The College Football Playoff releases its first set of rankings on Halloween. At worst, Georgia will be No. 2. There’s a chance it could be No. 1, though that would surprise me. But that, at this point, is just a detail.
With every week, the Bulldogs move closer to a Dec. 2 collision with Alabama. Lately we've taken to wondering if Georgia is good enough to hang with the almighty Tide. Short answer: yes. But we need to ask a second question: Is Georgia good enough to beat Alabama twice? Because that’s where this is heading: First they’ll meet in Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the SEC title; then, on Jan. 8, they’ll do it again in the same place, a bigger prize on the line.
Only four Power 5 teams remain unbeaten – Alabama, where Kirby Smart used to work; Georgia, where he works now; Miami, where the man whom Smart replaced now works, and Wisconsin, which is lovely this time of year. The Hurricanes mightn’t crack the top four of the first CFP rankings. Their signature victories were against Florida State, which is 2-5, and Georgia Tech, which is 4-3. The Badgers mightn’t make the top six, their best win having come against Northwestern. (If you want to go undefeated, the Big Ten West is the place to be.)
Ohio State restated its case by overhauling Penn State on Saturday, but the Buckeyes still carry a home loss to Oklahoma. TCU’s loss to Iowa State hurt the Big 12, which is kind of a mess. The Pac-12 appears to be the big league least apt to send a team to the playoff, but nobody outside the SEC’s top two is sitting pretty. Clemson, let’s recall, lost at Syracuse.
There’s a real possibility that the final four could include teams from only two Power 5 leagues. Notre Dame should be no worse than No. 5 in these first rankings, and the Irish – an ACC member in almost every other sport – could deal that conference a major blow by beating Miami on Nov. 11. A case can be made that Notre Dame, which lost to Georgia by one point, is the third-best team in the land. If the Irish win out, they’ll make the playoff without gracing a league championship game.
If the playoff includes two SEC teams and Notre Dame, there’ll be a hue and cry from the three Power 5 leagues not represented. The first three installments of the tournament have spread the wealth. No conference has yet sent two teams in one year. Only once has a team that didn’t win its league title been tapped. But every year is different, and the committee showed last year by taking Ohio State, which didn’t win the Big Ten, over Penn State, which did, that it isn’t hamstrung by consistency.
The nation’s best-looking teams are, in alphabetical order, Alabama and Georgia. Bama also gets dinged by the collapse of Florida State: That ballyhooed victory here on Labor Day weekend will be seen by the committee as no big deal. The men of Saban haven’t faced a ranked team since. That’s about to change, with LSU and Mississippi State and Auburn upcoming, but still: If you’re asking which has the better win, the answer is Georgia.
Fun with comparative scores: Georgia beat Tennessee and Vanderbilt by an aggregate 86-14; Alabama beat the same two 106-7. Georgia played both on the road; Bama got Tennessee in Tuscaloosa. The Bulldogs have won their five SEC games by an average of 32 points; Bama has won its five by an average of 40.
If we go by ESPN’s Football Power Index, which attempts to predict results, Georgia has a 77 percent chance of beating Georgia Tech and more than a 90 percent shot of beating South Carolina and Kentucky. The Auburn game is listed as 50-50. Alabama is assigned better than a 90 percent chance of beating LSU and Mercer, an 81 percent chance of winning in Starkville and a 69 percent shot of prevailing in the Iron Bowl. The only team that can stop these parallel tracks from converging is Auburn, which is 0-6 against top 10 teams since Nov. 1, 2014.
Not to sound codger-like, but the paths Georgia and Alabama are blazing recall the autumn of 1971. Nebraska was the defending national champ; Oklahoma’s Wishbone was laying waste to all comers. They were Nos. 1 and 2 from October on. Oklahoma arrived at the epochal Thanksgiving game in Norman carrying a margin of victory of 32.1 points; Nebraska’s was 32.5. The Cornhuskers won 35-31 in what may have been the greatest game ever. (I watched it from my grandparents’ living room in Paintsville, Ky. I rooted for OU. I believe to this day there was a clip on Johnny Rodgers’ famous punt return.)
The best bowl game would have been a rematch. Instead Nebraska was paired against Alabama, which became No. 2 with the Sooners’ loss, in the Orange; No. 3 Oklahoma faced No. 5 Auburn in the Sugar. Nebraska won 38-6; Oklahoma won 40-22. Sure enough, they finished 1-2.
Forty-six years later, there’s indeed a way Georgia and Alabama, which don’t meet in the regular season, can play twice – once for the SEC, again for the national title, both times in Atlanta. (Can’t see the committee pairing them in a semi.) Yes, this is college football, where almost anybody can lose, but it’s hard to imagine one losing to anybody but the other. It’s harder still to envision one beating the other twice, which means you might rather be the team that loses on Dec. 2. Just sayin’.