Off-week analysis: Is this the year Alabama gets caught outside, looking in?

By Jess Nicholas
TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 1, 2015

For the Alabama fans who couldn’t bear to do the unthinkable – cheer for Auburn to win a football game – the Tigers’ loss to Ole Miss was a bittersweet sigh of relief.

Alabama needs Ole Miss to lose once more if the Crimson Tide aims to make it back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. Working off the assumption that it’s better to get that game in Bama’s pocket as quickly as possible, the fan debate raged this week as to whether Alabama should hope for Auburn to take care of business. Now it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that Ole Miss lose at least once over its remaining three games. The Rebels are play Arkansas this week, then have an off-week, then play LSU, and finally play Mississippi State to end the season.

LSU would seem to be the most likely trouble spot for the Rebels at first glance, but Ole Miss will get the Tigers the week after LSU plays Alabama and then Arkansas. Especially in 2015, teams that play Alabama one week tend to struggle the next due to the physical pounding the Crimson Tide often delivers unto its opponent. If the pattern holds – especially if LSU loses in heartbreaking fashion, the way it did in 2014, then gets further beaten up by Arkansas’ physical offense – the Rebels might find a way to sneak by a demoralized Tiger program on Nov. 21.

That means Alabama might have to wait until the end of the season, when Ole Miss faces its rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, to punch its ticket to Atlanta.

If that’s not enough to trigger a case of the vapors, consider the following as well: Alabama’s best win so far this season may very well be Tennessee. If not, it’s Texas A&M. If Ole Miss loses again, which will have to happen for the Tide to advance to play for an SEC championship, Bama will have fallen to a three-loss team – maybe more, if Ole Miss drops an additional game down the stretch.

The reason that’s pertinent is the NCAA championship committee will be looking for whatever reason it can find to leave a one-loss, non-conference-champion Alabama out of the playoff mix.

Alabama is currently ranked 7th in both polls and the same six teams are above the Crimson Tide in each poll, although ranked differently. The polls don’t matter much at the end, however, as the committee controls the ultimate makeup of the playoff.

Here’s a look at what has to happen for Alabama to move into the top four:

1. The Big 10 teams have to take care of each other without having two teams jump ahead of UA. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, thanks to Iowa. Ohio State is ranked first in both polls at the moment, and division mate Michigan State is 6th in the AP poll and 5th in the coaches’ poll. The winner of the Nov. 21 game between the two would, if the season ended today, meet Iowa in the Big Ten championship game. Iowa is undefeated and ranked 10th in the AP poll and 11th in the coaches’ poll. The best thing for Alabama would be if Ohio State won both games. Alabama would certainly overtake Michigan State, and Iowa would never catch the Crimson Tide. That would lock the Buckeyes into the top four, but it would take out the possibility of the following: Ohio State beating Michigan State, then falling to Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game, and both teams going ahead of Alabama. In such a scenario, Iowa would be the undefeated Big Ten champion, while Ohio State would be a one-loss defending national champion, and there would be pressure to let the Buckeyes defend their title.

2. The Big 12 situation will settle itself. No. 2 Baylor faces TCU (No. 5 AP, No. 3 coaches’ poll) on Nov. 27. Particularly if Baylor wins the game again, there’s no way TCU stays ahead of a one-loss Alabama, even if Alabama doesn’t make it back to Atlanta. Baylor probably wouldn’t, either, but there’s no chance of it happening with TCU. There is also the fact that both teams still have yet to play either Oklahoma or Oklahoma State, and Baylor also has to face Kansas State and Texas, neither of which are automatic pushovers.

3. Alabama can still make it in if Clemson wins out. Clemson is undefeated, leading the ACC and is ranked 3rd in the AP poll and 6th in the coaches’ poll. The Tigers are sort of doing it with smoke and mirrors this year, but they are still winning. Clemson’s biggest game by far will be against Florida State next week at home. After that, the best chance anyone has to knock off the Tigers will either be South Carolina at year’s end or whoever the Tigers face in the ACC Championship Game. At the moment, it would be a one-loss North Carolina team with a much-improved defense. This one is simple: If Clemson wins, the Tigers are in. If they don’t, they’re out.

4. The Danger Zone: Getting jumped by one of the following teams: This is where things get a bit sideways. If Ole Miss loses and Alabama wins out, including a win in Atlanta over a one-loss Florida team, the Crimson Tide should be the easy pick for the fourth slot. But Alabama could find itself victimized by one of the following:

  • Notre Dame (9th AP, 9th coaches): Notre Dame is always a factor if the Fighting Irish are close enough to be considered. The Irish have Pitt next week and Stanford to close the season, framing walkover games against Wake Forest and Boston College. If it’s a choice between Alabama and Notre Dame for the fourth spot, the Irish would go if the media had anything to say about it. Whether the committee will be similarly charmed is a different story.
  • Stanford (8th AP, 8th coaches): The Cardinal nearly lost to Washington State on Saturday, but “nearly” isn’t the same as “did.” The deck is far from clear for Stanford, which must still face an improving Colorado program, as well as old nemesis Oregon, rival Cal and then Notre Dame to close the year. Wins in the first three games would do little to nothing in regards to getting the Cardinal by Alabama, but if Stanford runs the table and knocks Notre Dame out in the end, the West Coast members of the panel will likely push for the Cardinal’s inclusion.
  • Utah (13th AP, 14th coaches): The only reason the Utes get a mention here is that the last time there was a question of who was better, Alabama or Utah, the Utes stomped a listless Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl. Presuming Alabama finished with one loss but didn’t make it to Atlanta, a one-loss (and PAC-12 champion) Utah team would have a pretty good case for inclusion. Utah plays at Washington next week and has both UCLA and Colorado on its schedule coming in, plus the PAC-12 Championship Game, so nothing is guaranteed.
  • One of the little fish (Memphis, Houston, Temple): Notre Dame took care of the Temple problem on Saturday, and either Memphis or Houston will take care of the other on Nov. 14. The big question after that is can the winner of Memphis-Houston run the table, and then garner enough votes to jump not just Alabama, but a handful of other teams as well. It bears noting that all three of these teams are in the American Athletic Conference, which for lack of a better way to state it, is the former Big East. So this isn’t the MAC or the Sun Belt here. The best-case scenario for Alabama is for Memphis to beat Houston, then lose the following week to Temple. No one-loss AAC team is going to be in contention for a final four slot.

It would be nice to say that all Alabama has to do is win and the Crimson Tide is in, but it’s not that simple. If Alabama misses out on its trip to Atlanta, the Crimson Tide won’t have a championship game to play, not to mention there figures to be at least one one-loss conference champion waiting to take the Crimson Tide’s spot. The very fact Alabama would miss out on a 13th game would be a penalty in itself, as witnessed last year when both TCU and Baylor were left at home and the committee cited a lack of a conference championship game as a reason for the decision. If it turns out that way – with Alabama left without a dance card – the Crimson Tide will have only itself to blame, thanks to lack of execution against Ole Miss on a steamy September night in Tuscaloosa.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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