Another November begins with the familiar sight of Southeastern Conference teams in lofty places in the initial College Football Playoff rankings.
And much like a year ago, two-time defending national champion and top-ranked Georgia is looking up from second after Tuesday night’s release. (The Bulldogs began third last year.) Ninth-ranked Alabama (No. 8 CFP) and No. 11 Mississippi (No. 10 CFP) follow, with No. 13 LSU (No. 14 CFP) and No. 14 Missouri (No. 12 CFP) on the radar.
The next five weeks will determine if the unbeaten Bulldogs (8-0, 4-0) follow last year’s path and enter on top of the final four-team playoff before the format expands to 12 next season. New Year’s Six and other bowl berths will be settled soon after, adding more importance for teams to close the regular season playing their best football with numerous committees watching.
Winning generally takes care of everything, but achieving the obvious bottom line certainly won’t be easy for Georgia, ’Bama and Ole Miss, which must navigate challenging paths of conference foes to stay on the playoff radar. And staying focused on what’s immediately in front of them.
“I’m worried about constant improvement,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Wednesday on the SEC’s weekly teleconference, adding that his team doesn’t feel slighted by their initial ranking despite winning their last 25 games while pursuing a third straight national title.
Smart added that his focus is “getting players back healthy, trying to get the guys that aren’t playing back to playing and (then) the guys that are playing, (playing) better. And you do that one week at a time.”
The Bulldogs face perhaps the most difficult gauntlet with three ranked opponents in Mizzou on Saturday in Athens, Ole Miss and at No. 19 Tennessee (No. 17 CFP) before closing the regular season against in-state rival Georgia Tech in non-conference play.
Lopsided victory margins may impress the AP Top 25 and CFP voters, but narrow wins also can pay off.
One year ago, Georgia rallied from a 10-point deficit to beat Missouri 26-22 in early October. The win may have given the Bulldogs the confidence they would need to gut out a 16-6 win at Kentucky and eventually earn a tough 42-41 CFP semifinal Peach Bowl win over Ohio State. They jumped to No. 1 in the second ranking and stayed there.
“I think ultimately that game last year was such an essential role to what that team became,” center Sedrick Van Pran said Monday. “So, I think ultimately we had the opportunity to kind of create our identity through that game. I think we could have, but I’m grateful that we had that game to help build us.”
South Carolina and Auburn have pushed Georgia this season, but the Bulldogs have won their past three SEC contests by 38, 17 and 23 points, respectively. Even with All-America tight end Brock Bowers sidelined with an ankle injury.
Alabama hosts LSU on Saturday night with the Western Division lead at stake before visiting Kentucky ahead of a non-league breather against UT-Chattanooga. It closes at rival Auburn on Nov. 25 and hopes a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game will follow.
Though the Crimson Tide (7-1, 5-0) will need teams above them to snatch one of those coveted playoff spots, having to prove themselves during the stretch run isn’t uncommon. They come off a bye Saturday night after six consecutive wins, including a 34-20 comeback victory over Tennessee after trailing 20-7 at halftime.
Alabama’s offense has come together around quarterback Jalen Milroe, and coach Nick Saban is trying to maintain his team’s focus in this upward trajectory.
“I think it’s more stay focused on the process of what you have to do and not become outcome-oriented and create a bunch of anxiety for yourself,” he added. “Just play the next play. Play that moment. Don’t look at the scoreboard, don’t be affected by external factors.
“That’s challenging. But I think that’s the best way to go about it.”
Ole Miss (7-1, 4-1) is also a game behind Alabama in the West and carries a four-game winning streak into Saturday’s meeting with Texas A&M (5-3, 3-2). Georgia is next with rival Mississippi State sandwiched around a non-league matchup with UL-Monroe. Not surprisingly, Rebels coach Lane Kiffin isn’t paying attention to rankings and says they won’t matter as long as his team keeps on winning.
Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz has stressed the same approach in the Tigers’ remarkable season that could upend the playoff picture by upsetting college football's top team. Where it leads remains to be seen, but East contention is something they’ve certainly built toward and it's no accident that quest is evolving when it matters most.
“You want to be playing your best at the end and you want to be playing for something meaningful,” the coach added, “which is what we’ve been able to do.”
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum in Athens, Georgia, contributed to this report.
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