Ted MillerESPN Senior Writer
Not only do we now have two finalists for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T and a clear No. 1 and No. 2 heading into Monday’s game (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) between Alabama and Clemson, we also have a completed season for everyone else.
We know more now than we did on Dec. 4, when the CFP selection committee laid out the semifinals and the rest of the New Year’s Six bowls, decisions that weren’t devoid of controversy at the time. That means we can rework the speculation of the final CFP rankings into something that is (slightly) more objective, as the two human polls will do on Jan. 10.
So here’s a reranking of the 12 teams selected for the New Year’s Six bowls.
The struggling passing game sent up an itty-bitty red flag, and it’s difficult not to raise an eyebrow at offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s sudden departure for his new job and the elevation of Steve Sarkisian. But the result of the CFP semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl was nonetheless a decisive 24-7 takedown of Washington. The Crimson Tide are the defending national champions, and as they look to become the first 15-0 team in college football history, they are the kings until someone else takes the throne.
The Tigers’ 31-zip domination of Ohio State was spectacular football in all phases. Quarterback Deshaun Watson and his team seem to be peaking at the right time, riding late-season momentum after they suffered their only defeat, a stunner to Pittsburgh. It’s not difficult to make a case that Clemson is a more complete team than Alabama. It’s also not difficult to wonder what Watson might do for an encore in a championship rematch against another outstanding Crimson Tide defense, particularly with receiver Mike Williams healthy and available this year. Clemson can propel itself upward one spot with a fairly obvious accomplishment Monday.
Maybe it’s an emotional reaction to the Trojans winning truly one of the most entertaining games you’ll ever, ever see — a 52-49 thriller over Penn State in the Rose Bowl, decided on the last play — but we’re promoting the Trojans over two playoff teams. Only Alabama and Oklahoma can eclipse USC’s nine-game winning streak, which also includes a win over Washington and a team that beat Ohio State (Penn State).
4. Penn State
Maybe it’s an emotional reaction to Penn State’s gutty effort in losing truly one of the most entertaining games you’ll ever, ever see, but we’re promoting the Nittany Lions, too. Here’s a guess we’re not the only ones whose opinions of this team are higher today after a bowl loss than they were before the Nittany Lions took on USC. And, well, they are the Big Ten champs.
5. Ohio State
Making a distinction between Ohio State and Washington is difficult, particularly with the Big Ten and Pac-12 being mostly bad-to-mediocre in the postseason and both teams getting whipped in CFP semifinals. The edge here comes down to the major criticism of the Huskies all season: their nonconference schedule. You can’t ignore that the Buckeyes posted the most impressive nonconference victory this year: a blowout win at Oklahoma, the Big 12 and Sugar Bowl champ.
The Huskies’ defense proved it was ready for prime time against Alabama, holding the Crimson Tide to 17 offensive points. The Huskies looked like just about everyone else against the Alabama defense, however, which was bad. While you could make a case that things might have been more competitive without several notable miscues, that can be said about just about every game. Washington proved itself as a good team this year, but it’s not yet in Alabama’s class.
The Big 12 champs’ whipping of Auburn in the Sugar Bowl gave the conference a solid, perhaps partially vindicating, 4-2 bowl record. The Sooners took care of the No. 2 team in the SEC, and their in-state buddies in Stillwater stomped the Pac-12 South Division champ, Colorado. The Sooners’ much-maligned defense dominated Auburn, which might inspire some snarky “SEC offense” talk.
The Seminoles provided the second-most-entertaining game of the postseason with their 33-32 win over Michigan in the Orange Bowl. Deondre Francois‘ 12-yard touchdown pass to Nyqwan Murray with 36 seconds left was the money play, but the money player was Dalvin Cook, who rushed for 145 yards and a touchdown. The Seminoles’ win should make up for a “down” 9-3 regular season and propel them toward another run at the ACC title next year.
The Wolverines are back in Big Ten and national contention under coach Jim Harbaugh, no doubt, but the bottom line of this season is they lost three of four when it mattered most. Great teams find ways to win. Michigan found ways to lose at the end of the season.
The Badgers could have embarrassed themselves by not taking Western Michigan seriously in the Cotton Bowl, but they took care of business in a 24-16 victory. The Badgers ended up as the Big Ten’s fourth-best team, but that still earned them a final top-10 ranking here. That said, our decision to drop the Badgers three spots despite their bowl win is in response to the CFP selection committee’s irrational exuberance for the Big Ten, which went 3-7 this bowl season.
The Tigers bounced back from a 1-2 start that imperiled coach Gus Malzahn, but they also symbolize the SEC’s slide this season — see their thorough drubbing at the hands of Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. You’ll note the considerable space here between the No. 1 and No. 2 SEC teams. While it’s unlikely to become a permanent state of affairs, it’s fair to say the SEC at present is the Crimson Tide and a nameless supporting cast.
12. Western Michigan
The Broncos and effervescent coach P.J. Fleck rowed the boat to a magical season as the Group of 5’s best team. Still, they were unable to make a louder statement against Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl, losing 24-16. It was a competitive game but one that seemed to never truly be in doubt. Western Michigan had only 280 total yards, 217 below its season average.