College football fans would presume that a one-loss SEC team who doesn’t have to play in the conference title game would’ve lucked out as far as the College Football Playoff is concerned. Georgia made it last year with one loss, as did Alabama in 2017-18. The only one-loss SEC program not to get an at-large bid was Texas A&M and that was in the COVID season.
The winner of the Tennessee-Georgia game will be in the captain’s seat for a spot in the CFP barring a late-season upset. Even if they lose to Bama in the title game, they’ll still have a great shot of making it. If an SEC team goes undefeated in the regular season only to have a hiccup against the Tide, a team the selection committee always loves, my guess is they’ll get the benefit of the doubt over whoever loses the Ohio State-Michigan game. We can debate whether that’s fair all day, yet the number of competent teams in the B1G, let alone Top 25 iterations, is pretty bleak.
However, my guess is if the CFP committee opts for three SEC teams, you’ll see some Jan. 6-type shit at wherever the committee’s headquarters are located — with even more anger, but just as many Midwesterners. So with that said, the path to the playoff is far more treacherous for the loser of UT-UGA because they would no longer control their own destiny, and consequently cede it to Nick Saban.
While it’s possible that the Tide could lose one of either contests at LSU or at Ole Miss, I wouldn’t want to have to rely on it. Yes, the Dawgs or Vols could beat Bama in the title game to save their division brethren, but as I mentioned previously, even with a loss, the SEC East champ will still be in line ahead of the school they beat Saturday. Thus the much-needed motivation and focus that it’ll take UT or UGA to beat Bama won’t be quite as dialed in as it would be if their season was at stake. Plus, UT already beat them, so a split is basically a push.
I haven’t even mentioned the CFP chances of an unbeaten ACC or Big 12 champ, a one-loss Pac-12 champ, or a one-loss Michigan or Ohio State. Basically, if there was ever a year that a one-loss SEC team would be SOL come selection time (that doesn’t coincide with a once-a-century pandemic), it’s this year.
In Week 10 of 2021, there were three perfect power five teams, and two of them were Wake Forest and Michigan State, who both lost that Saturday. Michigan, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia, and Tennessee all have flawless marks in 2022, but one of them won’t after an afternoon between the hedges Saturday.
As far as the game itself, the Bulldog defense and crowd are important as they’ve ever been. Josh Heupel and Hendon Hooker don’t have ESP with one another even though it wouldn’t shock you if that was the case with how lock-step they’ve been all season. The Vols fly up and down the field, and that doesn’t give the defense a chance to sub out players, or the crowd an opportunity to work itself back into a lather.
The UGA offense, led by QB Stetson Bennett, isn’t the type of unit that’s capable of going throw for throw with Hooker and all his weapons like Bryce Young and Alabama did in their shootout in Knoxville. It’ll have to be more of a consistent ball-control attack that makes every possession more valuable.
We’ve seen the formula for stifling uptempo offenses, and that’s by limiting opportunities and disrupting the rhythm. The best way to do that is to keep them off the field for large swaths of game time. Think a long drive to end the half, and another lengthy march to start the third to open up a double-digit lead. So, Kirby Smart, defer if the coin toss goes your way.
For Tennessee, it’s much the opposite. A fast start would go a long way and help the defense force UGA to be one-dimensional. If they turn this into a track meet, aka their type of game, it’ll take Bennett having an outing like he did against Oregon to win, and the Vols’ defense ain’t the Ducks.
It’s odd being in a position to root for Kelly. Even during his previous run-ins with Saban, I was more interested in seeing how bad Notre Dame got beat than believing the Irish could knock off the Tide. The Golden Domers met Bama in the 2013 BCS title game and the first round of the 2020-21 CFP, and were outscored by a total of 73-28.
LSU’s new head coach has been as successful as any coach this century who hasn’t lifted the national title trophy. Saban has been as successful, if not more successful, than any coach in the history of college football, and that’s borne out in the two’s previous high-profile matches largely because Saban is the superior coach but also due to Notre Dame not being in the same class athletically as Alabama.
Well, now Kelly has a similar level of talent, and the Tigers have been better than I thought they’d be this year. Had LSU been able to pull the W all the way out of their ass in Week 1 against Florida State, we’d be talking about CFP implications.
LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels has a 12-1 TD-INT ratio, and also leads the team in rushing, accruing more than 500 yards over eight starts. If the Bayou Bengals have any hopes of winning, he’ll have to do his best Hendon Hooker imitation, and ditto for receivers Malik Nabers or Kayshon Boutte’s joint effort trying to replicate Jalin Hyatt’s five-TD day against Bama.
The other factor Kelly has in his favor that he didn’t have in prior matchups with Saban is a belligerent Tiger Stadium at night. The longer the game stays close, the more rambunctious that crowd gets. Wait, is rambunctious the right word? I meant delirious.