The College Football Playoff enters its seventh season in 2020, and continues to be a marked improvement over its predecessor, the BCS. The playoff committee will have its hands full this season though, as due to the Covid-19 pandemic, teams from the three major conferences left standing – the ACC, including Notre Dame, the SEC, and the Big 12 – will be playing at most a single out of conference game, giving the committee very few opportunities to judge the relative strengths of conferences against each other. Could this be the season where three SEC teams make the playoffs? It isn’t a far-fetched notion, as the SEC is widely considered the strongest conference. For instance, what would happen if a one-loss Georgia or Florida knocks off undefeated Alabama in the SEC championship, and the SEC West runner-up also has one loss, leaving the SEC with three one loss teams? Or, does the grind of conference play wear down the Power 3, allowing an undefeated UCF or Cincinnati team from the American to sneak into the playoff? Without a slew of non-conference games as a measuring stick, “the eye test” will be even more important this year as teams attempt to impress the committee.
Part 1 of our College Football Preview broke down the conference races and will be the basis of these playoff predictions, so make sure to check it out for additional context.
After the conference championships are played on December 19th, here are the the top teams in each conference. Even though The Common Room did not break down the American, UCF is considered the strongest team, and will be favored in every game (they host Cincinnati during the regular season in Orlando). Let’s assume they are the undefeated AAC champion with a 10-0 record.
- Clemson (champion) – 11-1
- Best wins – Notre Dame (ACC championship), Miami (8-3)
- Losses – Notre Dame (regular season)
- Notre Dame – 11-1
- Best wins – Clemson (regular season), North Carolina (9-2), Louisville (9-2)
- Losses – Clemson (ACC championship)
- Alabama (champion) – 11-0
- Best wins – Georgia (twice), LSU, Auburn
- Losses – none
- Texas A&M – 9-1, 5-1
- Best wins – Florida, Auburn, LSU
- Losses – Alabama
- Georgia – 9-2, 6-0
- Best wins – Florida, Auburn
- Losses – Alabama (twice)
- Oklahoma (champion) – 10-1
- Best wins – Iowa State (Big 12 Championship), Oklahoma State, Kansas State
- Losses – Iowa State (regular season)
- Iowa State – 9-2
- Best wins – Oklahoma (regular season), Kansas State
- Losses – Oklahoma (Big 12 Championship), Oklahoma State
- UCF (champion) – 10-0
- Best wins – Cincinnati (twice), Memphis
- Note – UCF’s only non-conference game is against Georgia Tech in Atlanta, who is predicted to finish 1-10 and last in the 15-team ACC
- Losses – none
- Best wins – Cincinnati (twice), Memphis
The three conference winners would be locks into the playoff and take the top 3 seeds, leaving the committee to decide the fourth seed among Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Georgia, Iowa State, and UCF. The committee would eliminate Iowa State and Georgia with each team having two losses. Bulldog fans would point out that their only losses were to the top-ranked team in the country, but the fact remains that they have the easiest schedule of any SEC contender, as they avoid LSU and Texas A&M in cross-divisional games while getting to feast on the weaker SEC East. Of the three remaining teams – Notre Dame, Texas A&M, and UCF – Notre Dame would get the nod as the fourth seed due to owning the best victory of the group (over Clemson, a playoff participant), an undefeated regular season record against the strongest ACC schedule (with projected wins over the second, third, and fourth place teams in the conference), and a regular season conference title. Texas A&M would not have even played for a conference title and would have lost to the best team they played, while UCF would again be on the outside looking in due to a weak strength of schedule, with the non-conference game against rebuilding Georgia Tech doing them no favors. Additionally, practically speaking, an 11-0 Notre Dame team heading into the ACC Championship would be ranked #2 behind Alabama, and the committee would not drop them out of the top 4 after losing a hard-fought game at a neutral site to a Clemson team they had already beaten.
That leaves the following playoff field
- #1 Alabama vs. #4 Notre Dame
- #2 Clemson vs. #3 Oklahoma
In the first semifinal game between Alabama and Notre Dame, the Crimson Tide would find a far different Irish team than the 2012 team that was embarrassed 42-14 in the BCS Championship in Miami. Notre Dame’s athletic defensive ends will keep Mac Jones in check and protect the ND secondary against Alabama’s dynamic wide receivers, and the Irish offensive line, which ranks among the best in the country, will give Ian Book enough time to throw, allowing the Irish to move the ball. However, the difference in the game will come from Alabama’s ability to wear down the Irish defensive tackles with a powerful offensive line and running back Najee Harris. ND does not have a defensive tackle in the two-deep over 300 pounds, and as the game wears on, the defensive line will not be able to eat enough blocks, allowing the Tide linemen to reach the second level and block the play-making Irish linebackers, freeing Harris to do more damage in the second half, just like DeAndre Swift of Georgia did to ND last season.
Alabama 31 Notre Dame 20
The second semifinal gives Oklahoma yet another chance to win a college football playoff game, but ultimately the Sooners will lose in the semifinal for a fourth straight season (and fifth in the last six), as the Brent Venables-led Tiger defense will confuse redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler. The dominant Clemson defensive line will prevent Oklahoma from establishing the run, making the Sooner offense one-dimensional and allowing Venables free reign to attack Rattler with multiple looks and blitz packages. On the offensive side of the ball, Clemson will have a few too many weapons for the Sooner defense. Much like in the Ohio State game last season, Clemson will be able to overcome a focused and athletic defense with two facets that Oklahoma would not have spent much time preparing for – quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s underrated running ability and running back Travis Etienne’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield in space.
Clemson 42 Oklahoma 17
In the title game, Alabama and Clemson will meet for a fourth time to decide the championship, just like they did for the 2015, 2016, and 2018 seasons. In a game between two great coaches with top-notch coordinators, evenly matched defenses, dynamic skill players, and strong offensive lines (though Alabama does have an advantage here), the difference in the game will come down to the quarterback position. Alabama’s Mac Jones is a solid player, but will be outplayed by Trevor Lawrence, who will avenge last season’s championship game loss to LSU and take home his second title in another Clemson-Alabama instant classic, by leading a game winning drive late in the fourth quarter, much like DeShaun Watson in 2016. Lawrence will finish his college career with a 38-2 record as a starting quarterback and will in all likelihood be the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Clemson 27 Alabama 24