For this Alabama football team, trip to Sugar Bowl as likely as College Football Playoff | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – ESPN broadcasters Joe Tessitore and Greg McElroy pondered during Saturday’s broadcast of the Arkansas-Ole Miss game whether the Rebels, with a victory, would be the frontrunner to represent the SEC in the Sugar Bowl.

Their theory went like this: No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Georgia likely would qualify for the College Football Playoff, leaving the Sugar Bowl open for Ole Miss, which improved to 4-1 by beating Arkansas 52-51.

But a couple of significant hurdles could stand between Ole Miss and a trip to New Orleans, and I’m not just talking about the six remaining SEC games on the Rebels’ schedule .

For one, undefeated Kentucky (6-0, 4-0 SEC) must be taken seriously as a Sugar Bowl contender.

Also, Alabama (5-1, 2-1) could have the Sugar Bowl in its future instead of the playoff.

The Crimson Tide saw their 19-game winning streak end with a 41-38 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday.

“We still can accomplish everything we want to accomplish,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said afterward, “but we’ve got to do things better than we did tonight.”

And accomplishing everything Alabama wants to accomplish got a lot tougher, because Saturday’s loss leaves no margin for error.

If the Crimson Tide run the table, they should have no trouble earning selection to the CFP. The selection committee isn’t going to keep out the SEC champion. But winning the SEC likely requires a win over Georgia, the nation’s new No. 1 team.

TOPPMEYER:Jimbo Fisher delivers the spanking he promised to give Nick Saban and Alabama

HURT:Texas A&M uppercuts No. 1 Alabama because it had one final second

Alabama got pushed around for the final three quarters of its 31-29 victory over Florida three weeks ago.

That physical whipping re-emerged in the first half Saturday, when the Aggies bullied the Tide en route to a 24-10 halftime lead.

Georgia has the most physically imposing team in college football, which doesn't sound like a recipe for Alabama success.

If you were in the camp that entered Saturday thinking Alabama would beat Georgia in Atlanta, it likely had to do with two factors:

No. 1, a trust that Nick Saban wouldn’t lose to Kirby Smart.

No. 2, Alabama would have the best quarterback in that matchup, Bryce Young, tilting the game in its favor.

But if Aggies quarterback Zach Calzada can beat Alabama, then so can either of Georgia’s quarterbacks – Stetson Bennett or JT Daniels – when paired with the Bulldogs’ best-in-the-nation defense.

JavaScript is not available.

The Crimson Tide didn’t tackle well against Texas A&M, particularly in the first half. They didn’t pressure Calzada and had busted coverages. They started so poorly on defense that Texas A&M averaged 9.7 yards per play during the first quarter – this from an opponent that entered the night ranked 11th in the SEC in total offense.

On offense, Alabama failed to adequately protect Young, who had his worst game of the season despite throwing for 369 yards and three touchdowns.

Much was made in the offseason about how Alabama would replace last year’s offensive superstars like Mac Jones, DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris, but the Tide miss linebacker Dylan Moses and cornerback Patrick Surtain II just as much.

If Alabama plays against Georgia like it did Saturday, it is likely to get trounced, but even reaching Atlanta now cannot be taken for granted.

“I don’t know of anybody in our division that’s not a really good team,” Saban said. “So, if we don’t play really well, we’ll struggle against anybody we play against.”

Alabama missed qualifying for the CFP just once in the playoff's first seven years.

The Crimson Tide remain one of the four most talented teams in college football, but talent alone won’t ensure a playoff spot.

Repeat Saturday’s struggles, and Alabama can forget about the CFP. It will be vying for the Sugar Bowl alongside Kentucky, Ole Miss and more.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.