How the Alabama-LSU game will drive playoff scenarios

How the Alabama-LSU game will drive playoff scenarios

The College Football Playoff selection committee’s first rankings of the season came out this week – just in time for a game that could shake them up.

LSU and Alabama, the committee’s Nos. 2 and 3 teams, respectively, meet Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and the outcome could reshape next week’s rankings in various ways:

  • An LSU win could make the committee take a hard look at whether the Tigers should supplant Ohio State as the No. 1 team and could drop Alabama out of the top four.
  • An Alabama win would ease concerns about the Crimson Tide's schedule strength and would move Bama up at least a notch in the rankings while possibly dropping LSU out of the top four.
  • Either outcome could open a spot in the top four for defending national champion Clemson, which the committee ranked No. 5 this week because of its weak schedule.

The playoff committee’s decision to place unbeaten LSU ahead of unbeaten Alabama in the season’s initial rankings was a relatively easy one, given that the Tigers’ resume to this point (wins over No. 10 Florida, No. 11 Auburn and Texas) is much better than Alabama’s (no games against CFP-ranked opponents). Plus, the committee knew that by the time it re-ranks the teams next week, LSU and Alabama will have played one another and their order can easily be flip-flopped if need be.

For now, “LSU is No. 2 because of its tough schedule and marquee wins,” said committee chairman Rob Mullens, the athletic director at Oregon. But Alabama is right behind the Tigers, ahead of No. 4 Penn State, despite reservations about its schedule.

“While it may not be as strong as some others,” Mullens said of Alabama’s schedule, “when you watch the games, they certainly have been dominant.”

Alabama’s schedule gets stronger Saturday. So does LSU’s, for that matter.

Gary Stokan, president and CEO of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, will be among those in attendance in Tuscaloosa. While the winner of the game obviously will enhance its playoff path, Stokan thinks the loser also will remain very much in the picture.

“I think there’s a scenario where LSU or Alabama, whichever loses, could still be right in the mix,” Stokan said. “If that team won out the rest of the (regular) season, they would have only lost to the No. 2 or 3 team in the country.”

The SEC hopes to get two teams in the four-team playoff, not an unrealistic goal given that it has three of the top six teams in the committee’s initial rankings (LSU, Alabama and No. 6 Georgia).

One way could be for the Alabama-LSU loser to finish the regular season 11-1 and for the Alabama-LSU winner to go 13-0 with a win in the conference championship game. In that case, maybe both of those teams make the playoff.

“You can probably make the case a little easier in that scenario for LSU (to reach the playoff if it loses Saturday)  because they have already beaten Florida and Auburn,” Stokan said.

Another path to two SEC teams in the playoff could be for Georgia to win its final four regular-season games and the SEC Championship game. In that case, maybe LSU or Alabama would join the Bulldogs in the playoff field.

ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, speaking on a conference call Wednesday, described a scenario in which “if all the favorites were to win” three playoff berths would go to Big Ten champion Ohio State, ACC champion Clemson and SEC champion “let’s just say Alabama.” That could leave the committee to debate the merits of LSU, Penn State, Oklahoma and Oregon or Utah for the final spot, he said.

“If all the favorites were to win, I think that's the argument that the committee's going to potentially have in that ... first weekend in December,” Herbstreit said, “when they try to figure out who is going to be going.”

On to the rest of our weekly update of college football’s road to the playoff:


One of the playoff semifinals will be played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 28, and Stokan expects a standing-room-only crowd of between 76,000 and 77,000 for the game.

All seats have been sold, including 2,400 “expandable” seats in the stadium’s upper deck, except for the 25,000 allotted for sale next month by the participating teams, Stokan said.  Standing-room-only tickets will go on sale to the general public soon.

The other semifinal, also on Dec. 28, will be played in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz.


Q: Why did the playoff committee rank Georgia higher than all other one-loss teams this week (especially considering that the Bulldogs' loss was a particularly bad one, at home to South Carolina)?

A: "Georgia beat two top-15 teams, No. 10 Florida and No. 15 Notre Dame," Mullens said. "They're the only FBS team to not give up a rushing touchdown, which is a pretty strong statement. Obviously (they have) an experienced quarterback, an elite running back. But I think the separator for them at this point was the two top-15 wins."


Other than Alabama-LSU, Saturday’s next biggest game in terms of playoff implications appears to be Penn State at Minnesota.

The unbeaten Nittany Lions will try to protect their spot in the top four against the unbeaten Golden Gophers, who are 8-0 for the first time since 1941. Minnesota, ranked No. 17 by the playoff committee this week, has outscored its past four opponents 168-41, but those teams are a combined 6-18 in the Big Ten.