Bowl season arrives with Crimson Tide back in playoff; Auburn headed back to Atlanta
By Tim Gayle
Alabama and Auburn found out their destinations on Sunday as the Crimson Tide earned its fourth College Football Playoff appearance in as many years and Auburn will return to Mercedes Benz Stadium to face Central Florida in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
The CFP committee chose Alabama over Ohio State for the fourth and final spot behind Clemson, Oklahoma and Georgia, creating an uproar in some circles of college football and a sigh of relief from Alabama coach Nick Saban who wasn’t sure his team would move up from fifth to fourth without playing a game on Saturday.
“I think there’s a lesson to be learned here and I shared it with the team today in our team meeting,” Saban said on Sunday afternoon. “Because we didn’t finish the season the way we wanted to finish the season and didn’t play the way we’d like to play (against Auburn) or to the standard that we’d like to play to, we put our fate in someone else’s hands.
“There were a lot of people who I tried to influence, that we wanted them to look at the whole body of work for the whole season and get the best four teams in the playoffs. I felt we were one of those teams and we were certainly pleased and happy that things worked out the way they did but it was a little white-knuckle time for all of us, that we were going to be judged by somebody else now. It’s not exactly how we’d like for it to be. We feel very fortunate that we have the opportunity to be in the game.”
Alabama (11-1) will play top-ranked Clemson (12-1) for the third time in as many years after beating the Tigers in the 2015 title game in Arizona and losing to the Tigers in a title rematch in Tampa in 2016. This time, the two will meet in the semifinals in New Orleans’ Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.
Auburn, meanwhile, lost the opportunity to make its first-ever CFP appearance after losing to Georgia 28-7 in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game on Saturday in Mercedes Benz Stadium. The Tigers’ reward was another appearance in Atlanta against the only remaining undefeated team in college football.
“I promise you we’ll take them seriously,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Sunday afternoon. “They’re the No. 12 team in the entire country. They’re the only undefeated team. They’re the No. 1 scoring offense in the country. And they’ve earned everybody’s respect. Not just ours, but everybody around the country.
“Our guys, they’ll need to be ready, and I expect us to be ready.”
The Knights’ undefeated season – and exclusion from the College Football Playoff – has several clamoring for expansion of the four-team playoff, but Las Vegas doesn’t seem impressed with the American Athletic Conference champions as Auburn opened as a 9.5-point favorite despite the Tigers’ return to the venue where its dreams were dashed by the Bulldogs just two days ago.
Auburn players) are going to be extremely excited to go back to the same venue and play better than we did,” Malzahn said. “We didn’t play our best. Got to give Georgia credit. But I know this team is going to be extremely hungry to win this bowl game and to finish the season off the right way for our seniors and a chance to win 11 games. So we’ll be very excited. We’re going to be very motivated. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.”
Alabama and Auburn are among four state teams in postseason play. UAB, in its first year back as a football program, will face Ohio in the Bahamas Bowl, while Troy will represent the Sun Belt Conference in the New Orleans Bowl against North Texas.
In addition to Alabama and Auburn, seven other Southeastern Conference teams will be in postseason action this year, including Georgia and Oklahoma in the other CFP semifinal in the Rose Bowl, setting up the possibility of an all-SEC championship game in Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium nine days later.
Missouri will face Texas in the Texas Bowl, Texas A&M will play Wake Forest in the Belk Bowl, Kentucky will take on Northwestern in the Music City Bowl, Mississippi State will play Louisville in the TaxSlayer Bowl, South Carolina will play Michigan in the Outback Bowl and LSU will play Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl.
There are three bowl games in the state of Alabama, including a matchup between Middle Tennessee and Arkansas State in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl at Cramton Bowl. Last year’s game featured Toledo and Appalachian State and those two will reprise their role in the Dollar General Bowl in Mobile. And in the Birmingham Bowl, South Florida will play Texas Tech.