We’re about to get ahead of ourselves. The first set of College Football Playoff rankings won’t be revealed until Halloween. The set that matters won’t arrive until Sunday, Dec. 3, after the conference championships. Much can and will happen in the interim. There’s your disclaimer.
Georgia is ranked fourth in the Associated Press poll. (It’s fifth in the coaches’ version, one spot behind Washington.) Four teams make the playoff, now in its fourth season. Of the 12 teams that have made the field, 11 were conference champs, the exception being Ohio State last year. No conference has generated two semifinalists in one season.
That in mind, we look beyond Georgia’s next six games to the SEC title tilt in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Let’s say the Bulldogs are 12-0 on the morning of Dec. 2. Let’s say they lose to Alabama that day. On the morning of Dec. 3, they wouldn’t be a conference champ – but they’d be 12-1. Playoff-wise, would that be enough?
The question was put to ESPN’s Brad Edwards, the best playoff analyst in the business: Would a 12-1 Georgia with a loss to Bama have a shot? Said Edwards: “It depends on a lot of things, but here are two immediate things. The first one is how close the Alabama game is. Is it the kind of game people would love to see again? Because if you had both in the playoff, there’s a good chance they’d play again. It would be the same if Georgia beats Alabama. Is it the kind of game leaves you wondering, ‘If it had lasted five more plays, would there be a different winner?’
“The second thing: How good do Auburn and Notre Dame end up being? Those are potentially two high-quality road wins. If Auburn is 9-3 with losses to Alabama, Clemson and Georgia, our (Football Power Index) would still have them as a top 10 team. And I think Notre Dame has a really good chance to go 10-2. That would give Georgia two road wins over teams over in the back end of top 10.”
This presumes that Georgia wins in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 11. That looms as the one remaining regular-season game in which the Bulldogs aren’t certain favorites. Should they lose at Auburn, their only playoff hope is to win the SEC title. No two-loss team has made the field. Penn State missed it as a two-loss Big Ten champ last season.
Said Edwards: “If you’re putting (12-1 Georgia) up against other one-loss teams, their resume would be very strong. If you’re putting them up against a two-loss conference champion, I certainly would like Georgia. Then it comes down to: What would be the importance of a conference title to the selection committee? It's important, but last year they told us (via Ohio State’s inclusion) it wasn’t that important.”
Then: “The ideal scenario is not to have two teams from one conference. (Playoff CEO) Bill Hancock and (committee chair) Kirby Hocutt will never admit this, but if Alabama and Clemson are conference champions, the last thing they’d want would be three teams from South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. From a TV standpoint, that would be a ratings disaster. Even though Alabama and Clemson played great (championship) games the last two years, the ratings have not been close to Ohio State-Oregon the first year. We've seen the impact – the same was true for Alabama-LSU (in the January 2012 BCS title game) – of having two teams from the same part of country. Having three teams would be a stake through the heart. I think committee members know that. Question is, will they care?”
Then: “They could also end up where they have no choice.”
Every Big 12 team save TCU has a loss, and the Horned Frogs must play at Oklahoma, which must visit Oklahoma State. “The potential is growing for a two-loss team in the Big 12 championship,” Edwards said.
Then there’s the Pac-12. “Washington's schedule is such that their best win will be at Stanford (on Nov. 10). I don't know if Stanford would be a Top 25 team. If USC loses at Notre Dame, which is something Georgia would want to have happen, I can't imagine how one-loss Washington or Washington State would be in over Georgia.”
As for Notre Dame, which Georgia beat 20-19 in South Bend: “Everything that would be good for Notre Dame is just as good for Georgia. You cannot take Notre Dame over Georgia.”
Therein we see the path for Georgia’s playoff inclusion as a 12-1 SEC runner-up: A two-loss Big 12 champ and a one-loss Pac-12 champ with a weak schedule (though Washington fit that bill last year and made it). We've just seen the committee make room for a non-champ. If we assume that the SEC champ, the ACC champ and one Big Ten team make the field – that has been the template three years running – that still leaves one spot.
If Oklahoma is the Big 12 champ at 12-1, Georgia probably loses that head-to-head comparison. (Oklahoma did win at Ohio State.) If Washington is the Pac-12 champ at 12-1, Georgia would stand a chance. For all the committee’s emphasis on conference titles, its overarching mission is to find the four best teams. On Dec. 3, Georgia could be among that number.*
(*Boilerplate asterisk: Unless the Bulldogs blow it in Jacksonville. Then forget, yet again, we ever had this conversation.)