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There have been five College Football Playoffs. Alabama has been in all of them, reaching four title games and winning two national championships.
Only twice was Alabama unbeaten when the playoff committee selected it to the four-team field. The three other times, it had a loss. In 2017, the Tide didn’t even win the SEC West and still got picked at 11-1.
That’s the margin for error Alabama enjoys/earned/deserves.
Only it may not exist this year.
The 8-0, third-ranked Crimson Tide host the 8-0, second-ranked LSU Tigers on Saturday in Tuscaloosa.
It’s not just a big game. This time it’s likely a must-win for Alabama’s playoff hopes.
Schedule and circumstances have left Alabama with no safety net. Lose to LSU at home and barring a lot of collapses around the country, Nick Saban’s team could be out. You could hear the warning bells ringing Tuesday when the first playoff rankings were released.
Committee chairperson Rob Mullens noted that Alabama was highly regarded not because of who the Tide beat — a Texas A&M team that was ranked 24th at kickoff is ostensibly its best win — but in spite of it, namely that it’s looked good against a blah schedule.
“Alabama is No. 3 because committee members are impressed with its overall performance and quality of play on both sides of the ball,” said Mullens, who is Oregon's athletic director.
For ‘Bama this is about the eye test, not a strong résumé full of quality wins. And that means a loss, which is almost by definition ugly to the eye, becomes even more problematic.
Alabama can’t point to a strong schedule to combat any losses. There is very little there, at least so far.
The SEC West hasn’t produced the gauntlet of tough teams as it has in years past. That A&M squad is now unranked. Alabama’s big non-conference game was against Duke, which is 4-4. The league crossover game was, as always, against Tennessee, which is 4-5.
It’s a far cry from past seasons.
In 2014, Alabama defeated six teams ranked at kickoff and won the SEC, to make the CFP despite losing to then-No. 11 Ole Miss. In 2015, it beat six teams ranked at kickoff, including No. 2 LSU, and won the SEC to offset another loss to Mississippi.
In 2017, it defeated three teams ranked at the time of kickoff to minimize a loss at then-No. 6 Auburn despite Alabama not even winning its division.
In both 2016 and 2018, the Tide were unbeaten and entered the final weekend in such a commanding position they could likely have lost in the SEC championship game and still been picked in the top four. In 2016, it defeated seven teams ranked at the time of kickoff before smoking No. 15 Florida in that SEC title game.
It makes LSU on Saturday an even bigger deal. Beat the Tigers and what Alabama has left remaining on the schedule is a road game at current No. 12 Auburn, then a likely SEC title game against current No. 7 Georgia.
Lose to the Tigers, though, and LSU has the inside track to Atlanta — it would have to lose two times while facing Ole Miss, Arkansas and A&M. That’s difficult to fathom.
In that case, Alabama would be left with just the Auburn game to make its case. Auburn is a good opponent, but it already has two losses (to LSU and Florida) and still must play Georgia. The quality of that win could be debatable by selection Sunday.
The committee acknowledged as much, even noting No. 4 Penn State probably had a better résumé so far and the only reason the Tide is ranked above the Nittany Lions is how they looked while winning.
“I think at the end of the day, when the committee watched Alabama, what they saw is a team that's being dominant against that schedule, and that was the difference between Alabama and Penn State,” Mullens said. “Obviously we watch all the games and see the data, and what you see when you watch Alabama is obviously outstanding playmakers.
“They’ve been dominant against their schedule, and while it may not be as strong as some others, when you watch the games, they certainly have been dominant.”
And if they aren’t dominant?
Conversely, LSU might be fine with a loss in Tuscaloosa, especially a close one. First off, it’s on the road. Second, the Tigers already own wins over Auburn, Florida and at a Texas team that could work its way back into the rankings. If there is going to be an 11-1 non-division champion SEC entry this year … it’s LSU, not Bama.
Nick Saban won’t acknowledge as much, because he smartly doesn’t acknowledge much of anything.
“Look, I didn’t even look at the college football rankings,” Saban said. “I don’t even know what we were ranked. It’s not going to matter if we don’t win the games that we play.”
Saban is right about that, this year more than ever.
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