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2-loss Auburn has a Playoff path, and beating Georgia was a huge step

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The Tigers still face a brutal gauntlet that will define their season, one way or the other.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Auburn John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Three sentences that shouldn’t make sense in order, but do:

  • A two-loss team has never made the College Football Playoff.
  • Auburn had two losses before November.
  • Auburn is likely to make the Playoff if it doesn’t lose another game.

The Tigers’ path is extremely difficult, and it’s exceedingly unlikely that they’ll pull it off. But because of who they’ve still got on the schedule, it’s possible.

Auburn would have to win out. That would mean a trio of marquee wins.

  1. Auburn absolutely pounded No. 1 Georgia on Saturday. The Tigers handed the Dawgs their first loss.
  2. Now that the Tigers have beaten UGA, their home game against probable new No. 1 Alabama in two weeks is going to decide the SEC West.
  3. If Auburn beat Bama, it’d bring up a rematch with the Dawgs in the SEC Championship. A win there would make Auburn 11-2.

A finish that outrageous would make Auburn deserving.

Let’s also assume UGA beats Kentucky and Georgia Tech while Bama beats Mississippi State. If UGA were to finish 11-2 with two losses to the SEC champ, that’d give Auburn two wins over a team likely ranked No. 5 or so in the final rankings, assuming a little chaos elsewhere. An 11-1 Bama would also be well inside the top 10.

With losses to Clemson and LSU and a win against Mississippi State, Auburn’s record against the final Playoff top 25 would probably be 4-2. Its record against .500-plus teams could be 7-2, depending on how Missouri and Ole Miss finish.

Those numbers would end up comparable to several Playoff teams in years that weren’t as wide open as this one.

Really basic strength-of-schedule numbers for every Playoff contender so far

Team Power 5 champ? Losses FBS opponents' average wins Ws minus Ls vs. pre-Playoff Top 25 Ws minus Ls vs. pre-Playoff .500+ Playoff rank
Team Power 5 champ? Losses FBS opponents' average wins Ws minus Ls vs. pre-Playoff Top 25 Ws minus Ls vs. pre-Playoff .500+ Playoff rank
2014 Alabama Yes 1 6.8 3 9 1
2015 Clemson Yes 0 6.6 3 7 1
2016 Alabama Yes 0 7.8 5 9 1
2014 Oregon Yes 1 6.6 3 6 2
2015 Alabama Yes 1 8.3 2 9 2
2016 Clemson Yes 1 7.3 3 10 2
2014 Florida State Yes 0 6.5 3 9 3
2015 Michigan State Yes 1 6.9 4 8* 3
2016 Ohio State No 1 7.1 2 7 3
2014 Ohio State Yes 1 6.5 3 9 4
2015 Oklahoma Yes 1 6.4 4 8* 4
2016 Washington Yes 1 6.2 2 5 4
2014 Baylor Co 1 6.1 2 5 5
2015 Iowa No 1 6.5 0 5 5
2016 Penn State Yes 2 6.6 1 7 5
2014 TCU Co 1 6.5 2 6 6
2015 Stanford Yes 2 6.5 1 8 6
2015 Ohio State No 1 6.2 0 6 7
2016 Oklahoma Yes 2 6.3 1 5 7
Average No. 1 seed 100% 0.3 7.1 3.7 8.3 -
Average Playoff 92% 0.8 6.9 3.1 8 -
Playoff + bubble 82% 1 6.7 2.4 7.2 -
* - lost to 5-7 team

The differences between Auburn’s potential 2017 case and Penn State’s 2016 case are simple.

Penn State’s two losses last season included a blowout to Michigan. Both of Auburn’s so far this season were by single scores on the road against currently ranked teams.

Auburn would also have a far better list of wins. The 12 teams that made the Playoff in its first three years all had good wins, but having three top-10 wins is pretty rare.

In fact, look at the trend-breaking team that made the Playoff in 2016.

Ohio State made it despite not being a conference champ because it’d beaten No. 6 Michigan, No. 7 Oklahoma, and No. 8 Wisconsin. Auburn’s best three wins would rank even better, since UGA would count twice.

Just as important to a two-loss Auburn’s Playoff hopes: chaos in other leagues.

  • The Big Ten could miss the Playoff altogether. None of the Big Ten’s two-loss teams has anything on its full schedules like Auburn’s opportunity, and Wisconsin’s schedule is so bad that the Badgers might be out if they lose at any point.
  • So could the Big 12, which will enter its conference championship game without any guarantee of having a one-loss champion.
  • The Pac-12 is almost certainly out, after Washington took its second loss.
  • Notre Dame got crushed by Miami and is probably out with two losses, too.

The odds of this happening are, to state the obvious, not good.

Before the Georgia game kicked off, Bill Connelly’s S&P+ projections gave the Tigers these chances down the stretch (you can expect all these percentages to go up after factoring in Auburn’s amazing performance against Georgia):

  • 46 percent to beat Georgia at home (and now done)
  • 89 percent to beat ULM at home
  • 41 percent to beat Alabama at home
  • 40 percent to beat Georgia at a neutral site

The chances of a 4-0 stretch from there were 7 percent. That’s just a remote possibility, and the computers probably give Auburn a better chance than most humans would. Those odds are going up now, certainly, but they’re not high. They’ll probably clock in around 15 percent once projections are updated.

But if Auburn can do it, the Plainsmen will be legends. The Playoff committee might have no choice but to break its own two-loss trend for a team on that kind of run.