Losing hurts. Losing to Ole Miss in a game in which Alabama was leading in the 4th quarter really hurts. The Crimson Tide that was beginning to look like the best team in the country after the victory over the Florida Gators in Tuscaloosa on September 20 hit a major stumbling block with the loss in Oxford. I still believe this Alabama team is one of the best in the country and has, by SEC standards, a favorable schedule that affords them the opportunity to improve and potentially win out.
Alabama is now tied with Texas A&M for second place in the SEC West behind the undefeated trio of Auburn, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State. So, what does Alabama have to do to get back on track and still have a shot at making it to the SEC Championship and, ultimately, the inaugural College Football Playoff?
First and foremost, I think it goes without saying that Alabama will have to win the rest of their games if they want to accomplish their championship goals. Without looking at what other West teams have in front of them, I just do not see a scenario in which Alabama loses another game and stands the chance of being in first place in the West or, and this is probably even less likely, being placed in the playoff by the selection committee. A 2-loss SEC team will probably be ranked behind any 1-loss team from a Power 5 conference, but a 1-loss SEC team would almost certainly be ranked in the top 4 and given a chance at the playoff. Simply put, if the Tide wins out, they will be in the playoff (and probably in the SEC Championship game).
Let's take a look at this upcoming weekend's games as well as what the rest of the West contenders have on their plates for the rest of the season.
This Weekend's Games (or, How the Tide Got Their Groove Back)
Alabama at Arkansas
Coming off a loss, Nick Saban should have his boys chomping at the bit to go out on the field and make a statement and I can't think of a better SEC West team to play at this point in the season than the Razorbacks. Arkansas is probably the weakest team in an absolutely loaded SEC West, but Bret Bielema's B1G offense plays right into the hands of what the Tide defense does best - stop the run. The Razorbacks currently average 316 yards rushing per game and only 167 yards passing. This mostly one-dimensional offense averages only 21 passing attempts per game compared to 45 rushing attempts. Arkansas will rely on the two-headed monster of superstar backs Alex Collins and Johnathan Williams. Alabama is currently allowing 64 yards per game rushing and only allowing 2.6 yards per rush. Arkansas's offense is undoubtedly the best rushing attack Alabama has seen at this point in the season, but Nick Saban generally feasts on teams that are mostly one-dimensional (and don't run the spread). Bielema and the Hogs came in to Tuscaloosa and scored 0 points on the Tide last season and only managed 165 yards rushing. 165 yards might seem like a lot, but when a team's only source of offensive firepower comes from the ground game, 165 yards is not a good day. My guess is the Tide goes to Fayetteville on a mission to make a statement and comes away with a big win.
Auburn at Mississippi State
The game of the week pits #2 Auburn against #3 Mississippi State in StarkVegas, MS. Auburn faces their biggest challenge of the season so far against Dak Prescott and a powerful Bulldog offense. Mississippi State is coming off a big 48-31 win over Texas A&M and is trying to show that they belong as one of the top teams in the SEC. Prescott has played very well and has even garnered some Heisman attention. The Bulldogs racked up 559 yards of total offense and the defense, while giving up a ghastly 526 yards, forced three Kenny Hill interceptions.
Auburn seemed to have lost a step from last year after they escaped Manhattan, Kansas with a win on a Thursday night over Kansas State. Despite the early season struggles, Auburn stomped LSU at home last Saturday winning 41-7. LSU looks like they have regressed from previous successful seasons, but a blowout win over one of the premier SEC teams is nothing to scoff at.
This game has the chance of being a shoot-out with both offenses being extremely potent and both defenses being extremely meh. I see this game being close and, if I had to choose, I would say Mississippi State comes out on top (#CLANGA). While this game has huge implications for the West, as far as Alabama is concerned, the game doesn't matter all that much (besides the fact that an Auburn loss is always welcome, #gumpin). Alabama has to face Mississippi State on November 15 and Auburn on November 29. Alabama controls their own destiny over Auburn and Mississippi State in terms of championship scenarios.
Ole Miss at Texas A&M
Ole Miss travels to College Station this weekend after one of the biggest victory's in program history. A&M took a loss to Mississippi State last weekend, but the Aggies have looked very good this season. Kenny Hill is putting up stupid good numbers in the Aggie offenses' attempts to survive while the Texas A&M defense is out there trying to do anything to stop an offense.
The Rebel defense is legit, as evidenced last week by only giving up 10 points against an Alabama offense that surprised everyone up to that point in the season. The Rebel Black Bear offense has been serviceable as long as Dr. Bo can keep the ball out of the other team's hands.
Although I think Ole Miss is the better team, I firmly believe that Hugh Freeze will have a hard time preparing his team for this game. The emotional hangover from such a huge win the previous weekend is tough to overcome, and the 12th man in College Station is one of the toughest home environments to play in. This game has huge implications for Alabama's championship hopes. Ole Miss needs to lose two conference games for Alabama to have a chance of playing in Atlanta. With games against Tennessee, Auburn, LSU, and Mississippi State left to play, Ole Miss is going to have to play some incredible football to escape conference play with only one loss. This weekend would be a good start to get Alabama back on top of the West.
How does the schedule look for the contenders in the West?
|10/18||vs. Texas A&M|
|11/15||vs. Mississippi St.|
|11/22||vs. Western Carolina|
The Tide probably have a tough schedule for the rest of the season, but it looks like the road to Atlanta may travel through Tuscaloosa even after the loss to Ole Miss. The road schedule is pretty favorable, as Alabama only has three remaining road games (and those three teams look like the weakest SEC teams Alabama will play). Alabama will have to work to get more consistent offensively, create a cohesive offensive line that minimizes penalties, and continues to improve on defense. If Alabama can do these things, I don't think it would be out of the scope of reality to see Alabama at 11-1 and winning the West.
|10/11||@ Texas A&M|
|11/29||v. Mississippi St.|
Ole Miss's remaining schedule is similar to Alabama's. The only difference between the two schedules is that Alabama faces Texas A&M at home and Tennessee on the road while Ole Miss does the opposite. Ole Miss will face significant challenges against all of these teams and, frankly, I don't think Ole Miss has the talent to win out or even only lose one game. Alabama has proven that they can win big games on a consistent basis over the last few seasons. Ole Miss hasn't. Ole Miss will have to prove that they can go through a rigorous SEC schedule, winning tough games every weekend, and play teams while having the proverbial target on their back. This weekend at Texas A&M will show if the Rebels are for real.
|10/11||v. Ole Miss|
The Aggies have been tough to read this season. After their season-opening blowout against South Carolina in Columbia, Texas A&M looked to be a real contender for the West crown. Unfortunately for Kevin Sumlin, the Aggie defense hasn't been able to stop anyone and the Aggies took their first loss last weekend against Mississippi State (after surviving a scare against Arkansas in Dallas). Road trips to Alabama and Auburn won't be easy for the Aggies to win, but, luckily for Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M will be rested and ready to go with a bye week before they play powerhouse Louisiana-Monroe (seriously, did someone lose their job over this?). With a win in Tuscaloosa over Texas A&M, Alabama can make the road almost impossible for A&M to make their first SEC Championship game appearance.
|11/29||@ Ole Miss|
Can #Clanga keep rolling? After an average start, Mississippi State has surprised everyone with back-to-back wins over LSU and Texas A&M. The Bulldogs have the easiest schedule of all the contenders in the West. If Dan Mullen's squad is legit, the only real challenges State should have are Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, and (maybe) Arkansas. If Alabama and Mississippi State both win out, the SEC West champion may be crowned when the two teams face off on November 15 in Tuscaloosa. This weekend's matchup should be a great test to determine if Mississippi State is for real.
|10/11||@ Mississippi St.|
|10/25||v. South Carolina|
|11/1||@ Ole Miss|
|11/8||v. Texas A&M|
Auburn's remaining schedule is nothing short of brutal. In four consecutive weeks, Auburn plays South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Georgia. That stretch is as tough as it gets in the SEC, and then the Tigers get to travel to Tuscaloosa two weeks later. Auburn faced a much easier schedule last year and still needed two miraculous plays to escape SEC play with one loss. Is Auburn better this year than last year? Can they retain the same luck that propelled them to the national championship last year? I'd say that's highly doubtful. Regardless, a one-loss Alabama could still win the West if Auburn comes to Tuscaloosa undefeated. Best believe Saban's boys will be fired up for the Iron Bowl this year after [reference redacted].
"Should I book my flight to Atlanta today?"
Comparing the schedules of the contenders in the West is a good way to understand where Alabama stands after a loss. Basically, the margin for error is very slim, but if we take care of business against our remaining opponents, nothing should stand in our way. The Tide will certainly be tested, and it will be interesting to see how this team develops as the season progresses.
What are your thoughts on the games this weekend? Do you think Alabama still has a good shot of winning the West? Who do you think is the favorite to win the West? Let me know in the comments.