Road to Atlanta: Messages for UGA in first playoff rankings 

1:41 p.m Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017 Sports
Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm celebrates the 42-7 win over Florida with fans. 

The College Football Playoff selection committee sent some messages with its initial rankings of the season this week, a couple of which are particularly applicable to Georgia’s hopes of staying in the top four, if not the top one, and making the playoff: 

Georgia wouldn’t be ranked No. 1 without its win over No. 3 Notre Dame. The Bulldogs’ win against No. 16 Mississippi State also helped. “It was those two victories that really gave Georgia the ever-slight edge over Alabama this week,” said Kirby Hocutt, chairman of the CFP selection committee.

The committee further demonstrated the importance of who you beat by ranking undefeated teams Wisconsin and Miami relatively low -- Nos. 9 and 10 -- because they could claim no wins against ranked opponents.

Georgia has one regular-season game remaining against a currently ranked opponent, Auburn on Nov. 11. But if Georgia and  Alabama keep winning, their SEC Championship game matchup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will offer each team a test against a top-two opponent. 

This is important, because if both Georgia and Alabama finish the regular season 12-0, a big question will be whether the SEC Championship game loser could remain in the top four and give the SEC two teams in the playoff. This week’s rankings bode well for that scenario, especially if the SEC title game is close. 

Notre Dame’s one-point loss to Georgia didn’t keep the Fighting Irish out of the top four; to the contrary, Notre Dame became the highest-ranked one-loss team in part because of how closely it played Georgia. And while the committee ranked Oklahoma ahead of Ohio State on the basis of the Sooners’ win over the Buckeyes and Ohio State ahead of Penn State on the basis of the Buckeyes’ win over the Nittany Lions, it kept all three of those one-loss teams bunched closely together at Nos. 5, 6 and 7. 

One caveat to the prospect of a one-loss SEC runner-up reaching the playoff: The committee will consider conference championships when setting the four-team field Dec. 3, an advantage for champions of other leagues if their records are otherwise comparable to the SEC runner-up. 

If you’re wondering how much stock to put into Georgia’s ranking this week:  The No. 1 team in the selection  committee’s initial rankings made the playoff in two of the CFP’s first three seasons. The exception was the 2014 season, when Mississippi State opened as the committee’s No. 1. 

The national championship hasn’t been won by the committee’s initial No. 1 team in any of the three seasons. It also hasn’t been won by the No. 1 team on selection day. And in the 2014 season, eventual national champ Ohio State was No. 16 in the committee’s initial rankings. 

Now that we have established the unlikelihood of the top four teams remaining the same through Selection Sunday, here’s how the semifinals would look if the playoffs began today:

Georgia vs. Clemson in the Sugar Bowl and Alabama vs. Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl.  

Five games Saturday that match ranked teams and have playoff implications: 

No. 2 Alabama (8-0) at home vs. No. 19 LSU (6-2), 8 p.m., CBS: The selection committee took note this week that Alabama hasn’t played an opponent currently ranked in the Top 25 and has played only one power-conference opponent that currently has a winning record. All of that is about to change, with three of the Crimson Tide’s four remaining regular-season games against Top 25 teams: LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn. 

No. 4 Clemson (7-1) at No. 20 N.C. State (6-2), 3:30 p.m., ABC: This game is pivotal to the ACC Atlantic race and to Clemson’s hopes of reaching the playoff for a third consecutive season.  

No. 5 Oklahoma (7-1) at No. 11 Oklahoma State (7-1), 4 p.m., FS1: Playoff aspirants can’t afford a second loss. 

No. 7 Penn State (7-1) at No. 24 Michigan State (6-2), noon, Fox: Both teams have one loss in Big Ten play and are chasing No. 6 Ohio State (7-1, 5-0) in the East Division. Michigan State plays at Ohio State next week. 

No. 10 Miami (7-0) at home against No. 13 Virginia Tech (7-1), 8 p.m., ABC: The Hurricanes have a chance to impress the committee with their next two games against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. 

Q: What was the CFP’s rationale in ranking Wisconsin and Miami – the only unbeaten power-conference teams other than Alabama and Georgia – Nos. 9 and 10, respectively

A: “On Wisconsin, the committee obviously respects their undefeated record,” said Hocutt, the Texas Tech athletic director, who is in his second season as committee chairman. “Strength of schedule is just not there. Their best win in the eyes of the selection committee is against a 5-3 Northwestern team, so the committee looks forward to them playing quality opponents in the weeks ahead. 

“Miami, same thing. The selection committee spent time talking about how two of their wins have come on last plays against Florida State and Georgia Tech. Impressed with their undefeated record, but still want to see Miami a few more times.” 

> Nov. 7, 14, 21 and 28: College Football Playoff selection committee releases weekly updated rankings 

> Dec. 3: Committee releases its final rankings, which set the four-team playoff field 

> Jan. 1: Playoff semifinals in the Rose and Sugar bowls 

> Jan. 8: National championship game at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium

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