Yes, the teams next in line have changed. In August, it was Georgia and Oklahoma. After Saturday’s conference championships, it’s Notre Dame and Texas A&M. But the landscape is otherwise familiar, which is enough to make anyone wonder whether the risks, the fatigue and the stop-and-start nature of the season was worth enduring for reasons other than collecting television revenue.
As for the playoff, three teams seem pretty cemented, there’s a good argument for Notre Dame to occupy the fourth spot by virtue of its regular season defeat of Clemson and Cincinnati took another step toward being able to mimic fellow conference member Central Florida and claim a national championship despite not receiving a playoff invite.
No. 1 Alabama (11-0): It took until Saturday for the Crimson Tide to be even remotely threatened, surviving Florida 52-46 in the SEC title game. Alabama’s stars were stars — Mac Jones threw for five touchdowns, Najee Harris reached the end zone five times and totaled 245 all-purpose yards (178 rushing, 67 receiving) and DeVonta Smith hauled in 15 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns.
It’s the most vulnerable Alabama’s defense has looked in a while; it had given up a total of 53 points in its previous six games. But the Crimson Tide offense is darn-near unstoppable, and Florida wasn’t going to be the team to stop it. Alabama rolled up 605 total yards against the Gators, and will be a threat to hang half-a-hundred on anyone it plays in the playoff.
Verdict: Argue as much as you want about everything else, but Alabama should be the undisputed No. 1 seed in the four-team playoff.
No. 3 Clemson (10-1): That’s six consecutive ACC championships for the Tigers, who dusted off Notre Dame 34-10 in a regular season rematch. Trevor Lawrence didn’t play in the first game, Clemson’s lone loss; he had 322 yards and two touchdowns passing and another 90 yards and a score on the ground when he got his shot at the Irish.
More importantly, Clemson had linebackers Mike Jones Jr. and James Skalski and defensive tackle Tyler Davis available this time around. All three missed the double-overtime setback in South Bend. Skalski (5 tackles, one sack) and Davis (4 tackles, 1.5 for loss) were especially vital as the Tigers smothered Notre Dame, keeping the Irish to 143 total yards over the final three quarters.
Verdict: The No. 2 seed. Saturday was a reminder that at full strength, Clemson is a juggernaut with only one true year-after-year-after-year peer in the sport. And it may well meet that peer — Alabama — in a few weeks in the national title game.
No. 4 Ohio State (6-0): It was a struggle for the rusty and shorthanded Buckeyes to manufacture points against No. 14 Northwestern in the Big Ten title game, but eventually coach Ryan Day simply put the ball in the hands of running back Trey Sermon. The Oklahoma transfer delivered behind a dominant line, rushing 29 times for 331 yards and two touchdowns in a 22-10 victory in Indianapolis.
Verdict: The Buckeyes collected some style points while claiming the Big Ten championship. They just happened to be points that were in style in the 1970s. Ohio State rushed for 399 yards and amassed 513 total yards, and even if it was not quarterback Justin Fields’ best day, it’s hard to imagine Ohio State will be left out of the four-team playoff while a one-loss team (or even Group of Five power Cincinnati) gets a nod instead.
No 2 Notre Dame (10-1): This much is certain: The Irish has to be grateful it picked off Clemson when it had the chance last month, because it had little opportunity to knock off the Tigers once things went sideways in the ACC title game. Quarterback Ian Book was bottled up by the voracious Clemson defense, and Notre Dame wasn’t going to completely slow down the Tigers’ offense regardless of who was playing quarterback.
It would have been easy to tentatively pencil Notre Dame into the No. 2 seed had it won. Now, it has to deal with the scrutiny of its 24-point loss to Clemson on a neutral field and how it compares to Texas A&M’s 28-point loss at Alabama earlier this season.
Verdict: What Notre Dame has going for it is the victory over Clemson. Yes, the Tigers were depleted. Yes, it came in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus. Yes, the Irish was overwhelmed in the ACC title game. But the earlier victory still counts, at least it does to anyone who actually values the results on the field.
And given who’s making the decision, that’s probably the cause of the greatest heartburn for the Irish right now. Realistically, it’s probably done enough to snag the No. 4 seed.
Did its part, but didn’t get help
No. 5 Texas A&M (8-1): The final margin wasn’t gaudy, but the Aggies had complete control in a 34-13 victory at Tennessee to close out the regular season. Texas A&M rolled up 497 yards, held the ball for more than 44 minutes and ran more than twice as many plays as the Volunteers did (79-37). Was it enough? Well, neither Clemson nor Ohio State offered any help.
Verdict: Texas A&M owns victories over two teams with winning records (Florida and Auburn) and like pretty much everyone else who encountered Alabama, wasn’t competitive with the Crimson Tide. It really needed Clemson to lose the ACC title game; instead, it will get compared to Notre Dame for the final semifinal spot. The SEC title game didn’t bring any help, either; for the second week in a row, Texas A&M’s best victory was devalued (though Florida’s loss to Alabama was a slight ding compared to the dent delivered the previous week when the Gators lost to LSU).
No. 9 Cincinnati (9-0): It wasn’t easy for the Bearcats to remain undefeated, though anyone who had watched Tulsa finagle its way to a 6-0 record in the American wouldn’t have been surprised. Cole Smith’s 34-yard field goal as time expired was the difference as Cincinnati escaped with a 27-24 victory on a miserable, rainy night.
On the one hand, the tight nature of the Bearcats’ defeat of the Golden Hurricane (6-2) is “proof” Cincinnati isn’t a dominant team and unworthy of a playoff berth. From a more pragmatic standpoint, the deck is stacked enough against them that a 70-0 victory wouldn’t have made a difference anyway.
Verdict: The Bearcats will be the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six representative, ahead of fellow unbeatens Coastal Carolina (Sun Belt) and San Jose State (Mountain West). That was going to be the outcome so long as Cincinnati won, but victories earlier in the day by Clemson, Ohio State and Texas A&M effectively squashed any chance of the Bearcats gaining enough ground to even be close to the final four.
Two-loss (or more) blues
No. 6 Iowa State (8-3): As good a story as the Cyclones were, going 8-1 in the Big 12 regular season race, their playoff hopes were negligible to begin with. And after a 27-21 loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game — a game Oklahoma led comfortably until Iowa State running back Breece Hall scored a pair of second-half touchdowns — those hopes are now gone.
Verdict: Maybe Iowa State can still land in the New Year’s Six structure, perhaps heading to the Fiesta Bowl or Peach Bowl. But the Cyclones won’t be among the semifinalists.
No. 7 Florida (8-3): The Gators’ offense lived up to its reputation in a 52-46 loss to Alabama in the SEC title game, as Kyle Trask threw for 408 yards and three touchdowns. It also lived down to its defensive reputation against elite teams. Much like in its early season loss at Texas A&M, Florida was ill-equipped to deal with a team with a stout offensive front. Alabama’s bountiful skill position talent merely made things worse.
Verdict: No playoff berth after back-to-back losses, but the Gators will get the chance to send Trask out with a victory in his final college game as part of the New Year’s Six structure. Perhaps a return trip to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl is up next?
No. 8 Georgia (7-2): The committee’s adoration of the Bulldogs — who lost by 17 to Alabama and by 16 to Florida and own just two victories against teams that are .500 or better (6-4 Auburn and 5-4 Missouri) — is a puzzler. Georgia wasn’t going to do much to help its cause this week even before its makeup against Vanderbilt was canceled.
Verdict: A trip to the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach will have to do for Kirby Smart’s team.
No. 10 Oklahoma (8-2): The Sooners scored the first 17 points en route to a 27-21 defeat of Iowa State in the Big 12 title game. That’s six consecutive Big 12 championships for Oklahoma, including four since the league title game was reinstated. It’s also seven victories in a row after dropping two games to open conference play.
Verdict: Oklahoma’s made plenty of memories over the years in Dallas. A trip to the Cotton Bowl would allow it to do so again. Considering they were 1-2 back on Oct. 3, it’s an outcome the Sooners should have little issue with.
The Unicorn … but not anymore
No. 13 Southern California (5-1): The Trojans’ luck ran out Friday night in the Pac-12 title game. After three fourth-quarter comebacks in five regular season games, Southern Cal dropped a 31-24 decision to Oregon. Ducks defensive back Jamal Hall picked off Trojan quarterback Kedon Slovis with 2:49 left, a snap after Southern Cal moved across midfield in its attempt to tie it.
Verdict: The committee won’t be leaving out an undefeated power conference team for the first time, after all. Oregon will head to the New Year’s Six structure (a trip to the Fiesta Bowl would make sense) while Southern Cal has opted out of the postseason altogether.