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Fourth & Long: Splitting All Previous College Football Playoff Teams Into Three Tiers

With 2020 finally coming to an end at the end of the week, it’s time to start moving our eyes from the gridiron to the hardwood. However, as both semi-finals are taking place on New Year’s Day this year, it’s time to take a look back and split all 24 previous College Football Playoff teams into three tiers: Never Should Have Been In, Deserved a Shot, and Best of the Best. Hint: Alabama or Clemson isn’t the best team to ever grace the College Football Playoff.

With three days to go until the much-anticipated match-ups, we will be releasing one category a day. The first category, of course, is Never Should Have Been There. Then tomorrow, the Deserved a Shot category will be released. Finally on New Year’s Day we will find out who the best six teams ever to play in the College Football Playoff.

Obviously there were some duds in the playoff like Washington in 2016-2017 and Oklahoma last year. On the other hand the playoffs have also given us some incredible match-ups and games such as the entire playoff of 2017-2018, Georgia took Oklahoma to double overtime before falling to the Dogs, who would then go on the face Alabama in the National Championship. That game also went into overtime, as future star quarterback Tua Tagovaiola threw the game winning touchdown pass to now Heisman finalist receiver Devonta Smith.

This year in the playoffs, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Alabama, and Clemson are teams that have been in the playoffs at least once before, so nothing should come as a surprise to them. Alabama and Clemson seem to be on another level than Ohio State and Notre Dame, so the two semi-finals shouldn’t be as exciting, but the National Championship Game between Clemson and Alabama, if it happens, will be a game for the ages. With that fresh in your mind, let’s dive right into ranking all 24 teams, not including this year’s contenders.

Never Should Have Been There

24. 2015-2016 Michigan State Spartans: The Spartans had no real shot to compete once they squeaked into the playoffs in 2015. In 2015, the Spartans did have one of the best wins of the season, by beating Ohio State in the Horseshoe 17-14. That Ohio State team was probably better than the one that won the national championship in 2015. However, head coach Urban Meyer basically forgot about star running back Ezekiel Elliott, and the Spartans won on a field goal as the clock hit zero. After beating the Buckeyes, Michigan State traveled to Indianapolis to play Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game. In this game the Spartans and running back L.J. Scott engineered one of the best and longest drives in the history of college football. With 9:31 remaining in the game the Spartans fielded a punt at their own 18 yard line. They would then go on to complete a 22-play 88 yard drive in nine minutes and four seconds, that ended with an L.J. Scott one yard touchdown run with only 27 seconds remaining in the game. The Spartans were Big Ten Champions, but had to go on and play a great Alabama team in the Cotton Bowl. The Spartans stuck with the Crimson Tide for one half, as Alabama went into half-time with a 10-0 lead. The Spartans had their best drive of the night near the end of the half. However, as they were nearing the red-zone, Connor Cook was intercepted by Cyrus Jones, and from then on it was all Alabama.

Key Players: Connor Cook, QB – L.J. Scott, RB – Riley Bullough, LB – Jack Conklin, OT

Head Coach: Mike Dantonio

Best Win: Beat then (2) Ohio State 17-14 in the Horseshoe

23. 2016-2017 Ohio State Buckeyes: This Buckeye team just did not deserve to be in the playoffs. After missing out on the playoffs the year before, Ohio State slipped into the third seed over Big Ten Champion Penn State, who had beaten Ohio State earlier in the season. The Buckeyes were the second consecutive Big Ten team to make the playoffs and get shutout in the semi-final, Michigan State in 2015-2016 was the other team shutout. The committee made a bold move and set a weird precedent when they selected Ohio State to make the playoffs. For some reason that year, the members of the committee did not think a conference title was as important as the eye test, yet now conference championships are a major factor when deciding who will be contending for the crystal trophy.

Ohio State should have lost twice in the regular season. They lost to Penn State in the Happy Valley “white-out,” and they got extremely lucky to inch past Michigan in the annual rivalry game. Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines took the Buckeyes to double-overtime in the Horseshoe. In the second overtime, Michigan started with the ball, but failed to score, settling for a field goal. On the ensuing Ohio State possession, on fourth and one, JT Barrett ran a quarterback sneak, and on the TV it looked like he was clearly short, and the Wolverines had upset the Buckeyes. However the sideline official gave the Buckeyes a great spot, and after review the call stood. On the next play Curtis Samuel would scamper into the end zone on a fifteen yard touchdown run to put the dagger in the Wolverine’s heart. In the semi-final, they never stood a chance. Clemson and Deshaun Watson, controlled the clock and didn’t allow the Buckeyes to score even a field goal during the game. The Tigers would go on to win 31-0, but a new precedent was set about conference championships.

Key Players: JT Barrett, QB – Curtis Samuel, H-Back – Marshon Lattimore, CB – Jerome Baker, LB – Pat Elflein, C

Head Coach: Urban Meyer

Best Win: 30-27 over then (3) Michigan in the Horseshoe

22. 2019-2020 Oklahoma Sooners: The committee is infatuated with the Sooners for some reason. The Sooners had lost earlier in the season to Kansas State, who has always been a thorn in Oklahoma’s side. Jalen Hurts, graduate transfer from Alabama, led the Sooner offense as a Heisman Finalist. The Sooners would go on to beat previously unbeaten Baylor, coming back from being down 25 to beat the Bears 34-31. The Sooners would then play the Bears again in the Big 12 Championship. This one went to overtime, as the Sooners pulled out a victory 30-23.

After they won, the Sooners received the news that they would have to be playing Joe Burrow and an awesome LSU team in the semi-finals. LSU head coach Ed Orgeron’s guys came to play and jumped out to an early 21-7 lead by the end of the first quarter. In the second quarter, they piled on Oklahomas poor defense to go into half-time with a 49-14 lead. From then on, LSU coasted to an easy victory 63 28. Oklahoma’s defense all year was a terrible unit, and it showed against the high powered Tiger offense. LSU’s 63 points in the semi-final was the most ever scored in any college football playoff game, semi-final or championship game. Once again Lincoln Riley and the Sooners tricked the country into thinking they were good, when really they were a great offensive team with one of the worst defenses in all of college football.

Key Players: Jalen Hurts, QB – LaRon Stokes, DL – Kenneth Murray LB – Creed Humphrey, OL – CeeDee Lamb, WR – Gabe Brkic, K

Head Coach: Lincoln Riley

Best Win: 34-31 comeback win over then (13) Baylor in Waco

21. 2018-2019 Notre Dame Fighting Irish: In his ninth season at Notre Dame, head coach Brian Kelly finally got the Fighting Irish into the playoffs for the first time. However, that’s all Notre Dame did in 2018-2019, just make the playoffs. The Irish came into the season ranked 12th in the first AP Poll. In their first game of the season they hosted then (14) Michigan, and defeated them by a touchdown, to start the year with a lot of momentum going forward. Towards the middle of the season, Brian Kelly and co took care of then (7) Stanford at home, and then (24) Virginia Tech on the road. This was also the year that Notre Dame played Syracuse at Yankee Stadium, wearing uniforms from the “Shamrock Series.” Syracuse, led by then head coach Dino Babers, was ranked number 12 at the time, but Notre Dame breezed right past them 36-3. In the final game of the regular season, Notre Dame took on hated rival USC, who was unranked at the time. With Ian Book at the helm, the Fighting Irish went on to win 24-17, all but assuring themselves a spot in the top four.

Brandon Wimbush started the season at quarterback for the Irish. However, he was replaced in week four by Ian Book and the Irish never looked back. When they saw that they would be headed to Arlington, Texas for the Cotton Bowl, they must have been happy. However, their draw was (2) Clemson, and folks around South Bend agreed, the Irish would have to play perfect to get a win. Play perfect they did not, and they fell to the Tigers at Jerry’s World, 30-3. Notre Dame is finally back in the playoffs this year, but they might have gotten a worse draw than they did in 2018-2019, having to face Alabama and their three-headed offensive monster of Mac Jones, Najee Harris, and Devonta Smith.

Head Coach: Brian Kelly

Key Players: Quenton Nelson, G – Ian Book, QB – Mike McGlinchey, OT – Julian Love, S – Drue Tranquill, LB

Best Win: Crushing (7) Stanford 38-17 at home

21. 2015-2016 Oklahoma Sooners: Truth be told, this team could have been much lower on this list had the four previous teams put up any kind of fight in the semi-finals. This Sooners team was still led by Oklahoma legend, Bob Stoops. In their second game of the season, the Sooners traveled to Knoxville to take on (24) Tennessee. The Volunteers put up quite a fight, forcing two overtimes, but the Sooners pulled out the win in the end, 31-24.

The most impressive thing about this Sooner team is the way they ended their season. They played three straight games against top 12 teams. In the first match-up the Sooners out-scored the (4) Baylor Bears in Waco. In their second impressive win, they squeaked past (11) TCU, 30-29 at home. Finally Bob Stoops and co. poured it on vs their hated rivals (9) Oklahoma State in the Bedlam Series, 58-23. This would end up being Stoops’ second to last season in Norman before Lincoln Riley Took Over.

Key Players: Baker Mayfield, QB – DeDe Westbrook, WR – Samaje Perrins, RB – Eric Striker, LB/S – Austin Seibert, K

Head Coach: Bob Stoops

Best Win: 58-23 over Oklahoma State in the Bedlam Series

20. 2014-2015 Florida State Seminoles: Coming off a National Championship in the final BCS year of 2014, the Seminoles returned a lot of players and were looking to repeat as national champions. The most important player they brought back was the ever-interesting quarterback Jameis Winston. Winston won the Heisman trophy in 2013, and came into 2014 looking to be only the second player ever to win two Heisman Awards. To start out the year, the Seminoles needed overtime to beat (22) Clemson 23-17 in the third week of the season at home. Florida State benefited largely from a weak ACC that year. Their biggest win came against (5) Notre Dame in week seven at home. The Seminoles would end up scraping by the Irish 31-27.

In the ACC Championship Game, the Seminoles played a veteran-laiden Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and their triple option offense. The Jackets gave Jameis Winston and company all they could handle, only to fall in the closing minutes, 37-35. Florida State should was lucky to scoop up the three spot in the inaugural college football playoff rankings, where they would take on (3) Oregon and Marcus Mariota. In the semi-final the Seminoles got on the board first with a field goal by kicker Roberto Aguayo. However, that would be the only lead the Seminoles had all day, as the Ducks throttled the Seminoles 59-20.

Head Coach: Jimbo Fisher (Now With Texas A&M)

Key Players: Jameis Winston, QB – Dalvin Cook, RB – Mario Edwards Jr., DE – Cameron Erving, OT – Ronald Darby, CB

Best Win: Over (5) Notre Dame 31-27 at home

19. 2017-2018 Clemson Tigers: The vaunted Tigers finally appear on this list. In 2017 the Clemson Tigers, still coached by Dabo Swinney, had a great opening three weeks. They throttled Kent State 56-3, then won a defensive slug-fest over (13) Auburn 14-6, and finally they beat Lamar Jackson and Louisville 47-21. These Tigers were not perfect by any ,means. In week seven, the Tigers were upset while visiting the Carrier Dome to play Syracuse. Syracuse got a lead early, and never looked back, beating the then second ranked Tigers 27-24.

In the ACC Championship the Tigers took on (7) Miami (FL), and absolutely put on a show, crushing the Hurricanes 38-3. The Tigers looked so impressive, they jumped up to number 1 in the College Football Playoff Rankings, only to find out they had to take on Jalen Hurts and Alabama. Led by quarterback Kelly Bryant, the Tigers struggled to get anything going on offense, and fell to Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide 24-6.

Key Players: Kelly Bryant, QB – Travis Etienne, RB – Treyvon Mullens, CB – Isaiah Simmons, LB/S – Dexter Lawrence, DE – Clelin Ferrell, DE – Hunter Renfrow, WR

Head Coach: Dabo Swinney

Best Win: Beating (13) Auburn 14-6

Alright that’ll do it for today. Make sure to check back in tomorrow for the Deserved A Shot category. Also the Fourth & Long Podcast will be airing live tomorrow afternoon. Follow me (@BrownlojCLE), Jake (@PiccuitoJacob), or the show (@4thandlongpod) to find out exact times and scheduling. We will also put out a post on Facebook when we are about to go live. Only 48 more hours until we see who will take home the Crystal Trophy.

Follow Me on Twitter: @BrownlojCLE

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