You didn’t really think that Nick Saban was going to just fall in line with the others, did you?
You didn’t think that being confronted with a 24-17 fourth-quarter deficit, mounting injuries and clanging cowbells in a hostile atmosphere would shake the very foundation of Saban and his unnaturally steady Crimson Tide? Absolutely not.
On a day that teetered on the historic with the No. 1 and No. 3 teams getting throttled on the road, No. 2 Alabama was pushed to the limit, only to come out bruised but unbeaten with a thrilling 31-24 win over No. 16 Mississippi State.
Such is life for Saban and the Crimson Tide. Amid the chaos that was No. 10 Auburn embarrassing No. 1 Georgia 40-17 on the Plains, and No. 7 Miami wobbling its gnarly, golden Turnover Chain to-and-fro in a 41-8 thrashing of No. 3 Notre Dame, Alabama escaped Starkville without a blemish on its record and probably will sit atop the next College Football Playoff rankings when they are announced Tuesday.
Alabama survived, but it flirted with utter disaster until Jalen Hurts‘ perfectly thrown, 26-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith with 25 seconds left silenced every last cowbell inside Davis Wade Stadium. If the Tide had fallen, Saturday would have marked the first time Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the AP poll all lost on the same day in the regular season.
Instead, Saban and his Tide do what they do probably 99 percent of the time when we think there’s a sliver of hope for the other team: They stepped on the Bulldogs’ throats.
Wins like these continue to separate Saban and his teams from the rest of the pack. We were ready to crown Georgia’s Kirby Smart as Saban-lite after rushing out to a dominant 9-0 record in his second season. However, his Dawgs were totally outplayed in every facet against an Auburn team running on fumes in the SEC West.
Georgia’s 23-point loss was bigger than the previous four losses by the top-ranked team in the CFP rankings combined (21 points). The Dawgs built their unbeaten record by punching teams in the mouth with their running game and smothering defense, but the Tigers were sensational at stymieing both of those elite units with 237 rushing yards on offense and five tackles for loss, including four sacks, on defense.
Hours later, it was Miami overpowering Notre Dame with four takeaways and yet another gritty performance from new national-darling quarterback Malik Rosier, who is 9-0 this season and has not only led the Hurricanes to their first appearance to the ACC championship game, but has them firmly in the mix for the playoff.
There were other beneficiaries of Saturday’s shake-up. No. 5 Oklahoma jumped right back into the playoff picture with its 38-20 win over No. 6 TCU. The Sooners, who have the Heisman Trophy favorite in quarterback Baker Mayfield, are now firmly in the Big 12 driver’s seat with games against unranked Kansas and West Virginia remaining.
The Big Ten, which is hanging on by a tattered thread in the playoff race, bellowed a major sigh of relief when No. 8 Wisconsin overcame two pick-sixes to thrash all-of-a-sudden exciting No. 20 Iowa 38-14. Wisconsin is 10-0 for the first time in school history and has clinched a spot in the Big Ten championship game.
A week ago, it appeared that things had somewhat fallen into place for the selection committee. Georgia and Alabama were expected to cruise into their cataclysmic collision in the SEC championship game with two playoff spots on the line. Notre Dame was going to end the Canes’ fairy-tale run, and the Big Ten was a dead conference walking.
But hope has sprung eternal for the Big Ten, maybe even for Ohio State, which could still play for the Big Ten title. Believe it or not, Auburn, which has two losses, is still in playoff contention. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Tigers entered the week with a 9 percent chance to reach the CFP. Now, if the Tigers win out — which would include wins against Alabama and a second win against Georgia in the SEC championship — they are projected to have a 91 percent chance to make the playoff.
Saturday provided the kind of overarching drama that would make your average telenovela look like C-SPAN. It also gave us a glimpse of what an expanded playoff looks like. While the seedings were a little off, all you college football enthusiasts clamoring for more playoff teams basically got a glimpse of what an early round might look like. Notre Dame is likely eliminated, as is TCU and Washington, whose narrow hopes were dashed after losing to Stanford on Friday. The Canes are trending up, and Georgia is treading water with trembling legs.
As we close in on the end of the regular season, the playoff doorway we thought was only cracked open a week ago has been kicked open, thanks to historic flops from two of the season’s top teams.