Schultz: Georgia’s playoff dream should be Alabama, Ohio State, missing the field

ATHENS – George Benton, one of Evander Holyfield’s old boxing coaches, smiled whenever someone complained that his student just wasn’t aggressive or dynamic enough in the ring despite a string of wins.

“Win today – look good tomorrow,” Benton would reply.

So has Georgia been at various stages of this 12-0 season. The Bulldogs haven’t often looked dominant since the season opener with a 49-3 win over Oregon. Sometimes they were blabla and pedestrians — at least at the level of a 12-0 team pedestrian. They’ve always rallied and turned it on when needed, but the hiccups raised just enough doubt to cause fear among a discerning fan base.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart doesn’t dispute his team’s ups and downs, but he put it on a positive note: “The resilience has shown when they’ve had the opportunity to play in difficult situations. I have no explanation as to why we didn’t play consistently. But what they had was resilience, competitiveness, pride. The reaction mechanism was quite positive. I think it comes from the training. It’s not something a team gets good at by accident. You really have to work on that.”

I’m bringing this up now because Georgia is playing LSU for an SEC title this week. It’s a big deal. But with the college football playoffs approaching – and the opposition being LSU smoked by Texas A&M – it’s nowhere near the event it was. The Bulldogs will be in the playoffs Saturday, win or lose, and this season will ultimately depend on whether they win another national championship.

Roll it back: Georgia lost the SEC title game to Alabama last season but won the national title. What does everyone remember?

Kirby Smart led Georgia to their first national title since 1980 last season. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Michigan will also make the playoffs even if it loses the Big Ten conference title. The same level of security will be offered to USC (11-1) or possibly TCU (12-0, but as a Big 12 resident, not the same respect as others) this weekend, and this is where things get interesting… and dangerous for Georgia.

Of course the Dogs want to win this week. But it’s almost as important that all four potential playoff teams win, because if Alabama or Ohio State — which are expected to be the next two teams in the playoff rankings — get back on the field, that could be bad.

Here’s how I would rank five of the six potential playoff teams other than Georgia in terms of canine danger level.

1. Alabama: I know this wasn’t the Alabama team everyone expected. But do you want to give him another chance to become this team? The Crimson Tide still have Nick Saban, Bryce Young, Jahmyr Gibbs, Will Anderson and a monstrous chip on their shoulders from losing the national championship game to Georgia last season and how they were publicly slammed this week. No thank you.

2. State of Ohio: The Buckeyes ranked second behind Georgia for most of the season before being beaten at home by Michigan. But they do have a Heisman Trophy quarterback candidate in CJ Stroud, an offensive line that more than rivals Georgia’s front and is the nation’s second-highest offensive line behind only Tennessee. There’s also the motivation that comes from last week’s loss.

3.USC: I’ve considered putting Michigan here, but I’m going with the Trojans. They have conceded 35+ points in four of their last six games, including a 48-45 win over UCLA. But quarterback Caleb Williams, likely the leading Heisman candidate, has 34 touchdown passes against just three interceptions and 10 rushing touchdowns. The last time Smart faced a team coached by Lincoln Riley was in the 2017 Rose Bowl semifinals, when the Dogs narrowly defeated Oklahoma 54-48 in double overtime.

4.Michigan: The Wolverines didn’t get much respect when they were 11-0, but that all changed with the 45-23 win in Columbus. So why not stick higher? Maybe because I can’t get last season’s one-sided playoff matchup (34-11) out of my head. Georgia’s defense obviously isn’t as good this season as it was last year, but it’s been better than most give it credit for — and like Georgia’s offense, it’s been very good to great when it has to be. Michigan running back Blake Corum’s uncertain status is also factored in here.

5. TCU: I’m not suggesting that the Horned Frogs aren’t good and don’t deserve to be in the field – they are; They do — but only two of their wins have come to teams that were in the most recent top-25 playoff ranks (No. 12 Kansas State and No. 18 Texas). If Georgia draws TCU as a postseason opponent, it would be favored by three touchdowns.

So you can see how much things are changing. The current four-team playoff structure does not dictate that a team make its conference title game into the playoffs. There’s something wrong with that. It equals a potential advantage not playing in this week. But that’s how it was set up.

Smart would prefer this topic not to be raised at all: The SEC championship game “is the next game,” he said. “For us all year it was about the next one. The big teams worry more about the next one than the last one.”

TRUE. But the next won’t be the last, and everyone remembers the last.

(Top photo of Kendall Milton (2): Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)