Last year, the message that the Playoff selection committee sent to Wisconsin was pretty direct.
Go undefeated or go home.
It’s a tough message to hear. By not putting an undefeated Wisconsin team in the top 4 of the Playoff poll until the conclusion of the regular season, that’s essentially what the selection committee said. The Badgers’ strength of schedule — both in non-conference play and in conference play — wasn’t strong enough to earn a regular-season mulligan.
It was a completely different evaluation than the one Georgia got. Because of that Notre Dame win, Georgia still had a chance to make the field with 1 loss. Sure, the Dawgs had to win the SEC Championship, but they got their mulligan.
Looking at Georgia’s 2018 schedule, I can’t help but wonder if the selection committee would apply the 2017 Wisconsin evaluation to the Dawgs.
It’s obviously too early to have a definitive answer to that. It’s not, however, too early to have some skepticism about Georgia’s schedule.
Phil Steele already predicted that the Dawgs will have an undefeated regular season, which doesn’t sound that far-fetched given the favorable schedule. One can think Georgia won’t be as good as it was last year while also thinking a 12-0 regular season is probable (I also think Wisconsin will be better than last year, yet it will still likely lose a regular season game because it has a tougher schedule).
If you’re unwilling to believe that the selection committee would apply Wisconsin-like logic to Georgia in 2018, consider the potential similarities.
Georgia’s big non-conference game is at home against a Georgia Tech squad that won 5 games last year. As I’ve said countless times, making the Playoff without a marquee non-conference win is an uphill battle. It’s even worse that “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” will come in the last week of the regular season. That means for the majority of the year, the selection committee will have to judge that all-important non-conference résumé based on Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee and UMass…? Yuck.
All of those games are at home, too. Last year, Wisconsin actually went out to Utah to face BYU in September and the selection committee still wasn’t willing to give the Badgers any love.
So yes, that’s going to be an uphill battle for Georgia. I’m not sure that conference play is going to do Georgia any favors, either.
Think about this. Georgia has just 2 games against teams that are ranked in ESPN’s preseason top 25. One of them is at No. 25 South Carolina (the ranking could change by the time Week 2 rolls around). If Georgia wins, the Gamecocks will be unranked. At least they will be for awhile.
The other matchup vs. a preseason top-25 team is against Auburn at home. We expect Auburn to be a top-25 team in November, but simply beating a ranked team at home isn’t enough to be the crowning achievement on a Playoff résumé.
Remember last year when Wisconsin beat No. 19 Michigan in mid-November to improve to 11-0? Probably not because the Badgers didn’t move up a single spot in the Playoff poll. They stood pat at No. 5, on the outside looking in.
And to be clear, Wisconsin’s résumé had nothing to do with margin of victory. Wisconsin outscored teams 288-114 in conference play, which was nearly identical to the 295-115 advantage that Georgia had vs. the SEC in 2017. I think even if Georgia wins every game by 3 touchdowns in 2018, it still has the potential to get Wisconsin-like treatment from the selection committee.
So what should Dawgs fans hope for? It’s simple, really. Start those “S-E-C, S-E-C” chants early. Georgia needs the conference to be really good. Like, so good that the thought of leaving a 1-loss SEC team out of the Playoff is unfathomable.
It would be huge if LSU overcame that tough schedule and was a top-25 team all year. A win in Baton Rouge would look that much more impressive to the committee. If Auburn could be in the top 10 for that November matchup, that would also be big. Even South Carolina looking like a legitimate threat to win the division would help Georgia.
To be clear, I understand the people who are reading this and thinking “this all comes down to whether Georgia can win an SEC Championship.” I get that. If the Dawgs run the table, they’ll be in just like Wisconsin would’ve been if it had beaten Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship last year (I do think a regular-season loss would’ve prevented the Badgers from making the Playoff, regardless of if they won the conference title game).
But mulligans are nice. Each Playoff team got 1 last year. Auburn actually had 2. If Georgia doesn’t have a regular-season loss to give, talk about a pressure-packed year. With so few opportunities for résumé-boosting wins, one bad afternoon — like Georgia had at Jordan-Hare last November — could end any chance of another Playoff berth. That’s daunting for fans, coaches and players, whether they admit it or not.
Does that mean that if Georgia lays an egg at South Carolina that the season could be over in Week 2? Not necessarily. The Dawgs could rattle off 10 straight wins, beat Alabama in the SEC Championship and still be in favorable position to earn a Playoff berth.
It’s the narrative that could follow Georgia throughout an undefeated regular season that would be intriguing. If what Steele and the other preseason predictors are calling for actually plays out, the Dawgs will find themselves in a much different place than they were in a year ago. It would be unlike anything that an SEC team experienced in the Playoff era.
Georgia would prefer if the selection committee didn’t copy and paste the 5 words it sent to Wisconsin on a weekly basis last year.
Go undefeated or go home.