How an up-and-down SEC will shape the College Football Playoff

Go ahead, Big 12 fans, have at it.

It’s not often the SEC earns the dubious distinction of playing the worst defense of the weekend — even on an October Saturday when the Red River Showdown went into four overtimes and produced the highest-scoring game in the history of the rivalry, a 53-45 win for Oklahoma over Texas.

No, the wild weekend in the SEC topped it because while the Big 12 has already become an afterthought in the College Football Playoff race, the SEC’s top-ranked teams in the Associated Press poll — No. 2 Alabama and No. 4 Florida — showed glaring defensive weaknesses that could ultimately shape the selection committee’s top four on Dec. 20.

No. 3 Georgia was the exception on Saturday — seemingly to just about everyone but No. 1 Clemson. Defense is a stark difference separating both Clemson and Georgia from the rest of the playoff contenders after six weeks, and it could mean the difference down the stretch for the SEC’s hopes of getting two teams into the playoff again.

We will learn more about that possibility quickly — Georgia and Alabama face each other Saturday. The loser of that game will be under pressure to win out and hope that undefeated contenders such as Notre Dame slip, and that the Pac-12 doesn’t produce an undefeated team or the Big Ten doesn’t have both Ohio State and Penn State in the mix.

If No. 1 Clemson and Ohio State follow the script this season, and No. 3 Georgia finds a way to slow down Mac Jones and Najee Harris on Saturday, who would be the committee’s fourth team? Alabama certainly wouldn’t be eliminated from the debate with a loss to a top-four Georgia team — and it would certainly be in with an SEC title — but how the conference title games play out across the Power 5 wouldn’t guarantee the SEC a second spot, either.

This weekend showed that even the best teams in the SEC are vulnerable, and it’s yet to be determined how deep the league really is.

Texas A&M rallied to beat Florida on a last-second field goal, Alabama needed every minute of the fourth quarter to seal its victory against unranked Ole Miss, and LSU coach Ed Orgeron called his defense “embarrassing” after a 45-41 loss to Missouri.

“We couldn’t stop anybody,” Orgeron said. “Really a poor showing on defense. We have to coach better, No. 1. It starts with me. Players have to make plays. We couldn’t stop the run, receivers wide open down the field. It was embarrassing. We have to get it fixed.”

Consider this: Florida, Alabama and LSU combined to give up 134 points and 1,776 total yards Saturday. The Tide surrendered the most of any of them — 48 points and 647 yards — but was the only one of the trio to win.

Alabama coach Nick Saban lauded his team’s four-quarter effort and its ability to score at will, but also conceded “everybody on defense has got to play better.”

“We struggled,” Saban said. “Didn’t stop the run, gave up some big plays on the back end … couldn’t get the quarterback on the ground when we needed to even when we got some pressure. We had some mistakes in coverage … we just didn’t play very well.”

Georgia, meanwhile, held Tennessee to minus-1 yard rushing, and has limited each of its first three opponents to under 80 rushing yards. After a lackluster start, the Bulldogs shut down the Vols in the second half, outscoring them 27-0. According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, Georgia pressured quarterback Jarrett Guarantano on nine of his 28 dropbacks (32%) in the second half. He went 0-for-4 with an interception and was sacked five times (two lost fumbles) on those plays.

While college football has been wildly inconsistent so far, Georgia is one of the few teams that has shown steady improvement offensively while maintaining its stingy defense. Florida, meanwhile, has seemingly regressed defensively, and was unable to stop Texas A&M and quarterback Kellen Mond.

“We are going to have to reevaluate a lot of things defensively,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said after the game. “Where we are at right now, I’m going to have to really evaluate some things with our personnel, where we are at, our ability to make plays, make sure that we have all the right guys at the right position to be able to make the plays we need to to get off the field. We can’t give up 13 of 15 conversions on the day and expect to win any game.”

Florida and Georgia are scheduled to play on Nov. 7, so it will be settled on the field, but ESPN’s Football Power Index favors the Dawgs by 66.7% in that game. Georgia coach Kirby Smart knows the schedule will only get more difficult, though, starting Saturday at Alabama. It’s the only remaining game on Georgia’s schedule that ESPN’s FPI doesn’t give Georgia more than a 50% chance to win (34.7%).

“I think we’ve got a team that adjusts well, so if somebody’s giving us trouble with something, we have answers, we don’t just continue to do the same thing if we’re struggling with things,” Smart said. “I’m proud of the effort they came out with in the second half with the momentum the defense created. We’re not executing at a high level and that can cause problems; that’s special teams, that’s defensive execution on fastball exchanges, that’s offensively getting lined up, getting in a formation and getting a call. That can be costly if you play a team that can capitalize on them.”

Notre Dame still hasn’t lost

After two weeks off because of a bye week and a coronavirus disruption, Notre Dame got off to a shaky start against a 1-3 Florida State team before ultimately pulling away 42-26. With Notre Dame, North Carolina and Clemson all still undefeated, the ACC is in a strong playoff position. ESPN’s Football Power Index projects the Irish to win each of their remaining games by at least 50%, with the exception of Nov. 7 against Clemson (33.9%). Even if Notre Dame loses that game, it can still avenge the loss in the ACC championship game if it were to get there and face Clemson. The committee would consider both the ACC champion and Clemson.

The Big Ten countdown is on

In two weeks, college football is going to get more interesting with the return of the Big Ten, which is scheduled to begin play Oct. 24 and will heighten the playoff debate with the addition of Ohio State. On paper, the Buckeyes are arguably one of the most — if not the most — talented teams in the country, but they also haven’t played a game since Dec. 28. They open at home against Nebraska, and ESPN’s FPI favors Ohio State in each of its eight games, but how rusty will the Buckeyes look? What will it feel like playing in an empty stadium that typically plays host to one of the nation’s best home-field advantages? Will Ohio State shake off the cobwebs in time for its Halloween trip to Penn State, which could also be a CFP contender? How much will daily coronavirus testing help? Remember, if a Big Ten player tests positive, he is out for 21 days. Fortunately, college football fans don’t have to wait much longer for an added layer of intrigue to an already unpredictable season.

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