If this were any other season, Auburn might be done for.
The Tigers looked dead in the water a month ago when they let a 20-point lead slip away at Louisiana State, dropping their second game of the season.
Given that no team had made the College Football Playoff with two defeats, coach Gus Malzahn called the loss “extremely tough.”
But this isn’t any other season, not with so many upsets and a continual churn at the top of the polls.
Four straight victories have Auburn back to No. 6 in the latest CFP rankings, setting the stage for a decisive showdown against No. 1 Alabama on Saturday.
“Four weeks ago, if you told them we were in this position, I don’t think there would’ve been a whole lot of people around the country that would believe it,” Malzahn said.
A win in the annual Iron Bowl rivalry game might vault Auburn into the final four and might even knock a one-loss Crimson Tide straight out of the hunt.
“It’s a very big deal,” Tigers quarterback Jarrett Stidham said.
Which makes it must-see television on the last, full weekend of the regular season. Other games warrant a look.
Ohio State and Michigan arrive at their annual rivalry as teams heading in opposite directions.
The No. 9 Buckeyes have rebounded from a pair of crushing defeats to clinch a spot in the Big Ten Conference championship game and remain in a group of hopefuls with an outside shot at the playoffs if the regular season ends with a cluster of two-loss teams.
“I love our focus,” coach Urban Meyer said of his team’s revival. “And I like where we’re at.”
The Wolverines, on the other hand, dropped out of the CFP rankings this week after losing to No. 5 Wisconsin.
So while the Buckeyes will fight to stay relevant on the national scene, three-loss Michigan will fight for some redemption.
“It’s just one of those games you put everything on the line,” Wolverines defensive tackle Maurice Hurst said. “It is a one-game season for us.”
In Seattle, No. 13 Washington State plays No. 17 Washington in the Apple Cup to determine who advances to the Pac-12 Conference title game against No. 11 USC.
If Washington State wins, it takes the Pac-12 North Division. If not, Stanford will get the invitation and drive a few miles down the Bayshore Freeway to Levi’s Stadium.
The No. 21 Cardinal finish their regular season against No. 8 Notre Dame, and with a question mark in the backfield. Running back Bryce Love has been hobbled by an ankle injury but managed to rush for 101 yards and a touchdown before taking a seat in the fourth quarter of his team’s 17-14 win over California last weekend.
“Right now, it’s not like it’s getting any worse,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “It’s just pain. And if it’s just pain, Bryce will play.”
The situation could change during practice this week, which could make the matchup against the favored Irish a lot tougher.
“We’ve got to play our best football even to have a chance to win,” Shaw said. “It may be with Bryce, it may be without Bryce … we’ll see.”
When asked about the challenge his team faces against Alabama, Malzahn offered a straightforward answer.
“They’re undefeated and they’re No. 1 in the country,” he said. “That’s probably the best way I can describe it.”
The Crimson Tide have been tested only once this season, scoring in the final seconds to defeat No. 14 Mississippi State on the road, but injuries have left them thin on defense.
That could spell trouble against Auburn, which has averaged 44 points in the four recent wins that included an upset victory over then-No. 1 Georgia.
And don’t forget the 2013 season when fourth-ranked Auburn stunned No. 1 Alabama by returning a missed field goal more than 100 yards on the final play.
Still, Alabama has more experience in the spotlight and a coach who knows how to prepare.
Nick Saban talked this week about the need to stay focused on “detail-type things” amid the noise and hype.