Whatever the case, the team and fans who wind up in the aching, closing No. 5 spot come Sunday at midday might look back across the slew of three months of plays and pinpoint one or two that wreak a wince.
Example: If Utah winds up at No. 5, it not only would pluck the most heartstrings of the batch, it also might send the Utes going what-might-have-been over all of the following: that failed third and goal at the Southern California 1-yard line in its lone loss of Sept. 20, or Iowa State’s missed two-point conversion with 24 seconds left at Oklahoma, or Baylor’s overtime escapes of Texas Tech and TCU, or, above all, two of college football’s long-standing traditions: East-Central bias and age-old snobbery.
If it’s vis-a-vis Oklahoma or Georgia, the thinking might go like this: What brand-name haughtiness against a Utah team with a defense rich in future NFL employees, a team that has outscored its past eight opponents, all from the conference, by a stupefying 308-76.
Pain is underway at Alabama, but it’s the kind of pain all might choose if there must be pain, as it seems there must. It’s the pain of being a notch shy of an atmosphere few ever get to know yet to which you are accustomed. “It’s very, very disappointing,” Coach Nick Saban said Saturday evening. “I know our fans are disappointed, but I can promise you that our players are disappointed, and we’re all very, very disappointed.”
Disappointment appeared four times in that 26-word passage after the 48-45 loss at Auburn, kaleidoscopic for all of its penalties (13 by Alabama), field-spanning returns (one by each side), conversation topics (umpteen) and jubilant Auburn fans clambering through hedges to the field (maybe umpteen, although some might still be lost in there). Still, a first playoff without Alabama also flatters Alabama in its various sentences.
It will be the first playoff without Alabama even as the playoff concept is six seasons old. It’s the first Alabama season with two regular season losses since way, way back in 2010, when Cam Newton stopped by awhile to roam college fields. It’s only the second two-season stretch without an Alabama national title since 2008, and the other one (2013-14) saw Alabama in the playoff as a No. 1 seed in 2014. All of that is stunning, by the way, and it illustrates that there’s no question of Saban’s capacity for reaching another playoff 12 months hence in his Alabama season No. 14.
So that’s one kind of pain, different from the fresh pain in Minneapolis, where they’ve had themselves a festive autumn capped Saturday with the particular brand of non-festivity often found in a 38-17 visit from Wisconsin and its trademark collection of brawn.
So that’s another kind of pain — bruises, included — but at least it’s actual pain. Clemson’s long climb to the verge of its own fifth straight playoff berth next Sunday — it holds down No. 3 as of now — has been so impressive that to achieve pain, one must manufacture.
With manufacturing prowess comes Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, who hunts for nonexistent slights with a fervency worthy of Michael Jordan and says of a win over South Carolina: “How important is this game? It’s huge. I mean, it’s huge from a national standpoint because obviously if we lose this game, I mean, they’re going to kick us out. They don’t want us in there anyway. I mean, we’d be, we’d be, we’d drop to 20. I mean, Georgia loses to this very same team, and the very next day, it’s, ‘How do we keep Georgia in it?’ We win, to the team that beat [Georgia], and it’s, ‘How do we get Clemson out?’ It’s the dad-gummest thing. It’s big, because they can’t vote us out. We’ve got to go 30-0. I mean, we ain’t got no choice. We ‘don’t play nobody.’ ”
Clarification to that horse pucky: When Georgia lost to South Carolina on Oct. 12, the very next day was Oct. 13, and the College Football Playoff selection committee would not issue any rankings for 22 more days, when it finally met and placed Georgia at No. 6, before Georgia moved up to No. 4 with its three wins over top-16 teams (to Clemson’s zero).
So, where might the nonfiction pain steer itself?
Four sets of fans might prepare with pain management. Fan pain management often works best when fans can point to good breaks instead of just lamenting the bad ones. When the Seattle Seahawks lost that Super Bowl to the New England Patriots on that haunting interception, pain relief could come in that the Seahawks needed a bobbled onside kick against the Green Bay Packers to get there, and so on.
If Oklahoma winds up omitted at 12-1 and the dreaded No. 5, it still will have made three of the six College Football Playoffs, and its knowledgeable fans, who do know about caliber, will know that this year they did spot occasional Sooner caliber they knew as suboptimal.
If it’s a 12-1 Baylor, that would mark the program’s second No. 5 finish in the playoff era (after 2014), but fans could always nod at the unambitious nonconference schedule and revel in this remarkable fact: The Bears under the great Matt Rhule are the first Power Five team ever — ever! — to go from 1-11 to 11-1 in two years.
If it’s an 11-2 Georgia, fans could always note that a home loss to South Carolina is a dreadful social gaffe for which punishment can feel acceptable.
And if it’s a 12-1 Utah, that would seem the most painful, for it has been one soaring season in Salt Lake City, beginning with what could factor as a key nonconference win against a BYU that finished 7-5 and beat two ranked teams itself. Said 15th-season Utah coach Kyle Whittingham to reporters Saturday night: “I get emotional a lot. Today pregame at the hotel before we got on the bus, we all expressed our gratitude and I got choked up. I’ll probably get choked up right now just talking about them. There are so many players that will go down in Utah history for years to come.”
His Utes have done their business of serial blowouts and airtight football in the precise manner pleasing to, for one, Saban: a sustained triumph over human complacency. “I’d say we’ve been a lot more relentless during this stretch, and we just didn’t want to leave any doubt,” wide receiver Demari Simpkins said.
Disintegrate doubt for one more game, and they might even shoo pain.
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