Who's the real No. 1? Ranking all 24 Playoff teams from 2014-19
Let’s rank Playoff teams.
No, not like that. We get enough of that on a weekly basis.
I mean, let’s rank Playoff teams all-time. Now that we’re 6 years into this system — I suppose we’re 7 years in if you count this year — we basically have a Top 25 of Playoff teams. OK, it’s 24. You get it.
The goal today is to rank those teams against one another. Just because a team won a national title doesn’t mean it was better than every runner-up. And on the flip side, a team that didn’t even win a Playoff game might be just behind a national title team.
Yes, this is subjective. All rankings are. Just promise you’ll say nicer things to me after this than what Twitter says to the selection committee.
In case you were wondering, head-to-head does matter. I can’t justify putting 2016 Alabama ahead of 2016 Clemson when we saw that play out on a neutral site (I realize that Bo Scarbrough’s injury and Lane Kiffin’s departure mattered). For the sake of this argument, that has the final say if it comes down to that.
So, let’s rank Playoff teams.
24. 2019 Oklahoma
I saw it with my own 2 eyes. It was a massacre. Imagine having that long to prepare for an opponent and getting smacked that badly, even against a historically good LSU team (more on them later). I was at Mercedes-Benz Stadium a few months earlier for Alabama-Duke. That’s what LSU-Oklahoma felt like. Worse, in fact. I think every team on this list could’ve scored a bunch of points against the Sooners.
23. 2015 Michigan State
MSU had no idea what hit them when Lane Kiffin dialed up one of the best offensive game plans I’ve ever seen. MSU might’ve shut down Derrick Henry, but it forgot to stop everyone else. Getting shut out is a tough look. Was MSU deserving of making the field? Absolutely, especially with the road win against the first unanimous preseason No. 1 in AP Top 25 history (Ohio State). But before that, MSU lost a November game to a 5-win Nebraska team. The Spartans were an L.J. Scott arm away from losing to Iowa in the Big Ten Championship and missing out on the Playoff, which might’ve been a better result.
22. 2016 Ohio State
Again, it’s a tough look when you get shut out in the Playoff. That Ohio State team didn’t win a conference title, yet it made the field ahead of 2-loss Penn State because it had a trio of top-10 wins, including an all-important victory at Oklahoma. But that team was also a coin flip call on J.T. Barrett’s famous 4th-down conversion against Michigan from being a 10-2 team with no Playoff consideration whatsoever. Brent Venables showed the world why Ohio State’s offense was so limited. It couldn’t stretch the field vertically and it had too many key defensive players to replace to be a true title contender.
21. 2014 Florida State
I’ll give FSU credit for starting 13-0 (a year after going 14-0). Very few Power 5 teams can claim that. But when 7 of those 13 wins are by 1 score and you get smoked in the Playoff semifinal, it flushes that down the toilet. All season, the worst-kept secret was how far off 2014 FSU was from its title team a year earlier. It was the first sign of cracks in FSU’s foundation. It took a good, but not great Oregon team to truly expose that. But we should always be grateful for the 2014 FSU team for giving us this fantastic moment in sports history:
— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) May 23, 2016
20. 2016 Washington
I’m gonna defend 2016 Washington for a second. The Huskies are the Pac-12 punchline now because they’re still the conference’s last Playoff team. But they deserve better than that. People forget that Chris Petersen’s squad beat a pair of top-10 teams like a drum and then actually stayed within arms reach against Alabama in the semifinal game. That team was in the top 10 in both scoring offense and defense. The problem, of course, was that it was against Pac-12 competition and the Huskies had what was easily the weakest nonconference schedule of any Playoff team to ever make the field.
OK. Go back to making your Pac-12 Playoff jokes.
19. 2018 Oklahoma
“A train wreck.” Oh, I assumed you asked me to describe how 2018 Oklahoma looked defending the pass. Allowing 294 passing yards per game is, um, not great? How many teams can say they played in a Playoff game with a defense that didn’t finish in the top 100? But Oklahoma at least showed that it could score against a legitimate SEC defense. Kyler Murray won the Heisman Trophy and proved to be one of the most electric players of the Playoff era. That’s definitely worth something, even if he played for a team that couldn’t stop a nosebleed.
18. 2018 Notre Dame
I’m higher on 2018 Notre Dame than you are. I know. The Irish became the butt of the joke once Clemson rolled in the semifinal. What people forget is that the Irish were a worthy Playoff participant as an undefeated team with 4 wins against ranked foes, 3 of which were by 3 scores. Notre Dame beat 10 Power 5 teams and some acted like it played a Group of 5 schedule. That wasn’t the case. A young Ian Book wasn’t ready for that nasty Clemson defense. (Hey, Tua Tagovailoa wasn’t, either.) The Irish could’ve beaten plenty of other Playoff participants. There just wasn’t much of a shot against one of the top teams of the last 20 years.
17. 2017 Clemson
Yes, Clemson was deserving of the No. 1 seed in 2017. Even with that brutal loss to Syracuse when Kelly Bryant went down, the Tigers took the top spot in the Playoff field. This offense just didn’t have the juice to hang with the big boys. It was before Travis Etienne became Travis Etienne, and they really didn’t have those dominant receivers who could stretch the field. This is the perfect example of a team that could’ve won it all 10 years earlier with that dominant defense. But in the post-Deshaun Watson era, the Tigers lacked the offensive firepower needed to win it all, and they never really had much of a chance once they fell behind against Alabama in the semifinal game.
16. 2015 Oklahoma
What if I told you that an Oklahoma defense only had 2 games of allowing 30 points all season before it ran into Deshaun Watson? Oklahoma had a top-30 defense! A young Patrick Mahomes threw 4 interceptions against Oklahoma! That Sooners squad gets lost in the shuffle because of how boring that Playoff game turned out to be, but there’s a case to be made that it was the best all-around team in Norman during the Playoff era. I think if you put the 2017 version of Baker Mayfield on that 2015 Oklahoma team, we’re talking about a much different Playoff narrative with the Sooners.
15. 2014 Oregon
Here’s the part where I make a lot of enemies on the West Coast. I have this simple theory about 2014 — there weren’t any truly great teams. I mean, we had a national title played with teams who were outside of the top 10 in October. That’s what allowed Ohio State to go on that run with a 3rd-string quarterback. Oregon was the team that didn’t have an answer for that 3rd-string quarterback. Of course, they had a dynamic 1-2 punch with Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and Royce Freeman, which helped the Ducks dismantle Pac-12 teams en route to a Playoff berth.
But they beat an FSU squad that was hanging by a string, and outside of DeForest Buckner, they really didn’t have those elite defensive players. The truly elite teams don’t get stunned by teams like Arizona at home. While that loss was avenged in a major way in the Pac-12 Championship, my guess is that team would’ve been an underdog to all 10 of the title game participants we saw in the 5 seasons that followed … and perhaps a few others.
14. 2014 Alabama
In some ways, 2014 Alabama is a tricky team to rank because it rose above expectations. Some Alabama fans love that team more than any on this list because of what Blake Sims and Amari Cooper did in Year 1 of Lane Kiffin’s offense. It was fun, new and exciting. This was such a wild year in the SEC because there really wasn’t much divide between the top-tier teams. Alabama overcame that stunning loss to Hugh Freeze’s Ole Miss squad, but that game showed that the Crimson Tide struggled with teams with a spread, downfield passing attack. Hence, why Ohio State beat Nick Saban’s defense with a 3rd-string quarterback. This team needed an adjusted approach to defending the pass — Alabama finished No. 60 in FBS in that department — and it needed more help for Cooper at receiver to become a truly special team.
13. 2015 Clemson
Clemson wasn’t Clemson yet. It was Deshaun Watson, an extremely good coaching staff and a bunch of 4-star recruits. Two things blow me away when looking back on this group, which nearly won a national title. One is that Clemson didn’t finish in the top 15 in scoring offense or defense. The other? Clemson’s national recruiting class rankings leading up to that season:
- 2012 — No. 20
- 2013 — No. 15
- 2014 — No. 16
- 2015 — No. 9
Those 2012-14 classes had just 1 single 5-star recruit. Again, Clemson wasn’t Clemson yet. That’s why when Clemson, which entered as the unbeaten No. 1 seed, put everyone on notice when Watson went off in the title game. Nobody did that to Nick Saban’s defense, which finished No. 3 in scoring, when he had time to prepare. It took a special player to get Clemson to that level. Six of those wins were by 10 points or less for a Clemson team that came close but was ultimately a year away.
12. 2017 Oklahoma
Ah, 2017 Oklahoma. The Big 12’s best chance for a Playoff win went up in smoke when Sony Michel scampered into the end zone at the Rose Bowl for the walk-off winner in double overtime.
Sony is trending, it’s about PlayStation. Here Sony Michel in double overtime of the Rose Bowl pic.twitter.com/MSttmhXXP4
— Rusty Shackelford (@juggalothoughts) June 1, 2020
Baker Mayfield was brilliant that season. What he did in Columbus was the stuff of legend, flag planting and all. He played at such an elite level that year that it’s still baffling to think he didn’t play for a national title. Of course, the Sooners had that porous defense to blame. That’s what allowed Georgia to rally back from a 3-score deficit. In the following 2 drafts, that Oklahoma team had 10 offensive players selected. It was a wildly talented team from that standpoint, albeit one with a defense that was nothing to write home about.
11. 2017 Georgia
Speaking of 2017, yes, we can put Georgia 1 spot ahead of Oklahoma for the obvious reason. They battled it out in double overtime. One of the great running back duos of all-time with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel lifted that offense, but true freshman Jake Fromm provided the spark the Dawgs needed in the wake of Jacob Eason’s season-ending injury. For my money, Roquan Smith was the best non-Baker Mayfield player in America that season. Kirby Smart’s team took advantage of a horrendous year in the SEC East, and it also avenged its blowout loss to Auburn in the SEC Championship. The Oklahoma comeback will forever live on as one of the best moments in program history, and rightfully so.
What was 2017 Georgia’s undoing? Tua Tagovailoa and an inability to stop a true downfield passing attack. Still, Georgia had a special year that nearly ended the 1980 jokes.
10. 2018 Alabama
Man, this is a difficult team to rank. On one hand, Alabama’s offense was a revelation in 2018. Tua Tagovailoa didn’t throw a pass in the 4th quarter until November. Nobody could stay on the field with that Crimson Tide team for most of the year. But we saw some cracks in the foundation down the stretch, part of which was Tagovailoa’s ankle and part of which was defenses figuring out how to force him into mistakes. Brent Venables did a masterful job of that in the blowout Clemson win in the title game, and it didn’t help that Alabama couldn’t convert anything in short yardage in the ground game.
That 2018 Alabama team won every regular-season game by 3 scores, and it had 10 guys drafted. But it had all-world defensive tackle Quinnen Williams covering up some of those defensive issues, and when Tagovailoa struggled against elite defenses, the answers were few and far between. It’ll always have that Jalen Hurts comeback in Atlanta, though.
9. 2017 Alabama
We tend to think of this Alabama team as the group that needed to bench Jalen Hurts for Tua Tagovailoa in order for it to reach its full potential. Many believed 2017 Alabama wasn’t even worthy of a Playoff bid after losing to Auburn in the Iron Bowl. But it was a national championship team with the No. 1 defense in America. That is, a Jeremy Pruitt-led defense that allowed 11.9 points per game. That, along with a ground game that averaged 251 rushing yards per game, was a formula that worked for most of the season. Yes, the passing game was Calvin Ridley or bust until Tagovailoa came in, part of which was Hurts’ doing and part of which was Brian Daboll’s doing. Much like 2014 Ohio State, this was a team that figured out its identity in the postseason and took advantage of the opportunity.
Speaking of 2014 Ohio State …
8. 2014 Ohio State
This team was supposed to be a year away. We weren’t expected to see the Buckeyes compete for a national title with so much underclassman talent. I mean, Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas and Joey Bosa were all sophomores. J.T. Barrett was a redshirt freshman who was thrust into the starting role when 2-time Big Ten Player of the Year Braxton Miller went down before the start of the season. That was supposed to be a death sentence. The loss to Virginia Tech was supposed to be a second death sentence. Barrett’s season-ending injury against Michigan was supposed to be Ohio State’s third death sentence.
Instead, Urban Meyer’s squad snuck into the Playoff thanks to a Big Ten Championship beatdown of Wisconsin. The rest, of course, was history. Elliott became the hero in the half-shirt, Cardale Jones became one of the most surprising underdog stories in recent memory and the Buckeyes plowed through both Playoff matchups en route to the program’s first title in 12 years. Did Ohio State capitalize on a field without a great team? Absolutely, but at their best, the Buckeyes had unbelievable upside.
7. 2019 Ohio State
Yes, I think 2019 Ohio State would’ve beaten 2014 Ohio State. I’d even give you any pick of the 2014 quarterbacks. In a few years — or perhaps already — many will forget just how good the Buckeyes were in Year 1 of the Ryan Day era. That team outscored Big Ten teams by an average of 36 points, and it finished in the top 4 in both scoring offense and scoring defense. It was the first Power 5 team of the Playoff era with a 9-game conference schedule to go unbeaten into the postseason. Justin Fields had one of the best offensive seasons of the 21st century, and I’d still argue that Chase Young had the best defensive season of the 21st century.
I know, I know. They didn’t even win a Playoff game, and if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t have picked them to beat LSU. But that group was a missed fumble call away from beating an unbeaten Clemson team:
I count four steps,that he took. Last time I checked a football move is considered only 3.Unless they changed the rules right before the game. #FiestaBowl #OhioStateBuckeyes #OhioState #GoBuckeyes #BeatClemson pic.twitter.com/QLLnqbXgOB
— Carrie Lynn (@OSUFAN4U2NV) December 29, 2019
It took Ohio State 17 years to get payback for the phantom pass interference call in the Fiesta Bowl. But don’t get it twisted. The 2019 Ohio State team would’ve beaten plenty of title-winning teams in the 21st century.
6. 2019 Clemson
While I thought Ohio State got robbed, Clemson did win the game. The Tigers were also an undefeated team that ranked in the top 4 in both scoring offense and scoring defense. They also had the all-world quarterback and the dynamic skill-player weapons with a future top-10 pick on defense. Man, Isaiah Simmons was good. Pre-Playoff, the Tigers allowed an average of 10.4 points in 11 games against Power 5 foes.
The unfortunate reality for Clemson was that it entered the most loaded Playoff field to date, and it had to face the best team in the sport’s history … in its home state. Yeah, it was a brutal draw. The Tigers might’ve had a lackluster ACC to get through, which is why they didn’t get the love of 2016 Alabama, but they were certainly battle-tested by season’s end. Ultimately, though, not even the No. 1 defense with Brent Venables dialing up looks — all he did was copy Kevin Steele’s 3-1-7 defense — was enough to slow down LSU.
5. 2016 Alabama
Too much love for a team that didn’t win it all? Nope. Alabama started 14-0 with the No. 1 defense in America, who went 273 minutes and 3 seconds without allowing a touchdown before Antonio Callaway scored in the SEC Championship. Nick Saban’s squad was a Deshaun Watson to Hunter Renfrow touchdown from going 15-0 and being remembered as one of the great teams ever. Depending on whom you ask, Alabama was a missed pass interference call from winning it all. You be the judge:
📽 #ChampionshipMoments 2016
CLEMSON 35 | ALABAMA 31
In the sequel, Deshaun shines again (463 yards, 4 TD) and hits Hunter Renfrow with 1 second left pic.twitter.com/8gVMuShXpX
— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) January 8, 2018
You could say Bo Scarbrough’s injury had something to do with that late collapse. I’d argue Watson also had a say in that. Still, that Alabama team had a margin of victory against Power 5 competition of 24 points. Before Clemson, Ole Miss and LSU were the only games that Alabama won by fewer than 18 points. That group dominated like few ever have. Unfortunately for Alabama, it ran into a team (and a quarterback) who was on a mission.
4. 2016 Clemson
If there’s an argument against 2016 Clemson getting this much love, it starts with “Nathan” and ends with “Peterman.” If there’s an argument for 2016 Clemson getting this much love, it starts with “Deshaun” and ends with “Watson.” Sure, he lost to Pitt. But going 14-1 and taking down that good of an Alabama team will never be forgotten. If Watson somehow wasn’t a legend before the Hunter Renfrow play, he certainly was after it. I think we all tend to forget that before that game, Clemson shut out an Ohio State team that some thought could win it all. And this time, it wasn’t just Watson. Mike Williams became a force, and that defensive line was loaded with talent.
Even though Watson struggled with interceptions at parts of that year, he was still such a game-changer for that group both as a thrower and as a runner. One of the great quarterbacks in the sport’s history cemented his legacy in storybook fashion.
3. 2015 Alabama
There are probably some who will look at this ranking and make a Jake Coker joke. Sure. Mock the guy who completed 75% of his passes for 621 yards on 12.2 yards per attempt without turning the ball over during the Playoff. That’s what made that team so good. A lesser team would’ve folded with all eyes on Heisman winner Derrick Henry, who dominated nearly every defense he faced behind a loaded offensive line. Coker played his best ball of his career in those 2 games, especially in that 38-0 drubbing of a Michigan State team that sold out to stop Henry. That Alabama team faced 8 foes ranked inside the Top 25, and it beat 6 of them by at least 14 points. It beat 5 top-10 teams en route to a title, 4 of which were away from home, including that thrilling showdown with Clemson.
No, it might not have had Alabama’s 2016 defense or even its 2018 offense, but it could win in a variety of ways. Only once in the next 11 games after Ole Miss did Alabama allow more than 16 points. It helps when you have a front 7 with guys like Jonathan Allen, A’Shawn Robinson, Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland. It also helps when you have Henry perform like he did in the latter half of the season.
2. 2018 Clemson
I remember having 1 thought after 44-16 happened — I just watched one of the best teams in college football history. You don’t hand Nick Saban his worst loss ever without being on that level. It really didn’t sink in until that game because Clemson torched a weak ACC. This was one of 3 teams of the Playoff era to rank in the top 5 in both scoring offense and scoring defense (2019 Clemson and 2019 Ohio State were the other 2). Brent Venables drew up a masterful game plan to shut down the Alabama offense and we saw that historically good defensive line take over in key moments.
Going 15-0 and winning games by an average of 31 points is an absurd feat. Continuing that dominance against Alabama is an even more absurd feat. In those last 10 games with Trevor Lawrence as the starter and fully healthy, Clemson won by an average of 36 points. I was of the impression that we might not ever see a team as good as Clemson in the Playoff era. Then LSU happened.
1. 2019 LSU
We’re all in agreement, right? At least we should be. What the Tigers did in 2019 was unlike anything we’d ever seen before. It wasn’t just that LSU scored more points than any team in the sport’s history. It was that it beat 7 top-10 teams en route to that 15-0 season, including a 3-game stretch vs. top-4 teams to end the year in which LSU had an average margin of victory of 26 points. Nobody had a chance against that team by season’s end once the defense was healthy. It treated Oklahoma like an FCS opponent and then destroyed a Clemson team who entered the title game riding a 29-game winning streak.
Joe Burrow has broken Deshaun Watson’s record for most passing yards in a national championship game and there’s still 10 minutes to go… #GeauxTigers #LSUvsCLEM #NationalChampionship pic.twitter.com/wH5ZZdXF1H
— Riley Michel (@rileymichel) January 14, 2020
We’re going to look back on that offense and wonder how it had so much talent on the field at once — Heisman winner Joe Burrow, Biletnikoff winner Ja’Marr Chase, first-round receiver and current NFL star Justin Jefferson, first-round running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and possible first-round receiver Terrace Marshall. It’s still insane to think about. A whopping 14 players on that team were drafted in 2020, and it could’ve been more ha guys like Chase, Marshall and Derek Stingley Jr. been draft-eligible.
Forget the Playoff era. That’s the best team in college football history.