The question was posed to Mecole Hardman, special teamer and special player: Have the Georgia Bulldogs begun to think about Alabama?

Hardman’s response: “Who?”

At first this seemed a case of Georgia being coy, as Georgia under Kirby Smart can be. But no. Hardman hadn’t heard the entire question. (Postgame interview “areas” can be loud places.) The interrogator said, louder this time, “ALABAMA.”

“Not thinking about it,” Hardman said. “We’ve got Massachusetts next. Dec. 1 – that’s in the future.”

It is indeed, though it’s not exactly a distant future. Dec. 1 – the day Georgia and Alabama will meet for the SEC championship – is less than three weeks away, and everything that happens between now and then will bear a subtext that isn’t subterranean: Do the Bulldogs have a shot?

Don’t ask Smart, though someone did Saturday after Georgia’s 27-10 dismissal of Auburn. That drew the we’re-just-thinking-about-UMass bit of blather. (Note: The Minutemen are 4-7, having lost to Georgia Southern by three touchdowns.) But there’s no chance that Smart’s staff hasn’t begun to break down Bama tape, just as there’s no chance that Smart’s former employer isn’t doing the same in Tuscaloosa as he eats lunch – the daily salad with chicken and cherries – at his desk.

As Nick Saban is forever noting, the College Football Playoff changed college football. A team would rather lose to a loathed rival than miss the four-team tournament. Saban’s Crimson Tide did just that last year. As big a deal as the SEC championship is, it’s not the biggest deal, and it’s possible that Alabama could lose to Georgia and both make it. The Bulldogs don’t have that fallback: If they don’t win in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they’re not in.

But now we wonder: Would the magnitude of the playoff be enough to persuade Saban to punt the Auburn game away? Tua Tagovailoa, who beat the Bulldogs in relief for the national title in January and who’s positioned to win the Heisman, has a bad knee that dastardly opponents keep taking pains to batter. He has limped off in each of the Tide’s past four games.

Bama clinched the West on Nov. 3, hours after Georgia clinched the East. The Tide next plays The Citadel, its version of UMass. It can win that game simply by punting and playing defense. Though Saban insisted that Tagovailoa was “OK” after getting dinged against Mississippi State and making yet another trip to the Tua Tent, it would be no shock if he skipped the date with the Minutemen.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t be an issue: Bama has Jalen Hurts, the winningest No. 2 quarterback ever. Only it may not. Hurts has a bad ankle and appears to be moving more slowly than Tagovailoa. The famous backup hasn’t played in the Tide’s past two games; he didn’t warm up Saturday. Alabama’s No. 3 quarterback is Mac Jones, a redshirt freshman who has completed five career passes. Even Saban isn’t beating Georgia with Mac Jones.

Just spitballing here, but what happens if Tagovailoa sits out Alabama’s next TWO games, the second of which is against Auburn? Would the great Saban, who wasn’t afraid to bench Hurts at halftime when trailing Georgia 13-0, be bold enough to say, “Y’all can worry about Iron Bowl bragging rights all you want; I’ve got National Championship No. 7 to win”? And what happens if he is?

Auburn isn’t nearly the team it was supposed to be – Georgia outgained it by 242 yards in a game that could have finished 40-10 – but it could beat Alabama without Tagovailoa and Hurts. A loss would leave Bama in the same place as Georgia come Dec. 1, lugging a loss but needing only a win to make the playoffs, which is all that matters. And before you accuse me of getting carried away over nothing … well, ask Auburn if Kerryon Johnson not being at full speed for last year’s SEC championship was nothing.

Johnson was the driving force in the Tigers’ November victories over Georgia and Alabama, which got them to Atlanta. He was hurt in the second half of the Bama game and wasn’t nearly himself against the Bulldogs, who won 28-7 over the team to which they’d lost 40-17. Auburn wound up missing the playoff; the teams they’d just beaten played for the national title. Saban, who misses nothing, surely didn’t miss the Kerryon case study.

The old BCS slogan was “Every Game Matters.” With the playoff, that’s no longer true. Alabama lost its final regular-season game last year and cracked the field of four. With an SEC championship date assured, it could give Tagovailoa a 20-day rest – he looks as if he could use a break – and load up for Georgia. The downside is that a loss to Auburn would remove Bama’s margin of error. It would have to beat Georgia, same as Georgia must beat Alabama.

The Bulldogs are playing well enough to give Saban nervous nights, but Alabama with a reasonably healthy Tagovailoa would be the heavy favorite. Bama without Tua would not be favored. Georgia caught a break in last year’s SEC title tilt. It could catch an even bigger one this time.

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