The final weekend of college football’s regular season is upon us. That means one thing: rivalry week. This weekend features many of the best rivalries that the sport has to offer and could cause quite a shake up in the College Football Playoff picture.
Number-two Clemson meets a scrappy South Carolina team on the road at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia. Washington and Washington State battle for the Apple Cup, as the Pac-12 hopes to regain relevance in the playoff conversation. Notre Dame heads out to Palo Alto, currently on the outside looking in and needing some help to get a playoff spot, but they’ll need to beat Stanford first.
But the biggest game of the weekend comes on The Plains in Auburn, Alabama, as Alabama plays Auburn in the Iron Bowl for the SEC West title and a trip to Atlanta. The loser will likely be left depending on some help from the rest of the country to get a spot in the top four.
To break down the battle between the Tide and the Tigers, we caught up with CBS Sports college football analyst Randy Cross.
CBS Local Sports: The Iron Bowl has extra implications this year, as the teams are playing for the SEC West title. What is the biggest key in this game?
Randy Cross: It’s convenient to say that you throw out the records because of the nature this rivalry, but in reality, and a lot of stuff tells you that Alabama has been pretty damn good in this match-up. Auburn has taken them out a couple of times in the last seven years, specifically when Alabama has cooperated, much like Georgia did when they were down there on The Plains a couple of weeks ago and got their butts beat by Auburn. It’s going to take much the same kind of a formula for Auburn to win here.
The one thing that’s a little different about this one is Alabama… if you look at what they did against Mississippi State, Auburn is more than capable of reproducing that kind of success. The question is, can the offensive line of Auburn, which has started about seven different groups of guys… can they get to that second level against those inexperienced linebackers for Alabama and take advantage of that?
CBS Local Sports: You mentioned the depleted LB corps for Alabama, how much do you think that hurts them in this game?
Randy Cross: Of course it hurts them. But you’d be hard-pressed to see that on any kind of stat sheet or, at times, on the film because of what the guys up front can make up for and what the guys behind can make up for. It’s just the inexperience that’s a question. Just the fact that you’re putting guys on the field who haven’t seen very much. If you’re Gus Malzahn, you want to find a way to take advantage of that inexperience.
But, at this point, there are very few people out there who are better at recruiting guys who can just step in at that level than Nick Saban. Plus, he knows how to make up for their inexperience.
CBS Local Sports: Alabama has won three straight in this rivalry, can Auburn stop that streak?
Randy Cross: I think Auburn definitely can, I just think they’re going to need help from Alabama to do it. They’re going to need Alabama to do the one thing that Alabama, generally speaking, doesn’t do much of, especially in big games, and that’s to have a lack or a pause in concentration. You saw Clemson be able to take that last drive and beat them in that national championship scenario, and for all cases involved, starting this weekend, this is Game 1 of the playoff. That’s how you beat an Alabama team. You’re not going to beat them because you’re physically better, because Auburn, physically, is not better than Alabama. It’s going to take mistakes from Alabama.
CBS Local Sports: If Alabama were to lose this game, do you think that eliminates them from the playoff? Or is it more dependent upon what the results are across the country?
Randy Cross: It depends on what the rest of the country does. They (College Football Playoff committee) are going to have a hard time looking at an 11-1 Alabama team and putting them in over some two-loss teams, even ones that won their conference. You don’t have to go back very far to see teams that won their conference and got bounced and ignored. Between the ACC Championship Game next week, with Clemson and Miami, and this match-up (Alabama-Auburn), we could have utter anarchy when it comes to records. Or, we might just have two really good one-loss teams and two undefeated teams.
CBS Local Sports: This is rivalry weekend for teams across the country. Which games are the ones that you’re keeping an eye on as teams conclude their regular seasons?
Randy Cross: Ohio State and Michigan is a game that, historically, this is like 100 years in a row that they’ve played each other. Ohio State is on a roll since they lost that game to Iowa. They’ve beaten their last two opponents 100-17, so they’ve kind of gotten over that hiccup that they had. That game is a huge one. Clemson-South Carolina is a really big one. And just for my football viewing pleasure, I think USF and UCF down there where you’ve got a 10-1 team and an 11-0 team, going at it. It’s almost as good of a game as everybody anticipated, and UCF is, for my money, the best team in the country that nobody knows anything about.
CBS Local Sports: Baker Mayfield caused quite a stir with his actions at Kansas last Saturday. Some have called for him to be removed from Heisman consideration because of it. Do you agree with that?
Randy Cross: It’s not going to disqualify him from anything. We have unfortunately gotten to the point where stuff on the football field failed to surprise us a long time ago. Baker is an incredibly competitive kid. Did he go over the line? Yeah, he went over the line, there’s no doubt about it. And he’s paid a pretty good price for it. They’re not going to start him, they’ve stripped him of his captaincy. I’d say that’s enough.
Do you eliminate the best player in college football, because that’s what he is, from the Heisman race? If you’re the Heisman committee or a Heisman voter, and you go that way, you have lost 100 percent of your credibility.