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The Starting 11: Who Challenges Georgia Edition?

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We began yesterday believing Georgia was the best team in college football and we ended it convinced Georgia is the best team in college football and there may not be another team close to them.

Georgia smothered Missouri 43-6 to run its record to 9-0, while further burnishing its defense as one of the best in college football history. Don’t believe me? Georgia is the first defense since Alabama in 1992 to hold each of its first nine opponents to under 14 points.

That’s an incredible and improbable stat no matter the era, but when you consider the explosiveness of today’s offenses, it becomes even more remarkable.

Need further evidence of how good Georgia’s defense is, here’s how many points the top five teams in the most recent college football playoff rankings have given up so far this season:

Georgia 59
Ohio State 171
Alabama 179
Oregon 202
Michigan State 204

This is staggering. It’s not just that Georgia is elite defensively on a level we haven’t seen in decades, it’s that in this modern era of college football no one else is even remotely close to them. Georgia’s defense is over a 100 points better than any other top team’s defense is this year.

Now the Bulldogs will get an interesting test, of sorts, on Saturday as they roll into Knoxville to take on Josh Heupel’s Tennessee team, more on them below, who have one of the highest scoring offenses in the country this year. Maybe, possibly, Tennessee can give 17 or 20 points a run against Georgia, but if not, no one is scoring on Georgia until the SEC championship game at the earliest.

And based on what Alabama fans just saw against LSU does anyone think the Tide offense is going to roll against Georgia? Heck, based on what we’ve seen from all the top college football challengers does anyone feel that good about their offense posting many points against Georgia?

I don’t see how anyone could, honestly.

This Georgia defense isn’t just competing for a national title this year, they’re competing to be considered one of the best defenses in the history of the game.

Okay, on to the Starting 11.

1. What’s the playoff picture look like as we are now advancing squarely into November?

My playoff four right now would be:

1. Georgia
2. Alabama
3. Oregon
4. Ohio State

I’d put Oregon above Ohio State based on the head-to-head win.

We know Georgia and Alabama will play, barring an Alabama loss and Texas A&M winning out to sneak into Atlanta.

So who would be the next team up outside of this quad? I still think it’s likely to be Oklahoma, if the Sooners can finish strong their schedule difficulty is about to skyrocket. Oklahoma finishes with at Baylor, Iowa State and at Oklahoma State. Then they’d play a rematch, probably, against one of these three teams. Meaning if Oklahoma gets to 13-0, they’ll surge in the playoff rankings.

2. What do FanDuel’s national title odds tell us about where we are right now?

Here’s FanDuel’s top nine title odds:

Georgia -125
Alabama +450
Ohio State +450
Oklahoma 14-1
Oregon 30-1
Michigan 60-1
Oklahoma State 100-1
Cincinnati 100-1
Michigan State 100-1

As you can see, after Oregon there’s just an absolute collapse in title odds.

So, really, we’re talking about a five or six team race.

One idea here, if you feel like Michigan could run the table and beat Ohio State, you’d have an interesting value play here with the Wolverines at 60-1 in the playoffs. The same would be true if you felt like either Oklahoma State or Michigan State were likely to run the table.

Cincinnati, based on the committee’s rankings, is effectively finished no matter what they do from here on out. The schedule was just not challenging enough.

Increasingly, however, it feels to me like Georgia should be an even bigger favorite than they are right now since the Bulldogs not making the playoff would be a monumental upset at this point and I don’t feel like you can say that about any other team.

3. Why does no one respect Oregon?

A couple of weeks ago I told you that Oregon at 80-1 to win the national title felt crazy to me because if they won out they’d definitely be in the college football playoff. The playoff committee confirmed that thesis and now the Ducks odds are down to 30-1 and the final three games on the schedule, before the Pac 12 title game, are Washington State, at Utah and Oregon State.

Now that game at Utah, undoubtedly, will be a white knuckler, but Washington State and Oregon State should be wins.

Win those three games and the Pac 12 title game looks like it would probably be a rematch with Utah. (It’s the Pac 12, after all, so you never know for sure.)

Is it crazy to think Oregon could beat Utah twice and Washington State and Oregon State? I don’t think so at all.

Given that the playoff committee is clearly putting Oregon above Ohio State based on the head-to-head, if both teams finish 12-1, as they should, Oregon is one of only four teams — Georgia, Alabama, and Oklahoma are the other three — that know if they win out they are in the playoff.

4. Which brings us to the Big Ten playoff picture.

Purdue’s second upset of an undefeated top three ranked team this season was great for Jeff Brohm and his program, but it didn’t do anything to fundamentally alter the playoff contending picture in the Big Ten. If Michigan State, Michigan, or Ohio State win out they’ll all be in the Big Ten title game with a very strong chance to advance to the playoff with a title game win.

But if I’m a Buckeye fan I’m a bit nervous now about needing wins over both Michigan and Michigan State to win the Big Ten East. Not only that, there remains a potential scenario where even if my team goes 12-1 we get left out of the playoff.

What’s that scenario? It’s this one — Alabama beats Georgia in the SEC title game and both teams finish 12-1. Then Oklahoma and Oregon win out. If that scenario happened, Ohio State would be, I think, the fifth team in the playoff race, the team left on the sidelines.

Now, granted, there’s a low probability of this happening, but it’s at least a potential outcome and it means Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State can’t be 100% confident they’re in the playoff by winning out.

Lacking that exact result, the Big Ten continues to have three playoff contenders — Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan.

But, look out, Wisconsin may be playing the best football in all of the Big Ten right now. The Badgers crushed Greg Schiano’s Rutgers team 52-3 — the Schiano media boosters are awfully quiet right now as Schiano sits at 1-5 in the Big Ten in year two, by the way — and Wisconsin finishes with Northwestern, Nebrasks and at Minnesota to finish the season. Win out, as feels increasingly likely they will do, and Wisconsin would be your Big Ten West spoiler waiting in the title game for Big Ten East’s playoff hopeful.

5. Texas A&M has established itself as the third best team in the SEC with three weeks to go.

That’s quite an incredible turnaround considering where we were at the season’s midpoint — when A&M was reeling as a 17 point underdog with Alabama coming to town. In fact if you’re looking back at the season now, Aggie fans have to be sick to their stomachs over the back-to-back losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State. Just win one of those games and A&M would be poised to make their first trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.

Now Ole Miss gets a chance to punch back at the Aggies status as third best in the SEC on Saturday, but if the Aggies can win that game then 10-2 feels likely. (That’s assuming LSU doesn’t play all world in the final game of the season which, to be honest, is impossible to predict after how well LSU played at Alabama yesterday.)

6. What’s up with the Florida Gators?

Florida went into South Carolina on Saturday night as a 20 point favorite and lost by 23. That’s a 43 point swing vs the expected outcome, one of the most outlandish swings on the season in college football.

South Carolina, who hadn’t scored more than 23 points on any FBS opponent this season, had 30 points at halftime against the Gators.

The loss continued Dan Mullen’s freefall in Gainesville. Consider, the Gators are now 2-8 vs their last ten power five conference opponents (the two wins are Vanderbilt and Tennessee), the team is 4-8 overall in their past 12 games, and they are now 2-5 in the SEC this season.

After the game Mullen didn’t allow his players to speak to the media and he blamed the flu for impacting the health of 20 to 30 players. Let’s pause here for a moment before we discuss Mullen’s future and consider that the seasonal flu, which impacts young people far more severely than covid, required zero health precautions. That is, Florida trotted out 20-30 players who traveled and may have been able to spread the flu virus without a single issue at all. Yet if these same players had covid, which is likely to be far less dangerous to their overall health based on their age, the game probably would have been canceled.

How in the world can any reasonable person with a functional brain explain why covid positives are still treated like death sentences and the flu is totally brushed off? This is all just nonsensical.

Now back to Mullen.

What do the Gators do here? It feels like Mullen is going to have to fire most of his staff in order to keep his job, but the Florida fan base has turned on him in a big way so is that likely to solve anything? Can you really fire a guy a year removed from playing for the SEC title? Well, Tennessee did it back in 2008 with a far more successful head coach in Phil Fulmer. And you see how that’s worked out for them.

But in all honesty, will Mullen’s team beat Missouri or Florida State to get bowl eligible at 6-6? And will the notoriously cantankerous Dan Mullen want to play in a bowl game with a 6-6 Florida Gator team? Remember Mullen said he didn’t care about his team’s performance last year in a far better bowl game. Now he’s going to care about a late December cold weather game with a potentially 6-6 Gator team?

I just don’t see it.

It feels like the best result here would be Mullen leaving to go somewhere else.

But where?

Top available jobs like USC and LSU aren’t touching him. Maybe there’s another Starkville like location, under the college football radar of sorts, that would be a good fit for Mullen — TCU, Texas Tech, or Washington State — potentially. I just can’t see the NFL coming after him, not after the way this season ended. Although, to be fair, Arizona hired Kliff Kingsbury after Texas Tech fired him and it’s worked out fantastically for them so maybe there is an NFL job that could hire away Mullen.

Increasingly this feels, however, like a relationship where a divorce is looming and both parties are looking for ways out without having a ton of great options elsewhere.

7. It was a big week for Josh Heupel’s Tennessee Volunteers.

First, Tennessee publicly announced they weren’t going to have a bowl ban — a clear sign that Volunteer punishments over the Jeremy Pruitt regime were likely to be relatively minor after a year’s worth of a cloud has been hanging over the program — and then Tennessee won on the road at Lexington with a dominant offensive performance that was just enough to win a shootout.

In his first year in Knoxville Heupel has turned Hendon Hooker, a first year transfer quarterback from Virginia Tech, into a big time playmaker.

Consider Hooker’s stats right now: 23 touchdowns, 19 passing and four rushing, against just one interception. He’s completing 69% of his passes and the Vol offense is averaging just shy of 39 points a game.

There are still questions about how well of a recruiter Heupel will be, but the Vols get number one Georgia this weekend in a CBS national showcase game and then finish with South Alabama and Vanderbilt at home. Win those final two and Tennessee will be 7-5 in Heupel’s year one, headed to a bowl game, and poised to return Hooker and hit the transfer portal aggressively because they have a ton of scholarships available.

That means next year’s team could take a big step forward in year two under Heupel.

The Vols lost one score games against top 25 opponents Ole Miss and Pittsburgh, otherwise they could be sitting in an even more impressive position with three games remaining. But 7-5 in year one with the NCAA issues resolved and the dumpster fire Jeremy Pruitt left behind being extinguished is a heck of a strong start for Heupel.

8. North Carolina knocked Wake Forest from the unbeaten ranks with a wild 58-55 win.

It’s been a very disappointing year for UNC, but that was a hell of a fun win.

As we come down the stretch run of the ACC, if the season ended today the ACC title game would be Pitt against Wake Forest.

If you picked that before the season, take a bow, because you’re the only person who picked that match up.

But the biggest question I have about the ACC doesn’t have to do anything at all with who might win the title this year or play in the title game, it’s this: is Clemson capable of a big bounce back next year or has the Dabo mini-dynasty come and gone? It’s possible the Tigers go 8-4 or 7-5 this year — Wake Forest and South Carolina could certainly both beat Clemson this year.

So how quickly do the Tigers recover as an elite top ten caliber team? This is massively important not just for Clemson, but for the ACC too, since otherwise the league has almost no national cachet.

And unfortunately for the ACC, I’m not sure it happens quickly. This season feels more like a preview of years to come than it does an aberration.

9. Who wins the Heisman this year?

Your guess is as good as mine, especially after last week’s Heisman flavor of the moment, Kenny Walker, saw his Michigan State team lose for the first time at Purdue.

I’d put Walker, Bryce Young, Matt Coral, and CJ Stroud at the top of my board right now.

But the most impressive player I’ve seen all season I think is Matt Corral at Ole Miss.

I understand he’s been beaten up the past several weeks, but he’s made more of a difference in Ole Miss being 7-2 than, probably, any other single player has made to his team this year.

10. My Outkick National Top Ten

1. Georgia
2. Alabama
3. Oregon
4. Ohio State
5. Oklahoma
6. Michigan State
7. Michigan
8. Cincinnati
9. Notre Dame
10. Texas A&M

11. SEC power rankings 1-14

1. Georgia
2. Alabama
3. Texas A&M
4. Auburn
5. Ole Miss
6. Arkansas
7. Mississippi State
8. Tennessee
9. Kentucky
10. LSU
11. South Carolina
12. Florida
13. Missouri
14. Vanderbilt

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.

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