As coach Kirby Smart’s team, which the playoff selection committee ranked second for the second week in a row behind Ohio State, prepares for a three-week gauntlet of No. 9 Ole Miss, No. 13 Tennessee (in Knoxville) and apparently emerging Georgia Tech (at Bobby Dodd Stadium), the game that matters most by far is the one that would follow, the SEC title game.
Should Ohio State or Michigan, Florida State and Washington run the table to finish as undefeated conference champions, they almost certainly will take three of the four playoff spots. And the fourth would likely go to the SEC champion if either Alabama or Georgia (or Ole Miss) finished at 12-1 or, in Georgia’s case, 13-0.
However, if that SEC team happens to be the one that wears crimson, then the one that wears red and black and is the two-time defending national champion would possibly would be invited to have a great time at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. (Although it’s conceivable that the SEC could get locked out entirely. If Alabama did win the SEC at 12-1 and Texas won the Big 12 at 12-1, the committee could invite the Longhorns on the basis of their head-to-head win over the Tide in Tuscaloosa in Septepmber. Imagine that.)
And, actually, in a scenario where Washington, Florida State and Michigan/Ohio State all claimed their respective conference titles at 12-1, a Georgia team whose only flaw was losing to Alabama in the SEC title game would still also likely be eliminated.
Leaving out a 12-1 UGA team could be argued as unfair. (Something tells me Bulldogs fans would indeed make haste to social media and message boards to lodge their thoughtful and respectful quibbles with the outcome.) Vegas bookmakers would be called on to assert that a 12-1 Georgia would be considered a favorite over undefeated Washington, Florida State and either Ohio State or Michigan. And if the Big Ten champion were the fighting Connor Stalions of Michigan – goodness, talk about thoughtful and respectful quibbles.
To get to 12-1 (with a loss in the SEC title game), the Bulldogs would have beaten possibly three teams in the Top 25 at the end of the regular season – Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee. Kentucky could squeeze back in by the end of the season, making it four. And then they could have played a top-4 Alabama team to a standstill.
However, there is no precedent for a one-loss power-conference team making it in to the CFP over an undefeated power-conference champion. Since the playoff begin in 2014, every team in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC that has won its conference championship and not lost has earned a spot in the four-team playoff.
And, as mentioned earlier, even one-loss conference champions hold sway over one-loss non-champions. In the two years when the committee shoehorned a second team from one conference into the playoff (Alabama in 2017 and Georgia in 2021), the power-conference champions who were kept out of the playoff had two or three losses.
One upshot of this is that the Bulldogs can afford to lose one of their three final regular-season games. Having defeated Missouri on Saturday, Georgia can clinch the SEC East by defeating either Ole Miss on Saturday or Tennessee on Nov. 18 – or if Tennessee loses to Missouri on Saturday afternoon. It takes some luster off both games. The Georgia-Tennessee game has been pointed to since the summer as the biggest of the season for the Bulldogs, a game to possibly decide the division.
But, if Georgia takes care of Ole Miss, the Bulldogs could lose to the Volunteers and, at least from a practical sense, shrug their shoulders.
Further, the game that Georgia would be most harshly judged by also would be the most challenging, assuming the SEC West champion was Alabama at 11-1.
It’s not ideal to have a chance at a historic third consecutive national championship rest so heavily on the outcome of one game, particularly if the Bulldogs enter that game undefeated and riding what would be a 29-game win streak. And the advent of the 12-team playoff next year will reduce the meaning of each game even more, for better or worse.
(If you’re wondering, if this week’s rankings were the final rankings in 2024, Georgia as SEC champion would play the Texas-Penn State winner in the Sugar Bowl. The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl would have Florida State vs. the Oregon-Louisville winner.)
What does the road look like for Washington, Florida State and Ohio State/Michigan?
Washington is home against No. 18 Utah (7-2), at No. 12 Oregon State (7-2) and home against Washington State (4-5).
Florida State has Miami (6-3) and North Alabama at home and then goes to Florida (5-4).
Michigan goes to No. 10 Penn State (8-1) and Maryland (5-4) and finishes with Ohio State (9-0) at home.
Ohio State is home against Michigan State (3-6) and Minnesota (5-4) and travels to Michigan (9-0) to complete the regular season.
It’s a tough road home for Georgia. ESPN’s metrics assign the Bulldogs’ an 18.3% chance of finishing 13-0. Ohio State has a 40.1% probability to make it to 13-0, Washington 12.5%, Florida State 54.3% and Michigan 22.8%.
For Georgia and its followers, it has created the potential for drama and tension over a four-week stretch that perhaps hasn’t been felt in the back-to-back championship run.
For all of the doubt cast upon the Bulldogs this season for a series of less-than-impressive results, it’s an opportunity to prove their worth beyond any question.