Kirby Smart endured his darkest day of a special season Saturday. That it coincided with the brightest night of an equally special year for his predecessor, Mark Richt, accentuated the inevitable comparison.
A few hours after Georgia’s quest for perfection was brutally marred by a blowout loss at Auburn, Miami’s own mission found a higher gear with an electrifying demolition of Notre Dame.
Both programs still control their championship destinies, but Saturday still provided a rather stark contrast of the two head coaches who each presided over the majority of the current Bulldogs roster.
While both Smart and Richt are warmly embraced at the helms of their respective alma maters, they will forever be linked by the transaction two years ago that sent both men to better places.
Richt – looking rejuvenated with his year-round South Beach tan – beamed as he praised God following the Hurricanes’ 41-8 annihilation of the then No. 3 Irish that silenced doubters and vaulted Miami into the thick of the playoff race with its once familiar swagger. Anyone who knows Richt understands he takes no pleasure in Saturday’s Auburn loss by his former players or that Miami’s decisive victory somewhat diminished Georgia’s signature September win.
“It means a lot more to me than I thought it was going to,” Richt said of his success at the helm of the school he graduated from in 1982.
“When I decided to continue to coach, I really did want to enjoy it. I really did want to have fun. And what better place than Miami can you have some fun? Gosh, it’s just been a blast.”
Smart is enjoying similar success re-energizing Georgia, though Saturday’s setback was stinging. The humbling 40-17 loss was punctuated by an overheard post-game comment from Auburn coach Gus Malzahn as he turned away from his on-field interview.
“We whipped the dog crap out of them, didn’t we?” Malzahn said.
Smart didn’t get caught up in a war of words when Malzahn’s zinger was brought up.
“When you perform the way they did on the field you earn the right to say really whatever you want,” Smart said.
There’s still a long way to go before anyone gets the last word. This week’s calm before the storm allows us to sift through the rubble of another landscape-shifting weekend on the road to the college football playoff.
Of this we can be certain: If these teams win out, they will be in the playoff.
Alabama: Duh. It will be unbeaten with wins in the Iron Bowl and Southeastern Conference championship.
Georgia: Despite the worst loss suffered by a No. 1 team in the BCS/playoff era, the 12-1 Bulldogs will have beaten Alabama or avenged its embarrassment to Auburn in winning the SEC title.
Clemson/Miami: Barring no late-season surprises, the winner of this Atlantic Coast Conference championship game is going.
Wisconsin: Harp all you want about the Badgers’ weak schedule, but you’re nuts if you think an undefeated Big Ten champion gets left out in a year when two-loss teams are being considered.
Auburn: The only two-loss team with a clear path to redemption, because winning SEC title with two wins over Georgia and Alabama in the last month makes up for narrow road setbacks at Clemson and LSU.
The case for Oklahoma might not be quite as guaranteed, but it’s hard to imagine leaving Baker Mayfield and the Sooners out if they finish 12-1 as Big 12 champs with a decisive road win at Ohio State and some combination of a three-win sweep against TCU and Oklahoma State.
Meanwhile out west, Washington withdrew the Pac-12 from playoff consideration with a loss at Stanford, leaving the conference no teams with fewer than two losses or impressive non-conference scalp.
The playoff committee calculus is also unlikely to work out in Notre Dame’s favor after the Irish got waxed at Miami and its “quality loss” to Georgia took a beating on The Plains.
Beyond the likelihood of the SEC and ACC champs getting in, there is potential for some considerable debate that will raise the clamor for expanding the playoff to eight teams.
Consider the possibility that Georgia and Clemson both win out and get in. That scenario poses the potential for the committee to fill two spots with these possible candidates: one-loss Alabama, Oklahoma, Miami, Wisconsin and a two-loss Big Ten champion Ohio State. And what do they do if that one loss by Alabama comes in the Iron Bowl and the Tide doesn’t even play for the SEC title?
None of this even takes into account an undefeated Central Florida that has throttled nearly every team it’s faced. Sorry Knights.
This weekend isn’t likely to yield any answers, with most of the heavyweights feasting on patsies before the final rivalry week and championship assaults. Here are the few land mines to navigate Saturday.
Michigan at No. 5 Wisconsin: The Badgers finally aced a legitimate test last week with an authoritative 38-14 win over Iowa. The 8-2 Wolverines are the last significant hurdle before the Big Ten championship.
Kentucky at No. 7 Georgia: The Bulldogs not only need to repair their own psyche but need to restore their sullied reputation leading up to the SEC championship. “These players will respond the right way; they are made of the right stuff,” said Smart.
Virginia at No. 3 Miami: Classic trap game. The atmosphere in Miami has been electric in consecutive prime-time home wins over ranked opponents, but a noon kickoff against a barely bowl-eligible team won’t have the same energizing vibe. The Canes – who struggled to survive weaker competition earlier this season – are 5-5 against a Virginia program with only two winning seasons the past decade.