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Auburn Upset Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Now What?

The College Football Playoff has plunged into anarchy. Here’s what to expect over the next week.


Andrew Beaton and


Ben Cohen

Nov. 25, 2017 10:20 p.m. ET

Here’s a brief recap of what happened in college football while you spent your weekend napping off all that pecan pie.

Miami, the No. 2 team in the country, lost to a team with a losing record. Alabama, the No. 1 team in the country, lost to Auburn, a team that has now beaten two No. 1 teams in the last three weeks. Ohio State came from behind to beat Michigan, and yet it was overshadowed by star Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett getting injured in a pregame collision with a television camera.

And now absolutely nothing makes sense.

There are potentially cataclysmic scenarios every season that can force the College Football Playoff committee into some tricky decisions. Occasionally, one of them comes true. This year, pretty much all of them did.

With one week until the committee picks four teams to keep playing for the national title, it has become clear that something unprecedented is about to happen. A two-loss team has never made the playoff before. Now there might be as many as three. Two teams from the same conference have never made it together. Now the Southeastern Conference might rewrite that rule. Alabama has never not been in the playoff. Now the Crimson Tide might be on the outside looking in.

Here are four questions created by the chaos of this weekend in college football.

Auburn wide receiver Eli Stove dives for extra yardage over Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick during the second half. 

Auburn has already lost twice this season. Auburn also may have the claim to being the best team in the entire country.

In the last three weeks, the Tigers have beaten two No. 1 teams. First they upset then-undefeated, top-ranked Georgia. And on Saturday they upset then-undefeated, top-ranked Alabama by playing the type of ruthless, methodical, mistake-free football that was far more likely from the team coached by Nick Saban. In other words: Auburn out-Alabama-ed Alabama.

Now the Tigers get the chance to play Georgia again in the SEC title game on Saturday. The winner of that game will almost certainly make the playoff—even if the winner of that game is a two-loss team.

No matter what happens in that game, though, the playoff committee suddenly has a problem: What about Alabama?

The Crimson Tide won’t be automatically disqualified because they didn’t win the SEC title. There is precedent for the committee picking nonconference champions. There isn’t precedent for the committee picking two teams from the same conference, though, and Alabama will be stuck behind Auburn or Georgia.

It should be noted that there is no provision in any of the sport’s governing documents that dictates Alabama must be in the playoff. (We checked.) But any conversation about the four best teams in the country this year simply has to include the Crimson Tide. Saban himself said he believes Alabama should be in the playoff. And there are times when Saban feels the same way about Alabama as the thousands of fans in Auburn’s stadium.

The Crimson Tide’s problem may be that they were too good. The most impressive line on their résumé should have been their season-opener against then-No. 3 Florida State. But they destroyed the Seminoles so badly that they injured their star quarterback along the way, and Alabama’s capstone win is now essentially meaningless because Florida State currently has a losing record.

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield scrambles from defensive lineman Lamonte McDougle of the West Virginia Mountaineers. Oklahoma won 59-31. 

What happens in the Big 12?

All the way back in 2014, the very first year of the playoff, Texas Christian had a 10-1 record and was ranked No. 3 before its last game of the season. TCU won that game, 55-3, and clinched a share of the Big 12 Conference title. The playoff committee unveiled its final rankings the next day—and TCU was ranked No. 6.

The Big 12 might not have been left out of that playoff if it weren’t the only major conference without a championship game. Instead of embarrassing Iowa State, TCU would have played Baylor, which ended the regular season ranked No. 5, and both teams would have had the chance to add one more quality win. Instead, the Big 12 had two champions and zero playoff teams.

Now the Big 12 has a championship game. And it may come back to haunt the conference.

Oklahoma is currently ranked fourth by the committee. It should be ranked even higher come Tuesday’s rankings. The Sooners have an 11-1 record, and their quarterback, Baker Mayfield, is the likely Heisman Trophy winner. This isn’t a TCU situation: They would almost certainly be in the playoff if their season were over today.

But it isn’t because Oklahoma still has to play the Big 12 championship. The other team in the title game already has two losses, and it is likely too low in the polls to jump into the top four even if it upsets Oklahoma. It would be especially cruel, however, if a conference-title game cost the Big 12 a spot in the playoff after not having a conference-title game cost the Big 12 a spot in the playoff. Because the one team that Oklahoma has to beat again is none other than TCU.

Miami Hurricanes defensive back Sheldrick Redwine wears the turnover chain after recovering a fumble against Pittsburgh. Miami lost 24-14. 

What happens in the Atlantic Coast Conference?

Miami’s season has been a series of events that nobody could have seen coming. Nobody expected Miami to be undefeated on the last weekend of November. Nobody expected an enormous gold necklace to be instantly recognizable as something called a “turnover chain.” Nobody expected Miami to be in position to make the playoff even after losing this week.

But that is exactly what happened. The Hurricanes went 10-0 and found themselves competing over a piece of jewelry during a football game before they lost to Pittsburgh in a 24-14 upset on Friday that, as it turned out, won’t have any bearings on their playoff chances.

Miami was maybe the only team in the country that could afford to lose and still make the national semifinals. They were already guaranteed to play Clemson next weekend in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. Which is why it doesn’t matter what happened this weekend. They’re in if they win—another event that nobody expected.

Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett is sacked by Michigan defenders during the second half of their matchup. He didn’t return to the game, which the Buckeyes won 31-20.

What happens in the Big Ten?

The utter strangeness of this season can be explained by the Big Ten Conference alone.

No. 5 Wisconsin is the only remaining undefeated team from a power conference. That should make the Badgers a shoo-in for the playoff and the de facto No. 1 team in the country. Except nobody seems to think they’re even the No. 1 team in their own conference.

Why? Maybe it is because in this age of explosive offenses, Wisconsin prides itself on boring its opponents into submission. Maybe it is because of a previously unknown human bias against actual badgers. Or maybe it is because Wisconsin hasn’t beaten a team ranked higher than No. 20 all season.

But there will be no way to deny Wisconsin if it wins the Big Ten championship next week. All it has to do is beat two-loss Ohio State. The Buckeyes might look wildly different then because quarterback J.T. Barrett was injured in a bizarre incident on Saturday when a “guy with a camera” bumped into him on the sidelines, Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer said, aggravating his knee injury. It was pretty much the only thing that could make the coach furious after beating Michigan.

The Big Ten’s situation gets sticky if Ohio State wins. Last season, the playoff committee excluded Penn State, the two-loss Big Ten champion, instead choosing a one-loss team that didn’t make the conference-title game: Ohio State. Meyer’s team rewarded the committee’s faith by losing 31-0 to eventual national champion Clemson. Now the committee might be faced with the entirely realistic scenario of doubling back on that logic by picking a two-loss Big Ten champion: Ohio State.

Write to Andrew Beaton at and Ben Cohen at