The SEC is three weeks away from saving its season.
Never mind the dearth of quality teams in the conference. Or the fact that LSU already lost to Troy and Arkansas nearly lost to Coastal Carolina. Or that one high-profile program has already parted ways with its head coach, and a few more might follow suit by season’s end. Pay no attention to the fact that the conference isn't at the top of its game anymore and so many of its top programs are crumbling.
What the SEC would have you focus on is Georgia and Alabama and the titillating possibility that both teams finish the regular season undefeated, face one another in the SEC championship game and, barring a blowout loss, advance to the College Football Playoff. Commissioner Greg Sankey and the “It Just Means More” crowd could really thump their chest if the SEC became the first conference to get two programs into the four-team playoff.
But there’s a wrinkle in the equation, and its name is Auburn.
Putting a finger on the mercurial Tigers has been an almost impossible task this season. Take the Clemson game in Week 2. On the one hand, Auburn’s offense was anemic, Jarrett Stidham was crushed by 11 sacks and they lost, 14-6. But as far as losses go, an 8-point loss on the road against the defending national champions is a creditable result. What’s more, the Auburn defense showed that it was as good as any in the country that night.
But when a good loss is the best thing on your resume, that’s a problem. Because there’s no getting around a blown 20-point lead on the road at LSU. And there’s an even bigger issue: Where are the signature wins? Is it one over a good but not great Mississippi State team? It’s hard to make the argument that beating unranked, 5-4 Texas A&M qualifies. Outside of cupcakes Georgia Southern and Mercer, you’re looking at three wins over sub-.500 teams in Arkansas, Missouri and Ole Miss.
If you want to call them paper tigers -- if you want to point to an unreliable offensive lineman, the injury to last year's leading rusher Kamryn Pettway or a quarterback in Stidham who hasn’t truly been tested -- the ammunition is there to do so.
What lies ahead could change everything, though.
While it’s hard to put all of your confidence in Gus Malzahn’s bunch, there’s no denying that they control their own destiny. Win out, and no one is going to leave them out of the playoff even with two losses already on the table. The problem? By running the table, they’d also wreck the SEC’s fever dream of Alabama and Georgia lining up on opposite ends of the bracket and eventually meeting in an all-SEC national championship game.
Alabama, despite having the biggest point margin in all of the FBS (280) and being almost beyond description in terms of its dominance, might not have the resume to support losing in the Iron Bowl to Auburn. Florida State was supposed to be that flagship victory, but the Crimson Tide defense made the mistake of knocking Deondre Francois out for the year during the season-opener and thereby sending the Seminoles down the drain from a trendy playoff pick to unranked. If LSU drops out of the top 25 after losing to Alabama this week, the Tide would not have a single win over a ranked opponent this season. And if Auburn wins out, Alabama would have the same number of conference wins and lose the head-to-head tiebreaker and miss the conference title game.
Georgia, on the other hand, is in a different kind of predicament. Its Week 2 win on the road against No. 3 Notre Dame has the look of a trump card, but what if Auburn beats them not just once but twice? That could happen if the Tigers win this Saturday, beat Alabama and reach the SEC title game where Georgia would await again. And after two losses to the same team, there would be no convincing the CFP committee to admit Georgia into the playoff. The outcry nationally would be beyond comprehension. Now the odds of any of this happening are certainly slim. It's almost just as likely that Auburn will lose both games and folks on The Plains will be calling for Gus Malzahn's job after going 0-8 against his chief rivals since 2013.
But let’s not forget what happened four years ago. Auburn was ranked No. 7 back then when it needed a Hail Mary, tipped pass to fall into Ricardo Louis’ hands to beat No. 25 Georgia in what became known as “The Prayer at Jordan-Hare.” And then, two weeks later, No. 1-ranked Alabama came to town and the “Kick Six” happened when, with the game tied at 28 and 1 second remaining, Nick Saban went for the game-winning field goal, it fell short and Chris Davis returned it more than 100 yards for a walk-off touchdown.
So, yeah, miracles can happen.
It’s not to say they will, but be careful. Georgia and Alabama may look like they’re in a class all their own, unbeaten and ranked No. 1 and 2 in the country, but Auburn is knocking at the door.
Be careful or the Tigers might just kick the thing in and crash their own conference’s party.