Alabama has the brand. It has the tradition, the coach and the clout — it even has the respect of the College Football Playoff selection committee despite a weak schedule — but for the first time in six seasons, the Crimson Tide might not have what it takes to finish in the top four.
After losing at home Saturday to No. 2 LSU, No. 3 Alabama also lost its one opportunity to dazzle the selection committee with a blockbuster win. Now, the Tide have almost no chance to win the SEC — they would need to win out and see the Tigers to lose two of their final three games, against 4-6 Ole Miss, 2-8 Arkansas and 6-3 Texas A&M, just to have a shot at winning their division. Without a conference championship, Alabama will have to prove it is “unequivocally” one of the four best teams in the country. That seems like a tall task considering its next three games are against five-loss Mississippi State, FCS Western Carolina and Auburn. And the Tide’s underwhelming schedule so far — they have yet to beat a ranked team — won’t help, either.
LSU, on the other hand, made a great case to jump Ohio State for the No. 1 spot in Tuesday’s rankings (7 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App), while Alabama might drop only to No. 4 as the highest-ranked one-loss team. But that’s because the committee doesn’t look ahead.
“The committee’s job is to enter the room with a blank sheet of paper, meaning we start with an open mind as we consider the strengths and weaknesses of every team, from opening day through this past Saturday,” selection committee chair Rob Mullens said last week. “Nothing else matters.”
Though it’s impossible to predict what 13 people might do on Selection Day, remember how things change on championship weekend, when the final piece of the résumé is added and the committee is required to follow the protocol given to it by the 10 FBS conference commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick:
Strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and championships won must be specifically applied as tiebreakers between teams that look similar.
That’s where Alabama could be in trouble — if the committee deems the Tide “similar” to the winners of the Pac-12 or Big 12, forcing the use of those tiebreakers.
In each of the past three seasons, the committee has chosen a top-four team that didn’t win a conference title: Ohio State (2016), Alabama (2017) and Notre Dame (2018). While those three storylines are often referred to and still debated, they’re also not the norm, as 17 of the past 20 semifinalists have been conference champions.
In 2017, when Alabama finished No. 4 despite losing to Auburn and not winning the SEC West, the Tide had two other ranked wins, against LSU and Mississippi State. This season, assuming the Tide win out, Auburn would be the only ranked opponent they beat.
That could be important if Alabama is part of a debate with Oregon for the fourth spot because Auburn is a common opponent, and the Ducks lost 27-21 to Auburn in the season opener. In addition to winning out in convincing fashion, Alabama’s playoff hopes would increase again dramatically if Oklahoma loses and the Pac-12 produces a two-loss conference champion.
Alabama is the only program in the country that has finished in the top four every season of the playoff’s brief existence, but after Saturday, that streak is in jeopardy. That’s a question for the committee to tackle on Dec. 8. Here are three more questions that will affect this week:
Who’s No. 1?
The selection committee ranked Ohio State No. 1 this past week “because of their overall consistent dominant play each week as well as their strength on offense and defense,” Mullens said. Nothing Ohio State did in its 73-14 smashing of Maryland changes that evaluation, but LSU now has victories against the committee’s No. 3 team (Alabama), No. 10 team (Florida) and No. 11 team (Auburn). It also has a road win against unranked Texas, which is now 5-3.
How high does Minnesota climb?
In the history of the CFP rankings, no team has jumped higher than six spots into the top 10, but No. 17 Minnesota has a chance to change that after its victory over No. 4 Penn State. What is the Golden Gophers’ ceiling? For now, it’s probably the No. 9 or No. 10 range, and probably ahead of the Nittany Lions, assuming the committee honors the head-to-head result. Although it was a monumental win for the program, remember that Minnesota beat South Dakota State 28-21, needed double overtime to beat Fresno State, and beat Georgia Southern 35-32. Penn State was the first ranked opponent the Gophers had faced all season. It was a huge step in the right direction, but probably not enough to overcome an otherwise dreadful schedule and really make a push for the top four right now. If Minnesota wins out, though, with victories against Iowa and Wisconsin, and beats Ohio State to win the Big Ten? Then it’s time to talk playoff.
Tanner Morgan tosses three touchdown passes and Minnesota’s defense comes up with three interceptions as the Golden Gophers hang on to beat Penn State 31-26.
Can the Big Ten still get two teams in?
It’s still possible, but less likely because of what would have to happen — a combination of Penn State winning out, Minnesota finishing undefeated, and/or Ohio State finishing undefeated or with one loss. The first scenario is if Penn State runs the table and avenges the regular-season loss to what would be an undefeated Minnesota team in the Big Ten title game. The selection committee could consider one-loss Big Ten champion Penn State, one-loss runner-up Minnesota and one-loss Ohio State.
Another possibility would be if Ohio State and Minnesota were both undefeated heading into the Big Ten title game, and the committee considered both the winner and the runner-up. The only thing that seems certain right now is Penn State lost its chance of getting in without winning the conference. The Nittany Lions probably need to beat Ohio State and run the table to finish in the top four.
Remember, the second-best team in the Big Ten would face the same burden as Alabama, with the committee having to conclude that it’s “unequivocally” one of the four best teams in the country. Would the Big Ten’s second-best team be better than the Pac-12 champ? The Big 12 champ? Alabama?
Any team not playing on Dec. 7 can only hope.