Michigan vs. Georgia and the CFP’s other big questions

NCAAF

After clinching the SEC East on Saturday with its win over No. 9 Kentucky, No. 6 Georgia already knows it will face No. 1 Alabama in the conference championship game, but the Bulldogs have no idea where that accomplishment puts them in the eyes of the College Football Playoff selection committee heading into the second official ranking of the season.

Not that they’re concerned about it.

“There’s not anybody on our team who’s worrying about anything but Auburn, because that’s the next task at hand,” coach Kirby Smart said at his Monday news conference. “That’s what we have to be focused on. Our goal is to play the next team, whoever the next team is. We don’t try to have too many real big highs or real big lows. We want to stay right neutral in the middle.”

At least until it comes to Selection Day — then they’d prefer to be at the top.

The biggest question Tuesday is if the Bulldogs are already in the committee’s top four or if Michigan is as much of a given for the No. 4 spot as many seem to think.

On paper, Georgia and Michigan are extremely even, which means it could come down to the game film in Selection Central.

“We’re the team to beat in the Big Ten,” Michigan defensive lineman Chase Winovich said Saturday after the No. 5 Wolverines 42-7 win over No. 14 Penn State. “That’s not a controversial statement. I think that’s a fact at this point.”

ESPN’s Strength of Record metric has been one of the most reliable indicators of semifinalists, as 15 of the past 16 teams that have gone to the playoff — including all 12 teams the past three years — ranked in the top four of SOR entering bowl season. Georgia (No. 4 in SOR) and Michigan (No. 5) are almost identical. The average top 25 team would have a 12.5 percent chance to go 8-1 or better against Georgia’s schedule and a 12.6 percent chance to go 8-1 or better against Michigan’s schedule.

Both teams are 2-1 against likely CFP top-25 teams (assuming Michigan State moves into the rankings this week and Penn State doesn’t drop out). Georgia will have had back-to-back wins against 7-2 Kentucky and 6-3 Florida, which should both be ranked.

Georgia has four wins against Power 5 opponents with winning records; Michigan has five. The Wolverines are No. 3 in defensive efficiency; Georgia is No. 4. The Bulldogs have an edge in offense (No. 3 in efficiency vs. No. 15), but Michigan has the edge in nonconference strength of schedule (35th vs. 107th).

So which one is the best team?

That’s what ESPN’s Football Power Index aims to answer, and even that is close: Georgia is No. 3, and Michigan is No. 4 by a margin of just 1.2 percentage points.

Before you assume Tuesday’s ranking will be as easy as 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Notre Dame … that might be where the obvious answers end. And the debate between Michigan and Georgia for the No. 4 spot isn’t the only question for the committee. Here are a few others.

How far does LSU fall?

The two-loss Tigers are out of the playoff conversation and the SEC West race, but they did beat Georgia. Now that LSU has two losses, though, the committee can easily justify dismissing the head-to-head result, but LSU also lost to Florida — and the Gators just got hammered, too. So if the No. 11 Gators drop, will LSU sink with them? Remember, just a week ago, LSU was the committee’s top one-loss team because it was the only FBS team that had beaten six teams with winning records.

How much does losing to the No. 1 team in the nation change the perception of that schedule within the committee? LSU is still No. 6 in strength of record.

Is one-loss Oklahoma still ahead of one-loss West Virginia?

It seems like a no-brainer, as the Sooners have been the Big 12’s best hope at a playoff contender since the preseason, but they are tied for the conference lead at 5-1 and there is now one very discernable difference in their records: Oklahoma lost to Texas, and West Virginia beat Texas, albeit barely. WVU lost at Iowa State 30-14, and the Sooners won there, 37-27. What does the committee weigh more?

On Saturday, OU struggled to beat Texas Tech, trailing by three at the half. Red Raiders quarterback Alan Bowman, who was instrumental in orchestrating that lead, didn’t play in the second half because of an injury and OU won in spite of two turnovers, 10 penalties and a defense that allowed almost 500 total yards. The Sooners still have a 34 percent chance to make the playoff, according to ESPN’s Playoff Predictor, much greater than West Virginia at 5 percent. Oklahoma is No. 8 in SOR; WVU is No. 9. Eventually, it will be settled on the field, as WVU hosts Oklahoma on the final Friday night of the regular season. There’s a 52 percent chance that they’ll meet again the following week in the Big 12 championship game. Iowa State and Texas are both a game back in the standings and also still alive in the title race.

Is Washington State still top 10?

Last week, selection committee chair Rob Mullens was asked about Washington State’s No. 8 spot in spite of a nonconference schedule that didn’t include one Power 5 opponent, and he cited “a dynamic offense with a quarterback that’s had a real positive impact, and then you see their quality win over Utah and the tough road loss to USC. That’s why the committee put them No. 8.”

So, about that win over Utah …

Utah lost at Arizona State on Saturday 38-20, guaranteeing that the winner of the Pac-12 South will have at least three losses. This hurts Washington State in two ways: First, it devalues the Sept. 29 win at Utah. Second, a win over Utah in the Pac-12 championship probably won’t impress the selection committee enough to catapult even a one-loss champ into the top four. How far No. 15 Utah falls on Saturday will impact Washington State.

Washington State was also fortunate to beat Cal on Saturday in the last minute of the game. There’s also the reality of the ranking, in that there is some movement by default. There are only six one-loss Power 5 teams remaining — Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Georgia and Washington State. Where do the Cougars fit in?

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