Pick-6: Utah's loss creates possible opening. Playoff or bust for conference championship contenders
Imagine how electric today would be if every team took the field knowing it was one victory from clinching a Playoff berth.
That’s not the reality of course — and maybe that’s why the get-in price for some of the other Power 5 conference championship games started at $30. Oregon rediscovered that lesson Friday night — obliterating Utah for the Pac-12 championship but having nothing more to celebrate than a trophy and a nice bowl destination but zero chance of making the Playoff field.
SEC teams have it much better. Georgia and LSU will meet for the SEC title, and, for the 3rd consecutive year, the winner is guaranteed to make the Playoff field.
The stakes are just bigger — as are the after-market ticket prices, which started at more than $200.
Here are the 6 most interesting topics I’ll be following today during championship weekend.
1. Yes, Georgia can keep it close
Kirby Smart is the best defensive mind in the game.
He found a way to finally slow down Baker Mayfield after Oklahoma scored 31 points in the opening half — but just 17 more in 2 quarters and 2 OTs.
He found a way to slow down Jalen Hurts.
He found a way to slow down Tua Tagovailoa.
True enough, Georgia lost both of those games to Alabama, but it wasn’t because of the defense. It was because Georgia’s offense couldn’t score when it mattered most in the second half of those games. Georgia scored 1 TD after halftime of the 2017 National Championship Game and 1 TD after halftime of the 2018 SEC Championship Game.
Georgia’s defense will hold Joe Burrow below his season averages — 363 yards, almost 4 TD passes. The Dawgs might even join Auburn as the only teams to hold LSU under 30 points.
It won’t matter unless Jake Fromm gets Georgia to 28.
2. How many fumbles can Georgia force and recover?
I think the target number is to recover 2 fumbles.
Joe Burrow is too careful with his throws to expect the passing game to cough up 2 mistakes, and Georgia only has 6 interceptions this season, anyway.
The problem is, as great as Georgia’s defense has been, it hasn’t been a takeaway machine. The Dawgs have only forced 14 fumbles and only recovered 7. LSU has only fumbled 10 times and only lost 5. Burrow protects the football even when scrambling. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a bull who has lost just 1 fumble. The receivers typically are strong with the football.
Georgia’s defense swarms. Look for the 2nd and 3rd defender to attack the football with purpose today, more so and more obviously than against any other opponent.
3. Is there a margin Ohio State has to hit to stay No. 1?
I blasted the committee’s unjustifiable, made-for-TV decision to rank Wisconsin No. 8.
There’s just no other way to describe that other than by calling it a joke.
Wisconsin lost to Ohio State by 31, but even damning, lost to an unranked Illinois team that finished 6-6. There’s no way Wisconsin should be No. 8 in the country.
But if you’re Ohio State, it certainly looks better to beat the No. 8 team in the country than, say, the No. 11 or 12 team.
Ohio State has only played 1 team ranked higher than No. 10 all season. It beat then-No. 8 Penn State.
LSU has beaten 4 teams ranked No. 9 or higher and now gets a shot at No. 4 Georgia.
Ohio State isn’t No. 1 because of its résumé. It’s No. 1 because the committee has been impressed with their overall dominance. What happens, if after losing by 31, Wisconsin stays within 14 points Saturday? Will that be enough for the Buckeyes to stay No. 1?
4. Is there any chance Clemson falls to No. 4?
Yes, but my guess is the committee would do anything possible to avoid a 2 vs. 3 SEC rematch in the semifinal.
The committee hasn’t been terribly impressed with the Tigers’ résumé, either, certainly not as impressed as I’ve been with the Tigers.
But if Virginia, which has a dynamic QB of its own in dual-threat Bryce Perkins, can stay within 10 points and Georgia beats LSU at the gun on a Rodrigo Blankenship 47-yarder, I could see the committee going:
1. Ohio State, 2. Georgia, 3. LSU and 4. Clemson.
Again, a semifinal rematch isn’t ideal, and maybe that thought would win the day. It certainly seems as though this committee isn’t afraid to force matchups — or avoid matchups.
Clemson has won the past 2 ACC title games by 32 and 35 points, respectively. Different opponents, obviously. But if the Tigers win going away, which, honestly, anything less than a 20-point win would be mildly surprising, they could climb as high as No. 1 if Ohio State and LSU lose.
5. Baylor-Oklahoma winner is in the Playoff if Georgia loses
Both teams got their wish Friday night when No. 5 Utah lost.
Now both enter their Big 12 Championship Game knowing if they win and Georgia loses, they will make the Final Four.
Ideally, they’d still control their fate and wouldn’t need help, but it’s better than being in a position like Wisconsin, Oregon or Virginia and knowing no matter what you do today, you’re not making the Playoff.
The best SEC story is still filling 2 Playoff spots. But if Georgia loses, it’s possible we get one heck of a consolation prize.
Here’s hoping Jalen Hurts gets it done and becomes the 1st QB to make the Playoff in 4 consecutive years.
6. Every game matters? Yeah, not so much
We knew in August (of 2014, actually) that at least 1 Power 5 conference championship wasn’t going to mean a darned thing to the winner.
That’s the rub, of course, with the 4-team Playoff field.
This year — for the 4th consecutive year — we could have at least 2 Power 5 conference champions not make the field. We already know the Pac-12 champ is out after Oregon exposed No. 5 Utah 37-15 Friday night.
Last year, Notre Dame grabbed a spot, leaving the Big Ten champ and Pac-12 champ at home.
In 2017, the SEC grabbed 2 spots, leaving the Big Ten champ and Pac-12 champ at home.
In 2016, the Big Ten champ and Big 12 champ stayed at home because Ohio State took the spot that B1G champ Penn State deserved.
It’s puzzling that some college football analysts continue to think a regular season game is more important than a conference championship game, but 6 years in, we’re still here, with flawed logic such as this:
You want expanded playoffs in CFB?
You got it yesterday
Penn State had a playoff game They lost.
Oregon had a playoff game They lost.
Oklahoma had a playoff game They advanced
Baylor had a playoff game They advanced
Utah had a playoff game.
4 is the right #
— Peter Burns (@PeterBurnsESPN) November 24, 2019
Peter is a nice guy and a friend of the program, but I can’t wait to see the justification after Saturday’s title games are decided. A couple of teams could win championships and not advance. That’s not how legitimate playoffs work.
There’s never been a year in which 3 Power 5 conference champions didn’t make the field, but that could happen if Georgia beats LSU to give the SEC 2 of the 4 Playoff spots and we get 1 more upset.
The wildest scenario is if LSU and Ohio State lose — and still make the field.