CLEMSON, S.C. – The hyperventilating will begin in earnest on Halloween.
The College Football Playoff selection committee convenes for the first time Monday and will release its first rankings on Tuesday night when the trick-or-treaters are ringing everyone’s doorbells.
Treat it like a trick. When Georgia and Alabama both sit in the top two spots on the initial poll, it will be tempting to believe that both undefeated Southeastern Conference teams are going to be in the field of four in January.
Before Saturday, I would have considered it foolish to even consider. Then Penn State blew a big lead to Ohio State and Iowa State continued its one-team spoiler mission of unbeaten Big 12 heavyweights and suddenly the landscape is getting increasingly littered with one-loss programs with their backs to the wall.
After avoiding the semi-annual disaster in Jacksonville on Saturday in definitive fashion with a 42-7 demolition of imploding Florida, the 8-0 Bulldogs will inevitably collide with the 8-0 Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship game. Naturally everyone who thinks the SEC hangs the moon in college football believes both deserve a spot in the playoff.
Is the SEC strong enough this year to warrant filling half the field of a four-team playoff at the expense of two other Power 5 conferences getting shut out?
“Yeah, I have no idea,” Smart said when asked about the possibility on Monday. “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t get to watch enough games. I’m not a good judge of how talented the SEC is. I’ve spent the last seven days watching Florida, getting ready for future opponents in the SEC. I’m going to leave that to you guys.”
Smart is smart to focus only on the things he can control. Because trying to forecast the remaining month of the college regular season is a fool’s errand.
Take the Atlantic Coast Conference, for example. Miami is the only remaining undefeated ACC team, but the Hurricanes don’t instill much confidence in remaining that way after weakly surviving against a bad and beaten up North Carolina.
Defending national Clemson has a clear path back to the playoffs by winning out, but there is no margin for error after losing two weeks ago at Syracuse. The ACC’s nightmare scenario is N.C. State beating the Tigers and winning the ACC title with a pair of losses to South Carolina and Notre Dame.
The CFP committee insists that conference championships are a major consideration in the selection process – though folks at Penn State may roll their eyes at that assertion after getting snubbed last year.
But if one-loss teams claim titles in the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and Pac-10, it’s hard to imagine the committee taking a one-loss runner-up from the SEC at the expense of other champs.
Then there’s the potential of an 11-1 Notre Dame, whose only loss was to Georgia in Week 2. Despite the head-to-head, the Irish would be too tempting to pass up (see Ohio State/Penn State last year).
“I just can not imagine a scenario where the committee is willing to put two from one conference in,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said last week. “I just can’t envision those two teams both getting in and two other power conferences getting left out. It would have to be an incredible unique situation.”
The “SEC deserves 2” crowd assumes two 12-0 teams play a compelling and close game in Atlanta, just as Georgia and Alabama did in 2012 when the Bulldogs ran out of clock near the goal line and lost the chance to beat up on Notre Dame and win a BCS title.
The most probable way for this scenario to work out is if Alabama is on the losing end of that dance with Georgia in the championship game. Nick Saban and one-loss Tide have earned a little benefit of the doubt based on track record.
But Georgia fans are only deluding themselves if they think Smart and the Dawgs will get the same consideration in a loss. Fair or not, the Bulldogs will likely have to play their way into the playoff by winning a championship. Being the champs of the dismal SEC East isn’t going to impress anybody.
Think of it like picking the Ryder Cup team. Phil Mickelson can get a lifetime achievement captain’s pick, but Kevin Kisner would need to play his way into an automatic spot.
Picking a second team from any conference needs to be an emergency option only. Even doing it at the expense of an undefeated Central Florida would be admitting that the playoffs are a closed shop.
College football already went down this road with the SEC in 2011 when the BCS ordered up a rematch between conference champion LSU and one-loss Alabama. It was a situation that created enough rancor among leaders to finally propel college football into the playoff era.
“This conversation is the exact reason why at some point in time they’re going to view the playoff system and say they need to add two teams or add four teams,” former LSU coach Les Miles told the Associated Press. “You always want to make sure you include the best teams.”
Georgia and Alabama might indeed be the two best teams in the nation. But they’ll both get a chance to prove who’s better once in Atlanta. That should be enough.