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Starting 11: LSU Soars, Georgia Crumbles

This year LSU has been an underdog in three games against top ten teams: in Texas against Miami, at Auburn, and at home against Georgia. LSU has won all three of these games, two by double digits.

The result?

LSU’s home game against Alabama in two weeks is the SEC game of the year.

We’ll get to that in a moment, but first my apologies for being a bit late on posting the Starting 11 this week, I was traveling to London on Saturday night and spent all day yesterday recovering from the overnight flight with three kids.

But I’m back up and running full speed today and just finished my radio show live from London.

Here we go with the Starting 11.

1. My playoff four: Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, LSU. 

Look, I understand the argument for Clemson as one of the four playoff teams at this point in time, but let’s be entirely objective here: LSU has three wins over Miami, Auburn, and Georgia. The win over Georgia is better than any win Clemson has so far or will have on its regular season schedule. And is losing a really tight game on the road against a top ten Florida team really a bad loss at this point?

I don’t think so.

LSU’s playoff hopes — as well as the Tigers hope in the SEC West and the SEC overall — will probably be decided November 3rd against Alabama. But keep in mind that LSU also has the very definition of a trap game with Mississippi State coming to town — off a bye week — this upcoming weekend in Baton Rouge. If LSU loses this game then the Bama game wouldn’t matter in the SEC West because the Tigers would already be eliminated from the SEC West race unless the Tide lost two league games. (which seems hard to fathom).  Remember LSU also has to finish the season with a road game at Texas A&M so the chances of LSU finishing 11-1 seem incredibly remote. If I were betting on it, I’d take the Tigers to finish 9-3 with losses to Bama and A&M.

But back to the other Tigers in our playoff grouping: right now Clemson is slated to only play one top 25 team for the remainder of its regular season — NC State on Saturday. It would probably be impossible for 13-0 Clemson to be left out of the playoff, but, honestly, I just don’t see their resume as justifying the playoffs right now.

They were fortunate to get past Texas A&M and Syracuse and need to be undefeated and win the ACC before they’re in my playoff. (Note: I argued Clemson was in my playoff this morning on the radio show, but now that I’m having more time to think about it as I write the column, I’m changing my opinion. One reason I like writing as opposed to just opining on TV or radio is when I sit down and make written arguments I feel stronger than when I just say them aloud.)

I wouldn’t even have Clemson as my number five team right now, I’d have Michigan and Texas as my number five and six teams in the country. (As you’ll see below, I have Clemson as my number seven team.)

2. The SEC playoff road continues to run through Alabama and no one else has any margin for error. 

The complicating factor for the SEC would be if Bama lost to LSU in two weeks and then ran the table to finish 11-1. If that happened and LSU ran the table — still no easy feat — then Bama would be left out of the SEC title game. So would 11-1 Alabama, which Vegas would make a double digit favorite over every other team in college football, get in the playoff?

They should if the goal is to put the best four teams in the playoff, but would the Tide’s schedule allow it? Absent a win over LSU the second best win on Alabama’s schedule would probably be Texas A&M, Mississippi State, or Auburn. (We don’t know because we don’t know how the season will finish.) Honestly, the Tide probably needs a team like A&M to finish 10-2. At that point a 10-2 A&M would probably be ranked in the top ten. They would also be helped a great deal if Auburn and Mississippi State finished 8-4, as that would put both teams in the top 25 too.

As for the teams outside of Alabama, LSU, Florida, and Georgia all have a simple mandate — win out and you’re in.

(I’ll also add in the caveat that if Kentucky won out they would be in the playoff as well. But I’m only doing this so Wildcat fans will leave me alone on social media. The chances of Kentucky finishing 12-1 are incredibly tiny.)

Does the SEC have any chance of getting two teams in the playoff? I think so. The most likely outcome here would be a 12-1 Alabama loses to the SEC East champ, either 12-1 Georgia or 12-1 Florida. But, as I mentioned above, 11-1 Alabama with a loss at LSU would also have a case to be made as a second SEC team.

3. The Big Ten playoff picture is now down to Ohio State and Michigan. 

The Wolverines have to win out and then beat Ohio State in Columbus to win the Big Ten East and advance to the Big Ten title game.

Interestingly, if this happens then 11-1 Ohio State could find itself in the playoff mix as well as a potential at large slection.

Any other outcome than Michigan running the table and the Big Ten is down to Ohio State alone.

By the way, for all the talk about how Alabama hasn’t played anyone, Bama’s schedule is pretty damn similar to Ohio State’s right now, except Ohio State’s schedule is not as good. Consider: Ohio State has beaten 1-5 Oregon State, 1-6 Rutgers, 3-3 TCU, 2-4 Tulane,  #18 ranked Penn State who is 4-2, 4-3 Indiana, and 3-3 Minnesota.

Meanwhile Alabama has beaten 2-5 Louisville, 3-3 Arkansas State, 5-2 Ole Miss, #17 ranked 5-2 Texas A&M, 2-4 Louisiana, 1-5 Arkansas, and 3-3 Missouri.

Alabama’s combined opponent records are 21-24 while Ohio State’s combined opponent records are 18-26.

So if you feel compelled to comment on Alabama’s schedule, you ought to also point out the fact that Ohio State’s opponents have been worse.

Meanwhile, is Jim Harbaugh back rolling?

We’ll see, so far the Wolverines are 1-5 against Michigan State and Ohio State. In order to be in the playoff picture they’ll have to beat both teams for the first time in Harbaugh’s tenure in Ann Arbor. I have serious doubts that will happen.

4. The Pac 12’s playoffs hopes are hanging by a thread with Oregon’s win over Washington. 

If Oregon just hadn’t choked away that game against Stanford then things might be far different.

But right now Oregon is ranked 12th in the country.

And, honestly, I think Oregon loses at Utah later this year to slam the door completely shut on the Pac 12’s playoff hopes.

But even if the Ducks win out to finish 12-1, the playoffs look unlikely.

5. The Big 12 is wide open. 

With West Virginia’s loss at Iowa State every Big 12 team has now lost at least one game and no one has any real clue which two teams are going to advance and play for the title.

I’d still bet on it being Texas and Oklahoma, but good luck trying to forecast this.

If you’re a Big 12 fan you want Notre Dame to lose, as that would probably open up one playoff spot. You’d also like to see Clemson lose as I’m not sure Clemson has the juice to make the playoff over a one loss Big 12 champ given the weakness in the ACC this year.

Although, honestly, Clemson needs Texas A&M to keep winning as it’s possible the Aggies are the best win for both Alabama and Clemson at the end of the year.

6. Can Notre Dame run the table?

The Irish are 7-0 now but they barely survived against Pittsburgh.

Can they also survive against Navy, at Northwestern, Florida State, Syracuse, and at USC?

Each of these games looks like a complete minefield right now.

Having seen the Pittsburgh game, I have my doubts. Especially considering how the pressure is going to increase exponentially each week they remain undefeated.

Here’s an interesting question for you: what if Alabama and Clemson both finish undefeated to grab two playoff spots and then Big 12 champ Oklahoma,  Pac 12 champ Oregon, Big Ten champ Michigan, and Notre Dame all finish with one loss? Which two teams get the final two playoff spots?

There’s no way that Michigan gets in without Notre Dame getting in too, is there? So could you take these two teams and leave out Oregon and Oklahoma? Or do you leave out Notre Dame and Michigan and take the other two teams?

Talk about a mess…

7. What happens with Gus Malzahn at Auburn and his $49 million contract in the wake of Auburn’s loss to Tennessee?

First, that was a tremendously important win for Jeremy Pruitt. The Vols now have a very real chance of making a bowl game. At halfway through the season Tennessee is now 3-3 and needs three wins out of these final six: Alabama, at South Carolina, Charlotte, Kentucky, Missouri, and at Vanderbilt. Bama is a clear loss, but the other five games are all winnable. Can the Vols go 3-2 in these five? That’s still probably a tall order, but would it shock anyone if Tennessee beat Charlotte, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt?

And regardless of whether Tennessee makes a bowl game or not, Jarrett Guarantano performed incredibly well against Auburn. Vol fans have something to look forward to if he continues to improve.

Now on to Auburn, what in the world are they going to do with Gus Malzahn? Just over ten months ago Auburn fans were ecstatic over the Tigers huge win over Alabama which had sent them into the SEC title game for a rematch against Georgia. Win that game and Gus Malzahn was headed to the playoffs.

Buoyed by these results — and to keep him for leaving for Arkansas — Auburn signed Malzahn to a $49 million contract extension, making Gus Malzahn one of the five highest paid coaches in college football. But since that SEC title game Auburn has gone just 3-5 in its past eight games. Now sitting at 4-3 Auburn has a very real chance of finishing with five or six losses. (Games at Alabama and at Georgia seem incredibly likely to end in defeat and at Ole Miss and Texas A&M at Auburn also seem daunting).

If Malzahn finishes 6-6 or 7-5 does Auburn even have the cash to fire him? I don’t think so.

This situation could get messy in a hurry.

For now, it’s possible to make a strong argument that Auburn has signed the worst coaching contract in modern college football history.

8. Tua makes Alabama the best team in college football, but without him the Tide go from good to great in a hurry.

Going from Tua to Jalen Hurts is like going from HD to standard definition.

That’s why I’d seriously consider sitting Tua for this upcoming week at Tennessee to get him fully healthy for the LSU game.

That’s because I believe Alabama could still beat Tennessee pretty soundly with Jalen Hurts at quarterback. (As they have done the past two years).

Why risk Tua getting injured worse in a game you don’t need him for when you could have him be 100% healthy for LSU the first week in November? If you sit Tua out for the Tennessee game then he gets three full weeks to get healthy for the closing run of the season.

This decision could also factor into the Heisman race since Tua and Dwayne Haskins appear to be the only two contenders as we enter the middle of October, but I still think a solid November from Tua would win him the Heisman. As good as Haskins has been, Tua’s on an entirely different level.  Its a credit to how dominant Tua has been that throwing for 265 yards and three touchdowns in just over a half seems like a pedestrian performance.

9. There was no wifi on my flight to London and I was in gambling hell.

I don’t remember the last time I was unable to get sports scores for eight hours. I felt like I was back in the stone ages.

When we took off I had three bets outstanding — Mizzou at Alabama and the over as well as the over in Ole Miss at Arkansas.  When the flight attendant told me we had no wifi, I was in shock. It was halftime of both games and I was looking good on all three bets.

The moment we landed I immediately hopped on my phone to see what happened. Yikes, I finished 1-2.

I promise to do better gambling this weekend.

10. The Outkick Top Ten:

1. Alabama

2. Ohio State

3. Notre Dame

4. LSU

5. Michigan

6. Texas

7. Clemson

8. Georgia

9. Oklahoma

10. Florida

11. The SEC power rankings:

The complicating factor here, clearly, is Kentucky’s win over Florida. It’s impossible to have every team ranked above every team they beat because I’d have to put Kentucky above Florida and Florida also above LSU, but Florida lost to Kentucky and LSU lost to Florida. So what I try to do is look at the overall picture at this exact moment in time.

So here’s my best guess on the SEC after seven weeks:

1. Alabama

2. LSU

3. Georgia

4. Florida

5. Texas A&M

6. Kentucky

7. Mississippi State

8. Ole Miss

9. South Carolina

10. Tennessee

11. Auburn

12. Missouri

13. Vanderbilt

14. Arkansas

Written by Clay Travis

Clay Travis is an author, radio show host, lawyer, TV analyst, and the founder and lead writer of Outkick (formerly known as Outkick the Coverage).
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