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Why Georgia could still reach the College Football Playoff

No matter how hard we may try, the past always catches up.

For Georgia it usually means a strong first or second half against Alabama, and a meltdown in several key moments. That happened again Saturday as Alabama rallied from a 24-20 deficit at halftime to knock off No. 3 Georgia 41-24 inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.

The Bulldogs limped in the second half after racing to a lead in the first half as Nick Saban moved to 22-0 against his former assistants, including 3-0 against Kirby Smart.

Still, let’s broaden our perspective. The Bulldogs are still in the SEC race. They’re also not out of the playoff picture thanks to a 10-game, conference-only schedule, a showdown with nationally-ranked Florida (Nov. 7), a potential rematch against top-4 Alabama in the SEC Championship (Dec. 19) and the shortened seasons that have yet to start in the Big Ten and Pac-12.

Yes, there is still a small window for the Bulldogs to slip into the playoff. They just have to win every remaining game, upset Alabama in the SEC Championship and — oh, yeah, one more thing — find an elite quarterback along the way in the final seven games of the season.

It’s not simple, but it’s also not impossible. Heck, nothing is predictable this season. Games are scheduled and re-scheduled on a whim, and upsets happen with more frequency.

Georgia is a team that could and should improve by the end of the season, especially offensively. Quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, a former walk-on, is more of a backup than an elite SEC starter. He threw three interceptions in the first loss of the season and missed on several deep throws (as he has in the three previous games). The question is whether USC transfer JT Daniels is any better, and whether he will be ready if called upon later in the schedule. When Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman left the team in the preseason, all eyes turned to Daniels, who had yet to be medically cleared from a 2019 knee surgery.

The West Coast kid should be providing the Bulldogs a much-needed boost. The Mailman is a great story, but he’s not a great quarterback — and should the Bulldogs find a way into the playoff, it will be in spite of Bennett, not because of him.

Elite quarterbacks have led teams to championship in each year of the playoff. Quarterback talent has only improved in the SEC since the Tide moved to a hurry-up system in 2014. The big-time receivers such as Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith can no longer be covered on every snap. They find space and only need a competent quarterback to deliver the ball. Alabama has the quarterback (Mac Jones) and the receivers. Georgia has the receivers (George Pickens, in particular) but not the starting quarterback. It remains to be seen if that changes later this season. For now, the overthrown balls and interceptions 10 yards in front of intended receivers will continue to pop up in big games with Bennett at quarterback.

You should all but eliminate the Big 12 from the playoff conversation. The conference will not be in the four-team field if Oklahoma State, the lone remaining undefeated team, loses a game. According to ESPN’s FPI, the Cowboys’ chances stand at only 5.9%, the 11th-best odds in the country, as an undefeated team after this weekend. One loss would all but eliminate the conference.

Oklahoma is the only Big 12 team to represent the conference in the playoff and is 0-4 in the semifinals. History is not on the Big 12’s side, and recency bias will only hurt the conference, especially with a team not named OU emerging from the Big 12 title game with one loss.

The most likely scenario is the Pac-12, shut out of the playoff since Washington’s trip in 2016, will take the Big 12’s spot should the conference champion go undefeated. The problem is the Pac 12’s November start and seven-game schedule if Georgia, as the SEC’s runner-up, finishes 10-1 and the Pac-12 champ is 6-1 or even a perfect 7-0. The SEC team should win that one-loss vote in the committee’s room 10 times out of 10. A one-loss SEC champion with 11 games on its resume against an undefeated, seven-win team in the Pac-12? There is an argument the Pac-12 should be left out of the conversation — and the conference knows it, too, as commissioner Larry Scott has already attempted to push for an expanded playoff this year.

More games, more wins and a better schedule should equal a better team on paper — and a playoff berth for the SEC, no matter what happens in the Pac-12.

Again, history shouldn’t affect the committee but memories of Georgia and Alabama’s success stories — and that magical national title game between the conference rivals in 2018 — linger and potentially influence the committee.. They’re human, after all. They do not live in a vacuum, even in this era of social distancing. They understand the SEC’s history over the last 15 years in the BCS and playoff, and flipping over to a Pac-12 champion that hasn’t won a playoff game since the first year of the four-team field (2014) is a difficult sell, especially when the 2020 Pac-12 champion will likely own the shortest schedule among Power 5 champs.

Oregon and USC, which do not meet in the regular season, enter the season ranked seventh and 10th, respectively, in the ESPN FPI. Two Big Ten teams and two SEC programs have better chances of reaching the playoff, according to the formula, with a difference of 17.5% between the lowest-rated Big Ten team (Wisconsin) and the highest-rated Pac-12 team (Oregon). Again, a one-loss Big Ten runner-up will have a better shot at reaching the playoff because of a stronger and longer schedule. The SEC’s chances of Georgia reaching the playoff with one loss and a conference title will be even higher than the aforementioned teams.

The Pac-12’s best hope is Alabama runs the table and Georgia finishes with two or more losses.

Or they can hope the SEC’s schedule is turned upside down in the coming weeks with cancelations entering the Deep South’s vernacular after pushing through postponements in the first four weeks of the season. Again, nothing is predictable these days.

And the Group of 5? Forget about it. UCF and Memphis are cooked. Cincinnati’s schedule isn’t strong enough for consideration.

BYU’s lone hope is to remain undefeated and beat a ranked Boise State team. That may happen, and the Cougars may deserve a spot in the playoff, but the Cougars will be a victim of re-scheduling amid the pandemic. ESPN FPI gives BYU a 14% chance of reaching the playoff, but with one game remaining against a ranked team, the Cougars are a long-shot.

It’s too bad. If the Cougars were able to keep their originally-scheduled games against Power 5 programs Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State, Minnesota, Mizzou and Stanford — and went undefeated — they would be a lock. Alas, life is not fair and these are not normal times.

Strange times do not lead to strange decisions. Human nature usually steers us to choose the familiar path when uncertainty clouds the horizon. For the playoff committee, that means pulling two SEC teams into the playoff for the second time in four years if every conference is able to play its games as scheduled.

The real question is: can Georgia find an elite quarterback before the season ends?

Brandon Marcello is a national college football reporter for 247Sports. You can follow him on Twitter (@bmarcello).

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