Can Alabama stay undefeated? Who will emerge as contenders for the College Football Playoff? Week 11 in college football answers these questions and much more.
ATHENS, Ga. — The Georgia Bulldogs are about to have a lot of fans, certainly more than they ever knew. Though it will be strictly a marriage of convenience, the legion of new red-and-black backers is going to reach all the way north to Michigan, west to Indiana and of course 45 minutes up Interstate 85 from here across the state line to South Carolina.
Because make no mistake, there is dread if not outright resignation about what lies ahead for college football over the next eight weeks. As tired as the country may be of Alabama, never has a championship team felt as inevitable as this one. Even the manufactured drama feels cheaply made.
And so the rest of college football is down to one more chance to squeeze Alabama out of the College Football Playoff, and it will come on Dec. 1 when Georgia gets its shot in the SEC championship game.
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It’s an extremely narrow path, of course. And even if Nick Saban instructed his players to literally lay down on the field for 60 minutes at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Crimson Tide might make it in anyway; such is the regard the playoff selection committee seems to have for all things Alabama.
But in Georgia’s 27-10 win over Auburn here on Saturday, there was at least a glimmer of potential resistance and a reason for fans of schools like Clemson, Michigan and Notre Dame to hope the Bulldogs can do their dirty work.
Georgia is still not as good as last season, when it had the national championship ripped away by Tua Tagovailoa. But if Georgia improves in the next three weeks as much as it improved over the last three, it will be Alabama’s toughest test by far — and maybe even more than that.
“We haven’t played perfect,” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said. “We haven’t always played smart. But we’ve played hard.”
Though its 9-1 record and No. 5 ranking would suggest otherwise, Georgia has spent most of this season trying to figure out what it does really well with a group of players that is fundamentally different from what it brought to the playoff last season.
That team was built around a grown-up defensive line and a linebacker in Roquan Smith who flat-out erased mistakes; this one has had an inconsistent pass rush but a cornerback in Deandre Baker who can shut down half the field.
That team was about two NFL running backs and a freshman quarterback who didn’t make mistakes; this one moves it up and down the field and seems to stall in the red zone or turn it over.
But with two games left in the regular season, Georgia looks enough like a championship team to suggest that it can become one in a few weeks.
Part of that difference rests simply with D’Andre Swift no longer being bothered by the groin injury that hampered him early on. Swift, who was on Heisman lists in the preseason, had 186 yards on 17 carries against Auburn and was running away from Auburn defenders on the 77-yard touchdown with 13:53 remaining that put a hammer lock on this game.
Swift’s speed, ability to cut and his low center of gravity make him the kind of unique, game-breaking player you need against Alabama in a game where it will be difficult to grind out lots of long drives. If he can hit one or two big gains in the SEC championship game, it transforms Georgia’s chances.
“Every time he makes a play, everyone gets hyped,” said receiver Mecole Hardman. “We haven’t reached our potential yet. We have to keep going, keep chopping.”
Though Georgia is flawed — a “work in progress,” Smart said — consider this: In a three-week stretch, the Bulldogs had to beat two rivals and win an emotional road game at Kentucky where the SEC East title was on the line. They did it by margins of 19, 17 and 17 points.
In other words, while everyone wanted to downgrade Georgia’s chances of making the playoff again after getting hammered at LSU on Oct. 13, the trajectory is starting to look more like a young team that is arriving right on time.
“Were not thinking about it,” Hardman said. “They’re worried about their next two opponents. We’re worried about our next two opponents. We just beat Auburn so we’re just going to celebrate this one. Dec 1, that’s in the future.”
And by then, maybe the Bulldogs will turn around those red zone issues that forced them to settle for a pair of field goals early Saturday into touchdowns. Maybe offensive guard Ben Cleveland, who’s slowly working his way back to health after a left fibula fracture in September, will be full speed. Maybe that pass rush, which started to come alive a little bit as Georgia held Auburn to 3-of-11 on third down, will get to Tagovailoa and force a few mistakes.
That’s at least what the country can hope for on Dec. 1 if the goal is to hand Alabama a loss that would push the Crimson Tide to fifth behind Clemson, Notre Dame, Georgia and Michigan.
It may be the only chance for someone else to hold the trophy.