TUSCALOOSA — For what feels like the first time this decade, a rare two-loss Alabama must sit and agonizingly wait to hear where it’s going bowling this season.
There’s always some uncertainty, but usually — at least for the past five years — the College Football Playoff-bound Crimson Tide had a general idea it was destined for one of the two semifinal locations.
But for just the second time since 2010, Alabama enters the postseason with no national championship implications and even fewer assurances of a premier bowl destination.
After dropping games to ranked rivals LSU and Auburn in the last month of the regular season, the Crimson Tide saw its once-promising playoff hopes dashed when it fell seven spots to No. 12 in the penultimate rankings released Tuesday night, one spot below its bitter cross-state rivals.
CFP chairman and Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens explained the committee’s decision to drop a two-loss Alabama behind a three-loss Auburn.
“Head-to-head is certainly a key part of it, and it also matters what happens around you,” Mullens said Tuesday night. “Alabama’s only two losses are to a No. 2 (LSU) and No. 11 (Auburn) team, however they only have two wins over Power 5 teams with winning records — both Texas A&M and Tennessee who are 7-5.
“And when you look at Auburn, they have the head-to-head (over Alabama) and also beat the No. 13 team (Oregon) with close losses to No. 2 and No. 4 (Georgia). So, specifically, when you look at those two, the head-to-head probably did carry the day.”
Of course, that positioning doesn’t bode particularly well for Alabama on Selection Sunday, as many of the non-Playoff or non-New York’s Six bowl games utilize the final CFP rankings when sending out invites.
Which is why, as usual, a lot of bowl scenarios are dependent on what happens during conference championship weekend.
That’s especially true when it comes to Saturday’s Southeastern Conference championship game in Atlanta between No. 2 LSU and No. 4 Georgia. The winner is assured a Final Four spot while the loser isn’t necessarily out of the conversation.
If LSU were to get upset, it’s resume still stacks up well against nearly every other team in contention and could very well remain in the top four even with a loss.
That would allow the next highest-ranked SEC team to slide into the Sugar Bowl, which is contractually obligated to take the SEC Championship game runner-up if it doesn’t make the Playoff or the league’s next highest-ranked team — in this case Florida.
A loss by Georgia would likely see the Bulldogs drop out of the Playoff completely and into the New Year’s Six Sugar Bowl bid. Given its Top-10 ranking, Florida isn’t out of contention for a New Year’s Six bowl, and would seem like a shoe-in for the Orange Bowl, which takes the ACC title game loser and the highest ranked non-CFP team between the SEC/Big 10 or Notre Dame.
No. 8 Wisconsin could throw a wrench in that scenario and make the Orange Bowl if it either beats No. 1 Ohio State in the Big Ten title game or remains ahead of the Gators even with a loss Saturday.
The SEC could feasibly receive a third New Year’s Six bid in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, which must take the highest-ranked Group of 5 team — likely No. 17 Memphis — and an at-large team.
But while Auburn’s — and by comparison Florida’s — resume certainly stacks up well, the CFP selection committee would be hard-pressed to not pick either the Big 12 or Pac-12 runner-up — potentially Baylor or the Oregon/Utah loser — as the at-large option.
“I would say that being at 11 puts (Auburn) within the range where that could be a topic of conversation after we get through next week’s games,” Mullens said.
Which is why Alabama’s ultimate bowl destination could all come down to the Citrus Bowl, which has first choice of remaining SEC teams after the CFP is through slotting the playoff and New Year’s Six games.
The Citrus isn’t required to go by any set rankings or contractually-stipulated obligations other than its own preference.
“The Citrus Bowl can select any remaining SEC team that is bowl eligible after the CFP/NY6 bowls are determined,” SEC spokesman Herb Vincent said in an email.
Given the Crimson Tide’s pedigree and supremely loyal fan base, the Citrus Bowl could be inclined to select Alabama over Auburn even if the final Playoff rankings don’t favor that decision — especially if it can create a dream blue-blood matchup against a Big 10 foe like Michigan.
That scenario would also give everyone the coveted Nick Saban versus Jim Harbaugh clash that will surely draw plenty of media and fan attention to Orlando for the game.
It also would be the Crimson Tide’s first bowl trip to Orlando since the 2010 season, when it last lost multiple regular-season games and went on to trounce Michigan State, 49-7.
That said, if the Citrus Bowl goes chalk and picks Auburn or Florida over Alabama, the Tide would be obvious options for two more Sunshine State-destinations. Both the Gator and Outback bowls in Jacksonville or Tampa, respectively, would also feature potential Big 10 opponents such as Michigan, Minnesota or Wisconsin.
Of course, that uncertainty is what makes the entire bowl process interesting and could lead to some compelling matchups this postseason, regardless of where Alabama lands in the rankings Sunday.