Alabama should beat LSU, but it probably doesn’t need to if it wants to make the playoff

In the run-up to what some are calling Game of the Century III, there is a central question regarding No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 LSU: Does Bama even have to win?

As good as the Crimson Tide have been, and considering the way the College Football Playoff Selection Committee operates, the answer is actually easy: No.

It didn’t matter in 2011 when Alabama lost the first LSU game of that season in the old BCS days. It didn’t matter in 2016 when Ohio State lost a Big East division tiebreaker because of head-to-head defeat at the hands of Penn State. The Nittany Lions won the league. The Buckeyes went to the playoff. It didn’t matter last year when Alabama lost by double digits at Auburn, 10 days before the field was selected.

That makes it three of the 16 berths in the first four CFPs being occupied by teams that didn’t so much as win their division outright.

It may not matter again Saturday for Alabama, especially if it’s a close game. Just don’t tell Nick Saban it’s OK to lose.

Considering that Bama has napalmed its opponents, and considering the magic of Tua Tagovailoa, how do you leave them out of the top four if they get home at 11-1?

You probably don’t.  

Welcome to Year 5 of the CFP. We should have it driven into our brain stems by now that the committee is charged with picking the four best teams. Their four best teams.

That’s the way it was meant to be since the commissioners began poking around the edges of a playoff about 12 years ago. In 2006, the great Mike Slive made it clear that if there was going to be playoff in the future, it was going to be about assembling the best teams, not just conference champions. Slive, the former SEC commissioner, was being proactive. He knew his conference had the best chance of getting multiple teams in a playoff.

It paid off first in 2011 when, even though Alabama lost to LSU in that first meeting, it lost close. That 9-6 overtime decision led to a rematch in the BCS Championship Game that many said was the final straw. After that, a meaningful push began toward a playoff.

So here we are again. If Alabama wins, well, it’s supposed to win. If not, there is a discussion to be had, especially if LSU holds down the nation’s highest-scoring offense and wins at the gun, say, 23-20.

What’s left for the Tide are regular-season games against Mississippi State, Citadel and Auburn. LSU has road games at Arkansas and Texas A&M with Rice sandwiched in the middle.

In that scenario, would Alabama deserve to stay in the top four? Before answering, consider the legacy bias the committee will have to take into account. This is Saban’s best team at Alabama. It is one of the best in Bama history. Saban has won five national championships since 2009.

Technically, the committee isn’t supposed to consider any of that. Each year stands on its own, CFP executive director Bill Hancock restated to me this week.

A close loss at LSU — at Death Valley at night –wouldn’t do much to change Alabama’s top-four standing.

Should it? Once again, the discussion would be reduced to the dreaded “eye test.” That got the Tide in last year. It could get the Tide in this year.

What a lot of folks missed is the most significant impact of the BCS era (beginning in 1998): It diminished the value of conference championships.

The truth is that it wouldn’t have been a credible playoff last year without Alabama in it. That despite Auburn taking the division and Georgia winning the SEC.

We got here because the human polls were too unreliable. The BCS computers were too inhuman. So we went with what is essentially a smaller human poll — a 13-member team of former coaches, administrators, this year one hall of fame player (Ronnie Lott) and a journalist.

So far, they’ve gotten it pretty much right. Don’t feel like Alabama has to win Saturday night for that to happen again.

1. Who wins? The magic number seems to be 30 point in Alabama-LSU. It’s easier envisioning the Tide getting to that number than the Tigers. Look for Tua to become a weapon as an outside runner to counteract one of the best secondarys in the country. Alabama’s defense will clamp down on Joe Burrow, who has been very good at not turning the ball over. Other than that, not so dynamic. (LSU is tied for second-to-last in the SEC with 26 touchdowns.)

“That’s been part of the issue,” Saban said. “These guys are really good on defense and very efficient on offense.”

The X-factor is that Tiger Stadium crowd.

“It is uniquely different crowd than Tua has ever seen,” one Les Miles said. “There’s not a way to prepare for that. I think the Alabama team will have difficulty with that.”

Call it Alabama 31, LSU 23.

2. Conspiracy theory debunked: For those of you (cough! –James Carville — cough!) who think an SEC official intentionally called targeting on LSU linebacker Devin White against Mississippi State to benefit Alabama, stand down. What you’re suggesting is an orchestrated, premeditated call on a bang, bang play to intentionally remove White from the first half of the Alabama game. You should be reminded that it is in SEC’s best interest that Alabama lose the game. That makes it more likely the SEC gets two in the playoff. 

3. SEC East winner-take-all: It’s hard to believe the East will be decided before the leaves turn in Lexington, Kentucky. Here’s a bigger surprise: No. 9 Kentucky is going to win with a superior defense and just enough on the ground from Benny Snell Jr.. That D has allowed seven first downs in the opposition’s last 13 possessions. How rare is this moment for Kentucky vs. No. 6 Georgia? Nine schools have more SEC titles than Kentucky’s two (1950, 1976). That includes two schools not even in the league anymore — Tulane of the AAC and Georgia Tech of the ACC.

4. Urban Meyer’s issues: Now that the coach of No. 10 Ohio State has updated us on his health issues, I’m not the only one asking: Have these excruciating headaches made a difference to this point, and will they in the future? Best of health, Urb, against Nebraska this week and beyond. We would not wish this pain on anyone.

5. Notre Dame’s toughest remaining game: It’s this week’s trip to Northwestern. The Wildcats are hard to figure out. They’re 5-3 coming off a two-touchdown win against then No. 20 Wisconsin. They’ve also lost to Akron but won 11 of their last 12 Big Ten games. The No. 4 Irish will have somewhat of a home field advantage with Evanston, Illinois, being near Notre Dame’s spiritual center in Chicago. The Wildcats better be able to run the ball. They are third-worst nationally averaging 91 yards on the ground per game. They are still led by Jeremy Larkin with 346 yards. Larkin retired from football after the third game of the season.

6. Clay Helton is officially on the clock: USC athletic director Lynn Swann made that so this week when he gave the Trojans coach a vote of confidence. USC has slipped to 4-4 heading to Oregon State.

7. Big Ten beware: A win for No. 14 Penn State win at No. 5 Michigan makes it imperative for playoff purposes that Ohio State wins out. If not, the Big Ten could be out of the playoff race quickly. Each team in the league would have at least two losses. No two-loss team has ever made the CFP.

8. Stat o’ the week: Penn State has played in four straight games decided by six points or less. That’s the first time that’s happened since 1894. It is 2-2 in those games.

9. Crummy game of the year: UTEP vs. Rice. One (UTEP) has lost 20 in a row. The other (Rice) has one win in its last 19 games. The Owls haven’t beaten an FBS opponent since the last meeting with UTEP. In fact, the Miners are Rice’s last two FBS victims going back to 2016. The last time Rice has beaten an FBS team not from El Paso, Texas, was Charlotte in ’16. UTEP hasn’t beaten a current Power Five team since 1997. This is a matchup of the No. 128 (Rice) and No. 129 (UTEP) teams in the CBS Sports 129.

10. Quick kicks: Call ’em the Comeback ‘Cats. Since 2014, Kentucky has the most wins of any SEC team (nine) when trailing by at least 10 points, including two this season (Central Michigan, Missouri) … LSU is a 14.5-point underdog to Alabama. That’s the largest margin for the Tigers as a home ‘dog since Oct. 1999 … Air Force (3-5) can clinch its 21st Commander-In-Chief’s by beating visiting Army (6-2) … Fresno State (7-1, at UNLV) has won all of its games by at least 18 points … Oklahoma’s 18-game road winning streak (heading to Texas Tech) is the best in the country by 10 games. UCF is second with eight straight … It’s been five years since a freshman started at quarterback for Texas Tech. Alan Bowman is more accurate (68 percent) than either Davis Webb or Baker Mayfield through eight games … Take the under in Alabama-LSU. The average halftime score in the last eight meetings is Alabama 8.75, LSU 5.

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