Georgia is No. 4 in the penultimate College Football Playoff rankings. A lot would have to happen for the Bulldogs to remain No. 4 come noon Sunday. If they beat No. 1 Alabama on Saturday (4 p.m., CBS; News 95.5 and AM-750 WSB), they’ll be seeded No. 3 and possibly No. 2. A 12-1 Georgia with a win over Bama could nose ahead of unbeaten Notre Dame, which doesn’t play.
But let’s say Georgia loses to Bama in a non-blowout, which would be something that no previous Crimson Tide opponent has managed. Would the 11-2 Bulldogs still have a playoff hope? The answer depends, as many answers do, on circumstances.
FiveThirtyEight has a handy interactive playoff predictor. If every conference final is won by the favorite, Georgia would have less than a one percent chance of making the playoff. Flip the result in the Big 12 and nothing much changes. If you also flip the result in the Big Ten, Georgia’s playoff odds rise to 35 percent, which would be fourth-best on the board, which should be enough.
(Disclaimers: I don’t believe there’s any way No. 2 Clemson loses to 7-5 Pittsburgh, and I can’t imagine No. 7 Central Florida, even if it beats Memphis to finish unbeaten yet again, moving into the top four after losing its starting quarterback.)
It’s possible No. 5 Oklahoma loses to Texas. That has happened already. It’s less possible that Northwestern upsets No. 6 Ohio State, but you wouldn’t think a team that beats Michigan 62-39 could lose to Purdue 49-20 – but Urban Meyer’s wild-mood-swing of a team managed. The Purdue game is the reason the Sooners, who have yielded 40-plus points in each of the past four games, is ranked above the Buckeyes.
It’s not beyond ol’ Urb to conjure a late surge. In 2014, his Buckeyes were ranked No. 5 with a week to go and had lost quarterback J.T. Barrett to an injury against Michigan. (Barrett was himself a replacement for Braxton Miller, hurt in preseason.) Down to third-stringer Cardale Jones, Ohio State beat Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten title tilt, enabling them to jump TCU, which was hamstrung by the lack of a Big 12 Championship game and, despite beating Iowa State 55-3, slid from No. 3 to No. 6. The Buckeyes then upset No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon to win it all.
In 2015, Ohio State became the first team to grace the playoff without winning its conference. Penn State, which had stunned the Buckeyes, won the Big Ten by beating Wisconsin but finished No. 5 to Ohio State’s No. 3 in the rankings. Difference was, Ohio State was 11-1 to Penn State’s 11-2. That second loss has been a CFP disqualifier. Nobody has gained admission at anything-and-2.
Should Georgia lose Saturday, it would be 11-2. Its two losses would have come to teams ranked in the CFP top 10, but that won’t matter if either Oklahoma or Ohio State win. The committee isn’t tied to inviting only conference champs, but that remains its first tiebreaker. You could argue that an 11-2 Georgia is a better all-around team than Oklahoma, which can’t stop anybody, and that the Bulldogs have been more consistent than Ohio State, and you’d probably be right. That won’t matter if either wins Saturday.
Which could make for a long day of football-watching. The Big 12 Championship game will be staged at noon Saturday. The Big Ten is at 8 p.m. Georgia and Alabama play at 4. If the Bulldogs prevail, Georgia fans won’t have to concern themselves with what Ohio State is doing. Bama fans would.
Should the Tide lose Saturday, it would become a 12-1 non-champ. Should Oklahoma and Ohio State win, FiveThirtyEight puts the Tide’s playoffs chances at 17 percent, sixth-best on the board. Should Oklahoma or Ohio State lose, Bama’s odds rise to a fifth-best at 27 or 25 percent, respectively. According to this data-driven predictor, only if both Texas and Northwestern win would Alabama make it.
I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. The human element – at last check, the committee members qualify as human – would come into play. Somebody would ask, “Do we want to leave out a team that lost to Georgia on a neutral field to Georgia and invite one that yielded 40 points to Kansas and another that lost by 29 at Purdue?” And then somebody might address the red elephant in the room and say, “Can we really have a playoff without Alabama?”
There hasn’t been one yet. (Remember, Bama slipped in last year as an 11-1 non-champ.) I’ll believe a Tide-less tournament will occur only when I see it, and maybe not then. Alabama losing to Georgia would trigger the nightmare scenario. The committee would have to decide if it could justify a field — Clemson, Georgia, Notre Dame and Bama — that would omit 60 percent of the Power 5 leagues. On the other hand, could it sell a playoff without the team everyone considers the nation’s best?
Georgia fans will be rooting for Georgia. Bama haters will be rooting for Georgia. Lovers of upsets will be rooting for Georgia. The guess, however, is that 13 people watching from Grapevine, Texas, will be thinking how much easier their lives will be if the Tide rolls.