Georgia can lose another game and still play for the SEC title. Georgia might not be able to lose another game and play for the national title.
The first set of College Football Playoff rankings will be released Tuesday. Georgia won’t be in the top four. It mightn’t crack the top half-dozen. That doesn’t yet matter. Four (or five) games remain. Alabama and LSU will face one another. Ohio State and Penn State will meet. Oklahoma and Baylor could play twice. Minnesota has games remaining against Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin. There might be three unbeatens left as of midnight Dec. 7. There won’t be four.
In some ways, Georgia is where it has been the past two Novembers — poised to win the SEC East but lugging a loss. Difference is, this year’s loss is a bad one. The South Carolina game is the worst loss of any realistic playoff contender. Oklahoma lost to Kansas State, but the Wildcats are a Top 25 team and the game was in Manhattan. South Carolina is a sub-.500 team that will have to upset somebody to grace a bowl, and the game was in Athens.
We’ve seen SEC teams make the field of four without winning the conference. What we’ve never seen — again, the playoff is entering its sixth year – is a two-loss team of any sort wangle an invitation. Had Auburn beaten Georgia a second time in 2017 and become a two-loss SEC champ, the Tigers would have made it. Their losses had come at Clemson and LSU. They’d also beaten Georgia and Alabama when each was ranked No. 1 the CFP. But they lost to Georgia in the conference title game and wound up facing UCF in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Lest we forget, the Bulldogs themselves finished a strong fifth last year with two losses. Again, both were honorable losses — at LSU and to Alabama in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Let’s say Georgia loses at Auburn on Nov. 16. (I don’t see it losing to Missouri or Texas A&M at Sanford Stadium. Then again, I didn’t see it losing to South Carolina.) Let’s say the Bulldogs then upset Alabama/LSU for the SEC title. They’d be 11-2 and champions of the conference where, ahem, It Just Means More. They’d have a case. But would a two-loss SEC champ with a terrible loss make it ahead of both a one-loss Alabama and a one-loss LSU?
(Figure the other two playoff spots would fall to Clemson, which isn’t losing to anybody on its schedule, and to the Big Ten champ.)
Georgia as a two-loss champ would be a tough call. The CFP committee has shown that, when in doubt, it errs on the side of conference champs. That’s why Oklahoma was included ahead of Georgia last year, even as there was sentiment for the Bulldogs as the nation’s second-best team. (That sentiment hugely underrated Clemson, it must be said.) I don’t know that anybody holds this Georgia team in such high regard, at least not yet.
What the committee sees when it looks at Georgia — a team that beat Notre Dame and Florida by almost the same score (23-17 and 24-17, respectively), with the first coming between the hedges and the second in a split stadium. Notre Dame and Florida each have two losses. The Bulldogs will need to burnish their resume before December. The South Carolina loss means that beating Auburn, which isn’t a must in terms of winning the East, is something approaching a must in the eyes of the committee.
The good news is that winning at Auburn, which no visitor has managed this season, would be a major profile-enhancer. It would position the Bulldogs to be a one-loss SEC champ, and there’s no way such a team wouldn’t make the playoff. (You can snub the Pac-12 and the Big 12 and even the Big Ten, but Greg Sankey would go off and form his own playoff if that happened.) The road for Georgia isn’t as straight as the past two years – that’s what losing to a lousy team will do — but it is navigable.
At issue is whether the Bulldogs are stout enough not to stumble again. Coming off South Carolina and Kentucky, their performance in Jacksonville was most heartening, though it wasn’t quite comprehensive. They had a chance to put the Gators away and didn’t. Jake Fromm seemed himself again, and after three quarters this seemed done and dusted. Then you looked up and Florida was twice within a touchdown. You also note that LSU scored 42 points against Todd Grantham’s defense; Georgia converted on 12 of 18 third downs — third-and-Grantham, as UGA fans used to say — and managed just 24.
The belief here is that Georgia isn’t quite where it needs to be. It still, however, has time to get there. There’s work to do, but there are capable workmen to do it. To ensure playoff qualification, the Bulldogs need to win out. They just might.
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