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Why Auburn has a (really hard) path to being the first-ever 2-loss College Football Playoff team

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The Tigers face a brutal gauntlet that will define their season, one way or the other.

Three sentences that shouldn’t make sense in order, but do:

  • A two-loss team has never made the College Football Playoff.
  • Auburn had two losses before November.
  • Auburn is likely to make the Playoff if it doesn’t lose another game.

The Tigers’ path is extremely difficult, and it’s exceedingly unlikely that they’ll pull it off. But because of who they’ve still got on the schedule, it’s possible.

Auburn would have to win out. That would mean a trio of marquee wins.

The Tigers’ elite defense and steady offense meet Georgia on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS). The Dawgs will almost certainly enter as the No. 1 team in the Playoff committee ranking, having beaten Notre Dame and already clinched the SEC East. A win over UGA would be any team’s best all season.

If the Tigers beat UGA, their home game against probable new No. 1 Alabama would likely decide the SEC West.

If Auburn beat both UGA and Bama, it’d bring up a rematch with the Dawgs in the SEC Championship. A win there would make Auburn 11-2.

A finish that outrageous would make Auburn deserving.

Let’s also assume UGA beats Kentucky and Georgia Tech while Bama beats Mississippi State. If UGA were to finish 11-2 with two losses to the SEC champ, that’d give Auburn two wins over a team likely ranked No. 5 or so in the final rankings, assuming a little chaos elsewhere. An 11-1 Bama would also be well inside the top 10.

With losses to Clemson and LSU and a win against Mississippi State, Auburn’s record against the final Playoff top 25 would probably be 4-2. Its record against .500-plus teams could be 7-2, depending on how Missouri and Ole Miss finish.

Those numbers would end up comparable to several Playoff teams in years that weren’t as wide-open as this one.

The differences between Auburn’s potential 2017 case and Penn State’s 2016 case are simple.

Penn State’s two losses included a blowout to Michigan. Both of Auburn’s so far were by single scores on the road against currently ranked teams.

Auburn would also have a far better list of wins. The 12 teams that made the Playoff in its first three years all had good wins, but having three top-10 wins is pretty rare.

In fact, look at the trend-breaking team that made the Playoff in 2016.

Ohio State made it despite not being a conference champ because it’d beaten No. 6 Michigan, No. 7 Oklahoma, and No. 8 Wisconsin. Auburn’s best three wins would rank even better, since UGA would count twice.

Just as important to a two-loss Auburn’s Playoff hopes: chaos in other leagues.

  • The Big Ten could miss the Playoff altogether. None of the Big Ten’s two-loss teams have anything on their full schedules like Auburn’s opportunity, and Wisconsin’s schedule is so bad that the Badgers might be out if they lose at any point.
  • So could the Big 12, which will enter its conference championship game without any guarantee of having a one-loss champion.
  • In the Pac-12, only Washington has one loss, and the committee’s likely to be unimpressed with UW’s schedule.
  • And there’s certainly no guarantee Notre Dame finishes its tough schedule 11-1.

The odds of this happening are, to state the obvious, not good.

Bill Connelly’s S&P+ projections give the Tigers these chances down the stretch:

  • 46 percent to beat Georgia at home
  • 89 percent to beat ULM at home
  • 41 percent to beat Alabama at home
  • 40 percent to beat Georgia at a neutral site

The chances of a 4-0 stretch here are 7 percent. That’s just a remote possibility, and the computers probably give Auburn a better chance than most humans would.

But if Auburn can do it, the Plainsmen will be legends. The Playoff committee might have no choice but to break its own two-loss trend for a team on that kind of run.

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