in the final rankings.

The Crimson Tide likely won’t get – and wouldn’t need – such a lopsided win in the Iron Bowl. Committee chair Rob Mullens said on Tuesday that Tagovailoa’s injury did not affect those rankings because the committee’s job is to rank the teams based on their seasons up to that point, not to speculate about a team’s future performance.

The committee, then, has taken a wait-and-see approach with new starting quarterback Mac Jones.

Perhaps Jones’ 275-yard day against Western Carolina was enough to ease the concerns of the committee. If not, a similar performance against Auburn’s vaunted defense likely would be.

This all assumes no upsets over the next two weeks, like Georgia beating No. 1 LSU in the SEC Championship, No. 2 Ohio State falling to Minnesota or Wisconsin in the Big Ten, or No. 3 Clemson being dethroned by Virginia or Virginia Tech.

Alabama should be rooting for those top three teams to win out. The fewer one-loss teams there are, the better for the Crimson Tide, because its one-loss resume would not compare favorably to a one-loss LSU, Clemson, Ohio State or Georgia. 

Alabama wants the zero-loss teams to stay zero-loss teams by beating the one-loss teams and making them two-loss teams.

In order for any of it to matter, Alabama has to stay a one-loss team.

College Football Playoff rankings (Nov. 19)

  1. LSU
  2. Ohio State
  3. Clemson
  4. Georgia
  5. Alabama
  6. Oregon
  7. Utah
  8. Penn State 
  9. Oklahoma
  10. Minnesota