Alabama will not play in the SEC Championship Game for the first time in four seasons. Nevertheless, the Crimson Tide are still positioned to emerge as the biggest story of the weekend.
This season's edition of the College Football Playoff will be shaped Saturday, when the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and SEC championships command the football world's attention from noon until midnight. Only one sequence of results, however, will prevent us from talking about Nick Saban's team.
Should both No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 4 Wisconsin celebrate league titles, the selection committee will have an easy job. Those two squads plus the winners of the ACC and SEC championships would stand out as the four most deserving programs.
If any other result occurs, "most deserving" will be debatable.
And, my friends, there will be plenty of debates about whether Alabama fits the definition.
The Crimson Tide stormed through September and October, consistently leaving no doubt which side deserved to win. But in their final two SEC contests, they narrowly escaped Mississippi State and were thoroughly outplayed at Auburn.
In two of Alabama's four biggest matchups—and perhaps most importantly, its two latest games—it failed the eye test.
Additionally, it's worth discussing whether the brand-name power of the program is influencing the narrative. Wisconsin is criticized for a weak schedule, yet Alabama's slate isn't a whole lot better.
Including a win over then-healthy Florida State (5-6), the Crimson Tide have defeated just three teams ranked at the time of their matchups. LSU (9-3) and Mississippi State (8-4) are the others. They added four victories over teams with at least six wins.
Meanwhile, the Badgers toppled Iowa (7-5) and Michigan (8-4). They also beat bowl-eligible Utah State, Florida Atlantic, Northwestern and Purdue. Their average margin of victory is 22.8 points. Wisconsin never exited a weekend giving off the feeling it was fortunate to win—which was the popular criticism of Miami this season.
Yet if the Badgers lose Saturday, they're out.
Here's the problem: If you think Alabama isn't deserving and that a 12-0 UCF shouldn't matter, there's no perfect alternative.
Sure, Ohio State could win the Big Ten and finish 11-2. The Buckeyes, however, lost to Oklahoma 31-16—it felt like 51-16—and played a disgusting game at Iowa, getting beat down 55-24. While Ohio State is rightly a Top 10 club, it's certainly not without fault.
Top-ranked Clemson has a realistic argument to edge both Alabama and Ohio State should the Tigers fall to Miami this weekend. But as convincing as that case may be, they'd still have an 11-2 record.
And though TCU could knock off Oklahoma, that would mean the Big 12 winner has two losses. Whether the committee prefers the Sooners or Horned Frogs—more on that in a minute—doesn't matter, because either way, it'd still be a two-loss team angling for a playoff bid.
The same applies to USC, which might dispatch Stanford for the Pac-12 crown yet has losses to a pair of three-loss programs (Washington State and Notre Dame) on its resume.
Alabama isn't the Alabama we've seen in previous years. That much is undeniably true. Given the state of other fringe contenders, though, the one-loss Crimson Tide remain a justifiable option.
ACC, SEC Championships Are Quarterfinals
For the first time in four years of the College Football Playoff, two conference championships will feature a clear-cut winner-is-in prize. Lose, and—with one exception—you're out.
It's impossible for any of Auburn, Georgia and Miami to lose Saturday and remain in or climb into the Top Four. Clemson is the only program competing in either championship that could lose and still sneak in. The Tigers boast victories over No. 2 Auburn, No. 22 Virginia Tech, No. 24 North Carolina State and four additional seven-win teams.
But we'll approach that topic if necessary.
The reigning national champions are 9.5-point favorites against Miami, according to OddsShark. As long as Clemson wins, Dabo Swinney's crew could play the ugliest game of the season and reach the playoff. That's a no-brainer.
While the Canes are understandably a sizable underdog following that horrid showing at Pitt, it shouldn't even be a question that an upset of No. 1 would get Miami in. Mark Richt's club would own three wins against ranked opponents (9-3 Virginia Tech, 9-3 Notre Dame and 11-2 Clemson) plus a victory over Toledo, the likely MAC champion.
The circumstances aren't as tricky in the SEC championship, since a Georgia victory would drop Auburn to three losses. And the No. 6 Bulldogs wouldn't rise after a loss.
Entering a weekend with a few unclear scenarios, it's reassuring that two conferences have a clear path to the playoff.
Could Oklahoma Stay Above TCU with a Loss?
Nobody reasonable will argue Oklahoma's inclusion if Baker Mayfield and Co. successfully navigate TCU this weekend.
What happens if the Sooners lose, though?
Oklahoma and TCU will have lost to Iowa State, and they will have lost to each other. The committee is instructed to compare outcomes of common opponents without incentivizing margin of victory, so the Horned Frogs' 13-point win over Oklahoma State wouldn't matter more than the Sooners' 10-point triumph.
Since the programs would have split their head-to-head matchups, those could not be a deciding factor, either.
Playoff committee chair Kirby Hocutt said on ESPN that the criteria is not considered in a specific order. So, while the "Championships won" bullet point is listed ahead of "Strength of schedule," it doesn't mean a conference title is the first tiebreaker.
That could allow the 13-member panel to favor Oklahoma, which owns the nation's most impressive road victory (Ohio State). TCU's marquee nonconference win is SMU, which finished 7-5.
The Big 12 championship isn't necessarily a quarterfinal.
Will a Group of 5 Team Ever Be Considered?
Forget the debate about a Group of Five team reaching the College Football Playoff. It seems obvious that's not going to happen.
But the committee won't even throw non-power programs a bone.
Central Florida clipped then-9-1 South Florida to complete an 11-0 regular season that included nine multi-score victories. The Knights' reward for their perfect campaign? Moving up one spot from No. 15 to No. 14. (Only Memphis, which was No. 13 in the first CFP rankings in 2015, has been higher.)
Danny White, the athletic director at UCF, summed up our thoughts:
Saturday's clash between UCF and No. 20 Memphis (10-1) will be exciting, but it won't affect the playoff rankings. Really, the only reason a majority of college football fans will consider caring is because they're going to see the winner in a New Year's Six bowl.
Unless schools from the AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt commit to playing two games against heavyweights, how is this possibly going to change?
And that's simply a small part of the problem.
Schedules are typically made several years in advance. It's challenging to accurately predict what's going to happen this weekend let alone three seasons from now. But when they field nationally competitive teams, Group of Five programs must also luck into difficult schedules.
Oh, and they have to finish undefeated, too.
Western Michigan accomplished the perfect campaign part in 2016, but road victories over Northwestern and Illinois weren't enough for Top 10 consideration. The committee is basically demanding Group of Five teams defeat a powerhouse like Alabama or Clemson and another solid power conference team such as West Virginia to merit a passing thought.