Who is the best of the best?

Not just this year — we’ll learn that soon enough. But who stands above them all in the 10-year history of the 4-team College Football Playoff format?

If the Playoff selection committee can project, we can, too. So we did.

We poured over box scores, highlights, strength of schedules, star power, relative weaknesses — and then defaulted to good, ol’ fashioned human subjectivity, a’ight — to determine — 1 through 40 —  where every team in the 4-team Playoff era stacks up.

And, yes, having a healthy, generational quarterback absolutely made a difference in these rankings, too.

40. 2014 Florida State

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Oregon, 59-20

(And … this is where FSU fans head straight to the comments … but before you go, understand that no matter where you end up on this list, you still were 1 of the 4 best that season. In theory.)

Having said that … FSU lived off its perfect 2013 season throughout 2014, staying unbeaten but looking anything but perfect. Jameis Winston, the Heisman winner in 2013, was a turnover machine in 2014. These Noles should have been the first undefeated Power 5 champion left out of the Playoff. (That would have saved everybody a lot of angst Sunday, huh?) Instead, they were awarded a No. 3 seed and were promptly boat-raced 59-20 by Oregon — still the largest margin of defeat in semifinal history and the 2nd-biggest blowout in Playoff history. Their SRS score was 14.48 — 13th-best in the country that season and nearly 10 points worse than the 2013 champs.

39. 2020 Notre Dame

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Alabama, 31-14

Nothing about 2020 made any sense, including the Irish’s inclusion in the Playoff. They ranked 19th in SRS. The Irish lived off a regular-season win against Clemson, which was without Trevor Lawrence, but then lost the rematch to a healthy Tigers team with Lawrence in the ACC title game. Notre Dame got the No. 4 seed, however, in large part because its primary competition was Texas A&M, which already had been blown out by Alabama in the regular season. The committee didn’t want a repeat of that. Instead, we got: Alabama 30, Notre Dame 14.

38. 2015 Michigan State

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Alabama, 38-0

The Spartans lost 1 game — by 1 point, at Nebraska — during the regular season. Their loss was controversial, too. Nebraska scored in the final seconds on a catch that might not have been a catch. On paper, the Spartans looked the part. On the field? Their pedestrian 15.36 SRS score (7th in the country) only told part of the tale. They were 6th in the Big Ten in scoring that year, averaging less than 30 a game. Alabama exposed the truth in a 38-0 semifinal blowout that could have been much, much worse had the Tide not started running out the clock late in the 3rd quarter.

37. 2021 Cincinnati

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Alabama, 27-6

Did they belong? There was plenty of debate about whether any Group of 5 team, even an unbeaten one with a 9-point win at No. 9 Notre Dame, deserved 1 of the 4 spots in the Playoff.

The Bearcats weren’t the typical Group of 5 team, of course. Their head coach, Luke Fickell, was on his way to becoming a Power 5 head coach. Their quarterback, Desmond Ridder, is a starter in the NFL. And, of course, the Bearcats now are in the Big 12. They ranked No. 6 in SRS, so, at minimum, they were close.

But all of the old narratives quickly resurfaced after Alabama controlled their semifinal matchup, 27-6.

36. 2016 Washington

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Alabama, 24-7

Narratives are a tough out, and the Pac-12’s narrative essentially was set in stone after Alabama toyed with No. 4 seed Washington in a 24-7 semifinal. The score was much closer than the reality. Once Nick Saban realized Jake Browning and the Huskies’ offense posed zero threat, Saban throttled down and just leaned on Bo Scarbrough and the rushing attack. The Tide ran 50 times for 269 yards, all be cementing the idea that Pac-12 teams were soft in the trenches.

35. 2017 Clemson

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Alabama, 24-6

After the Kelly Bryant-led Tigers failed to score a TD in a semifinal loss to Alabama, the wheels were set in motion for incoming 5-star freshman Trevor Lawrence to take over in 2018. Lawrence didn’t start immediately, but Dabo Swinney didn’t wait long to make the switch.

34. 2016 Ohio State

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Clemson, 31-0

Should the Buckeyes have even been in the field? SRS said yes, ranking the Buckeyes No. 2. But this was the team that lost to Penn State and therefore didn’t get a chance to play for the Big Ten championship. The Playoff committee selected them, anyway, pairing them with No. 2 Clemson, which featured Deshaun Watson. The semifinal was a mismatch — and back-to-back semifinal shutouts no doubt contributed to the Big Ten missing out on the Playoff the next 2 seasons.

33. 2015 Oklahoma

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Clemson, 37-17

The Sooners were loaded, on offense, anyway. But even as Baker Mayfield, Joe Mixon (1,274 yards, 10 TDs), Samaje Perine (1,060 yards, 12 TDs) and Dede Westbrook (80 catches, 1,524 yards, 17 TDs) were stuffing the stat sheet every week, the nagging question lingered: What could the Sooners do against a real defense?

The answer? Not enough.

No. 1 seed Clemson hammered the Sooners 37-17 in an Orange Bowl semifinal.

32. 2020 Clemson

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Ohio State, 49-28

Trevor Lawrence threw for 400 yards and 2 TDs against Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl semifinal, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

Longtime recruiting rival Justin Fields went off for 6 TDs as the Buckeyes hammered the No. 2-seeded Tigers 49-28.

Was Clemson overrated? Or was this just a bad performance at the worst possible time. Probably more of the latter, but signs were showing that Dabo Swinney’s budding dynasty already was beginning to crumble. Clemson hasn’t come close to making the Playoff since.

31. 2018 Notre Dame

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Clemson, 30-3

We’re playing the results a little bit here because the Irish certainly looked the part in the regular season. They finished 12-0, had a Heisman candidate in QB Ian Book and beat 4 ranked opponents by a combined margin of 143-60. Their SRS was No. 6. So, legit. Vegas knew something, though, installing Clemson as an 11-point favorite in the Cotton Bowl semifinal. They could have doubled that and still been safe as Lawrence and the Tigers rolled 30-3.

30. 2021 Michigan

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Georgia, 34-11

Was Michigan overrated as an untested No. 2 seed? Let’s just say they were completely overmatched in a 34-11 beatdown against No. 3 Georgia in the Orange Bowl semifinal. But that loss motivated and spurred change in the program and forced Jim Harbaugh to go all-in on a QB capable of winning games like this.

29. 2019 Oklahoma

Playoff result: L, semifinal to LSU, 63-28

There’s no shame in losing to Joe Burrow — everybody did in 2019 — but Oklahoma’s offense was a surprising no-show in the Peach Bowl beatdown. Maybe we should have seen it coming, though. In 4 previous games against ranked teams, the Sooners never reached 35 points. They won all 4, but this was the least reliably explosive of Lincoln Riley’s Playoff attacks.

28. 2019 Ohio State

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Clemson, 29-23

This Buckeyes team ended the Big Ten’s Playoff drought — and Playoff scoreless drought — but extended the league’s inability to get to the championship game to 5 years.

27. 2018 Oklahoma

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Alabama, 45-34

Heisman winner Kyler Murray was a handful in leading the nation’s highest-scoring offense, but defensive issues eventually caught up with the Sooners.

26. 2022 Michigan

Playoff result: L, semifinal to TCU, 51-45

On paper, Michigan’s defense looked dominant. The reality was those numbers were inflated (deflated?) by playing 10 games against Big Ten opponents and nobody of consequence in nonconference action. Max Duggan and TCU had a big day, but Michigan’s offense contributed mightily to the loss, too, by throwing 2 pick-6s. Michigan probably wins this game 8 times out of 10.

25. 2023 Washington

Playoff result: vs. Texas in semifinal

Michael Penix Jr. is the best quarterback in the Playoff, and Rome Odunze might be the best receiver. Together they are the best tandem. But because it’s the Pac-12, everything stays in show-me mode until, you know, a Pac-12 team actually shows us something.

24. 2023 Michigan

Playoff result: vs. Alabama in semifinal

Give the Wolverines some credit: They won 6 of their 13 victories without their head coach. You can debate whether that says more about the Wolverines’ talent and resolve — or the level of competition they faced. Their style is a much better fit for the BCS era, and they have, by far, the weakest quarterback in this year’s Playoff. I’ve already predicted an Alabama-Texas championship game, so no need to back off, now.

23. 2023 Alabama

Playoff result: vs. Michigan in semifinal

Could a national champion really be this low? The Tide earned their way into the final 4-team Playoff, but there’s no denying fortune smiled on them along the way. They lost their signature nonconference game, by 10 at home, struggled mightily in other games and needed a play that earned a nickname “4th-and-31” just to stay in the hunt. It says something that Nick Saban’s worst Playoff team still is better than many that have made the field.

22. 2023 Texas

Playoff result: vs. Washington in semifinal

Is Texas back? It appears so, armed with a talented quarterback, a creative head coach and a defense that dominated Alabama in Week 2.

All 4 Playoff teams are in TBD mode in terms of this ranking, but Texas certainly has the firepower to win it all for the first time since Vince Young hooked USC in 2005.

21. 2022 TCU

Playoff result: L, championship game to Georgia, 65-7

TCU won the first Playoff game in Big 12 history, but all anybody remembers is the record-setting blowout loss to Georgia in the national title game.

20. 2017 Oklahoma

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Georgia, 54-48 (2OT)

This is the one that got away, the one that started narratives that Lincoln Riley still is trying to shake.

Oklahoma led Georgia 31-14 late in the 2nd quarter — and 45-38 in the final minutes of regulation. But couldn’t get a stop.

The Sooners featured the most explosive offense in country in 2017, led by its brash, Heisman Trophy winner, Baker Mayfield. Georgia’s defense was outstanding and star-laden, holding 11 of its first 13 opponents to fewer than 20 points.

Mayfield and the Sooners hung 48 points on the Dawgs in an epic Rose Bowl semifinal. Unfortunately for Riley, his defense couldn’t get stops — and gave up a season-high 54 points to the Dawgs.

19. 2014 Oregon

Playoff result: L, championship game to Ohio State, 42-20

Marcus Mariota won the Heisman, deservedly so, but Ohio State pounded the Ducks along both lines of scrimmage. Worse than the 22-point loss, the way it happened helped shape the narrative that the Pac-12’s best teams were not

18. 2020 Ohio State

Playoff result: L, championship game to Alabama, 52-24

Ohio State was of the most controversial Playoff selections, but only because COVID wiped out most of its games and it entered the Playoff on the strength of a 6-0 record. The Buckeyes justified the inclusion, though, when they blasted Clemson in the Sugar Bowl semifinal before running into an absolute offensive juggernaut in Alabama in the title game.

17. 2021 Alabama

Playoff result: L, championship game to Georgia, 33-18

We’ll never know whether Alabama would have beaten Georgia and won another national championship had Jameson Williams not gotten hurt. But the guess here is that, yes, they would have.

16. 2014 Alabama

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Ohio State, 42-35

I don’t want to say the No. 1 seeded Tide took No. 4 Ohio State — and backup quarterback Cardale Jones — for granted, but that’s exactly what I’m going to say. The Buckeyes got hot late — and had to — just to make the Playoff. Alabama jumped to an early lead in their Playoff semifinal. But OSU’s Ezekiel Elliott was a beast and in a narrative changer, Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes wore down Alabama’s decorated front in the 2nd half for a dramatic 42-35 win. This Alabama team, however, which featured a 3,000-yard passer, almost 2 1,000-yard rushers and a record-breaking year from Amari Cooper, is by far the most star-laden semifinal loser on this list.

15. 2022 Ohio State

Playoff result: L, semifinal to Georgia, 42-41

Yes, I realize the Buckeyes lost The Game in the regular season, and then lost a 42-41 thriller against eventual champ Georgia in the Playoff semifinal.

I also realize that, from a talent and good fortune standpoint, that game was by far Georgia’s toughest task en route to winning its 2nd consecutive national title. Ohio State had the best QB and wide receivers in the Playoff and would have toyed with TCU in the championship just like Georgia did.

A missed field goal in the final seconds is all that prevented the Buckeyes from hanging their 2nd Playoff championship banner — because Ohio State would have had its way with TCU in the title game, too.

14. 2018 Alabama

Playoff result: L, championship game to Clemson, 44-16

Trevor Lawrence and Clemson annihilated Alabama in the national championship game, but that says much more about how special those Tigers were.

13. 2015 Clemson

Playoff result: L championship game to Alabama, 45-40

Dabo Swinney’s first contender was unbeaten but certainly battle-tested before its championship date with Alabama. The Tigers survived 1-possession scares against Louisville (3), Notre Dame (2) and South Carolina (5) to arrive at the postseason unscathed.

12. 2019 Clemson

Playoff result: L, championship game to LSU, 42-25

OK, so this team wasn’t quite perfect, but the only thing that prevented Trevor Lawrence from winning back-to-back national titles was Joe Burrow and the greatest offense in college football history.

11. 2017 Georgia

Playoff result: L, championship game to Alabama, 26-23 in OT

Don’t worry, Dawgs. Happier days are ahead … and I’m not even going to mention that play.

10. 2017 Alabama

Playoff result: National champion, 26-23 in OT over Georgia

A classic throwback to the SEC’s 9-6 era, where future All-Pros on defense made it difficult for future draft picks on offense.

Alabama still was in the early stages of becoming a passing juggernaut, but it was in Year 2 of asking its quarterback to win games.

Usually, that meant Jalen Hurts. In the national title game, with everything on the line, Tua Tagovailoa stepped in and broke the Dawgs’ hearts with a 2nd-and-26 dagger for a walk-off TD.

9. 2021 Georgia

Playoff result: National champion, 33-18 over Alabama

The Dawgs finally — and emphatically — ended the 1980 jokes, but in terms of measuring greatness, there are reasons to pause.

They escaped Clemson in the opener, for starters. And were blasted by Alabama in the SEC Championship Game — a 17-point loss that called into question whether the Dawgs deserved to make the Playoff.

Once in, however, they went to work, even though Alabama fans are still convinced the only reason Georgia won is Jameson Williams got injured in the first half. Is that fair or accurate? Depends on which side of the state line you’re standing on, but there’s no denying the fact that Bryce Young was cooking until, suddenly, he wasn’t. You are free to decide why.

8. 2014 Ohio State

Playoff result: National champion, 42-20 over Oregon

Too low? Maybe. But the Buckeyes were the definition of a team getting hot at the perfect time. And they had to, too, just to make the College Football Playoff. The fact they did so with 3rd-string quarterback Cardale Jones only adds to the mystique and legend of the Big Ten’s only national champion in the Playoff history. … But let’s not forget that the Buckeyes also were 1 stop from losing in the semifinal to Alabama.

7. 2022 Georgia

Playoff result: National champion, 65-7 over TCU

Was this Georgia team better than the 2021 national championship team? Stetson Bennett was better, and because quarterbacks are the key to everything, these Dawgs get the nod.

6. 2015 Alabama

Playoff result: National champion, 45-40 over Clemson

The 2015 Tide team had Derrick Henry. The 2020 Tide team had Tua Tagovailoa, Heisman winner DeVonta Smith and arguably the most unstoppable passing game in program history. Could the 2020 team have slowed down Henry? Nobody else did. He broke Herschel Walker’s single-season rushing record en route to the Heisman. Could the 2015 team have held up against that passing attack? Well, they slowed down Deshaun Watson just enough — and intercepted 19 passes that season. Styles make fights and this would have been a classic as a 2020 defense built to defend the passing game would have had to deal with Henry, whom Bama rode to the 2015 title. In Bama’s final 4 games — beginning with the Iron Bowl — Henry carried 146 times for 693 yards and 7 TDs.

5. 2016 Alabama

Playoff result: L championship game to Clemson, 35-31

How can a team that didn’t win a national title be 1 of the 5 best of the Playoff era? Fair question — and probably a good time to remind you that Alabama entered the 2016 national title game against Clemson ranked No. 1 with a perfect 14-0 record. Three months after that game, 10 Tide players were selected in the NFL Draft — including 4 in the first round. And that list didn’t even include Jalen Hurts because he was just a freshman. You probably also forgot that Alabama beat 9 ranked opponents that season — by a cumulative margin of 339-138. That’s utterly ridiculous.

The overcame Lane Kiffin’s crazy exit and led Clemson 24-14 entering the 4th quarter, but played the rest of the game without Bo Scarbrough. Alabama doesn’t have a lot of “what-ifs” in its storied history, but the impact of Scarbrough’s injury certainly is one.

His injury — and Deshaun Watson’s greatness — proved to be too much to overcome. Watson led Clemson to 21 points in the 4th quarter — throwing the game-winning TD pass on the final play to win the title.

4. 2016 Clemson

Playoff result: National champion, 35-31 over Alabama

Clemson’s march to the national title began seconds after Alabama outlasted the Tigers in a 45-40 thriller in the 2015 national title game.

The stars from that team were back, led by Watson, on a very short list of greatest college football players who never won the Heisman.

And Watson did not disappoint. He threw for 4,571 yards with 41 TDs. He added another 600+ yards and 9 TDs rushing.

And in the title game, he was nothing short of Superman, single-handedly denying Alabama’s repeat bid while giving Clemson its first national title since 1981.

3. 2018 Clemson

Playoff result: National champion, 44-16 over Alabama

The first 15-0 team in college football history — punctuated by 3 consecutive postseason blowouts in the ACC Championship, Cotton Bowl semifinal and the national title game.

All led by a freshman quarterback, Trevor Lawrence.

Clemson’s 2nd national championship in 3 years — both over Saban and Alabama — had us wondering whether the Tigers had supplanted the Tide as the kings of college football.

2. 2020 Alabama

Playoff result: National champion, 52-24 over Ohio State

The game obviously had changed — and Nick Saban was all-in on airing it out. This team made the days of Derrick Henry seem like 5 decades ago, not just 5 short years.

Pick an offensive stat, and this Alabama team probably broke it.

The Tide averaged 48.5 points per game — against an all-SEC schedule and 2 Playoff teams — which was 1/10th of a point more than …

1. 2019 LSU

Playoff result: National champion, 42-25 over Clemson

The numbers were historic — so much so that they’ll never be broken by an SEC player — but the moxie made these Tigers the best of the best.

Throwing 60 TD passes doesn’t need a lot of context, but every time LSU needed to make a play, Joe Burrow made it. There’s never been a defense built to slow down the greatest passing show in SEC history.

These numbers are stupid — and unbeatable:

  • TD on opening drive: 9 times in 15 games
  • Points on opening drive: 12 times in 15 games
  • Scoring points immediately after falling behind: 5-for-8
  • Scoring TDs immediately after falling behind: 4-for-8
  • Most consecutive drives without points with Joe Burrow: 3

The most astonishing fact was that, with Burrow leading the way, LSU never went more than 3 drives without scoring. (It had a 4-drive stretch late in the 4th quarter of a blowout against Mississippi State, but Burrow already was on the bench, celebrating.)

With future NFL stars on both sides of the ball, and a master motivator on the sideline, this was the most perfect team of the 4-team Playoff era.