Strong field of College Football Playoff hopefuls could mean Georgia must win out

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

It’s difficult to for college football teams to make it through the regular season without an unexpected slip-up — even Nick Saban has done it only four times in 15 years at Alabama — so give Georgia credit for winning ugly at Missouri on Saturday. They haven’t played great the past two weeks, and they’re still undefeated. And there are reasons for Bulldogs backers to remain calm beyond that bottom line.

There are few issues with Georgia’s fourth-ranked scoring defense. The Bulldogs allowed only two touchdowns on 21 full possessions against Kent State and Mizzou. Georgia’s offense has underachieved the past two weeks, but still punted only three times in 24 possessions. The Bulldogs will start piling up points again if they stop giving the ball away (losing all four of their fumbles in the past two games is bad luck).

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The Bulldogs are relatively healthy after five games. Star defensive tackle Jalen Carter (knee) is sidelined, but his teammates can handle Auburn on Saturday and Vanderbilt next week without him. Georgia then will have a bye week before playing Florida in Jacksonville. The escape at Missouri is a reminder that conference road games can be tricky regardless of opponent. The Bulldogs won’t play another one until Nov. 12 at Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs survived two lackluster performances. Good thing because, this year, they may have to go undefeated to make the four-team College Football Playoff. It’s a near-certainty that the SEC champion will be in the CFP, but the conference receiving two bids is looking shaky.

The CFP has included two SEC teams twice, for the 2021 and 2017 postseasons. The teams were Alabama and Georgia both times. That happened because of a confluence of circumstances beyond the performances of Bama and UGA.

In 2017, two of the other Power 5 conference champions and Notre Dame were unworthy of a bid. Last season undefeated Cincinnati of the AAC made the CFP field over one-loss Notre Dame. The champions of the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 all had multiple losses.

I don’t see this season playing out in similar fashion. The Fighting Irish are already out of the CFP picture with two losses. But Clemson is looking like a contender again and the Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12 all have multiple teams aiming for the playoff. There’s still a lot of games left in the season. There also are a lot of teams in position to leapfrog the Bulldogs should they falter.

The way things are looking so far, Georgia may have to make it to the SEC Championship game without a loss to earn a CFP spot. The Bulldogs may need to win that game, too. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives UGA a 17.4% chance of winning out. Those are lower odds than Ohio State (36.6%), Alabama (31.2%), Clemson (21.3%). Georgia’s odds to make the CFP (64.6%) are third highest behind Alabama (87%) and Ohio State (78.7%), per FPI.

Georgia might have saved its CFP hopes by rallying with 14 consecutive points at Missouri. The Bulldogs still are on track for a second consecutive undefeated season. There are 14 other undefeated teams remaining among Power 5 programs. Several of them still will play one another, of course, but undefeated champions still are possible in all those leagues.

Clemson (5-0) won the toughest games on its schedule in back-to-back weeks, at Wake Forest and vs. North Carolina State. The Tigers are favored by three touchdowns at Boston College this week. They have a challenging three-game stretch after that: at Florida State, vs. No. 22 Syracuse and at Notre Dame. I like Clemson’s chances of winning out now that D.J. Uiagalelei is playing better and after the defense got its act together against N.C. State.

A Pac-12 hasn’t made the CFP since the 2016 postseason. The drought could end this year.

USC and UCLA are undefeated largely because they score a lot of points. Utah (4-1) and Washington (4-1) are the only Pac-12 teams that are better than OK on defense. Utah is the Pac-12′s most complete team and the favorite to win the league, per FPI. The Utes opened the season with a loss at Florida. They’ll will have to win at UCLA on Saturday and versus USC the next week to stay alive in the CFP race.

One strange aspect of this college football season so far: Oklahoma, the only Big 12 team to make the CFP, is down while the league is up. Kansas (!), Oklahoma State and TCU are undefeated. Oklahoma State’s loss to Baylor in the Big 12 title game last season likely cost it a CFP berth. The Cowboys have a real shot to make it this time, though their remaining schedule is difficult.

My preseason ranking of Ohio State as the No. 1 team is looking good. OSU’s five victories have been by an average margin of 40 points. The Buckeyes have faced only two decent teams, Wisconsin and Notre Dame, but beating up on overmatched teams puts them one up on Georgia, Alabama and undefeated rival Michigan. The Buckeyes have done it with star wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (hamstring) missing three games.

The Crimson Tide and the Buckeyes have been a notch above Georgia. There’s still a good chance the Bulldogs will end up joining those two in the CFP field. Georgia probably will be favored to win each of its remaining games. Then again, the Bulldogs were favored by 61-1/2 points against Kent State and won by 17. They were down by 14 points in the fourth quarter against Mizzou, a 30½-point underdog.

The Bulldogs are undefeated with room for improvement. I expect them to clean up the sloppiness on offense and get a boost with better health among the wide receivers. The defense has been very good, even with Carter slowed by injuries. It should be even better once he’s healthy.

Georgia is good enough to make it to the SEC title game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with no losses. With so many strong contenders for the CFP this season, that might be what it takes for the Bulldogs to make it back.