Home Loss to LSU Leaves Alabama's Playoff Hopes on Thin Ice

The one-loss Tide lack an impressive résumé and no longer control their own destiny. Will it cost them a playoff spot?
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Alabama LSU Tua Tagovailoa

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Now we’re going to find out if the College Football Playoff can function without Alabama.

In its five years of existence, we’ve never played one without the Crimson Tide. But we likely will this season, after ‘Bama was busted by LSU by the very 2019 score of 46-41.

Alabama has no quality wins, unless you’re feeling generous about 6-3 Texas A&M. It likely will have just one more opportunity to get one, at Auburn on Nov. 30. LSU would have to lose twice to give the Tide a shot at the SEC West title and a berth in the league title game, and that isn’t happening given what the Tigers have left.

The best ‘Bama can finish is 11-1, and it would be a soft 11-1. It would include a loss in which the mighty Crimson Tide surrendered their most points in a game since 1970 (48 to Mississippi) and most points surrendered in Tuscaloosa since … I am not making this up … 1907 (54 to mighty Sewanee).

The body of work is soft when your non-conference schedule consists of Duke, New Mexico State, Southern Mississippi and Western Carolina—none of which were in the top 50 of the Sagarin Ratings heading into Saturday. It is soft when your SEC crossover opponents are South Carolina and Tennessee, the former of whom lost for the sixth time this season Saturday, and both of whom have losses to Sun Belt opponents. It is soft when the distance between the top four in the West and the bottom three is a chasm.

Now, after watching LSU celebrate like wild men on its home field, Alabama needs some help to get where it wants to be.

“We don’t really control our own destiny,” Nick Saban acknowledged afterward.

Alabama simply doesn’t have a playoff-worthy résumé. Not unless several other one-loss teams become two-loss teams.

Currently, the playoff picture looks like this: the SEC champion, Big Ten champion and Clemson, with the fourth spot very much up for grabs. If the Big 12 champ finishes with one or zero losses (i.e., Oklahoma or Baylor), it may have a better résumé than Alabama’s. Same with a potential one-loss Big Ten runner-up, if both Ohio State and Minnesota advance to that league title game undefeated. If Georgia beats LSU in the SEC title game, the Tide could be aced out of the playoff by both of them.

(Yes, we really are getting to the point of taking Minnesota and Baylor seriously as playoff contenders. What a concept.)

The best argument an 11-1 Alabama may have is over a one-loss Pac-12 champion — especially if it’s Oregon, because the Tide would have a victory over an Auburn team that defeated the Ducks.

Per Sagarin, Oregon (No. 24), Penn State (No. 39), Utah (No. 40), Oklahoma (No. 49), Georgia (No. 50) and Cincinnati (No. 56) all are one-loss teams that came into Saturday with schedules rated stronger than Alabama’s, which checked in at No. 59. Obviously, ‘Bama’s schedule strength will get a big bump from playing LSU, but the Tide also lost the game. At home, where it had won 31 games in a row.

“We don’t think it’s over,” said safety Xavier McKinney. “We can only worry about us and getting better, which we will do. … We got humbled.”

The only other playoff argument Alabama could mount is for a Tua Mulligan. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa played three weeks after having a procedure done on his right ankle, which he sprained against Tennessee on Oct. 19. He didn’t begin the game Saturday at 100%, and he sure didn’t end it at 100%—he was limping noticeably in the fourth quarter.

Tagovailoa was 21 of 40 for 418 yards with four touchdowns and an interception—great numbers for most quarterbacks, but his second-lowest efficiency rating (168.3) of the season (just barely better than the 167.1 he had against Texas A&M). He also had his first two-turnover game of the year, and both of them were brutal: a fumble without being hit on Alabama’s opening drive inside the LSU 10-yard line; an interception in the final seconds of the first half that set up a Tigers touchdown for a stunning 33-13 halftime lead.

“He did what he could do,” said offensive lineman Jedrick Wills. “I do think he played a really good game.”

We don’t know whether Tagovailoa agreed with that assessment. He was not made available to the media postgame, and hasn’t been available since before his injury.

The conspiracy-minded may point at the out-of-character comments from CBS analyst Gary Danielson a few days ago, when he said he watched practice and declared on a radio show that Tua was not 100%. Most TV types swallow that kind of information before a game—for Danielson to pipe up publicly with that suggested a set-up to some. Like Alabama wanted the Tua Mulligan Factor out there before the game.

“I think he was a warrior, in terms of what he did,” Saban said of his junior QB. “Missing practice, he was probably not as sharp as he could have been.”

The fumble looked like that kind of mistake. So did some of the passes Tagovailoa missed while throwing a career-high 19 incompletions.

So, could the committee give the Tide something of a pass for a five-point loss to an excellent team with its Heisman Trophy-candidate quarterback playing hurt? Maybe. We’ll see. But the blowback from an Alabama-fatigued nation would also be significant.

While losing to LSU is no sin, it should be noted that the Tide never led. And while they did mount a vigorous second-half comeback to avoid a blowout, the Tide never had the ball after halftime in a one-score game.

Simply put, there was no doubt who the better team was Saturday.

The lesser team blundered all over the place in the first half, unraveling with startling speed. Not only were there the Tua turnovers, but also a fumbled punt snap and an illegal substitution penalty that negated an interception of Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow. The mistakes multiplied and the game snowballed on Alabama. Composure left the building.

Fact: the last two times the Tide have played a top-five opponent, the same thing has happened. They were out on their feet by halftime of the championship game last season against Clemson, and again here against LSU.

With a 16-14 lead in the title game, Alabama surrendered 17 points in less than 11 minutes of the second quarter and trailed 31-16 at half. Here, LSU hit ‘Bama with an even faster 17-point flurry, doing it in the final 4:20 of the second quarter.

Against these two elite offenses, the famed Saban defense hasn’t just cracked—it has splintered. Clemson and LSU combined for 90 points and 1,041 yards against the Tide.

“We couldn’t get a stop on defense when we needed to,” Saban allowed.

Not enough stops Saturday. Not enough quality wins thus far. Not enough opportunities to significantly change that down the stretch. The playoff situation is dire at present for the team that has been the biggest part of it since its inception.

Alabama isn’t out yet. But it sure isn’t in.

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