Road to Atlanta: SEC’s playoff prospects hinge on two games at Auburn

1:54 p.m Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017 Sports
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Auburn coach  Gus Malzahn. 

As it turns out, the SEC’s road to the College Football Playoff goes through Auburn, Ala. Twice. 

Georgia and Alabama are ranked Nos. 1 and 2 by the CFP selection committee, signaling that the SEC could become the first conference to place two teams in the playoff in the same season. But both teams have games remaining at Auburn -- Georgia’s on Saturday and Alabama’s on Nov. 25 -- which will test their rankings and playoff prospects. 

Auburn is the highest-ranked two-loss team, climbing four spots to No. 10 this week. The Tigers’ losses were to No. 4 Clemson and No. 24 LSU, both on the road. And now the Tigers have a path, albeit a rugged one, to become the first two-loss team to make the playoff. 

This is what it would take: Beat Georgia on Saturday. Beat Alabama two weeks later. Then beat Georgia again in the SEC Championship game Dec. 2. 

If Auburn does all of that, it’s hard to imagine the selection committee leaving the Tigers out of the four-team field.

“We control our own destiny,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said at a news conference this week. “This is a huge game (against Georgia), obviously, and our guys are excited. They’ve earned the right to be here in this moment.” 

An Auburn win over Georgia would mean that  the Bulldogs’ only realistic shot at the playoff would be as SEC champion and that the SEC West’s berth in the league title game would be determined by the Alabama-Auburn game. But if both Georgia and Alabama beat Auburn and finish the regular season 12-0, the winner and loser of the SEC Championship game might reach the playoff.

“If both are 12-0, the SEC has a better shot, in my estimation, to get two in the playoff if Georgia loses in the SEC Championship game than if Alabama loses,” said Gary Stokan, president and CEO of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, who follows the playoff selection process closely. “That’s primarily because of Georgia’s win against Notre Dame.” 

But in another way, Stokan said, Notre Dame could hurt the SEC’s chances of doubling up on playoff berths.

“I just think the committee is going to have a hard time, if Notre Dame takes one of the playoff slots, giving two slots to SEC teams and keeping three power-conference champs out,” he said.  

College Football Playoff officials, including executive director Bill Hancock and chief operating officer Michael Kelly, will be in Atlanta next week for several days of meetings as preparations continue for the national championship game Jan. 8. 

“We’re 62 days out, and the snowball is rolling down the hill,” Carl Adkins, executive director of Atlanta’s host committee, said earlier this week. “Things are tracking well.” 

The CFP plans an announcement Wednesday on the performers for the concerts that will be held in Centennial Olympic Park in conjunction with the game.

If the playoff bracket were set now, these would be the semifinal matchups: Georgia vs. Clemson in the Sugar Bowl and Alabama vs. Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl. 

And based solely on this week’s rankings, which undoubtedly will change, Stokan projects these matchups for the six other bowls that will be set by the same selection committee: Miami vs. Auburn in the Orange Bowl, TCU vs. Washington in the Fiesta Bowl, Oklahoma vs. USC in the Cotton Bowl and Wisconsin vs. Central Florida (currently the highest-ranked team from the “Group of 5” conferences) in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.  

Five games Saturday matching ranked teams and carrying clear  playoff implications: 

No. 1 Georgia (9-0) at No. 10 Auburn (7-2), 3:30 p.m., CBS: This series dates to 1892, earning the moniker “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry,” but the teams have met with both ranked in the top 10 only three times previously. Auburn won all three (1971, 1983 and 2004).

No. 2 Alabama (9-0) at No. 16 Mississippi State (7-2), 7 p.m., ESPN: An Alabama win and an Auburn loss this week would clinch the SEC West for the Crimson Tide.  

No. 3 Notre Dame (8-1) at No. 7 Miami (8-0), 8 p.m., ABC: Mark Richt’s former team beat Notre Dame on Sept. 9 in a game that fueled Georgia’s rise to No. 1. Now Richt’s current team gets a shot at the Fighting Irish in what could be a playoff elimination game. 

No. 5 Oklahoma (8-1) at home vs. No. 6 TCU (8-1), 8 p.m., Fox: The Big 12 has no undefeated team left, and after this game it will have only one one-loss team viable in the playoff mix. 

No. 8 Wisconsin (9-0) at home vs. No. 20 Iowa (6-3), 3:30 p.m., ABC: The Big Ten’s only remaining shot at a playoff berth is for Wisconsin, held down in the rankings by a weak schedule, to finish the regular-season 12-0 and win the conference championship game. Even that might not be enough. 

A: “I think Oklahoma because they’ve got a win against Top 25 Ohio State and a win against Top 25 Oklahoma State,” Stokan said. “If they beat TCU this weekend, I think that gives Oklahoma the best argument, above Wisconsin or Washington.”

Nov. 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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