College Football Playoff: Alabama vs. Notre Dame, Clemson vs. Ohio State

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A look at the final four College Football Playoff teams selected since its inception in the 2014-15 season.

Alabama is back in the College Football Playoff after a one-year absence. Clemson is in the playoff for the sixth consecutive season. Ohio State and Notre Dame are there, too, overcoming arguments against their candidacies.

The CFP selection committee chose those familiar teams for the four-team tournament Sunday, ranking SEC champion Alabama No. 1, ACC champion Clemson No. 2, Big Ten champion Ohio State No. 3 and ACC runner-up Notre Dame No. 4.

The playoff semifinals, both on Jan. 1, will match Alabama vs. Notre Dame and Clemson vs. Ohio State.

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The Alabama-Notre Dame game will be played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, as a semifinal was relocated from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., because players’ families wouldn’t have been allowed to attend in California amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Clemson-Ohio State game will be played in New Orleans’ Sugar Bowl.

Alabama (11-0) and Clemson (10-1) were clear choices for the playoff’s top two seeds after beating Florida and Notre Dame, respectively, in conference championship games Saturday.

The biggest argument against Ohio State’s playoff candidacy was that the Buckeyes (6-0) played significantly fewer games than other contenders. But a win over No. 14 Northwestern in the Big Ten title game Saturday was enough to secure them a place in the playoff in the eyes of the selection committee.

Gary Barta, the committee chairman, said on a videoconference with media members Sunday that the differential in games played “was certainly a problem” for the committee throughout this season, but that in the end “there was strong support and consensus” in the room for ranking Ohio State No. 3. He cited the Buckeyes’ undefeated record, wins over two ranked opponents (Indiana and Northwestern) and a conference championship.

Notre Dame’s candidacy came under question when the Fighting Irish lost 34-10 to Clemson in the ACC Championship game Saturday. But Notre Dame (10-1) was chosen for the playoff’s fourth and final spot over No. 5 Texas A&M (8-1), the SEC West runner-up.

While the margin of defeat in the ACC title game was a negative for Notre Dame, Texas A&M’s lone loss also was by a large margin, 52-24 to Alabama on Oct. 3. Notre Dame’s case was helped by its regular-season win over Clemson, even though the Tigers were without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence in that game, and a win over No. 13 North Carolina.

“Those two teams and those two resumes had a lot in common,” Barta said of Notre Dame and Texas A&M. “The committee looked to the fact that Notre Dame had two wins over ranked teams, that one of those wins was against Clemson, and that Texas A&M had one win over a ranked team (Florida). ... When it was all said and done, the committee decided Notre Dame had earned its way to that fourth spot over a very good Texas A&M team.”

After the playoff committee moved a semifinal from California to Texas, the Alabama-Notre Dame matchup was assigned to the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, rather than to the Sugar Bowl, because that will allow the No. 1 seed to have the benefit of playing at the venue that will be open to more fans. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the CFP expects 16,000 fans to be allowed at the semifinal in Texas and 3,000 fans at the semi in New Orleans.

Following Texas A&M in the committee’s rankings Sunday were Big 12 champion Oklahoma at No. 6, Florida at No. 7, Cincinnati at No. 8, Georgia at No. 9 and Iowa State at No. 10.

There was some mild shuffling within the top four teams from last week’s rankings - Notre Dame dropping from No. 2 to No. 4, Clemson rising from No. 3 to No. 2 and Ohio State rising from No. 4 to No. 3.

Both Alabama and Clemson are in the CFP for the sixth time in the event’s seven-season history. Alabama reached the playoff the first five seasons before failing to make it last year. Clemson has reached it every year except the first one. Ohio State is in the playoff for the fourth time in seven years and Notre Dame for the second time.

This year’s playoff field renewed questions about whether the selection process is fair to teams from “Group of Five” conferences. The undefeated champion of the American Athletic Conference, Cincinnati, came up well short of making the top four and was ranked behind a two-loss team (Oklahoma) and a three-loss team (Florida).

On Saturday night, the 13-member selection committee watched Cincinnati beat No. 24 Tulsa 27-24 in the AAC Championship game and watched Florida lose to Alabama 52-46 in the SEC title game.

“Just asking the question - which team is better, Florida or Cincinnati? - the committee believes that Florida was the better team,” Barta said.