Starting 11: Georgia Snags a Big Road Win Edition

The biggest story of yesterday in college football, unfortunately, was Tua Tagovailoa’s injury against Mississippi State. The injury, the full extent of which we won’t know for some time, ended Tua’s season and was potentially so devastating it could even impact Tua’s ability to enter the NFL Draft.

Why could his draft entry be impacted? Because early reports suggested Tua might not be able to do any workouts for teams prior to the draft.

It’s never a good sign when your hip injury is being compared to Bo Jackson’s.

It also raises questions about Tua’s durability at the next level — he’s had several fairly substantial injuries despite not starting that many college games — and will lead to Nick Saban being questioned about his decision to leave Tua in the game.

Saban said the series Tua played was going to be the final one of the game.

At the time he was injured Alabama led 35-7 and the game was no longer in question.

But in Saban’s defense it was still the first half and Tua’s injury appeared unrelated to his ankle. A freak injury like this can happen at any point.

Having said that, you can certainly question whether it might have made more sense to let Tua sit for both Mississippi State and Western Carolina, two games Alabama could have clearly won with Mac Jones starting, and brought him back for the Auburn game when he would have been, presumably, fully healthy.

Regardless, Alabama now needs to hope for a Cardale Jones like resurgence from Mac Jones. The Tide need several teams to lose around them, most notably Georgia, and they need to crush Auburn to show they are still a playoff caliber team.

Put simply, Alabama’s playoff and title chances probably ended with Tua’s injury.

Like every college football fan out there, I hope Tua has a full recovery and that his best football playing days are ahead of him, but this was a truly devastating way for his college football career to come to an end.

Okay, here we go with the rest of the Starting 11:

1. There are still 11 teams fighting for the four playoff spots. 

Those 11 teams are: LSU, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia, Alabama, Oregon, Utah, Oklahoma, Baylor, Minnesota and Penn State.

I’ll break down those playoff scenarios below, but the key point of the day’s football is that even with losses by undefeated Baylor and Minnesota, their paths to the playoffs didn’t end with those losses.

Yes, 13-0 Baylor and Minnesota would have 100% been in the playoff, but 12-1 Minnesota, with a Big Ten title game win over Ohio State, would be in the playoff, I believe. And 12-1 Baylor, with a Big 12 title game win over Oklahoma would put itself squarely in the playoff mix, even if I believe their resume may end up lacking.

I’ll explain all of this below, but in the meantime the biggest key from the day’s football is really only Auburn, who had an outside chance of making the playoff at 10-2, saw its playoff hopes die with a loss on Saturday.

2. Georgia is in the playoff with wins over Texas A&M, Georgia Tech and LSU in the SEC title game.

That’s why the Bulldog win over Auburn was by far the biggest win for anyone in the playoff race.

Georgia looked far from great, but a win on the road at Auburn never looks bad. The Bulldogs got out to a 21-0 lead and then withstood a fourth quarter rally from Auburn, overcoming a pedestrian offensive effort and 3-15 on third down to outlast Auburn.

Are the Bulldogs good enough to beat LSU — and beat Texas A&M and Georgia Tech to finish the season — I think so. Especially when you consider an interesting factor — the SEC title game is played in Atlanta and will be full of Georgia fans.

In fact, that’s one of the most intriguing subplots to me, how well will LSU fans travel to Atlanta for the SEC title game knowing they’d have already punched their ticket for the playoff at 12-0?

Many LSU fans will have to make a decision, given the cost, about whether to travel for the playoff games or the SEC title game.

Meanwhile Georgia fans will be all in on the idea that they can take over the stadium and root their team into the playoff.

It should be a wild atmosphere.

At least assuming Georgia doesn’t Georgia a game against Texas A&M or Georgia Tech.

3.  LSU got up 28-0 and 31-7 before the defense slumped against Ole Miss. 

Will that impact their overall number one standing in the college football playoff rankings? I don’t think so. Especially not because Ohio State had the same sort of second half effort against Rutgers.

The Tigers are two games from racking up a playoff spot — they need to beat Arkansas in a name the score game next weekend and then beat Texas A&M in Baton Rouge.

Since both of these games are in Death Valley it would be a massive upset if the Tigers lost.

As I said above, 12-0 LSU, unless Joe Burrow got seriously hurt, is a virtual lock for the playoff. In fact, and this is crazy to even mention, you could almost argue that 12-0 LSU could treat the SEC title game as a scrimmage and rest its starters. I know that sounds crazy, but if you’re already in the playoff, why do you care about the SEC title? It’s more important to have all your best players healthy and rested for the playoff than it is to win the SEC title.

Now I’m sure LSU won’t rest its starters, but purely from a competitive situation, particularly in light of the Tua injury, don’t you have to be at least thinking about this if you’re LSU?

4. Minnesota lost at Iowa, meaning the Golden Gophers now have to run the table to make the playoff. 

Penn State survived against Indiana and Ohio State handled Rutgers with ease.

So now there are several potential outcomes in the Big Ten.

First up: Penn State travels to Ohio State for the Big Ten East title game. Whichever team wins this game will advance to the Big Ten title game. (That’s unless you think Penn State will beat Ohio State and then lose at home to Rutgers, which would be one of the biggest upsets in sports history.)

The loser of Penn State-Ohio State is probably eliminated from the playoff race. Yes, even if that loser is Ohio State.

I think that’s especially the case if both Penn State and Minnesota advance to the Big Ten title game at 11-1. Then the winner of the Big Ten title game would get the playoff spot. (If a two loss Wisconsin won the Big Ten title, I think 11-1 Ohio State would probably still make the playoff over them).

So Ohio State absolutely, positively has to win against Penn State and I think the Buckeyes have to win the Big Ten title game to make the playoff too. (Unless it’s 10-2 Wisconsin in the playoff game against 12-0 Ohio State.)

Interestingly, this means that the Buckeyes game against Michigan really won’t matter very much. Because if Ohio State beats Penn State they could lose to Michigan and still make the playoff by winning the Big Ten title game.

I don’t think the Buckeye resume would be good enough to get in if they lose in the Big Ten title game. (Unless, that is, Wisconsin is the team they lose to. Then I think it’s possible 12-1 Ohio State, even with a loss in the Big Ten title game, would likely get in over Wisconsin. But 12-1 Ohio State losing to 12-1 Minnesota would likely end up in a battle with 12-1 LSU here. Because I think the committee would take 12-1 Big Ten champ Minnesota and then it would come down to 12-1 LSU vs. 12-1 Ohio State. The Tigers resume, at that point, would be better than the Buckeye resume. LSU would have better overall quality wins and they would have lost to the better team as well so I think LSU would get the nod pretty easily.)

As for Minnesota, the Golden Gophers now finish with games at Northwestern and at home against Wisconsin. That game against Wisconsin will decide the Big Ten West. If Minnesota enters the Big Ten title game at 11-1, I think they’d go to the playoff with a win there.

(There is one scenario that could put two Big Ten teams in the playoff: 12-1 Minnesota beats 12-1 Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and LSU beats Georgia in the SEC title game. Then I think Ohio State would get in over a 12-1 Pac 12 champ and a 12-1 Big 12 champ. But this would be very controversial.)

5. Baylor gave up a 25 point lead to Oklahoma, and were held completely scoreless in a second half choke job for the ages. 

But it’s likely Oklahoma and Baylor will now rematch in the Big 12 title game.

Baylor finishes with Texas and at Kansas while Oklahoma finishes with TCU and at Oklahoma State.

Arguably Oklahoma has the tougher road to the Big 12 title game given that road rivalry game.

Interestingly, both teams probably need to root for each other to win out so you could have 11-1 Baylor against 11-1 Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, offering the best possible slingshot win scenario for the two teams.

But it’s hard to believe either team, even at 12-1 has a strong playoff shot at this point given the SEC situation and the Pac 12 teams continuing to win.

I’ll rank the playoff contenders in a moment, but suffice it to say the Big 12 champ looks very likely to be left on the outside of the playoff picture.

6. Oregon and Utah both won easily in the Pac 12. 

The Ducks now finish at Arizona State and against Oregon State.

Utah finishes at Arizona and against Colorado.

Both teams appear likely to enter the Pac 12 title game at 11-1 each, with one of the teams poised to win and finish 12-1.

That 12-1 Pac 12 champ, I believe, would rank above a 12-1 Big 12 champ.

But here’s the problem, both teams need Georgia to lose to LSU in the SEC title game. (Or they need Georgia or LSU to lose one of their final two regular season games, however unlikely that appears at the moment).

If you’re a Pac 12 or Big 12 fan you need LSU to win the SEC title game and beat Georgia.

Because if Georgia beats LSU then the Bulldogs and the Tigers are both in the college football playoff and presuming Clemson and Ohio State are the ACC and Big Ten champs, the Pac 12 champ would get left out alongside the Big 12 champ.

Even if I believe the Pac 12 champ will end up higher ranked than the Big 12 champ.

And for Oregon in particular, how in the world could you argue the Pac 12 champ deserved to make the playoff if they lost to an 8-4 Auburn team that went .500 in the SEC?

7. So what do your playoff rankings look like?

LSU, to me, is the only team that can lose its title game and still make the playoff. So if LSU beats Arkansas and Texas A&M they have effectively punched their playoff ticket. (As I mentioned above, Ohio State can lose to Michigan and still make the playoff, but I don’t think the Buckeyes could lose to Penn State or a 12-1 Minnesota team and still make the playoff).

Clemson and Ohio State seem likely to make the playoff as well.

That leaves the potential for a one loss team to advance in the fourth playoff spot. So how would I rank those one loss teams in order of their playoff probability:

1. 12-1 SEC champ Georgia

2. 12-1 Pac 12 champ Oregon

3. 12-1 Pac 12 champ Utah

4. 12-1 Big 12 champ Oklahoma

5. 12-1 Big 12 champ Baylor

6. 11-1 Alabama

(I don’t have them ranked here because it complicates my scenario, but 12-1 Big Ten champ Minnesota is in the playoff, which would bump Ohio State out of the playoff. If that happened I’d have 12-1 Ohio State losing out to 12-1 LSU. But as I discussed above 12-1 Ohio State with a loss to 12-1 Minnesota in the Big Ten title game could make the playoff as the fourth playoff team).

I’ve dropped Alabama down substantially here because I think the difference between Mac Jones and Tua is so large. Could that change if, for instance, Mac Jones went on the road at Auburn and threw five touchdown passes and the Tide won 45-3 over Auburn or something like that? For sure. This would be akin to what we saw Cardale Jones do in his back up role in the Big Ten title game.

But in the meantime I think Tua’s injury sent the Tide tumbling down the title board.

By the way, the reason why I have the Pac 12 champ ranked above the Big 12 champ is the impact of a top ten win in the title game.

We know Oregon and Utah are going to very highly ranked, but Baylor was 13 even as an undefeated team. I don’t see them moving much after this game, but will Oklahoma really get much benefit from beating them again in the Big 12 title game? I don’t think so.

8. If the Pac 12 and Big 12 champions both miss the playoff, will it make it more likely we get a playoff expansion to eight teams?

I think so.

Having a four team playoff with five major conference champions was a recipe for disaster from the start since it guaranteed at least one conference champion would be left out each year.

What the Big 12 and the Pac 12 need to do is lead the charge for an expansion to eight playoff teams with a guaranteed spot for each power five conference champion.

This is a no-brainer, in particular, for the Big 12 since it would likely keep Texas and Oklahoma in the conference, maybe forever. After all, if you know you are one of the two best teams in a ten team conference that’s guaranteed a playoff spot, why would you ever leave that conference?

If we expanded the playoff to eight teams you’d have five guaranteed conference champion teams and three wild cards every year. You can put in an automatic qualifying rule for a non-power five conference team — the team would need to finish, for instance, in the top ten of the final playoff rankings to garner a spot — and seed the teams one to eight, playing all four of the first round games on the campus of the higher seeded team.

Who’s opposed to this?

It needs to happen.

9. Joe Burrow, barring injury, will win the Heisman Trophy this year. 

He was outstanding again at Ole Miss, passing for 489 yards and five touchdowns.

Justin Fields and Jalen Hurts are both still lingering candidates in the event of a Burrow injury, but it’s unlikely either could overtake him barring injury.

10. Outkick’s national top ten:

1. LSU

2. Ohio State

3. Clemson

4. Alabama

5. Georgia

6. Oregon

7. Utah

8. Oklahoma

9. Minnesota

10. Penn State

11. SEC power rankings 1-14:

The biggest challenge in the power rankings continues to be ranking the teams 8-12. I don’t think there’s much difference between these four teams, but I still have South Carolina ranked the highest because of their win over Georgia. A win which, with each passing week, looks more and more insane.

1. LSU

2. Alabama

3. Georgia

4. Florida

5. Auburn

6. Texas A&M

7. Tennessee

8. South Carolina

9. Kentucky

10. Missouri

11. Ole Miss

12. Mississippi State

13. Vanderbilt

14. Arkansas

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