Power Ranking Every Past College Football Playoff Game

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2020

Power Ranking Every Past College Football Playoff Game

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    Danny Karnik/Associated Press

    Outside of fans with specific rooting interests for the College Football Playoff, most viewers are simply hoping for entertaining games. Through six years of the CFP, every season has typically offered at least one compelling matchup.

    Sometimes, it's been a national semifinal. On three occasions, though, the championship has brought that memorable game.

    As we ready for 2020's edition, which features Alabama vs. Notre Dame and Clemson vs. Ohio State in the semis, let's walk through all 18 of the previous CFP games.

    While the ranking is subjective, key factors include entertainment value, competitiveness and stakes.

Nos. 18-15: The 1-Sided Games

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

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

    Right before halftime, MSU trailed 10-0 but neared Alabama's goal line. However, Cyrus Jones picked off Connor Cook. The Spartans would not reach the red zone again. Jones added a punt return for a touchdown in an Alabama rout.

                

    17. Alabama 24, Washington 7 (Peach Bowl, 2016 season)

    Washington's defense put up a decent fight, surrendering only 326 yards to a run-focused Crimson Tide. But after scoring the game's opening touchdown on their second drive, the Dawgs really never threatened. Jake Browning's pick-six sealed UW's loss.

                

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

    The stat itself requires context, but Ohio State failed to gain at least 30 yards on a single possession until Clemson led 24-0. If the Buckeyes had great field position, it might not have been a concern. But their two favorable drives ended with missed field goals, and everything else ended in a turnover or punt.

                

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

    Two years later, Clemson owned its semifinal once again. Led by then-freshman Trevor Lawrence, the eventual champions gained 538 yards and allowed just 248. Clemson broke open the contest with a trio of touchdowns in the second quarter, and Lawrence finished with 327 yards and three scores.

Nos. 14-8: The Semi-Competitive Games

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    Joe Skipper/Associated Press

    14. Alabama 24, Clemson 6 (Sugar Bowl, 2017 season)

    Both defenses played extremely well, but a pair of Kelly Bryant interceptions crushed Clemson. In a 30-second span midway through the third quarter, Alabama jumped from leading 10-6 to holding an insurmountable 24-6 edge.

                  

    13. Clemson 37, Oklahoma 17 (Orange Bowl, 2015 season)

    Oklahoma held a 17-16 halftime lead, but Clemson owned the rest of the matchup. Wayne Gallman rushed in two touchdowns, Deshaun Watson threw another, and the Tigers intercepted Baker Mayfield twice in the second half.

               

    12. Oregon 59, Florida State 20 (Rose Bowl, 2014 season)

    The most lopsided game in CFP history is actually one of the more entertaining blowouts considering Oregon only led 18-13 at halftime. The game featured 1,167 combined yards and seven turnovers, including a unique one. FSU's Jameis Winston slipped and threw the ball backward, which resulted in a scoop-and-score touchdown that eliminated any chance of a comeback.

               

    11. Clemson 44, Alabama 16 (National Championship, 2018 season)

    Because of the stakes, Clemson's win is ahead of Oregon/FSU. The Tigers won their second national championship in three seasons when Trevor Lawrence outdueled Tua Tagaovailoa. Lawrence threw for three touchdowns compared to Tua's two scores and two interceptions. Clemson turned those takeaways into 14 points and began to pull away in the third quarter.

              

    10. Alabama 45, Oklahoma 34 (Orange Bowl, 2018 season)

    Alabama zoomed out to a 28-0 lead, suggesting this semifinal would be a total blowout. Oklahoma fought back and trimmed the deficit to 11 on three occasions. Twice, though, Bama immediately answered with a touchdown and held off the Kyler Murray-led offense.

              

    9. LSU 63, Oklahoma 28 (Peach Bowl, 2019 season)

    As was normal in 2019, LSU put together a record-setting performance. Joe Burrow accounted for 514 yards and eight touchdowns while Justin Jefferson caught 14 passes for 227 yards and four scores. LSU led 49-14 at halftime.

               

    8. Ohio State 42, Oregon 20 (National Championship, 2014 season)

    In the first-ever CFP title game, Oregon clawed back to a 21-20 deficit midway through the third quarter. Ohio State, however, scored on the final play of the quarter and pulled away in the fourth. Ezekiel Elliott rushed in all three touchdowns during that span and wrapped up the Buckeyes' first title in 12 years.

7. LSU 42, Clemson 25 (National Championship, 2019 Season)

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Clemson held LSU in check early, forcing three straight punts to open the game. Only putting up seven points in four possessions during that stretch cost Clemson badly, though.

    LSU finally broke through, and Clemson couldn't keep up.

    In the last 18 minutes of the first half, Joe Burrow tossed three touchdowns and ran for another. Clemson came within three points in the third quarter, but the Trevor Lawrence-led offense stalled and punted on its next four possessions. Burrow threw two more scores and pushed LSU to the final 42-25 margin.

    Burrow totaled 521 yards and six touchdowns, and LSU capped a 15-0 season with its first national title in 12 years.

6. Ohio State 42, Alabama 35 (Sugar Bowl, 2014 Season)

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Alabama controlled the first 25 minutes, running out to a 21-6 advantage on the Buckeyes. The next 15 minutes, however, belonged entirely to Ohio State and shaped the outcome.

    Ezekiel Elliott rushed for a score, Evan Spencer threw a touchdown on a trick play, Devin Smith caught a long score from third-string quarterback Cardale Jones, and Steve Miller returned an interception to the house. Ohio State's 15-point deficit became a 13-point lead.

    Alabama followed the pick-six with a touchdown to make it 34-28, and the Tide had three potential go-ahead drives. But those possessions resulted in two punts and an interception.

    Elliott then ripped off an 85-yard scamper that effectively sealed the game and highlighted his 230-yard performance.

    Alabama scored a touchdown and forced a punt, but Blake Sims' desperation heave into the end zone as time expired found Ohio State defender Tyvis Powell.

5. Clemson 29, Ohio State 23 (Fiesta Bowl, 2019 Season)

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Red-zone defense saved Clemson, which fell behind 16-0 but forced Ohio State to kick field goals on all three possessions that reached the 20-yard line in that stretch.

    The comeback wasn't without controversy; Ohio State had a targeting penalty that disqualified Shaun Wade, and a replay review overturned Jordan Fuller's touchdown on a fumble recovery. Those two moments played a role in the outcome.

    Nevertheless, the Buckeyes still had a chance.

    In the final minutes of regulation, Clemson held a 29-23 lead as Ohio State reached the 23-yard line. But a miscommunication between Justin Fields and Chris Olave resulted in an end-zone interception by Clemson safety Nolan Turner.

    The game-sealing takeaway sent Clemson to its fourth national championship game in five seasons.

4. Georgia 54, Oklahoma 48 (2OT) (Rose Bowl, 2017 Season)

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    In the best CFP semifinal to date, Georgia outlasted Oklahoma during a double-overtime thriller at the Rose Bowl.

    The turning point, you could argue, was a squib kick.

    Baker Mayfield caught a touchdown from CeeDee Lamb on a trick play, giving Oklahoma a 31-14 lead with six seconds left in the third quarter. Rather than kicking deep, the Sooners chose a short line drive. Georgia's Tae Crowder snatched the ineffective kick, and Rodrigo Blankenship drilled a 55-yard field goal as the half expired.

    Georgia quickly scored twice in the third quarter, which evened the score at 31 instead of trimming OU's lead to 31-28.

    From there, it was a roller coaster.

    Georgia scored a touchdown, and then Oklahoma answered with two. Georgia tied it at 45 and forced overtime on Nick Chubb's rushing score late in the fourth quarter. The teams traded field goals in the first session of the extra period, as well.

    In the second overtime, Lorenzo Carter swung the game in Georgia's favor with a blocked field goal. Two players later, Sony Michel sprinted 27 yards for the winning touchdown.

3. Alabama 45, Clemson 40 (National Championship, 2015 Season)

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    While the failed squib may have sparked Georgia's comeback, a successful onside kick undoubtedly keyed Alabama's surge beyond Clemson in the 2015 season's championship game.

    Early in the fourth quarter, Alabama knotted the score at 24 when Adam Griffith kicked a 33-yard field goal. Despite it being a tie game, head coach Nick Saban worried the Crimson Tide could not stop Deshaun Watson and called a surprise onside kick.

    Griffith and Marlon Humphrey executed it perfectly.

    "We were tired on defense and weren't doing a great job of getting them stopped," Saban said, per Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated. "And I felt like if we didn't do something or take a chance to change the momentum of the game that we wouldn't have a chance to win."

    The decision worked as intended; Jake Coker hit O.J. Howard for a go-ahead touchdown two snaps later.

    Alabama held Clemson to a field goal on the next possession, and Kenyan Drake returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a 38-27 advantage. Clemson still scored two more touchdowns, but Alabama protected the lead thanks to Derrick Henry's third rushing score and by recovering a late onside kick.

2. Alabama 26, Georgia 23 (OT) (National Championship, 2017 Season)

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    Tua Tagovailoa shifted from "backup quarterback" to "college football legend" in just 30 minutes and one overtime period.

    During the opening half, Georgia shut down Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts and took a 13-0 advantage into the locker room. Nick Saban benched Hurts in favor of Tagovailoa, a stronger passer but still a freshman with only garbage-time experience.

    Tagovailoa made the risky decision seem like a genius one.

    The left-hander tossed two touchdowns and led a pair of field-goal drives. Alabama even had a chance to win in regulation, but Andy Pappanastos missed a 36-yarder as time expired.

    Georgia managed a field goal to begin the extra period, leaving space for a heroic moment from Tagovailoa. That feeling immediately shifted to dread when he took a miserable 16-yard sack. But on the next snap, he launched a 41-yard touchdown to fellow freshman DeVonta Smith for the winning score.

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

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    How could a national championship decided on a last-second touchdown not find itself atop the ranking?

    As if that's not enough, Clemson recovered from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to win its first national title in 35 years.

    With six seconds to play in regulation, Clemson trailed 31-28 but stood two yards from Alabama's end zone. Dabo Swinney could've called for a field goal to force overtime, but he trusted Deshaun Watson to either win the game or not waste all six seconds.

    Watson capitalized on his coach's trust and whipped the game-winning touchdown to Hunter Renfrow.

    The play itself brought a little controversy. Should Clemson have been called for pass interference? Most Alabama fans would say yes, though Marlon Humphrey making first contact with Clemson wideout Artavis Scott led officials to not throw a flag.

    Watson totaled 463 yards and four touchdowns in the win, cementing his place as one of the best college quarterbacks ever.

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