If you hate the CFP championship matchup, blame Auburn
For SEC fans, the impending Georgia-Alabama CFP championship game rematch is reason to once again pound their chests and celebrate.
For the rest of the nation, and the viewership numbers are likely to bear this out, it will be ample reason to do anything else a week from now. We’ve already seen this game — only a month ago — and Alabama’s 41-24 stomping didn’t exactly beg for a rematch.
Now, like “Jaws: The Revenge,” we have a sequel that nobody asked for.
At least when these same teams met in the epic championship game to close the 2017 season, they hadn’t faced each other just 2 games prior. Georgia made the Playoff after beating Auburn in the SEC championship game. The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide hadn’t played each other that season.
Bama and LSU met in a BCS championship rematch following the 2011 season, but at least that was following up on an overtime “Game of the Century” that had been played in early November. There was a level of intrigue for a reboot, though even then many people hoped Oklahoma State would have made it instead.
Those games could be sold to a national audience. This matchup — which actually does shape up to be a much better game than the first meeting — has no widespread appeal.
One of college football’s selling points is that every game matters. And by that measuring stick, we’ve already determined Alabama to be the better team here.
Instead, one of the chief arguments for those who believe the college game to be more exciting than its professional counterpart is shown as a fallacy. The NFL playoff structure at least prevents us from seeing the same matchup twice in 3 games.
If you’re among those who are unenthused by Alabama-Georgia Part II, there is one team to blame for putting us in this pickle: Auburn. And more specifically, Auburn coach Bryan Harsin.
Harsin’s Tigers had the Crimson Tide dead to rights in the regular-season finale, and let them wriggle off the hook. Now we’re all stuck paying the price.
How Auburn ruined the College Football Playoff
The table was set for a potentially fascinating CFP.
Alabama was staring at its second loss and likely elimination. Backed up at their own 3 and trailing Auburn 10-3 with 1:27 remaining, the Crimson Tide needed to go 97 yards just to tie the game. And they were already facing a third-and-10 situation.
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Just 1 Auburn stop — anywhere in that 97-yard patch of grass — and we’re looking at a different CFP.
Instead, Bryce Young went out and won himself the Heisman as he marched the Tide downfield and sent the game into overtime.
Overtime is where Harsin could have altered the course of college football history, but instead chose to play it safe.
When Auburn scored in the bottom half of the first overtime period, Harsin could have done the logical thing after seeing Young tear up his defense on back-to-back possessions: go for 2 and win the game.
There was no good argument to play for the tie at that point. If the game reached a third overtime, you’d be dueling 2-point conversion attempts anyhow. And with Auburn leading off the second overtime, Alabama had the opportunity to match or exceed anything Auburn’s offense did.
There’s no guarantee it would work, but trying to score from 3 yards out was clearly Auburn’s best opportunity to win the game. Harsin’s choice to bypass that chance and keep playing more overtimes didn’t add up given the circumstances.
Because he played it safe, here we are.
The CFP games we might have gotten
Now, how different remains a question that will never be answered.
Had Alabama still whipped Georgia in the SEC title game, the CFP committee would have been faced with the first true conundrum of its 8-year existence. Put in a 2-loss SEC champion, or put in an 11-1 Notre Dame team which only lost to playoff-bound Cincinnati?
If Bama got the nod as the 4-seed, the semifinal matchups likely would be:
- No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 4 Alabama
- No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 3 Cincinnati
That alternate universe, of course, probably would have led us to exactly the same CFP title game. Not very exciting. But it also feels an unlikely turn of events.
An 11-2 Alabama team would certainly get in over the majority of 11-1 programs. But an 11-1 Notre Dame might have been another matter altogether. When you’re the collective age of the CFP committee members, Notre Dame is still a big, bold brand name.
Added with the unique circumstances of their lone loss coming to the Bearcats, I think the Fighting Irish would have earned the No. 4 seed.
And then your Playoff becomes:
- No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 4 Notre Dame
- No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 3 Cincinnati
Suddenly, we have a decidedly Midwestern flavor to the Playoff. And somehow Ohio State is not among the teams providing that flavor!
That certainly would have given us a pair of more interesting semifinal games to watch, though the endgame is likely still Georgia stomping on Michigan in a football game.
There’s also a third possibility, though more remote than the others.
After falling to Auburn, Alabama might have packed it in and lost to Georgia. Again, unlikely, but possible.
In that case, the semis have the following look:
- No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 4 Notre Dame
- No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Cincinnati
The Georgia-Notre Dame game likely still results in a blowout, but at least we have a true toss-up in the other semifinal matchup. Which beats the pants off of what we actually witnessed.
Now, it may well work out that this Georgia-Alabama sequel provides us with a far more entertaining championship game than any of those permutations would have. It may well be such a classic that all of this complaining will instantly be proven idiotic. Should that happen, I suppose it will be time to write Harsin and Auburn a thank-you note for setting it up.
Trouble is, I might end up being one of the few people outside of the SEC footprint who cares enough to do so.