The first College Football Playoff rankings of the 2016 season debuted Tuesday night, and the SEC had five teams in the top 13.
Here’s a look at the path for all five of those SEC playoff contenders.
Record: 8-0 (5-0 SEC)
Rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Alabama will put its No. 1 ranking and playoff hopes on the line this Saturday when it travels to Death Valley to face No. 13 LSU.
Reason for optimism: It’s good to be on top. There was talk that Clemson might sneak ahead of Alabama in the first rankings, but the Tide clearly have impressed the committee through the first two months of the season. Really, whom haven’t they impressed? Nick Saban has maybe his best defense since he got to Tuscaloosa, and true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts continues to play well. As long as this team keeps winning, they’re not going anywhere.
Cause for concern: How does Alabama replace Eddie Jackson? The senior safety broke his leg against Texas A&M two weeks ago, and we’ve yet to see what this defense will look like without him. During the bye week, the coaching staff experimented some with Minkah Fitzpatrick at safety, but it’s going to take multiple contributions to fill the void in the secondary. To make matters worse, the Tide will face a healthy Leonard Fournette on Saturday.
Whom they’ll be rooting for: If Alabama beats LSU and Vanderbilt somehow stuns Auburn on Saturday, the Tide could clinch the division in Week 11 against Mississippi State. Go Commodores?
Texas A&M Aggies
Record: 7-1 (4-1 SEC)
Rank: No. 4
Next big obstacle: The biggest game left might be LSU in the Aggies' regular-season finale, but don’t sleep on Ole Miss a week from Saturday. Chad Kelly is capable of beating anybody.
Reason for optimism: Let’s start with how the Aggies are ranked No. 4 in the first batch of rankings. That came as a surprise to everybody, but when you look at their strength of schedule compared to No. 5 Washington, it makes sense. Don’t expect it to stay that way, though, if both teams win out. Still, Kevin Sumlin’s group has to be happy with its position heading into November. Plus, after Saturday’s trip to Mississippi State, the Aggies have three home games to close out the season.
Cause for concern: How healthy is this team? There were a handful of players who didn’t play against New Mexico State, including Myles Garrett, Armani Watts and Priest Willis. Garrett in particular has not quite been 100 percent since the Arkansas game. The Aggies would probably be OK if any of those three players had to sit out again this week against Mississippi State, but it’s critical to get them healthy before playing the likes of Ole Miss and LSU.
Whom they’ll be rooting for: There’s still a chance the Aggies could win the West, but they need Alabama to lose two games. Could one happen Saturday at LSU?
Record: 6-2 (4-1 SEC)
Rank: No. 9
Next big obstacle: A trip to Georgia in two weeks might be dangerous, but the game that will determine Auburn’s season is Nov. 26 at Alabama.
Reason for optimism: What’s not to like about this Auburn team? It has won five in a row. It has the SEC’s top rusher in Kamryn Pettway, a bruising back whom evidently nobody wants to tackle. And it has a much-improved defense that begins with Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams on the defensive line. The kicker has only missed one field goal all season. The Tigers look capable of beating just about anybody right now.
Cause for concern: There’s still little to no consistency at wide receiver, and as well as Auburn has run the ball the past month, it won’t be that easy against an Alabama defense that’s allowing only 70 yards per game on the ground. Either Tony Stevens needs to get healthy or one of the heralded freshmen must break through before the Iron Bowl.
Whom they’ll be rooting for: Mississippi State. Auburn needs Texas A&M to lose so it can control its own destiny in the West.
Record: 6-1 (4-1 SEC)
Rank: No. 11
Next big obstacle: Say what you will about what Auburn did to Arkansas two weeks ago. Saturday’s trip to Fayetteville, Arkansas, won’t be easy for the Gators.
Reason for optimism: When Florida lost to Tennessee back in September, the season appeared to be over. There was no way this team was getting back to Atlanta. That might have been true except that the Volunteers have lost three conference games in a row. Now it’s the Gators who are back in the driver’s seat thanks to a defense that ranks second nationally in points allowed per game (11.7).
Cause for concern: What is wrong with Luke Del Rio? Since returning from injury, the Florida quarterback is completing 52 percent of his passes and has thrown four interceptions in two games. As we learned with Florida last year, a good defense can only take you so far. The Gators need better play from Del Rio and the entire offense if they want to make a run at the playoff.
Whom they’ll be rooting for: Believe it or not, Kentucky (not Tennessee) is Florida’s biggest threat in the East right now. But the Gators can distance themselves from the pack with a Georgia victory at Kentucky.
Record: 5-2 (3-1 SEC)
Rank: No. 13
Next big obstacle: It doesn’t get any bigger than when the No. 1 team in the country comes to your place. On Saturday, LSU hosts Alabama.
Reason for optimism: Since LSU fired Les Miles and named Ed Orgeron the interim coach, the Tigers have won three straight games by a combined score of 125-38. There’s also a certain No. 7 in the backfield who looked 100 percent his last time out, rushing for a career-high 284 yards and three touchdowns against Ole Miss. You know he’ll be extra-motivated against an Alabama defense that held him in check a year ago. If he can get going, all bets are off.
Cause for concern: LSU’s remaining schedule is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, remaining games against Alabama, Florida and Texas A&M present plenty of opportunities for the Tigers to move up in the rankings. But on the other hand, are we confident that this team can win all three of those games? That’s as difficult a final month as you’ll find in college football.
Whom they’ll be rooting for: Like Alabama, LSU would love to see Vanderbilt upset Auburn. It's not likely, but one can dream.