After weeks of inside analysis and expert projections, the College Football Playoff committee settled the game’s greatest debate on Sunday by announcing Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma as the four programs that will compete for this year’s national championship.
Led by top-ranked, and still undefeated Clemson, this year’s group consists of conference champions from the ACC, SEC, Big Ten and Big 12, and both head coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers and head coach Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide were included in the committee’s first top-four of the season in Week 10.
On December 31st, Clemson will square-off with fourth-ranked Oklahoma in the semi-finals at the Capital One Orange Bowl, while second-ranked Alabama is scheduled to meet Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
Eleven days later, the two winners will meet to decide this year’s national champion in the College Football Playoff National Championship at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on January 11th.
Despite having lost a home game to 12th-ranked Ole Miss during the regular season, Alabama (12-1) owns an impressive resume that’s littered with victories over SEC foes and nationally ranked opponents such as LSU, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi State. And if that’s not enough, the Crimson Tide will also have experience on their side.
Last season, the Crimson Tide also lost to Ole Miss during the regular season before earning an invite to the first College Football Playoff. But before Saban’s squad had a chance to play for the national championship, fourth-ranked Ohio State ended Alabama’s title run with a seven-point win over the SEC big-shots in the semi-finals at the AllState Sugar Bowl.
Under a cloud of controversy, Clemson (13-0) secured the ACC crown with Saturday’s 45-37 win over North Carolina after it appeared as though the visiting Tar Heels had recovered their on-side kick with a little more than a minute remaining in regulation. While the replay didn’t support the call, the referees claimed that UNC was off-side, ending any chance of a last-second comeback.
While Clemson is undefeated, the Tigers just haven’t played the same type of schedule that’s played by an SEC heavyweight like Alabama. Victories over Notre Dame, Florida State, and most recently, tenth-ranked North Carolina, represent this team’s best work, and it will be interesting to see how the Tigers fare against the Big 12 champ.
Coincidentally, Clemson dealt Oklahoma (11-1) a 40-6 beating in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl. But that won’t help these Tigers when they tangle with a team that’s bringing a seven-game winning streak into the rematch that includes consecutive victories against No.6 Baylor, No.18 TCU, and No.11 Oklahoma State.
Now a junior, Oklahoma starting quarterback Baker Mayfield was powerless to help his Sooner’s in last year’s deflating loss to Clemson while ineligible due to his transfer from Texas Tech. And the star signal-caller hasn’t forgotten.
”A frustrating end to a frustrating season. We got dominated,” said Mayfield. ”Not the way you want to end your season. A terrible feeling.”
In this past Saturday’s Big Ten Championship, third-ranked Michigan State [12-1] punched its ticket to college football’s final four with a cinematic final drive that gave the Spartans a 16-13 win over fifth-ranked Iowa.
Along with Iowa and an early win against 15th-ranked Oregon, the Spartans have earned their trip to the semi-finals and a match-up against Alabama by defeating the likes of 14th-ranked Michigan and seventh-ranked Ohio State–the defending national champions.