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SEC Preview and Predictions: Week 14 (and a look at the CFP)

Nov 11, 2017; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn greets Georgia head coach Kirby Smart after the NCAA football game between Auburn and Georgia. Mandatory Credit: Albert Cesare/Montgomery Advertiser via USA TODAY Sports
Nov 11, 2017; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn greets Georgia head coach Kirby Smart after the NCAA football game between Auburn and Georgia. Mandatory Credit: Albert Cesare/Montgomery Advertiser via USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas
TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 29, 2017

Last week’s record: 6-3 (66.7%)
Season record: 95-16 (85.6%)

The Predictions Dept. got out of Rivalry Week with a 6-3 record, which is not a terrible mark overall. Unfortunately, one of those three losses was the pick of the Alabama-Auburn game, which has now forced Alabama to enlist the help of TCU or Ohio State to reach the College Football Playoff. Otherwise, it appears Alabama will be headed for an Orange Bowl matchup in a game few Bama fans will likely choose to attend.

Before we move to our standard content this week, here’s some analysis on the College Football Playoff rankings, and some scenarios we feel are worth watching:

Current Rankings:

  1. Clemson
  2. Auburn
  3. Oklahoma
  4. Wisconsin
  5. Alabama
  6. Georgia
  7. Miami
  8. Ohio State
  9. Penn State
  10. Southern Cal
  11. TCU

The CFP committee specifically mentioned the difference between No. 5 Alabama and No. 8 Ohio State was very small, which is troubling for two reasons. One, Alabama is done playing football until it gets sent either to the playoff or a bowl game; two, all three teams under it are playing an extra game this weekend and have a chance to state their respective cases for inclusion in the CFP final poll.

However, by specifically talking about the difference between Alabama and Ohio State being small, the implication is the difference between Alabama and No. 11 TCU is not small. Since TCU has No. 3 Oklahoma this weekend, one could infer that if TCU were to upset the Sooners, the Horned Frogs would not be jumped ahead of Alabama in the final rankings.

Scenario 1: Clemson falls to Miami

In TideFans.com’s estimation, Miami is the weakest team of the top eight, and is also a weaker team than TCU and perhaps Penn State as well. The Hurricanes have played one fewer game than the rest, thanks to an early-season, storm-related cancellation. The same fate befell Florida State with its originally-scheduled game against Louisiana-Monroe, but the Seminoles worked to reschedule their game. It might not be Miami’s fault that they could only play 11 games, but it’s still a relevant discussion point, as that was one of the longstanding criticisms of all Big 12 teams before the conference reinstated its conference championship game.

The other issue with Miami’s candidacy is the Hurricanes simply aren’t that good. Of the nine major statistical categories, the Hurricanes rank better than 40th in just two of them. Miami also may have gone 4-0 in the month of October, but the Hurricanes only won those games by an aggregate 18 points. The opponents? Florida State, Georgia Tech, Syracuse and North Carolina, not exactly Murderer’s Row. Miami’s entire resume centers on back-to-back wins over Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, and it’s the latter – a 41-8 piece of eye candy – that makes up most of the excitement surrounding this program. But the Fighting Irish were exposed as pretenders not just in that game, but in an unimpressive win over Navy the following week and then a loss to Stanford last Saturday.

If Miami beats Clemson, the Hurricanes should still sit home. The ACC as a whole turned out to be weaker than anyone imagined. The Coastal Division, which Miami won, saw only two teams finish the regular season above .500. In the Atlantic Division, only Clemson finished with fewer than four losses. Would Alabama get the benefit of the doubt over Miami? It probably would center on how the Hurricanes looked while winning. If it’s a sloppy game that is more about Clemson losing than it is Miami winning, Alabama might sneak in.

Scenario 2: TCU beats Oklahoma

This is the the clearest path to the playoff for Alabama, because TCU was all but told Tuesday night it had no shot at getting in the CFP. For TCU to get there, Clemson, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Auburn all have to lose Saturday. The Big 12 is still fighting an image problem, one of a soft conference built exclusively on skill-position speed and protective officiating regarding pass interference, and virtually zero defense. Were it not for the notoriety of QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma might very well have been slotted behind Wisconsin this whole time. Oklahoma has already beaten TCU once this year, 38-20 on Nov. 11, but that game was in Norman.

If TCU beats Oklahoma, Alabama fans can go ahead and start booking rooms.

Scenario 3: Ohio State beats Wisconsin

One would think the Buckeyes are on the outside looking in even with a win over Wisconsin, but if the gap between 5 and 8 is as narrow as the committee made things sound, Alabama may need some additional help here in the form of how the Buckeyes look while winning the game.

Wisconsin has been fighting for legitimacy all year. Its two best wins are a 38-14 victory over the same Iowa team that blew out Ohio State, and a 24-10 victory over Michigan. Wisconsin’s out-of-conference schedule – Utah State, Florida Atlantic and BYU – was laughably bad. Florida Atlantic was probably the best of that lot. If Wisconsin loses to Ohio State, there is no amount of craziness that could still get the Badgers into the CFP. Wisconsin must win, or go home.

But Ohio State is another matter. The Buckeyes got blown out by Oklahoma and Iowa, but they also beat Penn State (albeit by just one point), Michigan, and crushed Michigan State in its most complete game of the year, 48-3. The next-best win? Probably over an overachieving Army program.

The real issue here is conference politics. Ohio State’s athletic director, Gene Smith, serves on the College Football Playoff committee. Assuming the SEC champion makes the CFP final four by default, don’t expect Big Ten interests on the playoff committee to go down easily when the subject of having two SEC programs in – at the expense of the Big Ten, especially – gets thrown around the room. There is too much money at stake, to say nothing of the anti-SEC campaign the Big Ten has tried to propagate in recent years. Ohio State has already been a darling of the committee once before, getting put into the 2016 final four over the Big Ten’s own conference champion, Penn State.

If Ohio State beats Wisconsin, by all rights, Alabama should go. But it is far from guaranteed.

Scenario 4: Georgia beats Auburn, but Alabama gets the SEC’s pick

With Auburn sitting second and having already defeated Georgia and Alabama on the year – when both those teams were ranked No. 1 in the CFP rankings during their respective Auburn game weeks – if the Tigers beat Georgia this Saturday in Atlanta, the Tigers are guaranteed of being in the final four. But Georgia is not nearly in such a space space.

Georgia is ranked 6th at the moment, one spot behind Alabama, and the Bulldogs’ loss to Auburn was of the total, complete, and shock-and-awe variety. Alabama’s loss to the Tigers, meanwhile, was much more competitive.

A lot depends here on how things “look” in the SEC Championship Game. If Auburn is without RB Kerryon Johnson, or loses him early in the game – or if he simply isn’t productive a week after injuring either his shoulder, back or both against Alabama – this game suddenly takes on a new look. If Georgia were to win by a low score in an ugly, turnover-filled game for instance, the CFP committee has already established precedent last year with how it handled Ohio State and Penn State in the Big Ten. This would be slightly different, as the 2016 Penn State team had two losses at the time of Ohio State’s selection, while Georgia and Alabama would each have one loss.

Still, it’s worth talking about, but only if Georgia beats Auburn and the game isn’t completely clean. And even then, this is the longest shot on the board.

Now, here’s our preview of the 2017 SEC Championship Game:

AUBURN vs. GEORGIA (at Atlanta, Ga.)

There’s nothing pretty about getting blown out 40-17, which is what happened to Georgia back on Nov. 11 when the Bulldogs walked into Jordan-Hare Stadium and might as well have asked the Tigers to throw running circular saws at them. At the beginning of the year, Georgia was seen as an up-and-coming program, but one that was probably a year away. The Bulldogs appeared to have everything running ahead of schedule, but the Auburn loss was considered a major reality check for Kirby Smart’s team. It could be argued since then that Auburn has only gotten better, but the same could be said of Georgia. The Bulldogs dominated a decent Kentucky team two weeks ago, then dispatched chief in-state rival Georgia Tech with little trouble last Saturday.

Getting this rematch out of Jordan-Hare and into a neutral setting helps Georgia a ton, but the most helpful thing about this rematch is that Auburn could be without both its top running backs. Kamryn Pettway has already been ruled out, and Kerryon Johnson appeared to suffer some kind of shoulder or back injury after a hard hit from Alabama’s Ronnie Harrison during last Saturday’s game.

While Auburn claims Johnson will be back, Gus Malzahn has been known to play fast and loose with his team’s medical report, and even if Johnson is back, Auburn is still having to manage the work given to linebackers Tre Williams and Chandler Wooten.

The best thing going for Auburn at the moment is QB Jarrett Stidham is red-hot, while the Tigers were able to expose Georgia QB Jake Fromm as the true freshman he was. Assuming Auburn can get 20 or so carries out of Johnson, it’s hard to imagine Georgia being able to make up enough ground to avenge the earlier loss.

Auburn 30
Georgia 23

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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