Hayes: Top 10 Playoff moments from the decade of the 4-team format
As we head into the 10th and final season of the 4-team Playoff and toward the 12-team format in 2024, there’s no better time to assess the postseason expansion that forever changed the future of college football.
A look at the 10 seminal moments of the Playoff era.
10. The proof
You wanted the Playoff, you got it. And proof it works in Year 1, no less.
The foundational aspect of any playoff in any sport is “new season, new life.” Ohio State showed a college football world still reeling from BCS “computer” rankings PTSD what it meant to be 1 of 4 teams selected.
The Buckeyes got hot at the right time, blew out Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game and were chosen over TCU — which beat Iowa State, on the same day, by 52 points — as the No. 4 seed in 2014’s inaugural 4-team Playoff.
All the Buckeyes did was prove, from the jump, that a No. 4 seed could win the Playoff, legitimizing the Playoff in Year 1. It began with a big — and frankly, rather easy — win over No. 1 seed Alabama, and then another uneventful thumping of No. 2 Oregon in the national championship game.
Hallelujah, the damn thing works.
9. Hello, Group of 5
They kicked and screamed and whined for years that the BCS wasn’t fair. Shoot, UCF even gave itself a national title.
Once Cincinnati was chosen as the No. 4 seed in the 2021 season, everything changed. The Group of 5 schools had finally arrived on the big stage.
Boise State’s long uphill battle of years past. Utah, Fresno State, TCU, UCF. They all paved the way for this.
All of those worthy teams and seasons, all of those hopes dashed over and over. It all finally ended.
The Bearcats went unbeaten (including a win over Notre Dame), won the American Conference, and earned the No. 4 seed.
The 27-6 loss to Alabama wasn’t as bad as the score looked, and the ceiling was finally shattered for the Group of 5.
8. The fall from grace
It wasn’t so much Florida State’s dominance. It wasn’t that the Noles were defending national champions, and had won 29 straight games heading into a Playoff semifinal game against Oregon.
It was the way it all unfolded in 2014 with enigmatic QB Jameis Winston. All of it — starting before the season even kicked off.
The crab legs, the inappropriate behavior, the 1-game suspension, the on-field, pregame argument with coach Jimbo Fisher during the suspension.
The Noles were primed to implode, winning their final 4 games of the regular season by 4 (Miami), 3 (Boston College), 5 (Florida) and 2 points (Georgia Tech) against teams that didn’t have near the same talent.
Oregon, however, did match up. And then some. And the last memory of the 59-20 rout was Winston, evading a rush and scrambling before futilely stumbling backward and fumbling the ball without getting hit. Tony Washington scooped up the fumble and returned it for a touchdown.
Oregon scored on 6 straight possessions in the 2nd half, the last 4 coming after FSU turnovers.
7. Michigan’s gift giving
The whole thing began on the 1st play of the game — and the tone was set — when TCU S Bud Clark chased down Michigan RB Donovan Edwards on a breakaway run, stopping him short of the goal line.
A goal line stand by TCU — and a couple of bizarre play calls by Michigan — accounted for the first of many potential points wasted by the Wolverines in the 2022 Playoff semifinal.
Michigan’s first 3 goal-to-go situations produced 3 points and a fumble at the goal line. QB JJ McCarthy threw pick-6s in each half, continuing an overload of mistakes too difficult to overcome.
6. The onside kick
Nick Saban, the greatest college coach ever, made his bones coaching defense. No one has done it better over the last 2 decades of college football, and maybe ever.
But there was Saban, in the middle of a brutal rock fight with plucky Clemson in the 2015 national championship game, and he didn’t trust his defense. So he called for an onside kick with the scored tied at 24 with 10 minutes to play.
The Tide lined up in a bunch formation (as they had all game), and kicker Adam Griffith 2-hopped a kick to the boundary where only teammate Marlon Humphrey could catch it.
Saban smirked, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney took off his hat in exasperation and could only argue with officials about something that was really nothing. It was the perfect decision — and execution.
In a game of possessions, of teams trading touchdowns, Alabama got 1 more — and it led to a national championship.
5. The payback
They destroyed everyone. No team scored more than 17 points against Georgia in the first 12 games of the 2021 season. The defense gave up a mere 6.9 points per game.
Then came Alabama, scoring 41 points and rolling up 531 yards in an SEC Championship Game rout. Georgia still reached the Playoff as the No. 3 seed, and dispatched Michigan in the semifinal to set up a rematch with Alabama in the Playoff Championship Game.
The rematch — a Southern Super Bowl in the middle of Big Ten country at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis — was a fistfight. Georgia made the Alabama offense 1-dimensional, holding the Tide to 30 yards rushing on 28 carries and forcing predictable down and distance situations.
The Georgia defense did the rest to nail down the 1st of 2 straight national titles.
4. Ladies and gentlemen, Joey B.
Nothing encapsulates college football’s move away from the stoic and stodgy years of the BCS and coach control to the player-friendly years of the Playoff quite like the ascension of Joe Burrow.
He transferred from Ohio State to LSU in 2018, and after a transition season in the wrong offense, Burrow and the RPO offense of co-offensive coordinator Joe Brady went wild on college football.
It ended with a 3-game run unrivaled by any quarterback in the history of college football, capping the greatest individual season in the sport’s history.
Burrow’s final 3 games of the 2019 season:
- SEC Championship Game (vs. Georgia): 349 yards passing, 4 TDs, 0 INTs.
- Playoff semifinal (vs. Oklahoma): 493 yards, 7 TDs, 0 INTs.
- Playoff Championship Game (vs. Clemson): 463 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs.
The average margin of victory in those 3 games against No. 4 Georgia, No. 4 Oklahoma and No.3 Clemson: 26.3 points.
Burrow finished the season with 5,671 yards passing and 60 TDs against only 6 INTs — and 1,305 yards, 16 TDs and 0 INTs in the 3 biggest games of the season.
3. The greatest Rose Bowl ever
Imagine all those stuffed shirts in Pasadena watching this thing play out on New Year’s Day, 2018.
No Pac-12, no Big Ten — just Georgia and Oklahoma putting on an offensive show the likes of which had never been seen at college football’s most storied event.
The big plays, the phenomenal play calls, the gutsy comeback from Georgia. And finally, overtime.
Because something like this had to end in overtime. Had to end with Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley’s brilliant play-calling suddenly falling flat, and forcing the Sooners to kick a field goal in the 2nd overtime.
And with Georgia TB Sony Michele going 27 yards for the winning score, completing a day when he and Georgia TB Nick Chubb averaged — yes, averaged — 13 yards a carry.
2. The Play
The Drive. The play. The national title.
A year after a gut-punch loss to Alabama in the national championship game, Clemson returned with a unique game plan: run as many plays as possible to wear down the Alabama defense and make them vulnerable in the 4th quarter.
When the final drive began, Clemson already had run 90 plays. The Tide defense was gassed, and Tigers QB Deshaun Watson kept making backbreaking plays.
- The placement on a 24-yard throw to Mike Williams.
- Finding Hunter Renfrow on 3rd-and-3 from the Alabama 32 with 28 seconds to play.
- The 17-yard completion to TE Jordan Leggett, leading him to the boundary where only he could catch the ball.
Finally, Clemson was sitting at the Alabama 2 with 6 seconds remaining. The Tigers called timeout to set up their 9th play of the drive — and 99th of the game.
Alabama then called timeout to change its defense, and Clemson returned with the same play: 2 receivers left and right, with Artavis Scott and Renfrow lined up on the right.
Saban said the Alabama defense knew what was coming — Scott running a cross into the defense, and Renfrow running an out underneath. It wasn’t so much a pick play as it was perfectly executed.
Renfrow was wide open, and Watson rolled 2 steps right and drilled a perfect strike with 1 second remaining to win the 2018 national championship and finish 15-0.
In the long, storied history of Alabama football, there is no bigger, more impactful play than 2nd-and-26 in the 2017 national championship game.
A benched starting quarterback — Jalen Hurts, the heartbeat of a team and a championship run — watching from the sidelines. The freshman backup, Tua Tagovailoa, with nothing but mop-up duty experience, entering the biggest game of the season down 10-0.
So many big throws from Tagovailoa to keep the Tide alive. So many missed chances for Georgia to put away the game.
As overtime arrived, Georgia got negative 9 yards on its first possession and needed a 51-yard field goal from Rodrigo Blankenship to at least get points.
The Alabama drive began with Tagovailoa getting sacked — while holding onto the ball too long — for a 16-yard loss. That set up 2nd-and-26.
The sack left Alabama at the Georgia 41, with a kicker (Andy Pappanastos) who had missed a 36-yard field goal at the end of regulation that could have won the game. The Tide had 2 plays to shorten a potential game-tying, 58-yard field goal.
Tagovailoa went for it all on the first play, manipulating Georgia safety Dominick Sanders with his eyes and forcing him to stay close to the hash. By the time freshman WR Devonta Smith got behind CB Malkom Parrish, Sanders couldn’t rotate to the boundary quick enough — and Tagovailoa put the ball on Smith’s numbers, in stride.
Touchdown. Greatest moment in Playoff history.