There is variety and new blood, the likely Heisman Trophy winner and the expected finalists, the potential No. 1 NFL draft pick and the defending national champion. Most of all, there are three undefeated teams — each capable of winning it all without a clear weakness — and four dynamic quarterbacks.
There is a lot to like about Sunday’s released College Football Playoff pairings — even if there was little suspense and no surprises.
The one debate going into the day was who would be No. 1. The committee selected SEC champion LSU and quarterback Joe Burrow — the runaway favorite to become the Tigers’ second Heisman Trophy winner next Saturday in New York City — over Ohio State. LSU leapfrogged the Buckeyes after manhandling No. 5 Georgia, 37-10, in the SEC final. The high-scoring Tigers are making their first trip to the playoff after beating five teams ranked in the Associated Press top 10, equaling a record for wins over such opponents in a single season.
“You got two complete teams, obviously. They both added a conference championship,” committee chair Rob Mullens said in an interview on ESPN after four conference champions were selected for the first time since 2015. “When you’re comparing schedule strengths, you’ve got LSU at 4-0 against teams in the top 13 and Ohio State 5-0 against teams in the top 21. It was really close. We’ve spent the entire season with one going above the other. The last couple weeks we saw an LSU defense that was healthy and better. This week, we just felt LSU deserved that No. 1 seed going into the playoff.”
Those Tigers will face No. 4 Oklahoma, the one-loss Big 12 winner in the playoff for the third straight year, in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 28 in Atlanta at 4 p.m. In an ironic twist, Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts will be making his fourth trip to the playoff — his first three came with Alabama, his previous school — while his former team missed out for the first time since the small tournament’s inception six years ago.
That will be followed by a blockbuster semifinal between No. 2 Ohio State — the top seed going into the weekend — and defending champion Clemson, the third seed, in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. The winners meet for the national championship in New Orleans on Jan. 13.
Ohio State and its top-ranked scoring offense is back in the playoff for the first time since 2016, when, coached by Urban Meyer, it was blanked by Clemson, 31-0. The Tigers have won 28 straight games and outscored their opponents by a mind-boggling 467 points, though they are largely untested coming out of the weak ACC.
Coach Dabo Swinney said last week Clemson doesn’t get enough respect and has already begun to use its seed as motivation, telling his players in a clip televised by ESPN they are the first team since 1966 to start the year No. 1, go undefeated through the regular season and fall to No. 3.
“When you are going across the country, free fuel is good,” Swinney said.
The matchup will feature an intriguing battle of elite sophomore quarterbacks, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields. The draft prospects grew up less than 20 miles apart in Georgia and were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation as high school players. Lawrence had a transcendent freshman year, leading Clemson to the national title, while Fields was a backup at Georgia. He transferred to Ohio State and produced 50 touchdowns, 40 in the air and 10 on the ground, and threw just one interception.
Both teams are ranked in the country’s top four in scoring offense and defense. Ohio State won every contest by at least 11 points while Clemson had just one victory by a single possession and is coming off a 62-17 demolition of Virginia in the ACC Championship game.
“We got to be ready to execute at a high level,” first-year Ohio State coach Ryan Day said, “because the margin of error will be tiny.”
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