The College Football Playoff race might swing in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Saturday night. Or the game could be a preview of what’s to come.
Georgia–Alabama is the scheduled game with the second-highest impact on the playoff race, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, behind only Ohio State–Penn State on Halloween. It’s also a game between the in-conference pair most likely to both reach the playoff, with a 25% chance of both the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs finishing in the top four.
How can both of those things be true? Both teams in Saturday’s contest face a significant amount of playoff leverage (their chance to make the CFP based on a win or a loss in the game), but simultaneously both also still have a high floor — at least a 40% chance to reach the playoff even if they lose (there’s a caveat, though).
Alabama — slated to play without head coach Nick Saban on the sidelines — faces more downside since it currently sits at the superior 64% chance to reach the playoff and is favored in the contest. Georgia would jump up to a 75% chance (just behind Clemson at 76%) to reach the playoff with a victory, while Alabama would have a 76% chance (just slightly ahead of the Tigers by percentage points).
But let’s focus on both teams’ relatively high downsides: Why are they each so well off even with a loss?
Due to the unusual nature of this season, the Big 12’s implosion and the fact that several other SEC contenders have at least one loss already, not only would each team be a virtual shoo-in to the playoff if it were to run the table following a loss (thus a one-loss conference champion), but it would be possible for each to lose again and still get in with two losses.
Take Alabama, for instance. Imagine if the Tide lost to not only Georgia but to the defending champs in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a few weeks later. Assuming Alabama won all of its other scheduled contests, it would have a 98% chance to win the SEC West and, if it went on to win the SEC, would still have a 57% chance to reach the playoff as a two-loss champion.
We can play out the same scenario for Georgia; just sub in Kentucky for LSU and the Bulldogs would have a 69% shot at the playoff if they ran the table and won the conference after those two losses.
Of course, if Alabama’s second loss came at the hands of Auburn or Georgia’s came to Florida, then their chances of winning the division, and therefore reaching the playoff, would drop.
And then there’s the caveat: A blowout.
When we give these contingent probabilities, they are cited under the assumption of a constant FPI rating for every team. But if Georgia were to stun Alabama and win by three touchdowns (and it wasn’t all because of special teams), then the Crimson Tide’s rating would take a hit and so would their projections.
How about the SEC, should it be rooting for one team over the other if it hopes to land two teams in the playoff? It turns out no.
The SEC has a 28% chance to put multiple teams in the playoff — low for this time of year for this conference — and as we’ve already mentioned, most of that is made up of Alabama and Georgia getting in together. Because both teams are in such similar circumstances, it doesn’t make a big difference for the conference either way. Obviously the ideal circumstance for the conference is for the loser of Saturday’s game to beat the winner in the conference championship game, with neither taking another loss.
For the teams, the result does matter. But while both have plenty at stake on Saturday, neither can deliver anything close to a knockout blow to the other.