Ahead of today’s conference championship action, we had the opportunity to do a brief interview with ESPN and SEC Network broadcaster Laura Rutledge.
She went into detail about her views on the debate between Georgia, Ohio State, and Oklahoma for the College Football Playoff, the teams with the best shot at taking down Alabama, the potential for Playoff expansion, and Dan Mullen’s first year at her alma mater Florida.
The Spun: After last weekend’s games, I saw that you tweeted out your top six, with Ohio State at No. 5 over Oklahoma. I saw that you also thought that Oklahoma would be more deserving than a two-loss Georgia, even if the Bulldogs were to play Alabama close.
How do you see things playing out heading into Sunday’s selection show?
Laura Rutledge: My top six is how I think it should be… One of the things that I think people forget is that this is all based on what you see with your eyes, in addition to the numbers. The biggest glaring thing about Oklahoma is where their defense ranks.
My top 6 after this incredible day:
3. Notre Dame
5. Ohio St
*What a statement by the Buckeyes. Fascinated to see what the committee does with the 5 and 6 spot. I’d bet the top 3 teams don’t want to see Ohio St and Urban.
— Laura Rutledge (@LauraMRutledge) November 25, 2018
Look their offense is exceptional, Kyler Murray’s exceptional. He’s been so much fun to watch and I think Oklahoma fans get up at arms about any any talk about their lack of defense but it’s just a fact and it’s part of it. Their defense ranks behind Kansas’ defense against common opponents.
There are so many different numbers we could throw out there, and I’ve done the College Football Playoff mock committee, and what you’re looking for is not only the four best teams, you’re also looking for complete teams, teams are going to create great matchups and there’s an excitement at thinking about Oklahoma’s offense against Alabama’s defense for instance. How good are they really on both of those sides? So that’s fascinating to me. But if you think about Alabama’s offense or any other offenses against Oklahoma’s defense, that’s not the match-up. That’s just the fact of the matter.
Committee positioning Oklahoma to move into top 4 if UGA loses BUT debate will be heated in that room if it’s a close loss to Bama. UGA strength of schedule moves from 22nd to 10th just by playing the Tide. Oklahoma would be more deserving. Depends on what this committee values. https://t.co/VBaxJIlesb
— Laura Rutledge (@LauraMRutledge) November 28, 2018
So that’s why I ranked that top six the way that I did. Now the point about most deserving, most deserving is not actually a qualification that a committee is supposed to consider, but sometimes they do, and my point in that tweet was it’s all about how they factor in what matters most? Do they really care about conference championships?… Georgia with a close loss to Alabama would be a two-loss non-conference champion, and we’re talking about that matching up against Oklahoma winning potentially, and being a conference champion with one loss. That’s a hard sell, even when you’re looking at the teams and saying ‘Hey maybe Georgia is better.’ And I think they probably are. I think they’re a more complete team on both sides of the ball and it may create a better match up. But the committee will be faced with a lot of tough questions and a lot of heated debate, I believe, if it ends up that way.
The other thing about Oklahoma, let’s say they beat Texas, they give up 600 yards of offense or something like that. Let’s say Ohio State has a dominant win over Northwestern, a very complete, good team. That’s where the committee may look at it and say—and we do know it matters at the end of the season a bit more than the beginning of the season—Ohio State lately has looked really good.
The Spun: I think that’s why this three team group at the bottom here is so intriguing because they all are very different.
At this point you probably argue that Georgia is the most well-rounded, most balanced team, especially with how Jake Fromm has played. They’ll obviously get their shot at ‘Bama this weekend. Of those three, which do you think, which do you think has the best shot of beating of this Alabama team?
LR: It’s a fascinating debate. I do think of those three, Georgia probably has the best chance and one of the reasons why is that they’ve been more consistent lately, and they do have this freakish defense. A lot of young guys on their defense are freakishly talented. Some names that you may not know yet, but will know over the next few years because they are so very young and very athletic.
I think against Alabama’s defense and the way they play now, it is more of a spread out, very fast offense. They’ve got these incredible athletes all around, whether they’re running back or wide receiver, that probably don’t get enough credit. Everyone talks about Tua Tagovailoa, but what these skill position guys have done has been impressive. I think Georgia’s rangy defense and freakish athletes that they match up pretty well if they can stay disciplined in their assignments against Alabama. I would pick Georgia as the team that has the best chance, so we’ll see if that’s going to happen on Saturday, and that’s going to be a big part of what this discussion is all about.
I think when when the committee is looking at trying to factor all this in, that they’re going to really pay attention to what Georgia looks like against Alabama because Alabama is this benchmark. We’re all trying to figure out if anybody’s going to beat them, if anybody going to match up well against them, and right now you know to me outside of those three teams the team that I think has the best chance to beat them would be Clemson. But we know that Clemson is squarely in, it seems, the College Football Playoff assuming they beat Pitt.
The Spun: That leads into what I was going to ask next. It sounds like you think we’ll be getting a fourth straight Alabama-Clemson match-up, and that they’ll get by Notre Dame, assuming those two hold in the middle of the top four.
LR: Yeah I do. You know I think Notre Dame’s a very good team and they do have an advantage in the fact that they don’t play in a conference championship. We thought that actually worked out quite well for Alabama last year, when they didn’t play in the SEC Championship, and had a chance to really get healthy before they played in that semifinal game. Notre Dame isn’t necessarily struggling with health the way that Alabama was last year. But I do think that it would be a close game, because I think Notre Dame is a solid match-up but I think Clemson, especially with the play of Trevor Lawrence lately and the way he’s gotten so comfortable, they have so much experience on both sides of the ball too. And that D-line, their reputation precedes them, so I think that Clemson will get the edge there.
The Spun: The conference championship thing is interesting because the first year of the Playoff, there was obviously so much made of the Big 12 situation and Ohio State jumping TCU and Baylor, and now they’ve added a championship game. And that doesn’t seem like it is necessarily the best thing for the teams, with Alabama last year and Notre Dame this year. Do you think we’ll eventually see an expansion of a playoff, especially since the conference title is not always a given in terms of helping teams, or do you think we’re going to hold pat at four teams?
LR: I think they’ll stick with it for as long as they possibly can. And to me it’s not even as much the conference championship argument that would really factor in whether to expand. I think it’s more about a team like UCF, and whether or not the country, the commissioners, the College Football Playoff heads of state if you will, whether or not they actually care about that. Here’s the other thing: if total chaos happens this weekend, is UCF now in a position where they really do have a strong argument to end up as one of those top four teams?
I don’t think the committee does that. I think they would actually rather put a two-loss Georgia or someone like that in there, especially without quarterback McKenzie Milton. It is a real shame that he’s not able to play. But really they don’t want to expand this thing, and I think what happens with what we’re looking at is, let’s say they expanded or let’s say they said ‘You know conference champions have an automatic entry into the Playoff,’ well then what if Pitt beats Clemson, and then all of a sudden Pitt is in the College Football Playoff.
The whole point was we need the four best teams or some semblance of the best teams. My colleague Greg McElroy brought up an interesting scenario. He said that maybe each year there should be a sliding number of how many teams could enter the Playoff, and it would be determined that year by how many really good teams there actually were, so this year for instance you would see Ohio State and Oklahoma maybe battle for a spot in the Playoff. I think that sounds interesting, but then one year you could say “Well there is this team’s really good and they deserve to be in there,” but the committee doesn’t think that. We’re talking about human beings who are making these decisions. I think they will try to stick with the top four and stick with that as long as possible. I don’t see expansion coming any time soon. I think there are too many cans of worms that would be opened.
The Spun: Moving down from the top six teams here, you’re a Florida Gator. How do you think Dan Mullen handled his first season back at UF?
LR: Really well. I think if there were any questions about him being the right hire for Florida, they’ve been answered. He’s done everything that we expected, if not more. Here’s the thing, and I can say this about them because I went to school there, they’re incredibly spoiled and they always think that they should be in contention for the SEC championship, and then of course now, for the College Football Playoff. And every fan base should be that way, right? That’s the whole point of being a fan.
So I think the expectations were incredibly high and he got close to even exceeding a lot of those high expectations. He’s had some limitations with what he can do offensively. I think when he gets a a better quarterback in there, when he gets a little more talent going at some of these skill position places, he’s in a scenario where he can really get the offense moving, but the hiring of Todd Grantham may be one of the better things he did. Todd Grantham made a big difference on this defense. And I was impressed by everything that they did this year.
— Pilot Flying J (@PilotFlyingJ) November 29, 2018
This season, SEC Network personalities Laura Rutledge and Paul Finebaum served as advocates for Pilot Flying J, the”Official Travel Center of the SEC,” with 275 stores within SEC markets. Pilot Flying J is in the second of a four year sponsorship with the SEC conference.