KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There’s no better way to begin the final push into the College Football Playoff than with No. 3 Georgia hosting No. 1 Tennessee in a de facto SEC East title game.
As the usual suspects take their spots atop the initial CFP ranking, Tennessee is the most notable party crasher. They’re one of the great turnaround stories in recent memory, going from irrelevance to No. 1 in an eight-game span.
“It’s great to see the names like Tennessee, USC, Oregon, some new names back in the top 10 in college football,” said Gary Stokan, who’s president of Peach Bowl Inc. and knowledgeable about the playoff selection process. The Peach Bowl will host one semifinal game in December, while the Fiesta Bowl (Arizona) will host the other.
“This could be, I think, in the nine years of the existence of the CFP, the toughest selection process by the CFP selection committee that we’ve ever seen,” Stokan said.
Tennessee is a big part of that picture. The Volunteers have averaged nearly 50 points per game, led by second-year coach Josh Heupel and Heisman Trophy front-runner quarterback Hendon Hooker. They’ll try to extend that success against the reigning national champions in Athens, who are coming off a 42-20 win over rival Florida. Tennessee has lost five consecutive games to Georgia, but they’re a much more confident, explosive team than past years. The Volunteers are 8-0 with five ranked wins, including a victory over Alabama.
“I’d say what everybody was missing was that we’re a hardworking team,” Volunteers receiver Jalin Hyatt said when asked why preseason projections were so off-base. “Not only that, we don’t let the outside noise correlate to what we do in the building. ... I think we finally know our identity as far as who we are. That’s one of the biggest things that’s changed since last year. Just knowing who we are. You can see the confidence in all the guys. We know where we want to go and where we’re headed.”
Credit: ArLuther Lee
Credit: ArLuther Lee
Elsewhere in the SEC, this is the first time an Alabama-LSU game feels overshadowed, but it’s No. 6 vs. No. 10 on Saturday in Baton Rouge. The Tigers could spoil a lot of projections with an upset – and like Tennessee, suddenly put themselves firmly into the picture. They would control their own path in the SEC West.
Given that the CFP’s No. 1 seed gets a favorable geographical venue in the semifinal, there’s a strong likelihood that the No. 1-ranked team will play its semifinal game in Atlanta. Even if the top seed isn’t an SEC school, Clemson, Ohio State or Michigan also likely would favor Atlanta over Arizona. The national championship will be played at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.
POTENTIAL PLAYOFF MOVERS
This week’s games that could affect the playoff race (all on Saturday):
No. 1 Tennessee (8-0) at No. 3 Georgia (8-0), 3:30 p.m., CBS: The game of the week might also be the game of the season. The winner is well-positioned for a CFP berth, even if it later loses the conference championship game. Even the game’s loser could have a chance to qualify for the playoff. But this contest has massive ramifications on the CFP, and its winner will be ranked No. 1 in next week’s rankings.
No. 2 Ohio State (8-0) at Northwestern (1-7), noon, ABC: The Buckeyes have three games before the highly anticipated meeting with No. 5 Michigan. That stretch begins with Northwestern, which has lost seven consecutive games and sits at the bottom of the Big Ten West.
No. 5 Michigan (8-0) at Rutgers (4-4), 7:30 p.m., Big Ten Network: If the Wolverines defeat Rutgers and Nebraska as they should, that could set up an interesting battle with Illinois (7-1), ranked No. 16, on Nov. 19.
No. 6 Alabama (7-1) at No. 10 LSU (6-2), 7 p.m., ESPN: The Tigers aren’t the joke they appeared to be following an opening loss to Florida State. LSU’s only other defeat came against Tennessee, and they’ve impressed to the point they came in 10th in the initial CFP rankings. Coach Brian Kelly has the offense humming, and LSU looks formidable. Alabama should still win, but it’s had a couple of close escapes already this season.
“Brian Kelly is proving he’s a great coach,” Stokan said. “Once he gets a couple years under his belt, gets the recruits he wants to bring in, I think LSU will be back consistently in that top 10. Brian is going to do a great job at LSU.”
No. 4 Clemson (8-0) at Notre Dame (5-3), 7:30 p.m., NBC: It hasn’t often been pretty, but Clemson has avoided slipping up. The Tigers would make the CFP with an undefeated record and ACC title. They’re through the tougher portion of the schedule, so they’re on track. Much to the chagrin of coach Dabo Swinney, the quarterback situation remains a conversation. D.J. Uiagalelei is perplexing, and top recruit Cade Klubnik has impressed in limited time.
Texas Tech (4-4) at No. 7 TCU (8-0), noon, Fox: Can TCU keep it going? The Horned Frogs have forced their way into the mix, and the Big 12 has a legitimate contender. The conference won’t get the benefit of the doubt, though, so TCU can’t afford even one mishap (Alabama is ranked ahead of TCU in the CFP despite having a loss). TCU tries to stay unbeaten against a Texas Tech team that’s winless on the road (0-3).
No. 8 Oregon (7-1) at Colorado (1-7), 3:30 p.m., ESPN: It sounds crazy that Oregon is in the race after its 46-point loss to Georgia, but the Ducks have been perfect since. Quarterback Bo Nix looks like a new player. If the Ducks finish with one defeat, it’ll be interesting to see how the committee views their opening loss to Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“The Georgia loss becomes a great loss if, say, Georgia beats Tennessee and wins the East and beats the West winner,” Stokan said. “Now, if Georgia’s (ranked) 1 or 2 or 3 (in the final ranking), and Oregon’s only loss was to them, and they’re a Pac-12 champ, they’d get in the playoff, potentially. That’s how wide open it is right now.”
California (3-5) at No. 9 USC (7-1), 10:30 p.m., ESPN: The Trojans suffered a one-point loss to Utah in what’s been an otherwise successful first season under Lincoln Riley. USC faces No. 12 UCLA (7-1) in two weeks.
On the Pac-12:
This season is a revival for college football on the West Coast. No, none of these teams probably come close to the CFP bluebloods, but the Pac-12 boasts depth it hasn’t had in recent years. Oregon, USC, UCLA and Oregon State (No. 23) were in the CFP’s first Top 25. A year ago, Oregon (No. 4) was the conference’s lone representative.
“That only makes college football stronger,” Stokan said.
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