ATHENS – It’s all possible now. There is still a long, long way to go, but based on where Georgia finds itself at this juncture in the season, there is a route to the College Football Playoff. And it’s not some circuitous, back-road path.
No, this one is wide and flat and straight.
The Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC) popped up to No. 5 in the most recent AP Top 25 poll; they remain at No. 6 in the Amway Coaches Poll. That brings everything into play. All the pipe dreams and hopeful speculation that might have seemed far-fetched in the preseason now is in clear focus. All Georgia has to do is not trip up and lose between now and Thanksgiving weekend.
Yeah, win out. That’s all.
As coach Kirby Smart pointed out Tuesday, “the wind blows a lot harder at the top.” And that’s true. Opponents seem to come at you harder, attention becomes more intense, distractions abound.
Really, though, the Bulldogs do have one of the better paths into the playoffs. At this moment, just two ranked teams sit ahead on the schedule, No. 21 Florida on Oct. 28 and No. 12 Auburn two weeks later. That’s a lot better than, say, Michigan, which has three Top 10 opponents to go through.
If you go by ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), Georgia has an 87 percent or higher chance of winning four of its seven games going forward. That index has the Missouri (97) and Kentucky (91) games as virtual locks, and Vanderbilt, too (87.2). Of the other games, that scale currently has the Bulldogs with a 75.8 percent chance of beating Florida and a 68.8 percent chance to best Georgia Tech in the season finale.
Auburn — at 39.6 percent — is the only one on the minus side of 50. So that Nov. 11 game on the Plains is where everybody — or the computers at least — see Georgia tripping up.
For that reason, you’re starting to see the Bulldogs included in some of these College Football Playoff projections. The top picks in the most recent speculative pieces written are, of course, Alabama and Clemson. Georgia is generally included among the “others,” along with Michigan, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Penn State and TCU.
For what it’s worth, 247Sports is one that currently has the Bulldogs fourth, behind Clemson, Alabama and Oklahoma. Should that hold foursome hold up, in that order, that would pit Georgia against Clemson in the national semifinals.
But let’s just move all that speculative rigmarole to the side for the moment. You know and I know it’s way too early to be predicting that, much less trying to put a numerical quantification on it. The bottom line is if Georgia wins out through the SEC Championship game, it’s in. The Bulldogs also maybe could be even if they lost to No. 1-ranked Alabama in the title game, but we’ll get into all that at a later date.
More pertinent now, as Smart and all his charges will tell you, is the next game. That one happens to be in Nashville, Tenn., at Vanderbilt (3-2, 0-2) on Saturday. That tilt is particularly intriguing for two reasons., you may recall the Commodores
First, you might recall the Commodores beat the Bulldogs on Homecoming Day last year. Next, this will be Georgia’s first game as a top-5 team.
Now I did a little research (I know, hard to believe), but the Bulldogs actually have a pretty good track record in the top 5. I went all the way back to the late 1930s, which was as far as UGA’s available data would allow, and Georgia is 55-16 (.774) as a top-5 team over the years.
That’s not all that surprising considering you have to be a pretty good team to be ranked among the top 5 teams in America in the first place. And a lot of those losses the Bulldogs incurred while holding that distinction were against other highly ranked teams in bowl or championship games.
So this is not new territory for Georgia. In fact, if you look at the school’s all-time results, the Bulldogs usually put together a really good team, on average, about every five years. DawgNation’s Seth Emerson pointed out this tendency in his By The Numbers report last weekend.
Obviously, Georgia appears to be really good this year. Well, the Bulldogs also were really good in 2012 (12-2), in 2007 (11-2), 2002 (13-1), 1997 (10-2) and 1992 (10-2). Even in 1987, the Bulldogs achieved a ranking of No. 8 before falling to Auburn in the next-to-last game of the season. And so on.
Weird, isn’t it? But the point is Georgia is really good every four or five years. It just hasn’t gotten all the way to the mountaintop but a few times (1942, 1946, 1980), and just once in most of our lifetimes. But history and our own two eyes tell us there could be some great opportunities for this latest bunch.
That’s where Kirby Smart comes in. He was Nick Saban’s right-hand man for most of Alabama’s remarkable run under Saban. Surely Smart filed away some pointers from that experience of having almost every opponent come into a game hoping to knock the Tide off their lofty perch.
But Smart wasn’t in the mood this week to talk about the Tide. He’s intently focused on Georgia.
“I think everybody always wants a piece of Georgia,” he said. “Because of the history of the program, [Georgia is] a signature win for so many, regardless of what you’re ranked. It just makes it even more so [when the Bulldogs are ranked in the Top 5]. We don’t really talk about that with the team. We talk about controlling what you can control, which is getting better and playing good, taking out the mistakes we’ve made the last two or three games, so we can increase our chances of success.”
That’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it? A chance. That’s all Georgia has at the moment, but that’s also all it needs.
The last time the Bulldogs had a No. 5 or better ranking was the preseason of 2013. Then No. 5, they lost to No. 8 Clemson 38-35 in the road opener. They also lost to No. 6 South Carolina in 2012 and, later that same season, to No. 2 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. In 2008, there was that awful debacle in which the No. 3 Bulldogs lost to the No. 8-ranked Tide 41-30.
But there are far more positive results from Georgia as a top-5 team. The Bulldogs are 25-9 when ranked that high in the 2000s.
So hang on, folks, and enjoy the ride. This could get interesting.