A college football season filled with uncertainty brought on by the pandemic will end with a perfectly predictable College Football Playoff.
Alabama vs. Notre Dame. Clemson vs. Ohio State. Four of the the bluest of blue bloods and the teams that have comprised the top four in all the relevant rankings for nearly two months. Notre Dame was picked Sunday over Texas A&M for the final spot, ending what little drama there had been.
The top four teams in the selection committee’s first rankings of the season were the same teams in a different order in the last. Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson and Ohio State have held the first four spots in the AP Top 25 since Oct. 25.
Only 11 schools have ever reached the playoff and all four of the 2020 participants have been there before.
The Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide will meet Jan. 1 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, after a late pandemic-related relocation from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. The Tigers and Buckeyes are set to play the same day at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans – if all goes according to plan.
The national champion of this long and strange season is scheduled to be determined Jan. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.
The Fighting Irish (10-1) are back in the playoff for the second time in three seasons, becoming the first team to lose a conference title game and make the final four. It was a novelty made possible only because of the pandemic, which pushed the famously independent Irish into a conference for the first time in school history.
The Atlantic Coast Conference is the second league to have two teams in the playoff, joining the SEC in 2017.
After sitting second in the CFP rankings for a month, Notre Dame was blown out 34-10 by Clemson in the ACC championship. That opened the door for Texas A&M (8-1), which had been lurking in fifth, but was unable to become the third team in the playoff’s seven-year history to make the field without even winning its conference division.
Selection committee chairman Gary Barta, the Iowa athletic director, said Notre Dame’s extra victory against a ranked opponent pushed the Irish over the top.
Notre Dame beat Clemson and North Carolina, which had been 15th in the previous playoff rankings. Texas A&M’s only victory against a team that was in the committee’s ranking was Florida. The Aggies played Alabama in October and lost by 28 points.
The decision didn’t go over well in Aggieland: Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond tweeted: “JOKE” The Aggies can take out their frustrations on North Carolina in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2.
Barta said Ohio State’s six-game schedule wasn’t much of an issue for the committee, overcome by the Buckeyes going undefeated and winning the Big Ten.
Oklahoma surged to sixth in the final rankings after closing with seven straight victories and a Big 12 title and will face seventh-place Florida in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 30.
Unbeaten Cincinnati finished eighth, making the Bearcats the top-ranked team among Group of Five conference champions and guaranteeing them a spot in one of the New Year’s Six bowls. Cincinnati will meet Georgia in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Pac-12 champion Oregon will face Iowa State in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2.
Notre Dame’s reward will be a matchup with Alabama (11-0), the Southeastern Conference champion that is back in the playoff for the sixth time after missing out last year. The last time the Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide played was the 2012 BCS championship game and the Tide won 42-14.
Clemson (10-1) is in for a sixth straight season, only missing out on the first playoff. Ohio State (6-0) is making its third appearance. The Tigers have won two playoff titles and the Buckeyes won the first after the 2014 season.
Clemson-Ohio State is a rematch of last season’s dramatic semifinal in Arizona, won 29-23 by the Tigers. The two teams also met at the Fiesta Bowl in the 2016 playoff and Clemson beat the Buckeyes 31-0.
One of the semifinals was scheduled to be played at the Rose Bowl, but a move was announced Saturday night. The change was made after coaches and school officials from playoff contenders complained about California’s COVID-19 restrictions that bans spectators from sporting events and would have made it impossible for players’ families to attend the game.
The Rose Bowl twice asked for a special exemption from the state and was denied.
Playing the game at the home of the Dallas Cowboys will allow 16,000 fans to attend. Because of that, Barta said, the committee placed top-seeded Alabama there to give it the possibility of more of a home-field advantage.
The Superdome is currently set to have 3,000 fans for the Sugar Bowl, but that number could go up.
This season has been filled with disruptions as teams navigated COVID-19 outbreaks, contact tracing that sent players into extended quarantine and daily uncertainty about whether games will be played.
Ohio State had three regular-season games canceled and the Big Ten had to change a minimum games played rule earlier this month just so the unbeaten Buckeyes could play in the conference title game Saturday against Northwestern.
Still, 87% of the games scheduled were played.
College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock has said a team selected to a semifinal would not be replaced if it could not play on the scheduled date. The game would be postponed if necessary and a every effort would be made to make it up.