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College football overreaction index, Week 14: Don’t bury Nick Saban and the Alabama dynasty just yet

Welcome to the college football overreaction index, where we examine the most important storylines from the past weekend of games to determine what’s worth paying attention to and what’s getting a little too much attention.

Here are the biggest takeaways from Week 14.

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With Alabama set to miss the College Football Playoff for the first time, this could be the end of Nick Saban’s dynasty.

Verdict: Overreaction.

One year is not a trend. This is the most disappointing season for Alabama under Saban since 2014, which ended with a loss to Trevor Knight and Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, but let’s not bury the Crimson Tide just yet.

Consider what Auburn needed just to get past Bama, 48-45, on Saturday. Two pick-sixes, including one caught off a receiver’s backside at the goal line. An extra second put back on the clock before halftime, allowing the Tigers to kick a 52-yard field goal. A missed 30-yard field goal by Alabama with two minutes left. An illegal-substitution penalty by the Tide on fourth-and-4 with 1:06 to go, allowing Auburn to run out the clock. And it all happened with Alabama backup quarterback Mac Jones filling in for injured Heisman Trophy contender Tua Tagovailoa.

In total, Alabama committed 13 penalties, the most in a game during Saban’s 13 seasons in Tuscaloosa. And the kicking woes, a thorn in Saban’s side for years, are unprecedented. According to ESPN Stats & Information, since Saban’s first season at Alabama in 2007, Tide kickers have missed 101 field-goal attempts, eight more than any other FBS team in that span.

Give credit to Auburn for hanging tough and making big plays down the stretch, including a handful of spectacular catches. But Alabama cost itself at every opportunity.

Would an 11-1 Alabama team have made the playoff field? With the Big 12 guaranteed a 12-1 champion and Utah poised to win the Pac-12 at 12-1 — not to mention the possibility of Georgia beating LSU in the SEC championship game — it would have been difficult.

A more interesting question is where Alabama stands in the college football hierarchy. As long as Saban is coaching, the Tide will bring in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes each year and develop those players into NFL-caliber talent. But on the field, it’s fair to start wondering if the top of the SEC has finally caught up.

LSU, once committed to a run-first, ball-control offensive style like Alabama, has embraced modern passing schemes and has reaped the benefits, turning Joe Burrow into a Heisman Trophy front-runner and possible No. 1 draft pick while going undefeated in the regular season. Florida and Auburn have done the same, and went a combined 19-5 this year.

By embracing a spread offense earlier than its SEC counterparts, Alabama had both a schematic and talent advantage. Now that the other elite programs have gotten smarter, that gap has shrunk. Saturday’s Iron Bowl, which featured nearly 700 combined yards and 93 total points — the highest scoring game in series history — is the latest example.

Even Georgia, which has stubbornly stuck to plodding, run-first offensive principles, has started to recruit at Alabama’s level under Kirby Smart and has put together one of the best defenses in the country.

Until LSU proves that it can repeat this season’s performance, Alabama’s stranglehold on the SEC will continue. But the grip has loosened just a bit, giving the rest of the conference a glimmer of hope.

It’s time to start wondering if Michigan will ever be able to surpass its arch rival.

Verdict: Not an overreaction.

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There’s no question Michigan has the resources to be a perennial national title contender. Jim Harbaugh was hired — and paid the third biggest salary in the country — to make the Wolverines just that. So why can’t Michigan beat Ohio State?

It’s a fair question, even if Harbaugh wanted to shrug it off as an “insult” after Saturday’s 56-27 loss in Ann Arbor. Clearly, there is a gap between the Buckeyes and the team not-so-affectionately referred to as “The School Up North.”

Since Harbaugh signed his first full recruiting class in 2016, Michigan’s classes have ranked eighth, fifth, 22nd and eighth nationally by the 247 Sports Composite. Over the same period, Ohio State has been fourth, second, second and 14th. And with the Buckeyes showing no signs of slowing down under Ryan Day after Urban Meyer’s retirement, Ohio State’s 2020 class is ranked fourth. Michigan’s is 12th. Advantage, Buckeyes.

On the field? With Saturday’s victory, Ohio State has won eight straight meetings and 15 of the past 16. Advantage, Buckeyes.

It’s not that Michigan isn’t a good program under Harbaugh. The Wolverines won 10 games in three of his first four seasons, and can get to 10 again this year with a bowl victory. Harbaugh has gone 47-17 in five seasons after Michigan finished 46-42 in the seven before his arrival. But it’s clear that Michigan has been unable to take the next step from contender to champion — even in its own division. This will be the fourth year that Harbaugh will finish third or worse in the Big Ten East.

Harbaugh remains one of the nation’s best coaches, and he clearly understands the need to adapt, bringing in Josh Gattis as offensive coordinator to run a more modern, up-tempo offense. There were growing pains, but the Wolverines became a dominant force at the end of the season before running into a juggernaut Ohio State team.

Under Harbaugh, Michigan will be a factor in the Big Ten every year. But until it finds players on par with Justin Fields, J.K. Dobbins and Chase Young, it won’t be able to topple the behemoth in Columbus.

Utah is a win away from reaching the playoff.

Verdict: Overreaction.

Utah did exactly what it needed to do Saturday, easily dispatching Colorado, 45-14, to leave no doubt about its viability as a playoff contender. One more challenge remains: beating Oregon in the Pac-12 title game.

With Alabama losing to Auburn, Utah is poised to jump into the No. 5 spot behind Georgia in the next College Football Playoff rankings. If the Bulldogs lose to LSU in the SEC title game and the Utes beat the Ducks for the conference championship, Utah is in, right?

In this playoff system, it’s never that easy.

The way Utah plays against Oregon will factor into the decision, the same way style points will matter for Oklahoma and Baylor, who face off for the Big 12 title. One of those two teams will finish 12-1, which means it will be compared with Utah for the final playoff spot.

The championship games are the final data point for the committee to consider, and it’s impossible to overstate just how important those games are. Utah, Baylor and Oklahoma are all considered fairly equal right now in the committee’s eyes, so how those teams play next Saturday will likely be the tiebreaker. If Utah dominates while Baylor or Oklahoma squeaks by, the Utes have the advantage, and vise versa.

Utah has been the most impressive of the three, outscoring opponents 305-76 since its loss to USC while Oklahoma and Baylor have struggled to beat mediocre teams. But either Oklahoma or Baylor will add a top-10 win to its resume next Saturday, while the best Utah can hope for is to beat a top-15 Oregon team.

Will the committee favor Utah’s dominance or the Big 12 champion’s quality wins? Will Baylor avenging its only loss in the conference title game bump it ahead of Utah? Will Oklahoma’s overall talent level be favored over Utah’s? There are so many factors to consider, which makes championship weekend not just about the results, but the style points.

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