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The College Football Playoff’s Alabama Conundrum

The Crimson Tide lost last week, shaking up the playoff rankings in the process. But Bama’s national championship hopes aren’t dead—and its fate will reveal a lot about the value of conference titles.

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The College Football Playoff is the most lucrative and entertaining method that the sport has ever used to crown a national champion, but that isn’t its only purpose. Organized by the 10 FBS conferences, the playoff is also supposed to add meaning to each league’s conference title game, increasing television ratings and boosting each contest’s financial value. Now that four teams are given a postseason opportunity to compete for the national title, as opposed to two during the BCS era, more programs enter conference championship weekend in contention for something beyond just a league trophy. And according to the selection committee’s publicly listed criteria, “championships won” is one of the key factors that “must be specifically applied as tie-breakers between teams that look similar.”

Take Saturday, which features four de facto playoff elimination games. Five teams are almost certainly in the playoff with a win (Clemson in the ACC, Auburn and Georgia in the SEC, Oklahoma in the Big 12, and Wisconsin in the Big Ten) and all five will almost certainly miss the playoff with a loss. Sure, a team from the ACC Atlantic Division hasn’t lost a conference championship game since since 2010, a team from the SEC West hasn’t lost one since 2008, and Big Ten East teams are 3-0 on this stage since the league’s most recent realignment. But these games are exciting!

For the second straight season, though, the team that’s the subject of the most national fascination will sit at home on championship Saturday. Last year that was Ohio State; this year it’s Alabama. The Crimson Tide won’t play in Saturday’s SEC championship game after losing to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, and they’re ranked fifth in the committee’s latest rankings. But if any of the four teams above them fall, they’ll become an integral part of the playoff discussion. They’ll likely slide into the field if TCU upsets Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. If Miami tops Clemson in the ACC championship, the Hurricanes should make the playoff, but it’s possible that Bama could get the nod given the Hurricanes’ recent loss to Pittsburgh and lack of marquee wins. And if Ohio State takes down Wisconsin—the Badgers are 12-0, but oddsmakers favor the Buckeyes by nearly a touchdown—Alabama and Ohio State will be evaluated head-to-head.

For the past decade, the Tide have served as the axis around which college football seasons have revolved. Either they’ve won the national title (2009, 2011, 2012, and 2015), a team that they lost to late in the season won the title (2008, 2010, 2014, and 2016), or the Kick-Six happened (2013). But in the past, Alabama losing late in the year killed its title dreams and vaulted another team into the championship hunt. This year, Bama’s loss to Auburn hasn’t necessarily crushed its hopes. Instead, the Tide have become a lens through which we can assess the value of conference titles.

Alabama has a résumé essentially identical to that of no. 6 Georgia. Both teams are 11-1. Bama’s best win, according to the committee, came against 17th-ranked LSU, while Georgia’s best win, per the same rankings, came against 15th-ranked Notre Dame. (Alabama’s was at home, Georgia’s on the road.) Both teams’ second-best wins came against 23rd-ranked Mississippi State (Alabama on the road, Georgia at home), and both have a virtually identical loss: Both fell to Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium, both were ranked no. 1 in the country at the time they went down, and both games were decided by multiple scores.

But Bama and Georgia’s résumés will look different by the end of Saturday. Alabama can do nothing to help its cause, while Georgia can win the SEC. All the Bulldogs have to do is beat a team that whooped them on the Plains three weeks ago. It’d seem wise to avoid the Tigers right now—they remind me a lot of the War Boys (War Eagle Boys?) from Mad Max: Fury Road; they’ve had nothing to lose for most of this fall after picking up two early losses, and have therefore had plenty of time to develop a fanatical devotion to blowing stuff up—but surely every Georgia player, coach, and fan is happy that the Bulldogs have some element of control in the playoff race.

Of course, Ohio State learned the benefits of sitting at home during conference championship week last year. Like Bama this season, it was displaced from the league title game by virtue of a head-to-head tiebreaker, as the Buckeyes lost to Penn State last October. The 2016 Buckeyes also went 11-1, and ultimately made the playoff field over a two-loss Penn State team in spite of the Nittany Lions’ head-to-head victory and conference championship triumph.

If Ohio State makes the playoff again this season, it will sure look like the committee’s primary job is to justify whatever résumé the Buckeyes have. (Conspiracy theorists: Note that Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith is on the committee.) After all, if Ohio State beats Wisconsin on Saturday, it will become a two-loss team with a conference championship, whereas last year’s Buckeyes were selected over a two-loss team with a conference title. But things are never that simple. Last year’s Buckeyes had better wins than Penn State did (Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Michigan), and this year’s squad has three wins over top-20 teams (Penn State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin) as opposed to Alabama’s one (LSU).

Ohio State v Michigan
Urban Meyer
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

If Ohio State wins this weekend and Bama is selected for a playoff spot instead, though? It will make clear, for the second straight year, that conference championship games offer teams plenty to lose and little to gain. The Big 12 voted to add a title game this season as a result of the committee’s 2014 decision to leave both 11-1 Baylor and 11-1 TCU out of the playoff field for the infamous “One True Champion” fiasco that left the league with, um, two champions. But I think that the Big 12’s choice was penny wise and pound foolish: When a loss can be a playoff disqualifier and a win is a mere additional data point, I think it’s more likely that teams will play themselves out of a playoff spot than into one on championship weekend. If Oklahoma loses Saturday and Alabama swoops into the playoff in its place, everybody in the Big 12 league office should retire.

I’m fine with the committee picking a playoff field that includes the four best teams rather than four teams that won their conferences’ respective championship games. And elite teams getting left out of conference title games isn’t a playoff problem; it’s the result of imbalanced divisions that leagues should really get around to balancing. Still, if I’m the commissioner of a Power 5 league, I’d wonder whether the committee that supposedly serves at my behest is actually acting in my best interest.

Alabama lost last weekend, a source of great glee for the 129 other FBS programs that wait for Tide losses like Bama schoolkids wait for snow days. (This happens maybe once a year, and causes the branches of trees to become covered in a beautiful white coating.) Yet somehow, on a weekend when Nick Saban will be eating Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies instead of coaching, the Tide are the team that will tell us the most about the future of the sport. Even when sitting idle, Alabama’s vice-like grip on the college football world never loosens.