The chaotic Southeastern Conference season comes down to Alabama vs. Missouri, with no guarantees beyond that.
The powerhouse league is assured of a playoff spot only if the top-ranked Crimson Tide wins Saturday’s SEC Championship Game in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. It’s a precarious position for a conference that had its seven-year reign atop college football ended by Florida State in January.
“I think we have an outstanding league and we have a lot of good teams, and the fact that we play each other and end up beating each other probably hurts a little bit,” Tide coach Nick Saban said Sunday. “I think some of the teams in our division are really, really good teams, and I’m sure there are some other really good teams out there that I have not seen.
“Without looking at everyone, I would think that somebody in our league qualifies to be one of the better four teams in the country based on the quality of the league and the good teams that we all have to play.”
Alabama jumped over Florida State to the top spot in The Associated Press rankings after a 55-44 win over No. 20 Auburn on Saturday. The Tide had already topped the College Football Playoff rankings.
No. 14 Missouri secured a spot in the title game for the second straight year with a 21-14 win over Arkansas on Friday. The Tigers likely would need some help to make the playoff even with a win over Alabama.
“Honestly, those things take care of themselves,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “I don’t make predictions. We’re just doing what we do.”
Missouri has five division titles since 2007 in the Big 12 and SEC but hasn’t won a league championship. That history of falling short includes a 59-42 loss to Auburn in last year’s SEC championship game.
“We prepare for this game like we prepare for any other game,” Pinkel said. “We won’t ever change that.”
Alabama has won seven straight games since losing to No. 13 Ole Miss, fighting off challenges from Mississippi State and Auburn.
“This team has shown a tremendous resiliency all year long to make plays in critical times in games,” Saban said. “They’ve always been able to overcome adversity and do the things they needed to do to be able to come out on top.”
Missouri is riding a six-game win streak since a 34-0 loss to No. 18 Georgia.
Barring some upsets, Alabama might be the only likely playoff team standing in the SEC after rivalry games took their toll Saturday. A handful of teams had been strong candidates at some point during the season.
Rivalry Saturday ended two remaining playoff contenders’ hopes. Mississippi State, which was fourth in the playoff rankings, fell 31-17 to No. 13 Ole Miss. Georgia Tech knocked off Georgia, whose SEC championship hopes were already done, 30-24 in overtime.
The Rebels and Auburn were both once in the playoff top four. Ole Miss snapped a three-game SEC losing streak.
“I won’t say this game redeems the season, because LSU and Arkansas lined up and kicked our butts,” Ole Miss defensive end CJ Johnson said. “But we’re having a good season, and tonight was a really good win.”
Defending SEC champion Auburn finished the regular season with three consecutive league defeats, beating only FCS Samford down the stretch.