The most unique postseason in sports begins Saturday, as college football’s bowl season begins. While the best teams don’t play until after Christmas, fans will be entertained by teams who are from smaller conferences, or didn’t have as good of seasons (three 5-7 teams qualified for bowls, after all), in the interim between now and the games that really matter, particularly including the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Eve. It feels weird that the four teams for the Playoff were decided without controversy, but the way the season played out made it very clear who should be in the Playoff.
1. Clemson (13-0, Last Week: 1st, College Football Playoff Ranking: 1st)
Bowl: Orange vs Oklahoma (College Football Playoff)
The Tigers, looking for their first national title since 1981, beat North Carolina (11-2), 45-37, in the ACC Championship Game to advance to the four-team tournament. On New Year’s Eve, the Tigers and quarterback Deshaun Watson, who finished third in Heisman voting, will meet Oklahoma (11-1), and their quarterback, Baker Mayfield, in the best quarterback matchup of bowl season. The Sooners will be a tough out for the top-seeded Tigers, as they have played very well since October 10 loss to Texas, but Clemson is undefeated for a reason.
2. Alabama (12-1, LW: 2nd, CFP: 2nd)
Bowl: Cotton vs Michigan State (College Football Playoff)
The Tide and Heisman winner Derrick Henry took total control of the SEC Championship Game, beating Florida (10-3), 29-15, after Henry ran for 189 yards on 44 carries. This season, Henry broke Herschel Walker’s SEC rushing record for a single season, and is just 14 yards away from becoming the first 2,000 yard rusher in a single season in SEC history. The Tide’s defense has starred this season, allowing more than 23 just once, and allowing 16 or less in six straight games, and eight out of nine. Another defensive minded team, Michigan State (11-1), will be the Tide’s opponent in the Cotton Bowl, as Nick Saban tries to win a fourth national title at Alabama and fifth overall, coaching in the semifinal against his former school.
3. Oklahoma (12-1, LW: 3rd, CFP: 4th)
Bowl: Orange vs Clemson (College Football Playoff)
The Sooners had championship weekend off, as the Big 12 has no title game, and were passed by Michigan State in the CFP rankings, dropping them into the fourth spot. That results in a matchup with #1 Clemson (13-0) in the College Football Playoff at the Orange Bowl. Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield, a former walk-on at Texas Tech who transferred to Oklahoma, finished fourth in the Heisman voting after a remarkable season.
4. Michigan State (12-1, LW: 4th, CFP: 3rd)
Bowl: Cotton vs Alabama (College Football Playoff)
The Spartans came from behind to win the Big Ten title game over Iowa (12-1), handing the Hawkeyes their first loss, after a 12-play, 84-yard drive that took over nine minutes ended in a game-winning touchdown by L.J. Scott. The Spartans have rebounded nicely from their November 7 loss to 5-7 Nebraska, beating Ohio State and Iowa, giving them a total of four wins over the current top 15 in the Playoff rankings, the most among any team. Now Sparty will prepare for the Cotton Bowl and a Playoff matchup with Alabama (12-1)
5. Ohio State (11-1, LW: 6th, CFP: 7th)
Bowl: Fiesta vs Notre Dame
The Buckeyes played an excellent season, but a November 21 loss to Michigan State took away their shot at a Big Ten title, and ended up costing them a Playoff berth as well. While I have the Buckeyes ahead of Iowa, the Hawkeyes are ahead of the Buckeyes in the real rankings, giving Iowa a Rose Bowl bid, and relegating the Buckeyes to what should be an excellent Fiesta Bowl matchup with Notre Dame (10-2).
6. Iowa (12-1, LW: 5th, CFP: 5th)
Bowl: Rose vs Stanford
When L.J. Scott scored to propel Michigan State over Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game, he was hit at the 1-yard line by Iowa defenders, before reaching the end zone on his second effort. Somewhere in a parallel universe, Scott might have been tackled and stopped short of the touchdown, and the Spartans might have been stopped again on fourth down, giving Iowa a 13-9 win, instead of a gut-wrenching 16-13 defeat, and a berth in the College Football Playoff. Instead, the Big Ten runners-up will play Stanford (11-2), the Pac-12 champions, in the Rose Bowl.
7. Stanford (11-2, LW: 7th, CFP: 6th)
Bowl: Rose vs Iowa
The Cardinal’s playoff hopes were slim at best heading into the Pac-12 Championship Game against USC (8-5), but they did deliver a conference championship back to Palo Alto with a 41-22 beating of the Trojans. Christian McCaffrey gained 461 all-purpose yards in the win, including 207 rushing yards, 105 receiving yards, 120 kick return yards, 29 punt return yards, and even 11 passing yards. In doing so, McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ single-season NCAA all-purpose yards record, and nearly did enough to win the Heisman, finishing second behind Derrick Henry, who entered championship weekend as the favorite. While losses to Northwestern and Oregon kept Stanford out of the Playoff, the Pac-12 title earns them a bid to the Rose Bowl, on New Year’s Day against Iowa (12-1).
8. Notre Dame (10-2, LW: 9th, CFP: 8th)
Bowl: Fiesta vs Ohio State
The Irish were definitely only two plays away from the playoff, losing late to Clemson and Stanford, and maybe even one play away if the committee had found favor in the Irish with one loss. As is, they will face Ohio State (11-1) in the Fiesta Bowl in a matchup of two of the most polarizing teams in college football.
9. North Carolina (11-2, LW: 8th, CFP: 10th)
Bowl: Champs Sports vs Baylor
The Tar Heels lost in the first ACC title game appearance, falling to Clemson (13-0), 45-37. The Heels played well against the Tigers, but couldn’t stop Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson, although they would have had a better chance in the closing minutes if not for a horrendous offsides call on what had been a successful onside kick. The Tar Heels were also robbed in the CFP rankings, and the resulting bowl bids, as they are, in my opinion, better than Florida State, but the Seminoles, as the higher ranked ACC team, qualified for the Peach Bowl. That being said, Carolina will still have an excellent bowl matchup, as they face Baylor in what should be a high-scoring Champs Sports Bowl.
10. Florida State (10-2, LW: 10th, CFP: 9th)
Bowl: Peach vs Houston
While, as I just mentioned above, I feel the Seminoles should not be ahead of the Tar Heels in the rankings, there is another way to look at this team. If it weren’t for their crazy last-second loss to Georgia Tech, their only loss would be to #1 Clemson, and the ‘Noles would be, at the very least, in the conversation for the College Football Playoff. As is, they will play in the Peach Bowl against Houston, who qualified for the New Year’s Six as the highest ranked non-Power Five conference champion.
11. TCU (10-2, LW: 11th, CFP: 11th, Alamo Bowl vs Oregon)
12. Houston (12-1, LW: 15th, CFP: 18th, Peach Bowl vs Florida State)
13. Northwestern (10-2, LW: 13th, CFP: 13th, Outback Bowl vs Northwestern)
14. Ole Miss (9-3, LW: 14th, CFP: 12th, Sugar Bowl vs Oklahoma State)
15. Oklahoma State (10-2, LW: 16th, CFP: 16th, Sugar Bowl vs Ole Miss)
16. Baylor (9-3, LW: 12th, CFP: 17th, Champs Sports Bowl vs North Carolina)
17. Oregon (9-3, LW: 18th, CFP: 15th, Alamo Bowl vs TCU)
18. Florida (10-3, LW: 17th, CFP: 19th, Citrus Bowl vs Michigan)
19. Michigan (9-3, LW: 19th, CFP: 14th, Citrus Bowl vs Florida)
20. LSU (8-3, LW: 22nd, CFP: 20th, Texas Bowl vs Texas Tech)
21. Wisconsin (9-3, LW: 23rd, CFP: unranked, Holiday Bowl vs USC)
22. Tennessee (8-4, LW: 24th, CFP: 23rd, Outback vs Northwestern)
23. Navy (10-2, LW: 25th, CFP: 21st, Military Bowl vs Pittsburgh)
24. Temple (10-2, LW: 20th, CFP: 24th, Boca Raton Bowl vs Toledo)
25. Western Kentucky (11-2, LW: unranked, CFP, unranked, Miami Beach Bowl vs South Florida)
Also Ranked in CFP Rankings: Utah (9-3, LW: unranked, CFP: 22nd, Las Vegas Bowl vs BYU), USC (8-5, LW: 21st, CFP: 25th, Holiday Bowl vs Wisconsin)