Power Ranking Every Past College Football Playoff Game

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 23, 2019

Power Ranking Every Past College Football Playoff Game

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    There have been 15 games played in the history of the College Football Playoff, some of which were much more memorable than others.

    Only five of the games have been decided by single digits, and seven of the 10 national semifinals were blowouts by at least 17-point margins. Perhaps one of the two games coming up on Dec. 28 will be an instant classic, but don't count on getting a pair of gems.

    The championships have always been good, though. Even the two that ended up being decided by more than 20 points were entertaining in their own right.

    To rank these 15 marquee games, we considered a combination of late-game intrigue, individual stars, unforgettable moments and the stakes at playchampionships automatically get a little more consideration than the semifinals.

    Either Alabama or Clemson played in 12 of the 15 games, including four head-to-head battles, three of which rank in our top six. There will be no Alabama this year, but perhaps Clemson will earn another spot or two in the top 10.

Nos. 15-11

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    Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    15. 2015 Cotton Bowl (Alabama 38, Michigan State 0)

    Michigan State had one chance to make this one interesting. Trailing 10-0 with 20 seconds left in the first half, Connor Cook got the Spartans into the red zone for what ended up being the only time in the entire game. On that lone snap from the Alabama 12-yard line, he threw an interception straight into the hands of Cyrus Jones. Alabama made it a three-score game on its first possession of the second half, and that was that.


    14. 2016 Fiesta Bowl (Clemson 31, Ohio State 0)

    Between an interception on Deshaun Watson's first pass attempt and a 54-yard Parris Campbell kickoff return a few minutes later, two of Ohio State's first three drives began in Clemson territory. The Buckeyes should have assumed the early driver's seat. Instead, Tyler Durbin missed a pair of 47-yard field-goal attempts at the end of two squandered possessions, followed by Clemson gradually turning this into a rout.


    13. 2018 Cotton Bowl (Clemson 30, Notre Dame 3)

    This was one of only two games in CFP history pitting undefeated teams against one another, but the Fighting Irish never had much of a chance, did they? After they came up empty on 4th-and-3 in Clemson territory early in the second quarter, things got out of hand in a hurry. While Trevor Lawrence put on an aerial show for the Tigers, Notre Dame never found the end zone and only once reached the red zone.


    12. 2016 Peach Bowl (Alabama 24, Washington 7)

    Washington put up more of a fight than most were expecting, striking first with a touchdown seven minutes into the game. However, the Huskies showed virtually no life on offense from that point forward. They had only three other drives that went at least 20 yards, and all three resulted in turnovers. Even though Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts was dreadful (7-of-14 for 57 yards) and the final margin was only 17 points, it felt like a blowout.


    11. 2018 Sugar Bowl (Alabama 24, Clemson 6)

    For better or worse, this ended up being exactly the defensive grind that was advertised. The two best defenses in the nation squared off in a battle featuring only 449 yards of total offense. It was a tight game until Kelly Bryant threw interceptions on back-to-back Clemson snaps midway through the third quarter. But there's no question that this was the least memorable of the four times these teams met in the playoff, and it isn't just because it was the only one that happened prior to the national championship.

10. 2015 Rose Bowl (Oregon 59, Florida State 20)

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The first game in the history of the College Football Playoff is still the biggest blowout of them all.

    After three months of eking out close win after close win, Jameis Winston's 26-game winning streak came to a screeching halt at the hands of Marcus Mariota and the mighty Oregon Ducks.

    While it eventually got ugly, this was actually a close game until midway through the third quarter.

    Early on, Florida State got stuffed on both 3rd-and-goal and 4th-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line. On the subsequent drive, the Seminoles again got down inside the Oregon 5 before settling for a short field goal. They also missed a long field-goal attempt right before halftime. But in spite of all those missed opportunities, they trailed only 18-13 at the intermission.

    Unfortunately, they caught a severe case of fumble-itis from there.

    Florida State turned the ball over five times (four fumbles, one interception) in the first 18 minutes of the second half. Ever the opportunistic offense, the Ducks scored 41 points in the span of 22 offensive snaps.

    The lasting image from the FSU debacle was Winston running around in circles on 4th-and-5 before slipping and throwing the ball backward for an Oregon fumble returned for a touchdown. Florida State was already down by 19 at that point, but that eradicated any hope of a miraculous comeback.

    Five years and three head coaches later, the 'Noles are still trying to recover from that one.

9. 2018 Orange Bowl (Alabama 45, Oklahoma 34)

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    Tua Tagovailoa and Kyler Murray
    Tua Tagovailoa and Kyler MurrayMichael Reaves/Getty Images

    The epic showdown between Heisman winner Kyler Murray and runner-up Tua Tagovailoa quickly devolved into a sobering reminder of how wide the talent gap was between these two defenses.

    Oklahoma's offense got out to a dreadful start against the Crimson Tide. Four of the Sooners' first 13 plays went for negative yards. Four others were incomplete passes. Despite entering the postseason as the most unstoppable offense in the nation, Oklahoma amassed only two first downs and no points on its first three possessions.

    Meanwhile, Oklahoma's defense had no answer for Tagovailoa.

    The first play of the game was a 50-yard strike to DeVonta Smith. Tagovailoa completed each of his first nine pass attempts for 184 yards and two touchdowns. Damien Harris also had a pair of one-yard rushing touchdowns while Alabama went TD-TD-TD-TD to start the game.

    After 17 minutes, Alabama had 28 points, while Oklahoma had 24 yards of total offense.

    Oklahoma's offense finally sprang to life from there, stringing together seven consecutive long drives. However, it was too little, too late. The Sooners never got the margin back to within single digits in a game that produced an impressive box score999 yards of total offense, 79 points, zero turnoversbut no drama.

8. 2015 Orange Bowl (Clemson 37, Oklahoma 17)

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    Joe Skipper/Associated Press

    Two of the greatest quarterbacks of the 2010s went toe-to-toe, but the most memorable pass of the night was from a punter to a defensive tackle.

    It happened early in the second quarter when Clemsontrailing 7-3 and struggling to sustain drivesdrew up a fake punt on 4th-and-4 from the Oklahoma 44-yard line. Andy Teasdall found a wide-open Christian Wilkins streaking down the left sideline, but he underthrew him a bit, forcing the big man to do a pirouette while making a catch that many a skill-position player wouldn't have been able to execute.

    The Tigers found the end zone two plays later and put together long drives on each of their next four possessions.

    That fake punt was the highlight, but the real story was Oklahoma's inability to stop Clemson's rushing attack, followed by the Sooners' inability to buy a point in the second half.

    Wayne Gallman rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns. Deshaun Watson wasn't far behind with 145 and one, respectively. All told, Clemson racked up 312 yards on the ground while limiting Oklahoma to only 67.

    Despite the disparity in the ground game, Baker Mayfield led a four-play, 76-yard touchdown drive late in the second quarter to put Oklahoma ahead 17-16 at the intermission. One year after No. 4 seed Ohio State upset No. 1 seed Alabama, it looked as though the Sooners might be able to do the same to Clemson.

    But the Tigers dug in their heels on defense and pitched a shutout for the final 30 minutes. Three times in the second half, Mayfield brought the Sooners inside the Clemson 40, only to come away with a turnover on downs and a pair of interceptions. While that was happening, Clemson marched the ball down Oklahoma's throat for a trio of touchdowns, cruising to a 20-point victory.

7. 2015 National Championship (Ohio State 42, Oregon 20)

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    Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
    Ohio State RB Ezekiel ElliottDon Juan Moore/Getty Images

    This was the culmination of an unbelievable three-week stretch for Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott.

    The sophomore had an impressive regular season, rushing for 1,182 yards and 10 touchdowns in those 12 games. He proceeded to go off in the most important contests, setting a then-career rushing record in the Big Ten title game (220 yards), breaking that record with 230 yards in the Sugar Bowl and then breaking it again with 246 yards and four touchdowns in this win over Oregon.

    Granted, the last touchdown was unnecessary. The Buckeyes were up by 15 with less than 30 seconds remaining when Elliott punched one in from one yard out. The victory formation would have sufficed, but head coach Urban Meyer wanted to reward his man for carrying the team to the national championship.

    The ridiculous thing about this final margin is that prior to Eli Apple picking off Marcus Mariota on a meaningless pass attempt on the final play of the game, Ohio State had committed four turnovers without forcing any. There was a 22-minute span between the second and third quarters in which the Buckeyes turned it over four times (three fumbles, one interception) in six possessions and went three-and-out.

    The Buckeyes gave the Ducks every opportunity to win this game, but an Oregon offense which set a still-standing CFP record with 59 points against Florida State in the Rose Bowl was unable to capitalize.

    Somehow still leading 21-20 midway through the third quarter, the Buckeyes turned to Elliott to salt the game away. The workhorse carried the ball on 18 of OSU's final 31 snaps, resulting in three of his four touchdowns.

6. 2019 National Championship (Clemson 44, Alabama 16)

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    Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
    Clemson QB Trevor LawrenceJamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

    The actual game got out of hand and ended up turning into a bit of a dud. After three consecutive years in which the national championship featured fourth-quarter chaos and a final margin of five points or fewer, this was one of the biggest blowouts in the playoff's five-year history.

    However, this was one of the marquee sporting events of the past decade.

    It may have felt as inevitable as some of those Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors NBA Finals, but Alabama and Clemsonboth undefeated after making difficult quarterback decisions early in the seasonmeeting in the College Football Playoff for a fourth consecutive year is about as good as it can get in this sport.

    Though Tua Tagovailoa threw a pick-six less than two minutes into the first quarter, it was a great game for a while. Alabama even took a 16-14 lead early in the second quarter. But Trevor Lawrence and Co. went on a 30-0 run from there.

    Clemson's defense was the big difference.

    Prior to the field goal that gave Alabama the lead, the Crimson Tide ran six plays from inside the Clemson 10 before settling for three points. An interception to end the ensuing possession set the Tigers up to take a two-score lead. Then on each of Alabama's first three possessions of the second half, it drove down inside the Clemson 25 before turning the ball over on downs.

    Alabama kept pace in total yards and actually finished the game with more first downs (23 to 21), but it just could not finish drives with touchdowns against Clemson's vaunted front seven. Coupled with Lawrence, Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins putting on a show against Alabama's secondary, things escalated quickly.

5. 2015 Sugar Bowl (Ohio State 42, Alabama 35)

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    Ohio State QB Cardale Jones
    Ohio State QB Cardale JonesStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    For the first 22 minutes, things just kept breaking Alabama's way.

    Twice in their first three possessions, the Buckeyes drove more than 70 yards down the field to get 1st-and-goal from inside the Alabama 5. However, they settled for chip-shot field goals both times. On the possession between those two field goals, the Buckeyes fumbled on the first play and set the Crimson Tide up with a short field for a touchdown.

    Thus, despite nearly quadrupling Alabama in total yards (168 to 45) after each team had the ball three times, the Buckeyes trailed 7-6. They then gave up a 79-yard touchdown drive and turned it over again shortly thereafter, giving Alabama the ball in the red zone to take a 21-6 lead.

    Even though the Crimson Tide had only one particularly solid drive at that point, it felt like the game was over. Coming back from a 15-point deficit against that defense and the triumvirate of Amari Cooper, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry seemed like an impossible task.

    But then Ohio State's offense went haywire in a good way.

    Cardale Jones and Ezekiel Elliott led the Buckeyes on a 12-play, 71-yard touchdown drive. After forcing an Alabama three-and-out, Ohio State went 77 yards in six plays for another touchdown when Evan Spencer found Michael Thomas on a WR reverse pass just before halftime. The Buckeyes then got the ball to start the second half and did it again, this time going 75 yards in six plays.

    During those 10-plus minutes, Ohio State scored 21 points while limiting Alabama's offense to only four snaps for seven yards. Steve Miller added a pick-six a few minutes later to polish off a 28-0 run which put the Buckeyes up by 13.

    Despite that furious comeback and the subsequent 85-yard Elliott touchdown run late in the fourth quarter, Alabama still had a chance at the end. Blake Sims threw up a 42-yard Hail Mary that Tyvis Powell intercepted at the goal line to punch Ohio State's ticket to the championship.

4. 2018 Rose Bowl (Georgia 54, Oklahoma 48)

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    Doug Benc/Associated Press

    Three national championships rank higher on this list because the stakes in those games were higher than they were for this semifinal. But there's a case to be made that this Rose Bowl belongs at No. 1 for going completely off the rails in the second half and into the second overtime.

    Georgia's defense looked helpless against Baker Mayfield and Rodney Anderson in the first half. When the Soonerswho were also going to get the ball to start the third quartertook a 31-14 lead with less than 10 seconds remaining in the first half, it looked like the Bulldogs were toast.

    For some inexplicable reason, though, Georgia squibbed the ensuing kickoff and allowed Rodrigo Blankenship to hit a 55-yard field goal at the buzzer. That turned a three-score game into a two-score game, which gave Georgia a bit of life.

    The Dawgs maintained that momentum through the intermission, forcing a three-and-out before Nick Chubb took Georgia's first snap of the third quarter 50 yards for a touchdown. The Dawgs tied it up before the end of the third quarter, got an interception on the first play of the fourth quarter and took a seven-point lead moments later.

    But in a game of wild swings in momentum, Oklahoma's offense resurfaced for a statement touchdown drive to tie it up again, followed by a Sony Michel fumble returned for an Oklahoma touchdown. Freshman QB Jake Fromm was calm, cool and collected as Georgia went 59 yards to tie it up again with less than a minute remaining in regulation. And then after a blocked kick on Oklahoma's double-overtime possession, Michel got redemption with a game-winning 27-yard touchdown run.

    Mayfield and Fromm both threw for two touchdowns. Mayfield also caught one on a WR reverse. Anderson, Chubb and Michel each ran for at least 145 yards and multiple touchdowns. There was one defensive touchdown and a second almost-touchdown on a turnover. There were two huge special teams plays and roughly 20 plays that went for at least 20 yards. Throw in the fact that it's the only playoff game to feature multiple overtimes, and this one had a little bit of everything.

3. 2016 National Championship (Alabama 45, Clemson 40)

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    Alabama's O.J. Howard
    Alabama's O.J. HowardChris Carlson/Associated Press

    Ladies and gentlemen: The O.J. Howard Game.

    Alabama's tight end entered this national championship with only two receiving touchdowns in his 41-game career, the most recent of which had come 32 games ago. His career high in receiving yards was 81, and he had not yet eclipsed 70 in the 2015 season.

    But against Clemson, Howard made five receptions for 208 yards and two scores. He had a 53-yarder for a touchdown early in the third quarter, a 51-yard TD two plays after the completely unexpected onside-kick recovery early in the fourth quarter and a late 63-yard gain on the drive that essentially ended it.

    Of course, there were other key contributors in a game with 85 points and more than 1,000 combined yards.

    Heisman winner Derrick Henry rushed for 158 yards and three touchdowns. Should-have-been-a-Heisman-winner-at-some-point Deshaun Watson threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns while also leading the Tigers in rushing with 73 yards. And Kenyan Drake returned a kickoff for a touchdown during a three-minute stretch in which Alabama scored 17 points.

    Aside from Alabama's opening possessionwhich lasted just over four minutes before a puntevery single drive in this game encompassed less than three minutes and 40 seconds. It was just one haymaker after the next, especially in the fourth quarter, which featured seven consecutive scoring possessions and 40 total points.

    The final seconds weren't anywhere near as dramatic as the top two games on this list, as Clemson trailed by double digits for each of its final two possessions. Still, this was an incredible spectacle between two heavyweights, perfectly setting the table for the ensuing three playoff battles between these programs.

2. 2018 National Championship (Alabama 26, Georgia 23)

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    Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa
    Alabama QB Tua TagovailoaJamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

    This was the day the Legend of Tua Tagovailoa was born.

    Jalen Hurts was a hot mess in the first half. The sophomore quarterback had a couple of nice runs for first downs, but he completed just three of eight pass attempts for 21 yards. One of the misses was particularly egregious, as he overthrew a wide-open Calvin Ridley in the end zone on Alabama's first possession. Andy Pappanastos missed the ensuing field-goal attempt, and Alabama did not take another snap inside the Georgia 40 until five minutes into the third quarter.

    By that time, the Crimson Tide trailed 13-0, and Hurts was on the sideline watching Tagovailoa mount an unforgettable comeback.

    When Tagovailoa's first touchdown drive began, Alabama had tallied only one first down in the previous 30 minutes of game time. This offense was deader than dead, suffocated by a Roquan Smith-led bunch having the night of its life. But the Crimson Tide racked up 16 first downs and 26 points with the true freshman running the show.

    Facing 4th-and-4 with the season on the line, Tagovailoa found Ridley for a seven-yard touchdown to tie the game at 20. And after taking a 16-yard sack on Alabama's first snap of overtime, he threw a perfect strike up the left sideline to DeVonta Smith for a 41-yard championship-winning touchdown.

    Choosing between this game and Alabama-Clemson II for the top spot was almost impossible. It boils down to whether you prefer staunch defense or high-octane offense. This one was much more of the former aside from a few fireworks like the game-winner and like Jake Fromm's 80-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman.

    In the end, we put them in this order because the ending of the 2017 national championship was somehow even more dramatic than this overtime walk-off.

1. 2017 National Championship (Clemson 35, Alabama 31)

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    Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
    Clemson QB Deshaun WatsonJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Was it a pick play or was it a rub route?

    Either way, it was a "bring your own guts" type of hallmark moment in Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney's career.

    Trailing by three points with six seconds remaining and the ball on the Alabama 2-yard line, Swinney opted to go for the win. Deshaun Watson rolled out to his right and delivered the game-winning touchdown pass to a wide-open Hunter Renfrowthanks to quite a bit of help from Artavis Scott basically tackling Marlon Humphrey.

    The Tigers did have a timeout remaining in case Watson took a sack or the receiver was tackled in bounds, but there was a good chance the clock would have expired in either of those scenarios. It was a major risk to not take the field goal and try their luck in overtime. But it worked out beautifully for Clemson, resulting in its first national championship since 1981.

    That was the play we'll always remember, but it was merely the cherry on an amazing sundae.

    Just to get to that point, Watson had to throw for more than 400 yards, erase 14-0 first-half and 24-14 fourth-quarter deficits and march 68 yards down the field after watching Jalen Hurts and the Crimson Tide go the same distance to retake a 31-28 lead.

    These cats used all nine of their lives to get the victory. And if any of this year's three playoff games is even 75 percent as entertaining as that game was, we'll be fortunate football fans.


    Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.