In a foursome that turned out obvious even if the order within it did not, three old mainstays and one dazzling debutant made the College Football Playoff on Sunday. The 13-member selection committee chose No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Clemson and No. 4 Oklahoma, with LSU the alluring party-crasher. The choice for No. 1 between LSU and Ohio State presented the committee’s thorniest assignment.
The semifinalists will collide on Saturday, Dec. 28, when LSU will meet Oklahoma in one national semifinal at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, and Ohio State will meet Clemson at the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona. It’s the second straight year in which three playoff qualifiers arrive with spotless records, with Oklahoma’s bummer at Kansas State on Oct. 26 the only loss among the quartet’s 52 games.
This sixth playoff will become, of course, the first to lack Alabama. It will become the fourth to lack any team from the Pacific-12 Conference. It will become the fifth to pluck teams from four different conferences.
Of the bunch, Clemson sustains the deepest legacy. The Tigers on Sunday officially tied Alabama with a whopping five berths under the newfangled playoff concept in the 150-year-old sport, tacking this No. 3 finish to a No. 2 last year, a No. 1 in 2017, a No. 2 in 2016 and a No. 1 in 2015.
They are both the two-time and defending national champion, and they have won both their championships from sub-No. 1 seedings (No. 2 both times), part of a quirky playoff history thus far in which no No. 1 seed has won a national championship. They are seeded No. 3 this time even with a returning national-champion quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, because of a schedule lacking in ranked victims when contrasted with LSU and Ohio State.
Oklahoma, seen as the straggler in the mix as the only qualifier with both a loss and multiple narrow escapes, appears as a program for the fourth time. Sooners grabbed the No. 4 seed in 2015 and 2018 and the No. 3 seed in 2017, going 0-3 in those games. Oddsmakers will cast them as bound for 0-4, even as Jalen Hurts becomes, remarkably, the first man to play starting quarterback in playoffs for two different universities (Alabama in 2016-17 and Oklahoma in 2019).
Ohio State finds the playoff for the third time but for the first time while unbeaten. Its 2014 team squeezed in at No. 4 with a 12-1 record, then won the first College Football Playoff championship with its No. 3 quarterback and its masterful adaptation. Its 2016 team, seeded No. 3, became the first to snare a playoff bid without a conference championship, then kind of wished it hadn’t after a 31-0 pasting by Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Buckeyes’ presence this time comes after two years of sighing from just beneath the big four: No. 5 with an 11-2 team and Big Ten champion in 2017, and No. 6 with a 12-1 team and Big Ten champion in 2018. They also join Oklahoma as the two programs to reach the playoff under two different coaches, with first-year Coach Ryan Day following upon decorated predecessor Urban Meyer.
LSU, meanwhile, makes its playoff debut with a considerable leap. Previous Tigers finished the first five seasons with rankings of Nos. 23, 20, 20, 17 and 11. They splashed 621 points across a bold season, second only to Ohio State’s 633 and ahead of Clemson’s 605, and they became a playoff certainty even before their 37-10 demolition of then-No. 4 Georgia on Saturday in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Their 46-41 win over Alabama on Nov. 9, while Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa still played before his injury, counted as the most impressive triumph of the national season. An LSU long envisioning itself as playoff-caliber became very much playoff-caliber.