A breakdown of what Texas A&M's complicated — but real — Playoff path looks like
It’s right around the halfway point of the season, and Texas A&M is in the hunt.
Usually, those words are followed by disappointment in College Station. It’s the 6th time in the last 9 seasons that the Aggies have a top-10 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 post-September. Of course, they only have 1 finish inside the top 15 of the AP Poll in the entire 21st century.
Two weeks ago marked A&M’s first top-10 ranking of the Jimbo Fisher era. On Saturday, the Aggies play a game as a top-5 team in the AP Poll for the first time in the 21st century (don’t forget that Johnny Manziel’s 2012 squad finished at No. 5 after the Cotton Bowl win). The last time that happened was in 1999 when in typical A&M fashion, the program jumped into October with a top-5 ranking … only to immediately lose to an unranked Texas Tech team. That year, the Aggies stumbled their way to an 8-win season that was barely worthy of making the final AP Top 25.
The last time A&M won a post-September game as a top-5 team in the AP Poll was Nov. 26, 1992 when R.C. Slocum’s squad capped a 12-0 regular season in the Southwest Conference … only to fall to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.
Go figure that 28 years later, A&M is trying to make history and it could end up being the Irish who again stand in the way.
The No. 5 Aggies have a Playoff path, albeit a more complicated one after Notre Dame knocked off Clemson in double overtime on Saturday night. If there’s a “yeah but” to excitement over possibly making the Playoff with a 9-1 record against all-SEC competition, Notre Dame is it.
The Clemson win was huge, and not just for the obvious reason that the Irish beat a team that hadn’t lost a regular-season game in 3 years. It was how it happened. Had Clemson been held to 14 points without Trevor Lawrence, the storyline suddenly becomes “the Tigers are a shell of themselves without their star quarterback.” Instead, D.J. Uiagalelei racked up 441 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 40-point Clemson effort. It’s hard to say the Tigers were lacking production in Lawrence’s absence, which legitimized the win even more for Notre Dame.
That was an ideal scenario for the ACC’s 2-team Playoff bid because now if 1-loss Clemson avenges that loss with Lawrence in the ACC Championship, a 1-loss Notre Dame team would have a legitimate case to make the field.
Notice, however, that I said “1-loss Notre Dame.” The assumption after Saturday is that the Irish will run the table en route to a Clemson rematch to decide the ACC. Let’s not forget that Notre Dame still has 3 road games against ACC teams with winning conference records (at Boston College, at UNC and at Wake Forest). If we’ve learned anything about 2020, it’s that we shouldn’t pencil in anything.
A&M, on the other hand, will face 3 consecutive 2-win SEC teams before traveling to face an up-and-down Auburn team to close the regular season. The Aggies have a more favorable regular-season slate, but is it perhaps too favorable?
Let’s play out the most likely scenario. That is, A&M wins out and Notre Dame loses but keeps it within 2 scores against Clemson in the ACC Championship. For the sake of this argument, we’ll go with current records and current AP Top 25 rankings:
What does that suggest? That in addition to A&M looking the part and racking up some style points to get to 9-1, it needs a few other things to happen if it wants to have a better case than Notre Dame or any other potential 1-loss, non-conference champ (I don’t think a 2-loss conference champ would get the bump ahead of the 1-loss Aggies based on what we’ve seen from the selection committee and I’ve also all but eliminated the Big 12 champ and the Group of 5/independent teams that don’t have a Power 5 foe left on the schedule).
1. Auburn has to keep winning
In a perfect world for A&M, Auburn looks like a team that figured things out in the second half by the time that matchup rolls around. If the Tigers are a top-15 team with 2 losses, that at least gives A&M the opportunity to make a strong closing argument for the Playoff. That has potential to be better than any road win that Notre Dame picks up even if UNC keeps winning ahead of that matchup.
But if Auburn continues to yo-yo, that A&M résumé is really only as good as that Florida win. Speaking of that …
2. Florida runs the table to Atlanta, but loses to undefeated Alabama
Lost in the shuffle of the Notre Dame win for A&M’s Playoff hopes was that Florida took down Georgia to clear a path to the SEC Championship. The Aggies need a win that can at least somewhat compete with Notre Dame’s win over Clemson. Florida, if it can roll in a favorable slate to end the regular season, will stay in the top 5-6.
The key is that A&M actually needs an undefeated Alabama to beat Florida in Atlanta. That wouldn’t necessarily forgive A&M’s 28-point loss to the Crimson Tide, but it would at least make Alabama look like an unstoppable force as the No. 1 team in America.
3. Clemson/Notre Dame regular-season loss
It doesn’t matter how it happens. It just has to happen.
If Clemson suffers a 2nd regular-season loss, gone is the ACC’s 2-team Playoff bid. If Notre Dame loses a regular-season game, it guarantees that the ACC Championship loser will have 2 losses.
Is that unlikely? Absolutely, especially considering after Clemson’s regular-season finale foe, Virginia Tech, just lost at home to Liberty. Notre Dame has the aforementioned road 3 games vs. ACC teams with winning records, so nothing is a guarantee, though the Irish currently have the longest active winning streak in FBS.
The Aggies should be rooting against both of these teams.
4. An Ohio State loss
Just kidding. Don’t bother rooting for that, A&M fans.
But is the hay already in the barn?
That 28-point loss could prove costly. Yes, it was Alabama. The Crimson Tide have blown out everyone this year. But we’ve seen in the past, the goal for the selection committee is to avoid those semifinal blowouts. For now, let’s ignore how A&M would be treated as a potential No. 4 seed if Alabama were to win out and earn the No. 1 spot. I say that because if Notre Dame beats Clemson a second time and it’s with Lawrence, the Irish could be worthy of the top seed, which would make the notion of avoiding an A&M-Alabama rematch a moot point.
Let’s instead look at the 15 teams that had a regular-season loss but still made the Playoff:
To recap, 11 of those 15 Playoff teams with 1 loss suffered a 1-score defeat. The 2017 Georgia team who lost by 25 at SEC West champ Auburn was the only team to make the Playoff with a 3-score loss. And why did the Dawgs still get in? Well, they won the SEC by avenging the Auburn loss AND they went on the road and beat a ranked Notre Dame team earlier in the year.
A&M won’t have either of those luxuries. It will instead hope that the selection committee chalks up a 28-point loss to Alabama as something that’s on par with 2017 Alabama losing by 12 points at Auburn and getting left out of the conference title game.
That’s the challenge right now for A&M. If it played Alabama tomorrow, I’m convinced its closer than 28 points. Post-Alabama, the Aggies are 4-0 with 3 double-digit wins and a 3-point victory against No. 6 Florida. They won those games by an average of 18.3 points, which is obviously a trend that they’ll have to keep if they want any shot at the Playoff.
In a normal year, you’d say that a 9-1 SEC West team with a lone loss to Alabama would probably be in the driver’s seat for a Playoff spot. The 2020 season, in case you haven’t noticed, is anything but normal. Four of the preseason top-7 teams already have multiple losses. Perhaps the surprises keep coming and A&M is the team who stands to benefit.
Whatever the case, the good news for Fisher’s program is that heading into the middle of November, A&M team is in the hunt.
Maybe those words will finally be met with something other than disappointment.