Alabama's path is clear, and its playoffs begin this weekend against LSU

If Alabama is going to return to its former glory, it will need to summon up some of its old spirit this Saturday.

There’s an established order to the calendar in Tuscaloosa.

The Third Saturday in October is the Tennessee game, same as it’s been most years since 1928. The final week in October is a bye week, same as it’s been almost every year of the Nick Saban era, which just happens to coincide with Saban’s Halloween birthday. (The cupcakes get served a couple weeks later, at Bryant-Denny on the Saturday before the Iron Bowl.) And then, after the bye, it’s LSU time.

Saban adheres to this calendar as rigidly as he adheres to his famous obsession with Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies. And for the most part, it’s worked just fine; Alabama’s legacy is as secure as any in sports.

The last few years, though — years that just happen to coincide exactly with the rise of Kirby Smart and the University of Georgia — Saban has been playing from behind. In-season losses the last three seasons have put Alabama on the back foot heading into Thanksgiving, demoting the Tide from lead dog to just one of the pack.

Last year Alabama wandered into the bye week in a daze after the first Third Saturday loss to Tennessee in the Saban era. (You might have heard what happened to the Tennessee goalposts after that.) The Tide then opened November with a blundering missed-opportunity loss to LSU, and that was pretty much that for Alabama’s playoff hopes. Saban lobbied hard for Alabama to make the playoffs over TCU, but he came off as desperate in a way he’d never looked before.

Brian Kelly stands between Nick Saban and the playoffs. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Brian Kelly stands between Nick Saban and the playoffs. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

The 2022 loss to LSU, combined with this year’s September loss to Texas, makes this weekend’s version of Tide versus Tigers a particularly significant evening for Alabama. There’s the revenge element, of course; Saban doesn’t much like it when people make him taste his own blood. Alabama snuffed out any hope of a Tennessee winning streak with a devastating 27 unanswered points in the second half two weeks ago, and now comes the LSU rematch.

“I think this has developed into sort of a rivalry game because they're always ranked, we're always ranked,” Saban said Monday. “It's always a big game relative to what happens in our division. It's an important game for both teams.”

The X's and O's are crucial; the game pits big on big. With an average of 47.4 points per game, LSU has the finest offense in the country. Quarterback Jayden Daniels is one win over Alabama from being a Heisman frontrunner. “He killed us last year,” Saban said. “He was a really, really good player last year, and he’s a really, really good player now. I think overall they execute their offense to perfection, and it starts with him.”

The Tide defense ranks second in the SEC behind Georgia, allowing 16.5 points per game, and showed its muscle in shutting down Tennessee entirely in the second half of the Tide’s most recent game. Alabama’s offense, on the other hand, is more suspect; Jalen Milroe seems to be gaining confidence every week, but the question hovering over him every snap is whether his offensive line will give him enough time to create. But there will be opportunity; in the SEC, LSU’s defense ranks ahead of only Vanderbilt and South Carolina in both points and yards allowed. The 93rd-ranked Tigers secondary, in particular, will be vulnerable to Milroe’s tendency to sling 20-plus-yard passes that have been finding their mark more often as the year goes on.

Saban isn’t ever comfortable, and especially not with a dangerous two-loss LSU team hellbent on salvaging pride and breaking down the Alabama dynasty. “Brian Kelly has done a phenomenal job of bringing this team along,” Saban said in his weekly buffing of the opposition, but this time he’s very much telling the truth. “The improvement they've made, the kind of team they had a year ago, an even better team this year in terms of what they've been able to accomplish and what they've been able to do.”

The initial College Football Playoff rankings have Alabama ranked eighth, as expected. More than that, though, the rankings give Alabama a clear pathway. Georgia is ranked second, and there are no other SEC teams between the Dawgs and the Tide. The way forward, then, is obvious: A one-loss Alabama with wins over LSU this week and Georgia in the SEC title game would have a strong bid for a playoff berth, while a loss any time between now and the end of the season would end any hope. In other words, regardless of what the calendar says, Alabama’s playoffs began several weeks ago.

One more tidbit about Alabama’s calendar: Spring semester classes don’t begin until after the second Monday in January. Administrators freely admit that’s by design; there’s an expectation that the school will still be playing football then. Alabama’s to-do list between now and then is long, but it’s also as clear as can be.