What is it going to take for the Pac-12 to crack the College Football Playoff?
First, apparently, a hex on Alabama. As if Tua Tagovailoa’s season-ending hip injury weren’t catastrophic enough, one calamity after the next befell the Crimson Tide on Saturday in a 48-45 loss at Auburn.
Alabama was so hell-bent on winning this Iron Bowl — and giving CBS analyst Gary Danielson his annual stump speech for a second Southeastern Conference playoff team — that it overcame two pick-sixes from new starting quarterback Mac Jones to put itself in position to steal the game late. But Alabama kicker Joseph Bulovas clanked a game-tying 30-yard field-goal attempt off the left upright, and then an unthinkable illegal substitution penalty on fourth down negated an Alabama stop with a minute left, sending Nick Saban into convulsions on the sideline.
He may as well have been attacked by locusts colored Utah red and white, Oklahoma crimson and cream and Baylor green and gold. In reality, he also could have been cursing the fact Auburn got an extra second added to the clock at the end of the first half, which led to what would end up being the deciding field goal.
It shouldn’t have taken all of that to remove Alabama from the playoff conversation, especially once Tagovailoa went down. But the Crimson Tide have made all five playoff brackets and played in four straight national championship games, and in college football, tradition dies hard.
With Tagovailoa, the best quarterback in school history, Alabama still lost to Louisiana State on its home field and compiled no resume-building wins. With Jones, who responded from his two major mistakes valiantly Saturday, the Crimson Tide have not played like one of the top four teams in the country.
And that’s just going to have to be OK. Alabama remains the top program in college football and showed why by nearly knocking off Auburn despite an uncharacteristically undisciplined performance with a backup quarterback.
Before losing last week at Arizona State, Oregon seemed the odds-on favorite to step in for No. 5 Alabama. Utah was going to need more help, particularly now that its potential win over the Ducks in the Pac-12 title game would not be of the top-10 variety.
With Alabama out of the way, Utah still needs help.
The No. 6 Utes will be rooting for No. 2 LSU to beat No. 4 Georgia in next week’s SEC championship game in Atlanta. If Georgia wins, it is in, and LSU probably would remain in the bracket as a 12-1 team with wins over Alabama, Florida and Auburn. Even Danielson wouldn’t need to try to convince anyone of the Tigers over the Utes or a one-loss Big 12 champ, although of course he would.
If Georgia beats LSU, Utes fans would need to pray for Virginia to upset No. 3 Clemson, which would certainly open a spot given Clemson’s lack of a quality win. No. 1 Ohio State, after pasting No. 13 Michigan in Ann Arbor 56-27, is assuredly in the field, even if it loses the Big Ten title game to Wisconsin.
Does Utah need No. 9 Baylor to beat No. 7 Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game? It’s hard to say. The Sooners have squeaked out wins over Iowa State, Baylor and Texas Christian in the last three games. A TCU team that pushed Oklahoma in Norman just lost its finale at home to struggling West Virginia and won’t go to a bowl game. To this point, Utah has better looked the part of a national championship contender, displaying excellence on both sides of the ball.
Of course, all those old testament maneuverings that unfolded on the plains of Alabama on Saturday will be for naught if Oregon beats Utah in Santa Clara. And, as we know, nothing can save the Pac-12 from itself.
Tough questions at Michigan
Jim Harbaugh was hired to beat Ohio State and bring Michigan back to a Big Ten championship level. On Saturday, he became the first head coach of the Wolverines to go 0-5 against the Buckeyes.
It needs to be said: This is a Michigan problem just as much as it’s a Harbaugh problem. No doubt, it has been his issue to fix from the moment he took the job, and he has only made it harder on himself because the frustration and pressure compound more with each year. The Buckeyes have now won 15 of 16, and what started as a monkey on Michigan’s back is now King Kong.
Does Harbaugh have it in him to get this done? In his postgame news conference, a reporter challenged him multiple times about his personal desire to win “The Game” against Ohio State. Harbaugh did not want to go there, but the perception exists that the Buckeyes put more emphasis on the rivalry than the Wolverines.
Even Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields said so after the game.
“I just think we take it more seriously than they do,” Fields said. “We prepare for it all year. We’re preparing for them next year right now. I think it just means more at Ohio State.”
Michigan did not lose this particular game for that reason, while there may be some validity to Fields’ sentiment generally. It lost because Ohio State is the best team in the country, Michigan is a stretch for the top 15, and the Wolverines made too many mistakes to hang in game that demanded near-perfection.
Geaux Jeaux Burreaux
Heisman Trophy frontrunner Joe Burrow wore a special jersey for his senior night at LSU. His last name was spelled “Burreaux,” as a nod to the state’s proud Cajun history.
Burrow led the Tigers to a 31-0 halftime lead over Texas A&M on Saturday with 231 yards passing and two touchdowns.
Who will join him in New York for the Heisman ceremony? Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and a trio of Buckeyes — Fields, running back JK Dobbins and defensive end Chase Young — are the top candidates.