Four of the 10 schools that have appeared the most in the College Football Playoff rankings play in the SEC West and in the first five years of the playoff era, Alabama has had a monopoly on the division’s playoff appearances. The Crimson Tide has made the playoff every year since it started in 2014 for a total of five berths while the six other schools in the division have yet to make the playoff.
After No. 2 LSU’s 46-41 win at No. 3 Alabama on Saturday, the latter part of that statement looks like it’s bound to change thanks to the Tigers and now one of the biggest questions about this year’s playoff is whether or not the former part of that statement will change, too.
The Crimson Tide have the 10th-strongest strength of record, according to ESPN, behind playoff hopefuls like LSU, Ohio State, Baylor, Minnesota, Clemson, Penn State and Oregon, and the best of Alabama’s eight wins was against a Texas A&M team that will likely finish the regular season 7-5.
Here are ESPN’s SP+ rankings of the teams that Alabama has beaten this season through Week 11:
- Texas A&M – No. 20 SP+
- South Carolina – No. 38 SP+
- Tennessee – No. 40 SP+
- Ole Miss – No. 55 SP+
- Duke – No. 61 SP+
- Southern Miss – No. 78 SP+
- Arkansas – No. 102 SP+
- New Mexico State – No. 122 SP+
Objectively, there’s not much there, even though Alabama’s record is impressive.
Alabama only dropped to No. 4 in the latest AP Top 25 poll and it’s not unreasonable to think the Crimson Tide could stay in the top four of the CFP rankings in Week 12 even after its loss to LSU.
Remember, the language of the official selection committee protocol is that “the committee’s task will be to select the best teams,” so the selection committee could still collectively decide that Alabama is one of the four best teams in the country after a five-point loss to an LSU team that it thinks is one of the two best teams in the country.
Look, it’s not unreasonable to think that Alabama is one of the four best teams in the country.
ESPN’s SP+ rankings rank Alabama No. 2 in the country after its loss to LSU. The Tigers are ranked just behind the Crimson Tide at No. 3 in SP+.
Alabama’s five-point margin of defeat – thanks to DeVonta Smith’s 85-yard touchdown in the final two minutes – could potentially be critical for its playoff hopes. The Crimson Tide were trailing to LSU by 20 points at halftime and during the playoff era, only one team has made the playoff after suffering a loss by at least 20 points – Georgia during the 2017 season, when the Bulldogs lost by 23 points at Auburn, 40-17, but they got revenge a few weeks later in the SEC Championship.
Only three other teams have made the playoff after losing by more than seven points in the regular season – Ohio State in 2014 (lost to Virginia Tech by 14), Washington in 2016 (lost to USC by 13) and Alabama in 2017 (lost to Auburn by 12). Alabama’s loss to LSU certainly doesn’t go in the Ohio State category of bad losses – 31 points at Iowa in 2017, 29 points at Purdue in 2018.
Even though it lost at home, Alabama’s loss on Saturday would certainly fall in the fat part of the bell curve of the regular season losses suffered by past playoff teams. In fact, it might be one of the “better” losses if LSU runs the table and earns the No. 1 seed at 13-0.
But Alabama must go 11-1 to have a chance at making the playoff. Let’s get that straight.
A two-loss team has never made the playoff and the Crimson Tide is going to miss the SEC Championship.
We saw Alabama get the benefit of the doubt from the committee at 11-1 in 2017, when the Crimson Tide lost to Auburn, which won the SEC West, and the SEC became the first conference to send two teams to the playoff in the same season with SEC champion Georgia earning the No. 3 seed and Alabama getting the No. 4 seed.
That season, Alabama had wins over LSU and Mississippi State, both of whom finished the season ranked in the selection committee’s final top 25 rankings at No. 17 and No. 23, respectively.
The Crimson Tide currently doesn’t have any wins over teams ranked in the CFP rankings and it’s likely that Alabama’s only chance to get such a win will be on the road in the Iron Bowl against Auburn. Even if Alabama wins that game, Auburn could finish the regular season 8-4 and wind up ranked somewhere in the No. 17 to No. 25 range, which would be a quality win but potentially not enough for the committee to definitively make the case that the Crimson Tide is one of the four best teams in the country.
Given the lack of transparency and inconsistent logic from the selection committee, which are arguably the biggest issues in the playoff era, it’s hard to know which metrics are being used in the committee room, to what degree they’re being used and how much the committee balances the “eye test” with results on the field.
Alabama, at least in the second half against LSU and in the final score, proved it was worthy of sharing a field with the Tigers but wins and losses have to matter, and the No. 1 bullet point on a team’s playoff resume shouldn’t be a competitive loss. Just ask Georgia, which finished last season ranked No. 5 in the CFP rankings after blowing a lead in a 35-28 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship.
So if the Crimson Tide doesn’t have the sturdiest resume to stand on – other than a potential win over Auburn and a somewhat hollow 11-1 record – it likely needs help elsewhere from some combination of the following group of teams:
- LSU (9-0)
- Ohio State (9-0)
- Clemson (10-0)
- Georgia (8-1)
- Oregon (8-1)
- Minnesota (9-0)
- Utah (8-1)
- Penn State (8-1)
- Oklahoma (8-1)
- Baylor (9-0)
Alabama fans should actually be the biggest LSU fans through the SEC Championship. If an 11-1 Georgia beats a 12-0 LSU in the SEC Championship, two SEC teams would probably make the playoff and neither would be named Alabama. An LSU win in the conference championship would give Georgia a second loss and remove the Bulldogs from playoff consideration.
Likewise, Alabama should hope that Oregon and Utah both slip up before the Pac-12 Championship so that the Pac-12 champion has two losses regardless of who it is. Those two schools were ranked No. 7 and No. 8, respectively, in the first CFP rankings of 2019 and they might move up after Penn State’s loss to Minnesota. They’re currently within striking distance of the playoff if either school finishes as a 12-1 conference champ.
Alabama fans shouldn’t need another reason to root against Clemson but the current playoff landscape provides that reason. The Tigers debuted at No. 5 in the first CFP rankings because of their weak strength of schedule and one loss, whether it’s in the regular season or in the ACC Championship, is probably enough to keep Clemson out of the playoff. It’s unlikely Clemson would lose before the College Football Playoff but stranger things have happened.
The sneaky truth of the Big Ten’s playoff hopes is that it could be the conference that the SEC thought it could be: one that potentially produces two 12-0 division champions that meet in the conference championship game.
Minnesota still has to play Iowa and Wisconsin, and Ohio State still has to host Penn State and travel to Michigan, but it’s not an unimaginable possibility that two undefeated division champs meet in Indianapolis in early December. If Ohio State and Minnesota both finish the regular season undefeated and play a close game in the Big Ten Championship, could both teams make the playoff?
We haven’t seen it happen in the playoff era but it’s not a ridiculous idea, depending on what happens in the other Power Five conference championship games.
The Big 12 had three teams ranked in the first CFP rankings, only because Oklahoma State snuck in at No. 23, so Alabama would benefit from the Big 12 cannibalizing itself in the next few weeks – something like Baylor beating Oklahoma in Week 12 but a two-loss Sooners team beating the Bears in the conference championship game.
A few of the scenarios listed above are bound to happen, where other playoff contenders will be eliminated. One of Oklahoma or Baylor, and one of Oregon or Utah will not be seriously considered for the playoff by season’s end.
But Alabama needs other teams and conferences to avoid a few other worst-case scenarios for the Crimson Tide – the 11-1 Georgia beating 12-0 LSU possibility, the hypothetical undefeated Big Ten Championship game matchup or even Ohio State losing a really close game to a Penn State team that goes on to win the Big Ten Championship at 12-1.
Maybe all of these hypothetical scenarios are a waste of time and space, and the selection committee can simply decide that Alabama is one of the four best teams in the country if it goes 11-1.
But the point is that there are enough other Power Five teams with compelling resumes and potentially stronger strengths of record that will make it difficult for the committee to reward a Crimson Tide team whose strongest on-field result that supports its playoff resume is a close loss to LSU.
Alabama in 2019 might be one of the best test cases in the playoff era for how much wins and losses truly matter because if we find out they don’t mean much, or are at least weighted inconsistently, in the final College Football Playoff rankings this season, we might as well let the oddsmakers in Vegas tell us who the four best teams are and relieve the selection committee of its duties.
1st & 10
1. Credit to Minnesota Coach P.J. Fleck and his agent for the timing of his new seven-year contract, which was agreed to amidst a perfect storm of a soft Big Ten schedule for Minnesota that featured numerous backup quarterbacks playing against the Gophers, Minnesota earning a program-best ranking in the debut of the 2019 College Football Playoff rankings and the Florida State job opening. But Fleck and his Gophers showed that they deserve to be taken seriously after their win over No. 4 Penn State. I obtained a copy of Fleck’s new contract via public records request and you can read all of the contract details here. He’ll make $4.9 million in base salary and supplemental compensation in the final year of the deal, his contract is 65 percent guaranteed if the school fires him without cause and he’d owe Minnesota $10 million if he left for another job before January 1, 2021.
2. During the Minnesota-Penn State broadcast, ESPN’s Sean McDonough said his “fraud antenna was up and it was extinguished quickly” when he met Fleck for the first time during pre-game broadcast meetings, which is both a very aware statement and a surprising one to hear on a national broadcast. McDonough isn’t the first one to wonder how genuine Fleck is – if McDonough believed Fleck wasn’t, he likely would’ve said nothing about the topic – but it’s still rare to hear a broadcaster basically admit to questioning whether or not a coach was “real.” From a distance, Fleck brings an overload of ~culture~ – he ended his halftime interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe with a quick “Row the boat,” his program mantra at Minnesota – but we’ll have to take the word of McDonough and those who have spent time with Fleck that the Gophers’ coach is genuinely that positive and motivational of a person.
3. Minnesota sending the opening kickoff out of bounds felt like the most “this team is too amped for a big game moment.” Days before, the Gophers earned their highest ranking ever in the College Football Playoff rankings, their coach had passionately campaigned for College GameDay, and they were hosting a team that the selection committee believed to be one of the four best in the country. Then the Gophers got called for a penalty on the first play of the game. Luckily for them, it didn’t impact the final result.
4. The ESPN broadcast of Minnesota-Penn State said that the Gophers opened their 1904 season against Twin Cities Central High School as part of their 9-0 start. I have so many questions. Was it common for colleges to play high schools 100 years ago? Why would a high school ever agree to that? And could you imagine such a matchup now, in the age of advanced nutrition programs, and eight and nine-figure athletic complexes at top college football schools? Minnesota’s starters on its offensive line have an average height/weight of something like 6-6, 340 pounds so imagine some sophomore in high school finishing his geometry exam then going to play a DI school in football, and afterwards, going driving around the neighborhood with his mom to work on the 50 hours of behind-the-wheel driving he needs to get his driver’s license. People often throw out hypotheticals like “Could Alabama beat the Miami Dolphins?” but that would be a much fairer matchup than a local high school playing a top-25 college football team.
5. Ohio State Coach Ryan Day called two timeouts in the final minute of the first half against Maryland with the Buckeyes leading 42-0. The Buckeyes got the ball back for one play before the end of the half, which they used for a kneel down to run out the clock. (They also recovered an on-side kick when they were up by 14.) You can wonder if Ohio State has some sort of grievance against Maryland, maybe something that was said or done on the recruiting trail or if Maryland was somehow involved in star defensive end Chase Young’s NCAA eligibility issue. (Ohio State Coach Ryan Day addressed that post-game, saying, “No, nothing like that at all. No. Nothing like that at all. Nope. That wasn’t anything, other than just we’re always going to be aggressive in the first half.”) But the combination of the on-side kick and the way Day used his timeouts late in the first half is certainly interesting. If Chase Young wasn’t sitting out with eligibility concerns, this may have been the game where you would’ve seen him line up at fullback or tight end so the Buckeyes could’ve given him a one-off offensive touchdown to help his Heisman campaign. By the way, if you’re interested in reading about timeout usage and efficiency (not just the petty kind that are called in blowouts), here’s an in-depth breakdown on when the head coaches of the top 10 teams in the country call timeout.
6. Maryland commit Jordan White, a three-star offensive guard, decommitted from the Terrapins at 1:46 p.m. ET in a tweet that was sent during halftime of Ohio State’s blowout victory. It may or may not be relevant but White attends DeMatha Catholic High School, where Chase Young attended.
7. Baylor kicker John Mayers made a career-long 51-yard field goal to force overtime against TCU, demolishing his previous career-best of 38 yards. It can’t be comforting for a kicker, a coach, a teammate or a fan base when the kicker needs to make a kick that is 134 percent longer than his previous career-best but Mayers drilled it, giving him an impressive set of made field goals this season – a 38-yard game-winning with 21 seconds left against Iowa State, a game-winning 36-yard field goal against West Virginia with 10:19 left and a game-tying 51-yarder with 36 seconds left to force overtime against TCU. Last season, Power Five kickers made 53.7 percent, 67.4 percent and 22.2 percent of their kicks from those distances, respectively.
8. In the first five years of the playoff era, LSU was the only school that debuted in the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings and missed the playoff multiple times. This year? The Tigers debuted at No. 2 and they backed up their ranking with a huge road win at Alabama on Saturday. A loss could’ve risked LSU missing the playoff after debuting in the top four three times in the first six years of the playoff.
9. Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle scored on this play, despite having a hand wrapped around his facemask and facing more in the direction of Alabama’s own end zone than in the direction of LSU’s end zone.
10. We’re in Year Six of the College Football Playoff and it’s fair to wonder how many schools are really capable of making the playoff. I graphed the selection committee’s first CFP rankings compared to how much those schools spent on recruiting in 2018 and six of the 10 highest spenders were also ranked in the committee’s top 10 in Week 11. The four that weren’t? A couple of small schools named Texas, Texas A&M, Florida State and Michigan. Ever heard of them? For better or worse, it feels like there’s a self-sustaining cycle of well-resourced schools landing the top players, generally winning more games than their peers and competing for playoff spots, which then makes recruiting future blue-chip recruits easier. At this point, it feels like a school like Utah, Wisconsin or TCU would be the closest thing a four-team playoff could get to a “Cinderella” in the modern era of college football.