Alabama and Georgia are the SEC favorites to advance to and win this season's College Football Playoff, but inexperienced defenses and tricky scheduling could see the conference without a representative for the first time.
The SEC and ACC are the only two Power Five conferences to play in each College Football Playoff (CFP). The reasons are many, including the fact both play an eight- rather than a nine-game division slate, which allows for scheduling a lesser FBS or FCS opponent over a tougher rival. This has helped programs in each conference finish the regular season with just one defeat, which is the unofficial standard set by the CFP committee for a postseason invite.
The SEC is also the top college football conference in the nation in terms of talent and competition. Last year, it fielded six of the top 10 teams nationally for best recruiting classes over a five-year span. For 12 years in a row, it has topped the NFL Draft in number of picks, sending 53 in 2018. Nine of the last 12 national champions, in fact, have come from the powerhouse conference. Many believe that if the CFP committee were to invite a two-loss team ever, it would come from the ultra-rich SEC. Here are updated national championship odds via 5Dimes:
This is the year the SEC's dominance could be broken. The fact Alabama (+200) and Georgia (+850) are the only two schools offered at under 25-to-1 odds is telling. No program has won the nation championship with odds over +1600 in the summer since Auburn claimed the 2010 title (+5000) with Cam Newton under center. The Tigers (+2500) and LSU (+3600) are the only real outsiders from the division for the upcoming campaign. Here’s how Alabama and Georgia could slip up and leave the best college football conference missing from the playoffs:
2017: 13-1 SU, 6-8 ATS
The Crimson Tide has long been touted as one of the few teams that could afford two losses and still possibly make the playoffs. Maybe not this year. The upcoming campaign is softer than usual, ranking 30th in ESPN’s FPI strength of schedule index. The last three years, Alabama has opened the season against ranked opponents: No. 3 Florida State (2017), No. 20 USC (2016), and No. 20 Wisconsin (2015). This year, Bama is a 29.5-point favorite over a weakened Louisville squad without QB Lamar Jackson.
Outside of head coach Nick Saban’s debut (2007), the Crimson Tide has lost multiple games headed into the bowl season just one time, in 2010. They went 9-3 SU during the regular season before routing Michigan State 49-7 in the Citrus Bowl. Alabama kicked off the preseason the national championship favorite at +400 odds, and never dropped below +1000 despite the losses, so the slump was far from expected. What stands out with that team is the fact Saban returned 10 starters from an undefeated run the prior year, but only two were on defense. He returns just three on this side of the ball for 2018 — six on offense.
All three 2010 defeats were against SEC foes, and the Crimson Tide were single-digit chalk in each: at South Carolina (35-21, -7.0), at LSU (24-21, -6.5), and hosting eventual champion Auburn in the Iron Bowl (28-27, -4.0). Similar danger spots appear on the 2018 schedule. In Week 9, Alabama travels to LSU. The Tide is a 10-point favorite in advanced lines, but this number will likely drop. The Crimson Tide has not kicked off in Baton Rouge spotting double digits since 1992. Since 2003, they are 4-3 SU and ATS, averaging just 17.6 points per game. Alabama has put up more than 21 points (27) just once in this span. A young defense may need a bit more.
The Iron Bowl is essentially a coin-flip every year, regardless of the odds. Since 1980, the two schools have split the rivalry with 19 wins apiece. Alabama is 7-4 SU and 5-6 ATS under Saban, going off an average -12.3 chalk. It is 1-3 SU and ATS as a favorite of 10 points or less. Advanced lines see the Tigers catching only a touchdown.
2017: 13-2 SU, 11-4 ATS
Like Alabama, the concern for the Bulldogs is that head coach Kirby Smart returns only three starters on defense. Since Smart took over in 2016, Georgia is just 6-6 SU and 5-7 ATS when allowing 24 points or more. It has yielded this many in four of seven true SEC road tests. They travel to South Carolina, Missouri, LSU, and Kentucky in 2018.
The LSU trip is particularly troublesome. Georgia is just 3-5 SU and ATS in its last eight road games against SEC West opponents, with two victories coming as double-digit chalk. Smart has been routed in his only two attempts, losing 45-14 as 7-point underdogs in 2016 and 40-17 as a 2.5-point favorite at Auburn last season. The Bulldogs are favored by a field goal to avenge the latter loss, hosting the Tigers in Week 10.
The annual Florida game is no gimme either. Advanced lines see the Bulldogs laying their most points ever in the rivalry at -15, but are just 8-6 SU and 5-7-2 ATS when chalk since 1980. One of these losses, a 38-20 defeat in 2014, occurred in one of the two contests it spotted the Gators double digits (-11.5).