Those who follow college football objectively, which is to say without an allegiance to a particular school, have had a pretty good idea who the four teams most deserving of playoff selection are for some time. That includes the members of the committee, who’ve had the same quartet at the top from the first rankings more than three weeks ago.
Now that championship weekend is here, the results will either confirm these preconceived notions, allowing for one of the least suspenseful reveals on Sunday in the brief history of the format, or blow them up completely. In the words of Billy Joel, “there ain’t no in betweens.”
The first game on this list will go a long way toward determining if we’ll have order or chaos. The rest are far less likely to shake up the bottle but bear watching nonetheless. Here are the five impact games.
No. 2 Notre Dame vs. No. 3 Clemson
Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ABC
This rematch has been all but inevitable since the Fighting Irish outlasted the Tigers in an epic double-overtime thriller in November. Clemson has a couple of factors in its favor this time around, and a Tigers’ victory would make the committee’s job a lot easier with both teams then likely to get in.
The dominant narrative is the availability of Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, who missed the game in South Bend but played well in his two outings since. WRs Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell will get most of the downfield attention from DB Kyle Hamilton and the Notre Dame secondary, but RB Travis Etienne is often a big part of the passing game as well. The Fighting Irish ground defense, anchored by LBs Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Drew White, was largely able to hold Etienne in check in the earlier meeting. Notre Dame has also been getting excellent QB play from veteran Ian Book, who doesn’t have Clemson’s explosive playmakers but has made good use of WR Javon McKinley and TE Michael Mayer. Clemson’s outstanding front can be even more devastating when LBs Baylon Spector and LaVonta Bentley join the pass rush, but Fighting Irish RB Kyren Williams, who has 1,011 rush yards, can help keep them at home.
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No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 11 Florida
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, CBS
The Crimson Tide and Gators have known they’d be squaring off for the SEC crown for some time, though clearly Alabama handled its tune-up game much better. The committee seems to have left the door open for Florida to crack the top four despite its slip-up against LSU, but it would take a very special performance.
Alabama quarterback Mac Jones throws under pressure from Georgia defensive lineman Devonte White during the second half at Bryant-Denny Stadium. (Photo: Gary Cosby Jr, The Tuscaloosa News)
Though the infamous shoe-toss penalty that preserved LSU’s winning field-goal drive got most of the attention, the Gators were also undone by general sloppiness throughout. That isn’t likely to carry over to a game of this magnitude, and QB Kyle Trask should have standout TE Kyle Pitts back in his lineup to complement speed threat Kadarius Toney. But the Crimson Tide secondary, anchored by DB Jordan Battle, has shown steady improvement since surviving an early track meet against Ole Miss. Meanwhile, Alabama’s offensive juggernaut, helmed by QB Mac Jones with plenty of help from WR DeVonta Smith and RB Najee Harris, shows no sign of slowing down. Much of the credit for that goes to OT Alex Leatherwood and the rest of the Tide’s rock-solid line. LB Ventrell Miller and the Gators’ defense must find creative ways to get into the Alabama backfield.
No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 14 Northwestern
Saturday, noon ET, Fox
The Big Ten’s decision to amend its ill-advised 2020 minimum game rule to allow the Buckeyes to participate in this title game was the correct one, particularly since East Division runner-up Indiana would have ultimately been unable to play this weekend anyway. Ohio State’s condensed body of work will evidently be enough for the committee assuming a win, but the Wildcats won’t make it easy for them.
The Northwestern defense is capable of at least slowing down Buckeyes QB Justin Fields and top playmakers WR Chris Olave and RB Master Teague III. Fields will have to be patient, as the Wildcats’ LB trio of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin will make him earn every yard, but the big plays should eventually come for the Buckeyes. The game will hinge on whether Northwestern QB Peyton Ramsey and RBs Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser can generate enough first downs to keep the more prolific OSU offense on the sidelines. Any Northwestern turnovers will be all but impossible to overcome, which means Ramsey must know the whereabouts of Buckeyes DB Shaun Wade at all times.
No. 8 Iowa State vs. No. 10 Oklahoma
Saturday, noon ET, ABC
Some bad results appeared to have the Big 12 on the outside of the playoff discussion early. That is still almost certainly the case with both championship game participants entering with two losses, but a second Notre Dame win against Clemson could clear a path for the winner.
Big performances from QB Brock Purdy and RB Breece Hall paced the Cyclones to the 37-30 triumph against the Sooners on Oct. 3. The OU defense has shown improvement since then, thanks in part to the return of DE Ronnie Perkins. The Sooners are now limiting opponents to a shade under five yards per play, while averaging 6.7 on offense. OU QB Spencer Rattler has also gained confidence as his first year directing the attack has progressed, but he can expect a lot of heat from Cyclones DEs JaQuan Bailey and Will McDonald IV.
No. 5 Texas A&M at Tennessee
Saturday, Noon ET, ESPN
Texas A&M is the one non-title game participant that could still factor in the playoff discussion. The Aggies will need a few breaks, but first and foremost they mustn’t stumble against the Volunteers, who snapped a six-game skid against Vanderbilt a week ago.
QB Kellen Mond will try to get the Aggies in front as quickly as possible, and stay there with the help of RB Isaiah Spiller. The QB platoon of Harrison Bailey and J.T. Shrout had some success for Tennessee’s struggling offense, but solving DB Leon O’Neal and the Aggies’ more accomplished defense could be another matter.
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