We’ve been the unofficial capital of college football for decades. For verification, all you need to do is take a spin around the Perimeter on an autumn Saturday. You’ll see cars bearing flags headed not just downtown to Bobby Dodd Stadium or eastward to Athens but every which way – south on I-85 to Auburn or north to Clemson; up I-75 to Knoxville or down it to Tallahassee or Gainesville; west on I-20 to Tuscaloosa or east to Columbia. On such Saturdays, the road Pascual Perez made famous is a fluttering version of the United Nations.
Over the next five weeks, the unofficial tag will become official. The College Football Playoff will crown its champion in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Jan. 8. Of the four teams that will participate in the tournament, three are within a don’t-need-to-stop-for-gas drive of MBS. One is Clemson (124 miles away), the reigning national champ. One is Alabama (202 miles), which had to sweat out its invitation. One is Georgia (74 miles), the program coached by a man who left Alabama two years ago to rescue his alma mater from 35 years of mostly frustration.
At this point, we should ask: What the heck is Oklahoma (855 miles) doing in this sweet-tea party?
On paper, this is the least glamorous field in the CFP’s existence, which admittedly is a small (four years) sample size. For the first time, there’s no unbeaten team. No. 1 Clemson lost to Syracuse. No. 2 Oklahoma lost to Iowa State. No. 3 Georgia lost to Auburn by 23 points, which is the most lopsided loss of any playoff team ever. Alabama lost its last game. For the first time, only three conferences are represented, the SEC – when It Just Means More, you should Get More, right? – becoming the first league to boast multiple qualifiers.
The Sugar Bowl semifinal between Clemson and Bama will be a replay of a rematch, the first two meetings having been epic. The Rose Bowl semifinal will be a replay of nothing: Georgia and Oklahoma, the programs of Dooley and Wilkinson and Switzer and Herschel and the Selmons, have never met. The Bulldogs have played in Pasadena – on Jan. 1, 1943. The team of Sinkwich and Trippi beat UCLA 9-0. The Bruins lost four games that seasons, other conquerors being TCU, Navy and St. Mary’s Pre-Flight.
The 1942 Georgia team claims a national championship. The Associated Press crowned Ohio State, which was coached by Paul Brown. The Helms Athletic Association recognized Wisconsin, which was coached by Harry Augustus Stuhldreher, who at Notre Dame had been one of Knute Rockne’s Four Horsemen. In September, Georgia played at Notre Dame for the first time and won by a point. Time is a flat circle, or something like that.
The Bulldogs played their best game against Auburn, winning 28-7 and strangling a Gus Malzahn offense that had, in the 2010 and 2013 SEC championship games, amassed 115 points. Oklahoma’s offense averages 139 more yards per game than Auburn’s and has scored 23 more touchdowns. Then again, the Sooners play in the Big 12, where stopping somebody goes against the conference charter. They’re first in the nation in total offense, 57th in total defense.
Baker Mayfield is the nation’s best quarterback. He’ll win the Heisman. (Said Smart on Sunday’s teleconference: “We haven’t played against any Heisman Trophy winners.”) He made news this season by planting OU’s flag on Ohio State’s logo and grabbing his crotch in response to snubs and snarls from the Kansas Jayhawks, who finished 1-11. Mayfield is really good. He also can be rattled. Clemson’s defense rattled him in the semifinal two years. Georgia’s defense ranks No. 4 nationally. Just sayin’.
Should the Bulldogs win in Pasadena – they opened as 2½-point underdogs, but the line has already narrowed – they’ll play in downtown Atlanta for a third time since Thanksgiving. They seem OK with the A-T-L. They’ve outscored Georgia Tech and Auburn 66-14 here. Alabama, which made the playoff not so much via what it did but because Big Ten champ Ohio State lost to Iowa by 31 points, is somehow favored over Clemson, at least for the moment. And here we stop to imagine how a Georgia-Alabama final would be.
The rest of the nation would hate it: “Two SEC teams, gag us with a spoon.” The SEC would crow, and the SEC is world-class at crowing. Smart would cringe at every mention of Nick Saban, alongside whom he was part of four Alabama national championships, including the one that culminated in a 45-40 victory over Clemson on Jan. 11, 2016. (The Tigers and Deshaun Watson amassed 550 yards on Smart’s defense, albeit in a losing effort.)
Smart was spared those questions before the SEC championship by Bama’s loss to Auburn. It’s entirely possible he could get them before a game to be played five weeks later in the same building in the same city. “I can only imagine what it would be today if we were sitting there and we would be playing them,” Smart said Friday, speaking at press conference. He mightn’t have to imagine much longer.
First things first, though. Georgia must stop Mayfield and his merry men. Bama must derail Dabo Swinney. At least one regional team is guaranteed to play for the national championship, and it would be no surprise – heck, it’d mark the third time in three years – if two do. Georgia against Clemson/Alabama for the whole plate of grits would be a capital conclusion to this especially Southern saga.