LSU win key to 3-SEC-team Play­off field

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - SPORTS - Dan Wolken

The most im­pact­ful reg­u­lar-sea­son game of the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off era thus far will take place this week­end in Ba­ton Rouge, Louisiana, when Ge­or­gia vis­its LSU for the first time since 2008, be­cause the out­come could very well de­ter­mine whether the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence gets one, two or — gasp — three teams in the Play­off.

While the odds of the SEC tak­ing 75 per­cent of the Play­off spots are low, it’s not im­pos­si­ble. The se­lec­tion com­mit­tee has wide lat­i­tude to pick the four best teams, not the four high­est-ranked con­fer­ence champs. With Alabama be­ing picked last year and Ohio State the year be­fore de­spite not win­ning their con­fer­ence ti­tle, the prece­dent is there.

If LSU wins this game, SEC para­noia could be at an all-time level.

Con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity in front of 6-1 LSU, which lost to Florida last week but has three con­sec­u­tive home games that give the Tigers an op­por­tu­nity to con­trol their own des­tiny in the SEC West. While it’s ob­vi­ously go­ing to be a huge chal­lenge to beat Alabama on Nov. 3, LSU is at least a touch­down bet­ter in Tiger Sta­dium than on the road, the­o­ret­i­cally giv­ing it a chance to win that game for the first time since 2011. And if LSU does, it would have a headto-head tiebreaker over Alabama and be on track to play in the SEC cham­pi­onship game.

When you start to play out some of these sce­nar­ios, it’s not as crazy as you might think that Ge­or­gia, LSU and Alabama could all end up in the Play­off. Here’s how it would hap­pen.

De­spite los­ing to LSU, Ge­or­gia would have games left against Florida and Ken­tucky, and if they win those they’re headed to At­lanta for a re­match with LSU. Let’s say the Bull­dogs end up as SEC champs at 12-1 and clinch their Play­off bid while LSU is 11-2 against ar­guably the na­tion’s tough­est sched­ule.

Mean­while, things start to fall apart in the rest of the coun­try.

Notre Dame stubs its toe once, bring­ing scru­tiny to a sched­ule that looks pretty light on qual­ity wins. Wash­ing­ton wins the Pac-12 ti­tle, but a sec­ond loss elim­i­nates the Huskies from se­ri­ous Play­off con­sid­er­a­tion. Then 11-1 Mi­ami shocks un­beaten Clem­son in the At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence ti­tle game, and be­cause its sched­ule didn’t re­ally give it much op­por­tu­nity to bank top-25 wins, the Tigers are out.

By the cham­pi­onship game, the Big 12 is also toast as we get a Ok­la­homaTexas re­match. Though Texas beats Ok­la­homa again, can you put a team into the Play­off with losses to Mary­land and, say, Ok­la­homa State? Prob­a­bly not.

So af­ter un­beaten Ohio State wraps up the No. 1 over­all seed by beat­ing Wis­con­sin in the Big Ten ti­tle game, two spots in the Play­off are set. Then, to no one’s sur­prise, the com­mit­tee picks 11-1 Alabama as the No. 3 seed, giv­ing one of the most dom­i­nant teams we’ve seen a free pass for a slip-up at LSU.

That means for the fi­nal spot we’re com­par­ing Mi­ami, LSU and Notre Dame. The com­mit­tee wouldn’t have an easy time pick­ing one.

The path of least re­sis­tance would be to pick Notre Dame, but there’s not a lot of sub­stance there. Though the Ir­ish beat Michi­gan and Stan­ford, those wins de­pre­ci­ated in value pretty sig­nif­i­cantly. Any loss for Notre Dame, in­clud­ing to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, is a bad one.

Mean­while, even though LSU would have two losses to Mi­ami’s one, it would be hard to over­look how thor­oughly the Tigers beat them head-to-head 33-17 on a neu­tral field in Week 1. Mi­ami’s only im­pres­sive win would be Clem­son.

It might be an SEC fever dream to get three teams in, but at the halfway point of the sea­son, there’s def­i­nitely a path.

On the other hand, the out­come of this game could make it far more likely the SEC will get two into the Play­off no mat­ter what if Ge­or­gia wins. The Bull­dogs are the heavy fa­vorite to come out of the SEC East, and though Florida has been sur­pris­ingly good in Dan Mullen’s first year, there’s a tal­ent gap that will be dif­fi­cult for the Ga­tors to make up.

This game, on pa­per, is by far Ge­or­gia’s big­gest hur­dle to a 12-0 reg­u­lar sea­son. If the Bull­dogs pull that off and then lose to Alabama in a com­pet­i­tive SEC cham­pi­onship game, they’ll have as strong an ar­gu­ment to get into the Play­off as any one-loss team.

SEC haters might not want to hear it, but if Ge­or­gia wins this week­end, the odds of both Ge­or­gia and Alabama get­ting in the Play­off again go way, way up.

Of course, the Play­off has shown us in its short his­tory how treach­er­ous it can be try­ing to project what will hap­pen over the fi­nal six weeks of the sea­son. In 2014, the ini­tial CFP com­mit­tee rank­ing had Mis­sis­sippi State No. 1, Auburn No. 3 and Ole Miss No. 4. None of them ended up in the Play­off.

Up­sets hap­pen. But if to­tal SEC dom­i­na­tion is some­thing you ei­ther root for or fear, Satur­day’s game in Ba­ton Rouge could end up set­ting the stage for the en­tire Play­off.

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