The College Football Playoff era has yet to produce a back-to-back champion.
Clemson will get its chance to end that, with the defending champions claiming the No. 1 seed with Sunday’s release of the playoff field.
The Tigers will take on No. 4 Alabama — the recipient of the most hotly-contested spot in the field of four — in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. Meanwhile, No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Georgia meet in the Rose Bowl.
The winners of those respective games face off in Atlanta in the national championship game on Jan. 8 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The debate between Alabama and Ohio State was one of the most compelling in the playoff’s four years of existence, giving the the Crimson Tide the edge with a resume with less blemishes than the Buckeyes.
“The committee discussed both teams in depth and detail,” said committee chairman Kirby Hocutt. “We challenged ourselves and played the devil’s advocate to make sure we thought through this from every direction. We know how important it is to get it right, and that’s what we did. The committee’s conclusion that Alabama is the fourth best team in the nation was widespread and strong. It was unequivocal.”
Ohio State claimed a Big Ten title on Saturday night, taking down previously-fourth-ranked Wisconsin — which was the last undefeated Power 5-conference team — to give it two victories over teams ranked in the Top 5.
But the albatross hanging around the necks of Urban Meyer and Co., and ultimately the deciding factor was that horrendous 31-point road loss to unranked Iowa. Not to mention, the Buckeyes fell to another playoff team, Oklahoma by 15 at home in September.
No playoff team had ever lost by more than 14 points (which was the Buckeyes against Virginia Tech in 2014) and that defeat coming in November further hurt Ohio State’s case.
Meanwhile, the Tide had just one win over a team ranked higher than 16th, and that was Florida State (which opened the season at No. 3, but had to reschedule a game against Louisiana Monroe postponed due to Hurricane Irma just to get bowl eligible), but dropped just one game, falling against SEC West champion Auburn (which ended No. 7 in the rankings).
There was no winning this argument for the selection committee, which last season gave the Buckeyes a playoff spot as it was in the same spot as the Crimson Tide this time around without the benefit of a division crown, let alone a league championship.
It was picking between two of the sports’ blue bloods, its most marketable and accomplished programs and it created a new precedent for the playoff era.
The Big Ten was shutout of the playoff field for the first time, with the SEC becoming the first conference to earn two bids. By design, with four spots and five major leagues, one group was always going to be left reeling, but that the selection committee left both the Big Ten and the Pac-12 on the outside looking in was surprising.
And aside from the notion that the SEC has half of the playoff field is that it gave the defending champion Tigers perhaps the most daunting matchup it could have faced.
Clemson and Alabama met for the last two national titles, splitting those games. The Crimson Tide won 45-40 in Phoenix to cap the ’15 playoff and last year, the Tigers won 35-31 in Tampa. We’ll get a third installment a round earlier than anyone would have expected, and it will come in the heart of SEC country in New Orleans.
Credit the committee for putting in what it felt was the nation’s four best teams, but it seems to give little benefit for the field’s No. 1.
The Tigers will face a team that was beseeched by injuries — as Alabama had eight starters who missed game, accounting for a combined 40 starts on defense, and seven of them are expected to be back for the playoff — and still managed to hold the No. 1 ranking in the first 13 weeks of the Associated Press Top 25 poll and for two weeks of the CFP rankings.
None of this is to downplay Clemson, which since its 27-24 loss to Syracuse on Oct. 13, have taken off offensively. Its averaging 447 yards and has scored 38 or more points four times. In the last three games of that run, quarterback Kelly Bryant — stepping into the shoes vacated by two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson — has thrown for 230-plus yards in three straight games, his first such streak of the season.
The Crimson Tide are obstacle enough, but Clemson also has to overcome history in the short era of the CFP.
The No. 1 seed has yet to win the national title, with No. 4 Ohio State winning in 2014, No. 2 Alabama in ’15 and No. 2 Clemson a year ago.