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Auburn: The College Football Playoff’s Wildcard

Auburn has the ability to play itself into the Playoff, sow chaos, or both. Get excited.

This iteration of the College Football Playoff (or at least the rankings leading up to it) already seems like it is going to be the craziest yet. Previously, big names have fallen in the weeks preceding the official Playoff announcement, but not as many as have during the past two weeks with Penn State, Ohio State, Georgia, Notre Dame, TCU, and Washington all falling.

Never before has a two-loss team been selected to the College Football Playoff, but if there was ever a year where one would receive an invitation, it’s this one. And there is no two-loss team that will have a greater impact on deciding which teams get into the Playoff than Auburn.

Coming off of its 40-17 smoking of then-No. 1 Georgia, Auburn is ranked No. 6 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, two weeks ahead of the Tigers’ looming matchup in the Iron Bowl against current-No. 1 Alabama. Auburn is already the highest-ranked two-loss team, and it has by far the most opportunities during the course of the season’s final three weeks to improve its resume and play its way into the Playoff without additional help from other teams.

Auburn certainly has a strong enough team to win out. The Tigers rank 18th in scoring offense and 11th in scoring defense. They have a quarterback in Jarrett Stidham that can be inconsistent, but when he’s on his game, he’s one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. They have one of the top running backs in the nation in Kerryon Johnson. Johnson is tied for fourth nationally with 15 rushing touchdowns and is averaging 5.2 yards per carry on almost 200 carries. And they have one of the fiercest, most balanced defenses in the country, equally able to shut down the run and the pass.

But will the Tigers win out? And even if they do, will that be enough to get in? If they don’t, what impact will that have on the rest of the teams vying for Playoff spots?

Let’s examine the multiple scenarios that still exist for Auburn moving forward, from least exciting to most.

Scenario 1: Beat ULM, Lose to Alabama, Miss Playoff

Intrigue-o-meter: 1/10

This is the most boring, least chaos-enducing result that could happen. Obviously Auburn is going to crush Louisiana-Monroe, but if Auburn suffers a third loss anywhere else before the final rankings decision, whether it is against Alabama or Georgia in the conference title game, the Tigers will miss the Playoff.

In this scenario, the Tide come to Jordan-Hare Stadium, break the hearts of Auburn fans everywhere, and head to the SEC title game against Georgia that seemed preordained just a few short weeks ago.

There is no real chaos created in this scenario. Depending on what happens in the other power conferences, this result simply sets up a play-in game between the Dawgs and the Tide. And that’s no fun for anyone outside of Athens and Tuscaloosa.

Scenario 2: Beat ULM, Beat Alabama, Lose to Georgia, Miss Playoff

Intrigue-o-meter: 6/10

As mentioned in Scenario 1, if Auburn loses a third game, its chances of reaching the Playoff drop to zero. However, in this particular scenario, at least the Tigers blow up the Playoff picture a bit and create some chaos on their way out the door.

What happens to Alabama in this scenario?

Georgia is now 12-1 and the SEC champion. That would have to earn the Bulldogs a spot in the Playoff, wouldn’t it? But what about 11-1 Alabama?

The Crimson Tide surely benefit from currently being ranked No. 1 in the country. They will, barring one of the greatest upsets of all-time this week against Mercer, hold that No. 1 ranking during the Iron Bowl. If they were to lose, they would most likely not fall too far in the rankings heading into conference championship week. The problem lies in the fact that Alabama would not have any other opportunities to pad its resume.

Presumably, the Tide would need help from the outside. Either Oklahoma or Wisconsin would probably need to slip up before the end of the season to give Alabama better than a puncher’s chance, but who knows? Perhaps the committee will value Alabama’s resume higher than others even with the loss. They are, after all, Alabama.

And that’s what makes this scenario interesting. There’s no telling what the committee will decide to do.

Scenario 3a: Beat ULM, Beat Alabama, Beat Georgia, Make Playoff

Intrigue-o-meter: 9/10

Now the fun begins.

It seems perfectly reasonable, with its No. 6 ranking and the three potential games ahead of it, that Auburn could simply play its way into a Playoff berth. By beating Alabama and Georgia, Auburn would add two more marquee wins to its already strong resume and an SEC championship to boot. Considering the surrounding Playoff landscape, that seems more than enough to reach the Playoff.

Hats off to Auburn. You’ve just become the first-ever two-loss team to compete in the College Football Playoff and in doing so probably stoked an enormous fire under the argument to expand the Playoff field to eight teams. But that’s an article for another day.

So, we have one Playoff team locked in now. What about the other three? Is there enough room to let in 11-1 Alabama? That mostly depends on what happens in the Big 12, Big Ten, and ACC.

Alabama could get in on its own merit, but it would certainly appreciate some help. (e.g. Oklahoma slipping up against West Virginia or whoever it will face in the Big 12 title game; Wisconsin dropping a game somewhere along the way; or Clemson or Miami getting upset before the ACC title game). Any and all of these things would aid Alabama in recovering from a late-season loss and a lack of a conference title to get an invitation to the Playoff, but none of those results would guarantee anything, making the build up to the Dec. 3 announcement all the more intriguing.

Then there’s the Bulldogs. If enough other teams take tumbles to inch open some space, will the committee view Georgia’s two losses in the same light as other two-loss teams, even though those two losses came against the same Auburn team?

That’s too difficult a question to hazard a guess at currently because there is zero precedent for it. One thing is for sure, though. The committee would hate to have this scenario play out because it makes its job significantly more difficult.

Scenario 3b: Beat ULM, Beat Alabama, Beat Georgia, Miss Playoff

Intrigue-o-meter: 10/10

But nothing is guaranteed for Auburn.

Last season, a two-loss team won a power conference title and had a head-to-head victory over a one-loss team that was not a conference champion. Even still, that one-loss team got the nod from the committee over the two-loss team.

I apologize to Penn State fans for opening old wounds, but it’s a nice reminder to Auburn fans not to assume that their team is guaranteed a spot in the Playoff just because it wins out the rest of the way.

Penn State finished the year 11-2 and were Big Ten champions last season with a head-to-head win against Ohio State, but the 11-1 Buckeyes reached the Playoff instead anyway. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the 2016 Nittany Lions and the 2017 Tigers:

2016 Penn State2017 Auburn
Record as of Week 128-28-2
CFP Ranking as of Week 12No. 8No. 6
Remaining Scheduleat Rutgers (WIN)
vs. Michigan State (WIN)
vs. No. 6 Wisconsin (WIN)
vs. Louisiana Monroe
vs. No. 1 Alabama
(Possible) vs. No. 7 Georgia
Conference Champion?YesTBD
Final Record11-2TBD
Final CFP RankingNo. 5TBD
Losses Sufferedat Pittsburgh
at No. 4 Michigan
at No. 3 Clemson
at LSU
Non-Conf. SOS12th4th

Auburn has less work to do in terms of spots in the rankings it needs to move up. It also benefits from having an extra opportunity against a ranked opponent than Penn State did. But will that be enough in the committee’s mind?

If Oklahoma and Wisconsin win out, I think we can safely say they would both reach the Playoff. If Miami and Clemson enter the ACC title game unscathed, the winner of that game will get into the Playoff. I think we can safely say that as well. So what happens to the SEC teams if 12-1 Big 12 champ Oklahoma, undefeated Big Ten champ Wisconsin, and one-loss ACC champ Miami/Clemson all have places in the Playoff leaving just one spot available?

Now it’s starting to look a lot like 2016. Would 11-1 Alabama get the nod over two-loss Auburn despite the fact that the Tigers have the head-to-head victory and the conference championship, just like Ohio State did over Penn State last season?

The committee has at least provided a precedent that would suggest that there’s a chance that that happens and Auburn gets left out even if it wins out. And the prospect of that occurring, and the resulting backlash that would surely ensue, is extremely intriguing.

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

Since the 2009 season, how many national championship games have NOT featured either Alabama or Auburn?
Created 11/14/17
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