- With two losses, Auburn faces long odds to crack the College Football Playoff. But the Tigers may well have a say in which teams do make the field.
When the first version of the College Football Playoff rankings were revealed this week, one immediate takeaway was the supremacy of one conference: The SEC occupied No. 1 (Georgia) and No. 2 (Alabama). Auburn, slotted 14th in the rankings, has the potential to knock the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide from the top two spots over the next few weeks.
On Saturday, it looked like a could be a real problem for the SEC’s power duo. In a result that may well have sealed head coach Kevin Sumlin’s fate at Texas A&M, Auburn comfortably notched its second straight division road win of at least 15 points, beating the Aggies 42-27. Tigers quarterback Jarrett Stidham was on point, connecting on 20 of his 27 throws for 368 yards with three touchdowns, and—with bulldozing tailback Kamryn Pettway sidelined by a shoulder injury—fellow junior Kerryon Johnson pounded out 145 yards on 29 carries (5 YPC).
Texas A&M never seriously threatened after halftime, but Auburn promptly shut the door the one moment when a comeback seemed semi-possible. After pulling within two scores on a 62-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter, Auburn responded with a 13-play, 96-yard scoring drive capped by a four-yard touchdown run from wide receiver Eli Stove. The Tigers finished with 496 yards of offense, compared to only 343 for Texas A&M.
To this point, Auburn has fallen short of the expectations that made it a trendy playoff dark horse this summer. The Tigers are better than the group that finished 8-5 and got blown out in the Sugar Bowl by Oklahoma last season, but the addition of coveted transfer quarterback Stidham has not turbocharged the offense the way some observers expected: Before Saturday Auburn ranked sixth in the SEC in yards per play.
Even if this version of the Tigers won’t be confused for the Cam Newton-led group that won the national title following the 2010 season, they remain one of the best candidates outside the top 10 to rise in the rankings and crash the national semifinals. The defense is stingy, yielding only 4.35 YPP entering Saturday, and Auburn has yet to suffer a damaging loss: home against Clemson (Sept. 9) and at LSU (Oct. 14),
The Tigers host Georgia in a week, and then Alabama visits Jordan-Hare Stadium on Thanksgiving Weekend for the Iron Bowl. A win in either game would at the very last scramble the playoff picture, and could preclude the SEC getting two teams into the field. Alternatively, if the Tigers run the table, including the conference title bout, they could be a candidate to become the first two-loss team in the CFP.
Auburn was largely dismissed as a legitimate national championship contender when it fell to LSU last month, but it showed on Saturday that it remains relevant as a possible playoff participant and a potential havoc-wreaker. Even if the Tigers aren’t a major threat to win it all, they are capable of tripping up two other SEC teams that can.