The most impactful regular-season game of the College Football Playoff era thus far will take place this weekend in Baton Rouge, La., when Georgia visits LSU for the first time since 2008 because the outcome could very well determine whether the Southeastern Conference gets one, two or — gasp — three teams in the playoff.
While the odds of the SEC taking 75% of the playoff spots are low, it’s not impossible. Remember, the playoff selection committee has wide latitude to pick the four best teams, not the four highest-ranked conference champions. With Alabama being picked last year and Ohio State the year before despite not winning their conference titles, the precedent has been set.
And if LSU wins this game, SEC paranoia could be at an all-time level.
Just consider the possibility in front of 6-1 LSU, which lost to Florida last week but now has three consecutive home games that give the Tigers an opportunity to control their own destiny in the SEC West.
Though it’s obviously going to be a huge challenge to beat Alabama on Nov. 3, LSU is at least a touchdown better in Tiger Stadium than on the road, theoretically giving the Tigers a chance to win that game for the first time since 2011. And if LSU does, it would have a head-to-head tiebreaker over Alabama and be on track to play in the SEC championship game.
When you start to play out some of these scenarios, it’s not as crazy as you might think that Georgia, LSU and Alabama could all still end up in the playoff. Here’s how it would happen.
Despite losing to LSU, Georgia would still have games left against Florida and Kentucky, both ranked teams, and if they win those they’re headed to Atlanta for a rematch with LSU. Just like last year when Georgia turned the tables on Auburn, let’s say the Bulldogs end up as SEC champs at 12-1 and clinch their playoff bid while LSU is 11-2 against arguably the nation’s toughest schedule.
Meanwhile, things start to fall apart in the rest of the country.
Notre Dame stubs its toe once down the stretch, bringing some scrutiny to a schedule that looks pretty light on quality wins. Washington wins the Pac 12 title, but a second loss — likely against Stanford Nov. 3 or perhaps at Washington State in the season finale — eliminates the Huskies from serious playoff consideration. Then, in a significant upset, 11-1 Miami shocks unbeaten Clemson in the ACC title game and because Clemson’s schedule didn’t really provide much opportunity to bank top-25 wins, the Tigers are out.
By the championship game, the Big 12 is also toast as we get a rematch of Oklahoma and Texas. Though Texas beats Oklahoma a second time, can you really put a team into the playoff with losses to Maryland and, say, Oklahoma State? Probably not.
So after unbeaten Ohio State wraps up the No. 1 overall seed by beating Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, two of the spots in the playoff are set. Then, to no one’s surprise, the committee picks 11-1 Alabama as the No. 3 seed, giving one of the most dominant teams we’ve seen a free pass for a slip-up at LSU — and who are we to argue after last year?
That means for the final spot, we’re comparing Miami, LSU and Notre Dame. The committee wouldn’t have an easy time picking one, and the decision would be controversial no matter which direction they went.
The path of least resistance would be to pick Notre Dame, but when you really dig in to the résumé, there’s not a lot of substance there. Though the Irish beat Michigan and Stanford, those wins depreciated in value pretty significantly. And at this point, any loss for Notre Dame — including to USC — is a bad one.
Meanwhile, even though LSU would have two losses to Miami’s one, it would be hard to overlook how thoroughly the Tigers beat them head-to-head, 33-17, on a neutral field in Week 1. Miami’s only impressive win would be Clemson, and that would count for a lot, but does it trump an LSU team that would have beaten Georgia, Alabama and Miami?
It may be an SEC fever dream to get three teams in, but at the halfway point of the season, there’s definitely a path.
On the other hand, the outcome of this game also could make it far more likely the SEC will get two into the playoff no matter what if Georgia wins. The Bulldogs are the heavy favorite to come out of the SEC East, and though Florida has been surprisingly good in Dan Mullen’s first year, there’s still a talent gap that will be difficult for the Gators to make up.
This game, on paper, is by far Georgia’s biggest hurdle to a 12-0 regular season. If the Bulldogs pull that off and then lose to Alabama in a competitive SEC championship game, they’ll have as strong an argument to get into the playoff as any one-loss team.
SEC haters may not want to hear it, but if Georgia wins this weekend, the odds of both Georgia and Alabama getting in the playoff again go way, way up.
Of course, the playoff has already shown us in its short history how treacherous it can be trying to project what will happen over the final six weeks of the season. In 2014, the initial CFP committee ranking had Mississippi State No. 1, Auburn No. 3 and Ole Miss No. 4. None of them ended up in the playoff.
Upsets happen, and there’s still a lot of football to play. But if total SEC domination is something you either root for or fear, Saturday’s game in Baton Rouge could end up setting the stage for the entire playoff.