TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There’s no silence quite like the eerie, searing quiet of a losing locker room. The air stands still. Whispers reverberate like shouts. Cracked eyes stare at the floor as players trudge off to the showers and prepare to face their new reality.
About an hour after No. 1 Mississippi State lost its first game in 364 days at Alabama on Saturday, the pall of losing hung thick in the cramped visitor’s locker room. Players sliced tape off their ankles, bagged ice on their knees and eventually shuffled out to the armada of buses waiting to carry them home. “We should feel awful right now,” Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said. “We lost a football game. Everybody should feel awful.”
After falling to No. 5 Alabama 25-20 on Saturday evening, Mississippi State players expressed the regret of three turnovers, a disastrous safety and six trips to the red zone that yielded just 20 points. Along with the regret comes the bizarre new reality we face as we creep toward the unveiling of the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff field in three weeks. In this new playoff era, a close loss to a team of Alabama’s caliber could actually count more than an ugly win over an inferior foe. Mississippi State’s klutzy but gutsy effort prompts a question the selection committee will have to wrestle with the next few weeks: How does a quality road loss to a top-five team compare to an ugly victory over an awful team?
Welcome to the duality of the playoff era, where Mississippi State managed to win by losing on Saturday. The Bulldogs showed well enough against Alabama -- thanks largely to a touchdown pass with 15 seconds left -- while No. 4 TCU trailed for most of the day against a dreadful Kansas team before pulling out a 34-30 win.
There were undoubtedly a few high-fives at the SEC home offices up the road in Birmingham when the Bulldogs registered their last touchdown to polish up the final score. The narratives would be that TCU sputtered, while Mississippi State went toe-to-toe with a top-five foe on the road.
Not only did the Bulldogs position themselves for a spot in the College Football Playoff if they win out, but they also put the SEC in position to get a pair of teams in the field if Alabama can win the SEC title. And that leads to the most surreal duality, players trying to digest losing amid all this. There was plenty lost here on Saturday, including quarterback Dak Prescott’s Heisman Trophy chances as he threw two of his three interceptions in the red zone, and the Bulldogs’ feel-good vibes that they had cobbled together the past year. “This sucks,” Prescott said. “I haven’t felt this way for a while. I don’t want to feel like this again.”
The playoff era is shaping up to play out a lot like the BCS era: Style points matter, even though coaches say they don’t. Margin of victory matters, even if it isn’t supposed to. And coaches and athletic directors must toe the delicate line between politicking for their teams and laying out the facts. I asked Mullen after the game if he thought the Bulldogs “showed well,” as that could be what so much of the subjective debate among seven one-loss top-10 teams could come down to.
“You have a hard time saying that’s not two of the best football teams in the country on the field,” Mullen told SI.com amid the locker-room quiet on Saturday. “Show well is interesting. I think our guys, we’re on the road in one of the hardest stadiums in the country to play in, down 19-0 against one of the most talented teams in the country, and the game went down to the final play.”
As it stands right now, Mississippi State’s victories over Auburn, Texas A&M and at LSU resonate as one of the most impressive collections of wins in the country, though all three suffered reputation-damaging losses on Saturday. The Bulldogs' loss at Alabama, which could be ranked No. 1 on Tuesday, will be the best loss among the one-loss teams. The knock on Mississippi State will be its soft out-of-conference schedule, which seemingly was sponsored by Tastykake: Southern Miss, UAB, Tennessee-Martin and at South Alabama.
“I still think that we have opportunities on the field to make our case for whatever,” Mississippi State AD Scott Stricklin told SI.com. “We still want to win the SEC West. We have to have some help now, but that’s a goal we want to achieve.”
The final so-called “win” from this loss could be Mississippi State actually having an easier road to the playoff if it wins out against Vanderbilt and at Ole Miss in the final two weeks. While Alabama will head to the SEC title game if it keeps winning, the Bulldogs could avoid playing a final tough game and still make the field.
That all, of course, hinges on upcoming results that are about as predictable as a teenager’s mood. And it’s risky projecting what a 12-person committee will decide without a precedent, especially when the guidelines to pick teams are about as clear as Scooby Doo fog. Anyone who says he knows how the committee will decide should tell fortunes like Madam Marie on the Jersey Shore boardwalk. “I can’t tell you what they’re talking about behind closed doors there,” Mullen said.
The College Football Playoff selection committee will offer more breadcrumbs hinting at its thinking on Tuesday night. If early indications are a sign, however, it appears Mississippi State is still in a strong position to win out and create a much different locker-room scene on Nov. 29 in Oxford.