College football Week 10: How Georgia-Tennessee, Alabama-LSU change meaning with 12-team playoff

In the expanded College Football Playoff, this week’s huge matchup of No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 3 Tennessee could be a seed. Ditto for No. 6 Alabama vs. No. 10 LSU. And it would be wonderful.

As fans, we are conditioned to resolution, finality: My team beat your team. But with more noses under the tent in the new 12-team playoff, the drama will be distributed differently. Think less Games of the Century and more delayed spectacles.

“It’s going to be really good for college football,” Tennessee athletic director Danny White told CBS Sports this week. “I’ve been a supporter for a while. I think about the NFL at the end of the season when they are playing for a potential wild card. People watch high-level games that they wouldn’t care about in college. Teams won’t have a chance to make a four-team playoff.”

FBS commissioners continue to debate when the expanded playoffs will begin. Meanwhile, there are critics who mourn the loss of weeks like this one. Alabama’s season is on the line in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Georgia-Tennessee winner will have the inside track for the SEC Championship Game.

In an expanded playoff, there will instead be a downstream impact. For example: Schools in playoff contention that play these teams would get a boost (or not) from the result. Plus, there will still be a chase for the top four spots with the top-ranked conference champions chasing each other. The expanded playoff is structured so it remains important who wins their conferences.

So, yes, Georgia-Tennessee will still be important. But so would Oregon State-Washington this week, as both are 6-2. AAC No. contenders 19 Tulane, No. 25 UCF and Cincinnati will still battle for a CFP spot.

Former Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby told us this. At the start of the expansion process, he said 25-30 schools will compete for spots in a 12-team pool in early November. He wasn’t that far away.

While the list of contenders may not be 25-30, it’s certainly around 20 if you look at the first CFP rankings. This list basically includes every two-loss team that still has a shot at a conference title.

“I hope [an expanded playoff] here it happens sooner rather than later,” White said. “Games like this weekend for us, you’re right, the placement would matter. But there are probably a dozen other games this weekend that would be extremely important in an extended playoff.”

So while Georgia-Tennessee isn’t necessarily an elimination game going forward, it will still be very important. Coaches who might otherwise be on the hot seat will get a raise to at least hang a playoff banner. Nine wins with underachievers at certain schools would suddenly be playing for a national championship.

“There are divisional races that matter now,” White said of an expanded playoff. “It’s a better student-athlete experience. This is a better opportunity to evaluate the coaches. So many teams lose midseason. You lose a few games … it can be hard to go out there to compete.”

While we’ll get some resolution from the two mega-games on Saturday, it won’t be complete. The loser of Georgia-Tennessee could still make the playoff. Alabama’s season is on the brink, but the expanded 12-team playoff will be comfortable (for now).

We like the way the college football season is going. This is a series of self-revealing chapters. There is a story arc that starts with an introduction (week 0), first act (beginning of league play), conflict (disruptions), and resolution.

What will be played on Saturday will be the game of the year as Georgia and Tennessee meet in the SEC on CBS Game of the Week (3:30 p.m. ET). But the drama of it all in the future is about to stretch out like a runner straining for the goal line.

Remember, in an extended playoff, teams with two losses — even three losses — will make it to the bracket. That’s a big reason Texas and Oklahoma moved to the SEC. Strength of schedule will matter. OU, at 10-2, is more likely to make the playoffs in the SEC than the Big 12.

Alabama (7-1) can absorb a second extended playoff loss. LSU (6-2) might be able to pick up a third.

One possible downside: Say goodbye to the old “Game of the Century” label. Applied to Nebraska-Oklahoma in 1971. Appropriate to Alabama-LSU I in 2011. But other than that, the term is overused.

This is the 25th all-time matchup between the #1 and #2 teams in the AP Top 25. It’s big. It’s huge. But it might not be the biggest game of the season, given that the loser could still make it to the CFP. By the time it rolls around later this month, No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 5 Michigan could be bigger.

But that’s not the point. Whether it’s a playoff spot or a bigger playoff berth, these games will remain wonderful.

More on Georgia-Tennessee

Look for Kirby Smart to “rob” Tennessee’s receivers.
There isn’t much difference in the rules between the NFL and college when it comes to protecting receivers. In the pros, defenders are not allowed more than 5 yards of contact. In college, contact is allowed beyond 5 yards. This is a tremendous opportunity for a Georgia middle school. No one has really slowed down Tennessee. There is a plan for this.

In Super Bowl XXXVI, Patriots coach Bill Belichick took the rules to the brink, then dropped them. The Pats played a nickel defense almost the entire game, challenging the pass-heavy St. Louis Rams to run the ball. They didn’t, at least not enough. Instead, the Pats ran into the Rams’ receivers — scrambling, crashing, scrambling, making plays beyond the whistle.

The Rams have whined about the physical approach for years, but guess who got the ring? Smart is an old defensive back. You better believe there’s something in store for the Volunteers’ receivers that they haven’t seen this season.

The loss of Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith (torn pec) is huge. Many people believe he is the Bulldogs’ best defender and the best pro prospect on this side of the line. Smith was so sure of his talent, he bet on himself before the season. Will Smith’s absence be offset by the return of defensive lineman Jaylen Carter? Projected as a top-5 pick, Carter had 20 snaps against Florida in his first game back from a sprained MCL. The 300-pounder is a home run hitter who can single-handedly collapse an offensive line. That’s good news for Georgia, which is one of only 17 teams to have more interceptions than touchdowns allowed this season.

Statistically, Georgia’s defense is actually better in some ways from last year’s generation that sported five first-round draft picks. The Dawgs are allowing 5.4 fewer yards per play and just 10.5 points per game compared to 10.2 last season.

The case for Saturday’s loser staying in the playoff hunt? First, if the game is close, say 3-7 points. The loser then wins to finish 11-1 and into second place in the SEC East. For Georgia, beating Oregon and winning the Pac-12 title won’t hurt. The Ducks’ only early season loss to the Dawgs will play. For Tennessee, an Alabama win to claim the SEC would be key. The Vols would hand the Crimson Tide their only loss.

Red alert for high tide

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Alabama’s season is on the line at LSU. This wouldn’t just be a second loss for Bama, it would be a landmark. Bama would be out of the CFP race. Second loss on November 5th it would be his earliest such loss since Saban’s first season in 2007. It was a 7-6 campaign that included a loss to ULM.

A loss to the Tigers would be met with similar disdain. The Tide have shown weakness on the road recently (a pedestrian 4-2 in their last six) and for a while against a dual-threat quarterback. LSU’s Jaden Daniels is having a career year.

An LSU win puts the Tigers in control of the SEC West. When was the last time Bama didn’t control everything in November? Look for the Tigers to play a bit of a bully by running it to try to keep Alabama quarterback Bryce Young off the field with the SEC’s No. 3 time-of-possession offense.

Don’t forget the rebels: LSU’s win over Bama also unlocks a hidden CFP nugget. In this event, No. 11 Ole Miss (eliminated this week) will control its path to the playoffs. All it takes is wins against Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State and either Georgia or Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game. Unlikely, but not impossible. The biggest hurdle in this scenario may be figuring out how to prevent Auburn from beating Lane Kiffin midway through the playoff series.

Pac-12 after dark…or delay?

The marketing part of the Pac-12 needs a lesson. You’d never know it was the conference’s best football season in five years. The league has been busy just staying solvent since USC and UCLA left. Then there was the emergence of a Pac-12 staple — bad refereeing — which distracted from last weekend’s games.

But the league heads into November with five teams in the CFP rankings, including four in the top 14. The Big Ten has just two in the top 14. No. 8 Oregon, No. 9 USC and No. 12 UCLA are playoff contenders. The last time the league was this deep entering November was 2017.

There were five ranked teams in this CFP: No. 12 Washington, No. 17 USC, No. 21 Stanford, No. 23 Arizona and No. 25 Washington. Washington emerged from that bracket to be the last Pac-12 playoff team in 2017.

Early this week, we’ll see if the CFP selection committee sticks Georgia’s loss against Oregon (at Colorado). The Ducks may still have the best playoff resume in the league. USC (vs. Cal) has to hope No. 14 Utah (vs. Arizona) keeps winning. UCLA (at Arizona State) needs to win and hope Oregon loses twice.

Right now, the league is set to tout one of its biggest weekends in years. On Nov. 19, USC is at UCLA and Utah is at Oregon.

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