1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
They’ve rolled through the regular season unblemished and are a game away from playing in the SEC Championship Game.
And with one loss, it’s all over for Alabama.
The opportunity to win four consecutive SEC Championships. The opportunity to play in the College Football Playoff.
All because of a loss to bitter rival Auburn. Where have we seen this before?
“This is always a game of significance,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “This particular year, there’s a lot on the line for both teams.”
The Iron Bowl hasn’t meant this much since 2013, when Auburn’s stunning Kick-Six buried Alabama’s hopes of three consecutive national championships. Auburn can win the SEC and get to the CFP by beating Alabama this weekend, and SEC East Division champ Georgia next weekend.
There is no debate there.
Meanwhile, the only way Alabama survives a loss to Auburn and still advances to the CFP (which will mean two SEC teams in the CFP), is by complete chaos over the final two weeks of the regular season. By complete chaos, I mean:
1. Oklahoma loses (vs. West Virginia – without star QB Will Grier — or in the Big 12 Championship Game, likely against TCU).
2. Wisconsin loses (at Minnesota, or to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game).
3. Ohio State loses to Michigan before beating Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Why does Alabama need this chaos if it loses to Auburn, you ask? Come walk with me down Reality Street.
Oklahoma has at least similar if not better better wins (at Ohio State, at Oklahoma State, TCU) than Alabama (healthy FSU, LSU, at Mississippi State), and a conference championship. Remember, it’s not about the loss(es) this late in the CFP process, it’s about the wins.
Wisconsin is unbeaten, and unbeaten Wisconsin automatically earns a CFP spot.
Unbeaten Miami earns a CFP spot, and one-loss ACC champion Clemson has a head-to-head victory over Auburn, a team Alabama would have lost to.
If the final two weeks play out as planned and Alabama loses, the Tide will not make the CFP. Clemson, Oklahoma and Auburn would take three of the four spots, and the final spot will be a head-to-head breakdown between Alabama and Ohio State/Wisconsin.
1. If Wisconsin wins, it is in, and the CFP final four is ranked like this: Clemson, Auburn, Oklahoma, Wisconsin.
2. If Ohio State wins, the Buckeyes will have two ugly losses (Oklahoma and Iowa), but will have wins over unbeaten Wisconsin (comparable to Alabama’s win over a healthy FSU to begin the season), Penn State and Michigan State (comparable to Alabama’s Mississippi State and LSU wins).
The committee would then weigh the two Ohio State losses against its Big Ten Championship (and the way OSU finished the season – sound familiar, TCU and Baylor?), and that’s where the spot will be won for the Buckeyes. The final four: Clemson, Auburn, Oklahoma, Ohio State.
What if Georgia beats Auburn, you ask? Georgia is in the CFP, and the scenario doesn’t change for Alabama. It still needs chaos.
2. 2013 all over again, Part II
It could get 2007 crazy, and the entire season could go down a rabbit hole in the final two weekends of the regular season.
You remember 2007, right? LSU suffered its second loss – to Arkansas, one week before the SEC Championship Game – and still found a way to the BCS National Championship Game when utter insanity from the previous three months (Appalachian State beat Michigan, a walk-on Stanford quarterback beat USC, Kentucky beat LSU in triple overtime, unranked Illinois beat Ohio State, to name a few) found a home in the final week of the season.
That’s when No. 1 Missouri and No. 2 West Virginia – needing only victories in their final games of the season to advance to the BCS NCG – imploded on the spot. Mizzou was pounded by Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game, and West Virginia lost to rival Pitt (which had won all of four games) after star QB Pat White was injured early and ineffective.
It’s the 10-year anniversary of the season of mayhem, so why not?
You want crazy? I’ll give you crazy:
South Carolina beats Clemson this weekend in Columbia (more on that possibility later), and Miami loses to Pitt. Clemson then beats Miami in the ACC Championship Game.
Or Ohio State loses to Michigan and beats Wisconsin. Or Wisconsin loses to Minnesota and beats Ohio State. Or Oklahoma loses to West Virginia and beats TCU.
As always, the safest, surest way to reach the CFP: win. Just like it was 10 years ago with the BCS.
3. 2013 all over again, The Epilogue
When Alabama lost to Auburn in 2013, the Tigers did so by doing something no one else had done all season: ran the ball down Alabama’s collective throat.
Tailback Tre Mason ran for 164 yards, and quarterback Nick Marshall was a yard shy of 100 and the Tigers ran for nearly 300 yards on an Alabama run defense that was giving up 100 yards per game.
Now here we are again: The Tide are giving up 87 yards rushing per game, but have a linebacker corps riddled with injuries and a front four that doesn’t dominate games like the previous three CFP teams did (or could).
Alabama gave up 172 yards rushing to Mississippi State two games ago, and 151 yards to LSU. Neither of those teams can throw consistently like Auburn can – and neither can force the Alabama secondary to cover deep (LSU QB Danny Etling missed four wide open deep balls, and Mississippi State could connect, either).
Auburn, meanwhile, has been progressively improving in throwing deep over the second half of the season. Jarrett Stidham’s numbers throws of more than 20 yards is impressive: 22-of-52, 837 yards, 8 TD, 1 INT. If you’re completing 42 percent of throws more than 20 yards, that’s a significant advantage.
Combine that with the downhill running of Kerryon Johnson and the best offensive line Alabama will play all season, and the Tide’s run of three straight CFP appearances might just end this weekend.
4. Not yet there
Earlier this year I traveled to Columbia to report a profile on South Carolina QB Jake Bentley and was overwhelmed by the idea that had permeated the program.
The Gamecocks were chasing state rival Clemson as much as SEC king Alabama. A 49-point loss to Clemson last season put everything in perspective.
“Like it or not, that’s what’s ahead of us,” Bentley said. “No one on this team likes the fact that our rival embarrassed us. It’s up to us to change that.”
That begins this weekend in the Palmetto Bowl against defending national champion (and two-time CFP finalist) Clemson. And South Carolina might be closer to catching Clemson than it originally thought this offseason.
Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp admitted in March that his program might be two recruiting classes from catching Clemson, and that’s probably accurate. But South Carolina’s second-half surge this fall should, at the very least, give cause to pause that narrative.
Clemson’s past three road games (Virginia Tech, Syracuse, N.C. State) have been grinders, all fourth quarter games where the Tigers needed critical plays to secure victory. South Carolina beat N.C. State to begin the season, and has won five of its past six games.
The defense is playing well — No. 21 in the nation in scoring defense (19.6 ppg.), No. 21 in turnovers gained (21) – and the running game is beginning to take pressure off Bentley. It’s still an uphill climb this weekend for South Carolina, but it will be much closer than last year’s rout – and will be critical to Muschamp’s ability to sell his program to recruits.
5. The Weekly Five (plus four)
Five picks against the spread becomes nine picks against the spread on Rivalry Week:
- Alabama at Auburn (+4)
- Ole Miss (+17) at Mississippi State
- Missouri (-11) at Arkansas
- Vanderbilt at Tennessee (-1)
- Louisville (-9) at Kentucky
- Georgia (-11) at Georgia Tech
- Clemson at South Carolina (+14)
- Texas A&M at LSU (-10)
- Florida State (-5) at Florida
Last week: 3-2.
Season: 37-23 (.616)
6. Change for change sake
Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce the flagship universities from the state with the most skill talent of any in the nation:
Florida, which has lost its past five games against Power 5 competition, defending its turf against Florida State, losers of four of its last six against Power 5 competition. The two teams both have losing records in this game for the first time since 1959.
Fear not, fans of state of Florida football. Both Florida and FSU could have new coaches for 2018. This, of course, depends on how much money Texas A&M throws at Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher, and if Fisher really is interested in a new challenge as industry sources have told me over the past month.
Interested is a loose assessment, and likely depends on the school and the package it puts together to tempt Fisher. There’s too much to lose for FSU to let Fisher walk away, so any offer likely would be at least countered with a comparable deal.
But money won’t be the only thing that could entice Fisher to leave; a new challenge is likely the bigger draw. All coaches have egos, and those egos get fulfilled after reaching the top.
Some coaches can keep feeding the monster at the same school (see: Saban); others need a challenge. It’s not just ridiculous contracts for Fisher and his staff (think of a number, any number, and those deep-pocket Texas A&M boosters can get there), it’s the ability to compete against SEC kingpin Alabama and his good friend and mentor Saban.
That and the immaculate facilities in College Station and the idea the Fisher can start over without a six-loss (at least) season in the rearview will tempt him like few jobs could (including LSU last year).
7. Immediate upgrade
Now that it’s clear many teams (not just SEC schools) will be interested in hiring Chip Kelly despite the NCAA baggage, it should be interesting to note what that hire could involve.
If you’re Florida, and you’ve been miserable at the most important position on the field since 2009, it means the hiring of Kelly likely means Mark Helfrich will be your offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach next season. The difference between Helfrich, who is out of football this season, and Doug Nussmeier is staggering.
Former Boise State and Colorado coach Dan Hawkins once told me Helfrich was the smartest and most meticulous offensive coach he had ever been around. Helfrich was Hawkins’ offensive coordinator at Colorado, and was later instrumental as Kelly’s OC – and then as Oregon’s head coach – in developing the Ducks’ offense and quarterbacks Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas and Marcus Mariota.
No matter who or how many quarterbacks are on the Florida roster next spring, if Kelly is coach (and Helfrich is his OC), the days of the Gators’ struggles on offense and quarterback are over.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Hey Matt: I don’t think I can take it if Tennessee takes another run at Jon Gruden and swings and misses. How can they not just offer him so much cash, he can’t help but say yes?
Carl Green, Chattanooga, Tenn.
Carl: I’ve got some important and possibly disturbing news for you: It’s not that Gruden doesn’t want Tennessee (and there has been nothing to say he does), it’s that the Vols may not want Gruden.
Dennis Dodd at CBSSports.com wrote late last week that Tennessee had “serious concerns” about Gruden as a coaching candidate. Why wouldn’t they?
Gruden hasn’t been on a college sideline in a quarter century, and the differences between the college and pro games are significant as far as player procurement.
Recruiting in the SEC isn’t as simple as showing up on a recruit’s doorstep with a Super Bowl ring on your finger.
Recruiting is as important as fall Saturdays, and that’s the biggest adjustment for coaches who make the move from the NFL to college ball. You miss on a recruit, and it can impact years down the road. You miss on a player in the NFL, it impacts one season.
9. Numbers game
18. In two weeks, Dan Mullen will be one of the hottest coaching candidates in the country. His work at Mississippi State – it could include two of the possible four 10-win seasons (2017 included) in school history – has been crazy good considering how difficult it is to consistently recruit to Starkville.
But does he leave Mississippi State for the unknown of a rebuild when he could have as many as 18 returning starters in 2018, including star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald? MSU will pay at or near the same amount that Tennessee or Florida will pay, and he can afford a seven- or eight-win season in Starkville.
Lose five games in Gainesville, and you might get fired midseason. Return to Starkville in 2018, and back up this year’s potential 10-win season with another, and you can coach at MSU for as long as you want. Stability (and about $5 million a year) isn’t such a bad thing.
10. Quote to note
Georgia coach Kirby Smart, on defending the triple option of rival Georgia Tech: “They know when you mess up. It doesn’t take them long to figure out, whoops, he’s not looking at the right thing. And then they expose you.”