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  • What would happen if it were possible to set up all 16 teams that have participated in the College Football Playoff in a bracket? We played out the hypotheticals to determine the champion of champions in college football’s four-year-old format.
By Joan Niesen
March 20, 2018

It’s March, which means two things: People up and down the East Coast are shocked when it snows, and we’ve all become obsessed with brackets. That led to this college football thought experiment: What would happen if we placed the 16 teams that have participated in the College Football Playoff over the four years of the format’s existence into a bracket and ran them through a time warp of a tournament?

Before revealing the hypothetical champion of champions, let’s explain why we seeded the teams the way we did, take a closer look at the matchups that yielded upsets and break down the imaginary title game.

The Field

16. 2015 Michigan State

The Spartans were the first team to be shut out in a playoff game, which earns them the distinction of this tournament’s lowest seed. They won at Michigan and accounted for preseason No. 1 Ohio State’s only loss, with the only blemish on their own résumé a one-point loss at Nebraska brought on by a fourth-quarter collapse and a controversial late touchdown. Michigan State ground its way past undefeated Iowa in the Big Ten title game, but a 38–0 loss to Alabama in the Cotton Bowl exposed the limitations of its offense: Connor Cook finished 19-of-39 for 210 yards and two interceptions, and the Spartans managed just 29 rushing yards.

15. 2016 Washington

The Huskies earned the program’s first playoff bid by virtue of a 12–1 season, during which they lost to USC in November but missed the Trojans in the Pac-12 title game, where they dispatched a Colorado team that was among the season’s biggest overachievers. (By that point in the year, there was an argument to be made that 10–3 USC was the Pac-12’s best team.) Washington was assigned the fourth and final spot in the playoff, and the gap to the top showed against No. 1 Alabama in a 24–7 Peach Bowl loss in which Washington didn’t score after the first quarter.

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14. 2016 Ohio State

A year after Michigan State failed to put up a point against the eventual national champions, Ohio State repeated the feat, losing to Clemson 31–0 in the Fiesta Bowl. This was one of the more surprising results in the CFP’s brief history; the Buckeyes were a No. 3 seed, with impressive wins against three teams that finished in the top 10 of the final playoff rankings: Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Urban Meyer’s team earned its playoff berth despite missing the Big Ten title game—which Penn State won—and their uninspiring loss at the hands of Clemson to some looked like a validation of placing weight on championship game berths and wins. A year later, the Buckeyes felt the other edge of the sword; after winning the Big Ten title, they were excluded from the field in favor of Alabama.

13. 2015 Oklahoma

In Baker Mayfield’s first season as starting quarterback, Oklahoma beat five teams that were ranked at the time it played them, including No. 9 Oklahoma State in a 58–23 Bedlam win that secured its playoff berth. Against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, Oklahoma’s high-powered offense failed to score in the second half of an eventual 37–17 loss.

12. 2014 Florida State

The Seminoles ran the table in the regular season and beat Georgia Tech in the ACC title game, but the seven games they won by a touchdown or less left most pundits skeptical. Jameis Winston ran out of escape acts in Florida State’s 59–20 loss to Oregon, the most lopsided semifinal in playoff history.

11. 2014 Oregon

Marcus Mariota’s collegiate career ended with a 22-point loss to Ohio State in the title game, but Oregon’s run up to that point was impressive: The Ducks were a powerhouse, averaging more than 47 points per game going into the championship. But Ohio State’s defense reinforced what looked apparent in an October upset at the hands of Arizona: If a defense limits Oregon’s time of possession and locks down in the red zone, stopping Chip Kelly’s juggernaut is possible.

10. 2017 Oklahoma

Although Oklahoma didn’t make it to the title game last January, it came about as close as possible, losing in double overtime to Georgia in the Rose Bowl. The Sooners boasted college football’s best offense in Baker Mayfield’s final season, and their only loss came in October when the defense collapsed against an Iowa State team that relished the spoiler role. In the conference championship, Oklahoma asserted its dominance by handily beating a TCU squad that had harbored real playoff hopes heading into the final weeks.

9. 2017 Clemson

Clemson defied expectations of a championship hangover after its wild 2016 title game win over Alabama, but the rematch was not quite as dramatic. The Tigers were the presumptive favorite until kickoff, when the absence of Deshaun Watson became glaring for the first time all year and Alabama wore down Clemson’s vaunted defensive line. The 24–6 semifinal loss was effectively over in the third quarter, but Clemson’s season was something to be proud of, with its only other loss a wonky Friday-night game at Syracuse in which starting quarterback Kelly Bryant suffered a concussion.

8. 2017 Georgia

Georgia played like the class of the SEC for much of 2017, avenging its loss to Auburn in the conference title game to earn the playoff’s No. 3 seed. After rallying to squeak past Oklahoma in double overtime, the Bulldogs ran out of gas in the face of Alabama’s second-half comeback and lost an overtime heartbreaker that soured a dominant final season for running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and defensive standouts Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy.

7. 2014 Alabama

The Crimson Tide were the No. 1 seed in the inaugural playoff, but they had no answer for Cardale Jones and No. 4-seeded Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl semifinal. The loss looks far better in retrospect given the Buckeyes’ title run, which is how a team that advanced no further than a semifinal finds itself seeded above two teams that played in title games. Alabama’s 2014 defense was headlined by safety Landon Collins leading a wave of underclassmen that would go on to join Collins in the NFL, and the offense reaped the benefits of Amari Cooper at the height of his powers. There’s a case to be made this team was better than the Tide squad that won it all this past January.

6. 2015 Clemson

This team set the tone for the back-and-forth with Alabama that dominated much of the past three seasons. After four consecutive years with double-digit wins under coach Dabo Swinney, the Tigers got their first playoff nod in the format’s second season, beating ranked teams during an undefeated regular season and handling Oklahoma easily in the Orange Bowl semifinal. Nick Saban’s shrewd onside kick coming out of halftime set the tone, but Alabama’s 45–40 title game win wasn’t decided until the game’s final minutes.

5. 2017 Alabama

After an Iron Bowl loss kept them out of the SEC Championship Game—and almost pushed them from the playoff field—the Tide found redemption in January, prevailing in a wild championship game after Saban pulled starting quarterback Jalen Hurts for freshman Tua Tagovailoa. This team wasn’t the best Alabama has fielded in recent years; it just played its best when it counted.

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4. 2016 Alabama

This Crimson Tide team played in probably the most exciting title game of the bunch. Its second CFP meeting with Clemson didn’t go to overtime, but it was a back-and-forth battle that came down to Watson’s threw a two-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second to go. Alabama was pretty close to perfect all season, allowing seven or fewer points seven times on the year.

3. 2014 Ohio State

Quarterback uncertainty left this Buckeyes team vastly underrated going into the playoff, but in the last two games of the year, a roster packed with future NFL players (Ezekiel Elliott, Vonn Bell, Darron Lee, Eli Apple and Joey Bosa, to name a few) played its best in support of third-string QB Cardale Jones. The Buckeyes were largely counted out of the playoff race early on, losing Braxton Miller to a preseason shoulder injury and suffering a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, but they were perfect from then on, relying first on J.T. Barrett and then on Cardale Jones to lead the offense. They made it to the championship game with a win over a formidable Alabama team, and they edged Mariota’s Ducks in the final.

2. 2015 Alabama

Saban’s 2015 team lost to Ole Miss in Week 3, Alabama’s earliest loss of Saban’s tenure. That 43–37 Rebels win set the tone for much of the Tide’s season; afterward, it fell to No. 12 and had to steadily climb the rankings. It wouldn’t lose again, though, blanking Michigan State in the semifinal game and holding off.

1. 2016 Clemson

Few playoff teams were as fun to watch as the 2016 Tigers, the only team to beat Alabama in a title game since the Tide hired Saban. It featured one of the best quarterbacks in recent college football history—Watson, who already has the NFL’s full attention with the Texans—as well as one of the most dominating defensive lines this decade. Add in a coach whose football smarts are as strong as his motivational skills, and it was hard not to love 2016’s Clemson team. After coming within one point of an undefeated regular season (a 43–42 loss to Pitt in November served as a wake-up call), Clemson put up the second shutout in CFP semifinal history and prevailed in a thrilling finale.


The Games

First, the chalk:

2016 Clemson over 2015 Michigan State
2015 Alabama over 2016 Washington
2014 Ohio State over 2016 Ohio State
2016 Alabama over 2015 Oklahoma
2015 Clemson over 2014 Oregon
2017 Georgia over 2017 Clemson

Now for the upsets—I’d like to believe that I seeded the teams so well that none should occur, but in two cases, the lower seed seemed uniquely positioned to pull off a win. And in a field with four different Alabama teams, this actually worked out well in preventing a Final Four dominated by crimson.

No. 12 2014 Florida State over No. 5 2017 Alabama

This Florida State team ran the table in defense of the previous year’s championship but came up well short in the semifinals. That wasn’t entirely a surprise, as it was easy to imagine the Seminoles having an off day, but it still robbed a team with a real shot at a title of the opportunity to even play in the championship game. Meanwhile, 2017’s Alabama team was great, but it had its weaknesses, and were it not for some excellent luck at the quarterback position in the title game, Georgia could easily have been victorious. Those factors lead me to think Florida State would have been able to edge Alabama had these two teams met.

No. 10 2017 Oklahoma over No. 7 2014 Alabama

The Sooners came within a hair of the title game, so here’s a dose of the credit they deserve. Alabama’s semifinal loss to Ohio State proved it could slip up against a high-powered offense, and while the Buckeyes were miles better on defense than Oklahoma, I think this imaginary matchup would come down to the offenses.


The Winner

And finally, our title game: 2016 Clemson vs. 2015 Alabama. After three straight years in which this new rivalry has been at the forefront of college football, it only seems fitting that the best iterations of Clemson and Alabama would face each other in this imaginary title game.

As for who’d win, my educated guess would give Clemson the nod. Even setting aside Watson’s year-over-year growth, Clemson evolved for the better between 2015 and ’16, and it’s hard to envision Jake Coker turning in another spotless performance. That said, as we all learned in January, picking against the Tide doesn’t tend to work out well.

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