‘Road to Atlanta’ still runs through Athens and No. 1 Georgia

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart and his No. 1-ranked Bulldogs are not looking ahead, but everybody else is. So, what’s out there?

The road to the SEC Championship, most notably.

For Georgia, it is a treacherous-but-navigable road. The Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0 SEC) were installed as 17-point favorites over Florida (4-3, 1-3) in their next game, which is Oct. 29 in Jacksonville. Likewise, Georgia is expected to be favored over everybody else left on the schedule not named Tennessee.

But what about those Vols?

The reaction to their 52-49 win over Alabama on Saturday night was predictably over the top. Many pundits – including Georgia’s own David Pollack of ESPN – were calling for Tennessee to be ranked No. 1 after that victory. The Vols weren’t but moved up to No. 3 in The Associated Press poll and No. 4 in the USA Today Coaches’ poll.

Should Georgia and Tennessee both win out before their Nov. 5 matchup at Sanford Stadium, there’s no guarantee which team will be ranked higher when they play. The first College Football Playoff rankings will come out earlier that week (Nov. 1), and the selection committee’s criteria includes strength of schedule. With games against as many as five ranked opponents at that point, the Vols could be ranked higher than Georgia.

Regardless, it’s reasonable to think the defending national champion Bulldogs could win out the rest of the way. However, one can bet the locker rooms occupied by Tennessee, Ole Miss and Alabama are thinking the same thing. With six weeks remaining in the regular season, those three teams and Georgia are the ones with the best chances of reaching Atlanta and the SEC Championship game on Dec. 3.

Here are their comparative profiles:

Georgia (7-0, 4-0 SEC)

  • Current AP rank: 1
  • Ranked opponents: 1 – No. 11 Oregon in Atlanta (W, 49-3)
  • Remaining SEC schedule: Florida (in Jacksonville), Tennessee, at Mississippi State, at Kentucky
  • Notable: The Bulldogs have deficiencies in the area of explosive offensive plays and quarterback sacks. Georgia has played most of the season without two of its top players in defensive tackle Jalen Carter and split end A.D. Mitchell. Both should be back soon.

Tennessee (6-0, 3-0 SEC)

  • Current AP rank: 3
  • Ranked opponents: 4 – No. 3 Alabama (W, 52-49), at No. 17 Pitt (W, 34-27 OT), No. 20 Florida (W, 38-33), at No. 25 LSU (W, 40-13)
  • Remaining SEC schedule: Kentucky, at Georgia, Missouri, at South Carolina, at Vanderbilt
  • Like opponents: None
  • Notable: The Vols have by far the lowest-rated defense of the contenders. They rank 104th nationally in total defense (425.3 ypg) and 47th in points allowed (23.0 pg). However, they’re No. 1 in the nation in total offense (551 ypg) and scoring (47.7). Three of Tennessee’s five remaining SEC games are on the road, most notably at Georgia on Nov. 5.

Alabama (6-1, 3-1 SEC)

  • Current AP rank: 6
  • Ranked opponents: 2 – at No. 6 Tennessee (L, 52-49), at No. 20 Arkansas (W, 49-26)
  • Remaining SEC schedule: Mississippi State, at LSU, at Ole Miss, Auburn
  • Like opponents: Vanderbilt – home win, 55-3
  • Notable: The biggest obstacle for the Crimson Tide getting back to Atlanta is their Nov. 12 trip to Ole Miss. Alabama’s primary bugaboo is in the area of discipline. It has five more turnovers than takeaways, which ranks 114th nationally, and, after being whistled 17 times against Tennessee, the Tide are 131st – or dead last – in penalties committed.

Ole Miss (7-0, 3-0 SEC)

  • Current AP rank: 7
  • Ranked opponents: 1 – No. 7 Kentucky (W, 22-19)
  • Remaining SEC schedule: at LSU, at Texas A&M, Alabama, at Arkansas, Mississippi State
  • Like opponents: Vanderbilt – road win, 52-28; Auburn – home win, 48-34
  • Notable: Like Georgia, the toughest part of the Rebels’ schedule is ahead. Ole Miss will have played nine consecutive weeks before finally getting its bye on Nov. 5. But that comes the week before playing host to Alabama in Oxford.

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