ATLANTA — In its eight years of existence, the College Football Playoff has been so free of controversy that even Tom Hanks would be jealous. Season after season, for all the hand-wringing in November and predictions of chaos overwhelming the system, the final four has fallen into place with nary a complaint by the end.
But this time, if the selection committee wanted to take a stand, shock the world and maybe even do the right thing, it’s sitting right there for them. The question is this: After watching Georgia’s 41-24 no-show against Alabama in the SEC championship game, do they actually have the guts to tell the Bulldogs they blew it on Saturday?
If they wanted to, they could. And they have another team sitting right there for them in the Baylor Bears with a more impressive collection of wins, a cooler story and a conference championship.
It’s hard to say that 11-2 Baylor, which has a ghastly loss to TCU on its résumé, is “better” than a Georgia team that waltzed into Mercedes-Benz Stadium seemingly on the verge of a coronation. Without seeing them actually play it out on the field, there’s no way to know. The more important question should be: Is this the best Georgia’s got? Because if so, send them to the Sugar Bowl, please, and keep this team far away from the playoff.
Do we really need to see Georgia and Alabama play again, even in a national championship game? Was there really anything about Saturday that left you wondering who the superior team really is?
“It didn’t do any damage,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said in response to a question about possible lingering effects of a loss this decisive. “What it did is reinvigorated our energy. It re-centers you, right? Their greatest thing is when they lost their game against Texas A&M, they garnered some focus and some attention. To me, that’s an opportunity for a wakeup call, if anything.”
That’s a nice little piece of spin from Smart, and perhaps there’s a kernel of truth in it. Losing can, in fact, teach lessons and provide focus for players who got too comfortable rolling up big margins against the SEC’s lesser lights all season long.
But the way Alabama sliced and diced a Georgia defense that had compared favorably to some of the best ever should absolutely cast some doubt about the legitimacy of what Georgia accomplished in the first 12 games of this season.
Was this just a bad night for Georgia’s defense? Or did Alabama rolling up 536 yards of offense expose a weakness in the secondary that was always there to be exploited by a quarterback like Bryce Young who could handle the pass rush?
The worst part is, Georgia knew exactly what was coming — and still had secondary bust after secondary bust with Alabama receivers running free on so many key downs when their attempts to pressure Young didn’t get home.
“I really feel good about the things we worked on,” Smart said. “But our ability to execute them, we had two or three third downs where we have a bust, we cut a guy loose and we haven’t done that all year. When you are in man coverage and cut a guy loose, that isn’t typical of us. They beat us on several man coverage(s), and I can take that, but when you get these guys in third down you’ve got to get off the field.”
It would be overly harsh to say the SEC championship exposed Georgia as a fraud, but it would be committee malpractice not to cast a skeptical eye toward the Bulldogs’ résumé.
By committee rankings, Georgia’s best win of the season came in Week 1 against No. 20 Clemson — a grinding 10-3 game where neither team played particularly well. Its second-best win was against No. 22 Arkansas, and its third-best win was No. 23 Kentucky. Not exactly the most impressive slate.
Baylor has better wins, and on this point there can be no debate. The Bears beat No. 5 Oklahoma State in the Big 12 title game (avenging one of their losses earlier this season), No. 12 BYU and No. 14 Oklahoma. The problem for Baylor is that no team has ever made the playoff with two losses, and there’s no way to explain losing 30-28 to TCU on Nov. 6 in a way that helps Baylor. It was a horrendous loss at the time and even worse in retrospect.
The guess here is the TCU loss will give the committee enough cover to exclude Baylor and say that Georgia is “unequivocally better,” even though the Bears’ Big 12 championship is supposed to count for something in this system. It will also be less controversial given the perception that the SEC is a far superior conference.
But getting blown out in your final game — the only game you’ve played all year against top-10 competition — is not a good way to go into the playoff. Last year, we saw Notre Dame lose the ACC championship to Clemson, 34-10, get in as the No. 4 seed and get manhandled by Alabama in the semifinals.
At least Notre Dame, though, had a decent argument having already beaten Clemson in their first meeting that season. This Georgia team played one elite team and face-planted so badly that Smart was asked whether he’s going to make a quarterback change for their next game after Stetson Bennett IV threw two interceptions, including a pick-six that pretty much ended any hope of a comeback.
“We have a decision to make every week at every position, but I have the utmost confidence in Stetson Bennett,” Smart said. “I think he did some really nice things tonight. We go and reevaluate everything all the time, but he played well. It’s a tough environment we put him in defensively and didn’t — we have to be able to run the ball and have a little bit of semblance of balance, and I felt like there was times tonight where we were getting into a scoring contest because our defense didn’t get stops. And you don’t want to have to do that.”
The problem, though, is that good teams inevitably will get into scoring contests when they play other good teams. You can’t win at the highest level in 2021 without the ability to play in that higher gear offensively — which Saban has recognized by recruiting a different caliber of quarterback.
From early this season when preseason starter J.T. Daniels got hurt, Smart put his faith in Bennett, a former walk-on who can run a bit but does not have elite attributes. Smart declined opportunity after opportunity in the second half of the season to hand the ball back to Daniels, who was the second-team All-SEC quarterback in the preseason and was once considered a top-level NFL prospect.
Georgia is not going to turn back to Daniels now, which means the ceiling for this team offensively is considerably lower. With Georgia, we can only assume that what you saw Saturday is what you’ll get. It’s a good team, but one whose only chance to win a national championship is to generate a pass rush.
That’s not the narrative we were sold all season. It was up to Georgia to deliver on that promise against Alabama, and the Bulldogs failed miserably. If they’re left out of the playoff because of it, they won’t be missed.
Does the committee really have the guts to do that to the mighty SEC? It’s doubtful. But if the 13 people making that decision want to take a stand and shake up the entire paradigm of the perennially milquetoast playoff, the opportunity is right there waiting for them.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken