Yes, Alabama and Georgia both belong in the College Football Playoff

ATLANTA — Put them both in the playoff.

Alabama is in. But Georgia should be in as well.

Yes, with two losses.

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Yes, as a non-conference champion.

Yes, despite the résumés of Oklahoma and Ohio State.

Georgia is good enough to overcome all that.

The howls of outrage will echo across the Midwest, the Southwest and everywhere else where fans hate the thought of the Southeastern Conference gobbling up half the playoff for the second straight year. The political pressure against it would be immense — and let’s face it, college athletic administrators are political animals. The College Football Playoff selection committee would be shutting out 60 percent of the Power Five from the four-team playoff, which would cause enough backlash that it could actually alter the sport.

(For the better. Go ahead and expand the playoff.)

But it’s the right thing to do if the committee wants what it should want: the four best teams.

When the playoff was created, that was the language the late SEC commissioner Mike Slive fought for — four best teams. He knew that he led the nation’s best conference, and that the SEC likely would have more than one team of playoff caliber in some years, and he didn’t want the playoff reduced to a league-champions-only affair.

Georgia defensive back J.R. Reed (20) tries to tackle Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) during the second half of the SEC title game on Saturday. (AP)
Georgia defensive back J.R. Reed (20) tries to tackle Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) during the second half of the SEC title game on Saturday. (AP)

It’s fitting, in the year of Slive’s passing, that his words should resonate with the committee. Not so much for the purpose of getting two teams from his league in the final four, but for the purpose of honoring the calling to put the best teams in the final four.

Georgia is one of them.

The Bulldogs just played the undefeated, No. 1, previously unchallenged Crimson Tide to the brink for the SEC championship before falling, 35-28. The committee believed Georgia was better than Oklahoma and Ohio State before playing an absolute classic, and that shouldn’t change now. Nobody else had come within 21 points of ‘Bama all season, much less had a realistic chance of winning.

Alabama had trailed for a total of 70 seconds all season until Saturday — against Georgia, the Tide trailed for 35 minutes and 23 seconds. For more than 11 minutes the Tide trailed by two touchdowns. The ‘Dogs, meanwhile, didn’t trail until 64 seconds remained.

They played what everyone has considered the far-and-away best team in the country off its feet the entire way.

“I sure as hell don’t want to play them again,” said none other than Nick Saban, legend in residence at Alabama. “That’s the best compliment I can give them. … Based on what I’ve seen, they’re one of the four best teams in the country.”

Fact is, Alabama would almost certainly play Georgia again if the committee includes the Bulldogs in the field. Saban isn’t the only person who wouldn’t want that rematch on Dec. 29, but what would be wrong with it?

What’s wrong with a rematch of two teams that just played their second epic of the calendar year? Who wouldn’t want to see that again? Would you rather see Oklahoma’s 111th-ranked defense against Alabama? Or Ohio State’s No. 67 defensive unit?

This was a validation of Georgia as a heavyweight. The Bulldogs were the better team almost all day — a playoff-caliber team.

The game was a classic. A thriller. A freak show full of plot twists you could not have dreamed up.

Jalen Hurts, his career left for dead on this very field in January, resurrected himself and saved Alabama by doing exactly what Tua Tagovailoa did last year against Georgia — coming off the bench amid dire circumstances and somehow willing his team to victory over the Bulldogs. Last year it was Tagovailoa replacing Hurts, this year it was Hurts replacing Tagovailoa.

And Hurts now cements himself as the all-time example for benched players everywhere, in every sport — hang in there, stay positive, don’t pout, don’t quit, be a great teammate … and eventually fate will give you another chance. What a deserving hero.

The full-circle poetry of it is staggering. Shakespearian.

For Georgia, it is another Shakespearian tragedy suffered at the hands of the cursed Crimson Tide. The one play that will be recalled bitterly for decades by Bulldogs fans was coach Kirby Smart’s disastrous decision to fake a punt from midfield in a tie game with less than five minutes remaining.

It was fourth-and-11, not fourth-and-3. The game was tied. A solid punt puts Alabama 80-90 yards away. The fake was complete lunacy, a reckless gamble that backfired completely and delivered field position for the Tide’s winning drive.

“Thought it was there, and it was there today,” Smart said. “We were going to snap the ball quick. We took too long to snap the ball. They didn’t have a guy covered. We had a guy wide open. We took so long to snap it, that they recognized it and got the guy covered late. It was probably 20, 30 yards [of] field position that — we came to win the game. We wanted to win the game.”

Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) celebrates his touchdown against Georgia on Saturday. (AP)
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) celebrates his touchdown against Georgia on Saturday. (AP)

Smart adroitly threw the players under the bus for failing to execute, and then added in the common refrain from coaches who make terrible gambles that backfired.

The game could have been won without the fake put. It wasn’t either/or — fake it to win or kick it to lose. The smart play was to kick it away, instead of the Smart play to fake it in the face of a punt-coverage unit prepared to stop it.

While Smart says the play was there, Saban countered that his team was in “punt-safe” mode — which means he had the full starting defense out there for the very purpose of stopping or at least discouraging a fake. When the punt team looks at a “punt-safe” defense, it’s usually an automatic kill on a fake call.

“Most of the time when you leave your defense out there, you can defend most of the fakes,” Saban said, which was a diplomatic way of saying he was surprised Georgia followed through with the call.

But a coaching blunder shouldn’t be enough to take the Bulldogs out of the playoff.

Georgia won all 11 of its games by at least 14 points, including a 19-point beating of Florida (No. 9 in the playoff rankings), a 17-point beating of Kentucky (No. 15) and 14-point beating of Missouri (No. 24). And none of those games was at home between the hedges.

The first loss was a thumping, yes, a 20-point defeat at No. 10 LSU. But that’s better than a 29-point loss to Purdue (Ohio State) and not dramatically worse than a neutral-field loss to No. 14 Texas (Oklahoma). While Ohio State has a better win than any Georgia possesses, it has a far worse loss — plus wins by a single point over 5-7 Maryland and five points over 4-8 Nebraska. And Oklahoma’s wins are at best comparable to Georgia’s, including a one-point escape over a middling Oklahoma State team.

Prior to Saturday, the Bulldogs already had played a tougher schedule than either of the other two teams according to the Sagarin Ratings — No. 28 nationally, compared to Oklahoma at No. 37 and Ohio State at No. 43. And the was before Georgia played No. 1 Alabama.

Everyone will go nuts. The most controversial of all postseasons will ratchet it up to a riot-in-the-streets level.

Do it anyway, committee.

And then, perhaps, there will be movement toward a larger playoff — six teams, eight teams, something that opens up avenues for more of the Power Five that has been squirming under the boot heel of SEC oppression.

But there is a good reason for this SEC oppression — it has been the best conference, and it remains the best conference, and both Georgia and Alabama are among the four best teams in the nation in 2018 — after being the two best teams in the nation in 2017.

Georgia-Alabama III, in JerryWorld on Dec. 29? Sign me up.

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