Alabama is the SEC's best playoff bet
It’s a new day in college football. Gone are the days of the BCS, with the College Football Playoff riding in to take its place. Four teams, three games in January, one champion.
The criteria to get there are on the CFP website, plain and simple on the surface: “The selection committee will choose the four teams for the playoff based on strength of schedule, head-to-head results, comparison of results against common opponents, championships won and other factors.”
The debate all along has been whether or not the SEC can get two teams into the playoffs. With the way the teams in the conference cannibalize each other, especially in the West division, it’s no sure thing that there’s more than one team with just one loss come season’s end. Of course, with the respect the SEC has earned nationwide, it’s a safe bet that the conference champion will end up in the four-team field regardless.
As of Tuesday, oddsmakers like the Alabama Crimson Tide to win the championship, in theory making them the best bet to be the SEC’s representative in the playoffs. After their 59-0 demolishing of Texas A&M, it’s easy to call that an overreaction. That would be wrong, though.
The reason Alabama has the clearest path to Atlanta and the SEC Championship game in the West is obvious: their schedule.
A quick rundown of what the four West contenders — No. 1 Mississippi State, No. 3 Ole Miss, No. 4 Alabama and No. 5 Auburn — have remaining, along with current opponent rankings:
- Mississippi State: at Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee-Martin, at No. 4 Alabama, Vanderbilt, at No. 3 Ole Miss
- Mississippi: at No. 24 LSU, No. 5 Auburn, Presbyterian, bye, at Arkansas, No. 1 Mississippi State
- Alabama: at Tennessee, bye, at No. 24 LSU, No. 1 Mississippi State, Western Carolina, No. 5 Auburn
- Auburn: South Carolina, at No. 3 Ole Miss, Texas A&M, at No. 9 Georgia, Samford, at No. 4 Alabama
Three of the teams have three games against ranked teams remaining, with Mississippi State being the exception with just two. Both of the Bulldogs’ ranked match ups come on the road, though. Ole Miss plays two of its three games against ranked opponents on the road, and Auburn goes on the road for all three. Meanwhile, Alabama gets two of its three remaining games against ranked teams at home, with the one road game at LSU coming after a bye week.
Of the three, it’s clear Auburn has the most brutal schedule. Just through attrition, they’ll probably take a second loss at some point during this final stretch. It’s not impossible for them to finish the season on a 6-0 run, but it feels unlikely.
The two Mississippi schools are wildcards. Neither team has been through the wringer like this, as legitimate contenders with lofty national rankings. It’s anyone’s guess how they’ll handle it. No outcome is off the table for either team, and with how lights out Dak Prescott has played and how unforgiving the Landshark defense has been an undefeated Egg Bowl is in play. The road, quite literally, is treacherous for both squads.
Alabama, meanwhile, has a cushier path. Any trip to take on LSU in Death Valley is fraught with peril, but this year’s Tigers don’t have the same bite of the last few seasons. The Crimson Tide, who play the run well on both sides of the ball, seem equipped to handle Les Miles’ crew.
Already this season, the Tide have shown themselves to be much better at home than on the road. On average, they put up 230 more yards and 27 more points in Bryant-Denny Stadium than they do when they hit the road, while the defense allows 11 fewer points and 155 fewer yards per game in the friendly confines in Tuscaloosa.
“Best team” may not matter in the knock-down, drag-out SEC West; it’s just realistic to declare one of these four teams much better than the others. More likely, the division (and likely conference) winner will have more of a feel of “last man standing.”
With their upcoming schedule, Alabama seems like the SEC’s best bet of the SEC crapshoot to be one of the CFP’s four selections.