Top 8 College Football Teams of the Playoff Era
I’m worried about football. COVID-19 has already taken so much from us as a society and a sports community, and it would just be cruel if Americans don’t get to have their football this fall.
Grim, I know. So to tip the cosmic scales towards having a football season, I figure the more we all write about it, the more likely it is to happen. (Anything to ease my mind.)
So, without further ado, here are my top 8 teams of the College Football Playoff era. Why 8 you ask? Because the College Football Playoff should include 8 teams. No more, no less. The easiest way to do this is to include the power 5 conference champions, one group of 5 team, and 2 at-large bids. This way every region of the country will be represented in the playoff and, inevitably, the best team will still win.
That means more TV money, more national interest in both the regular season and the playoff, and peaked interest in the conference championship games. Making them all playoff play-in games would do wonders for ratings.
The criteria for this list is simple. The best 8, in my eyes. Based on raw talent and potential, not necessarily just the results on the field. The results matter and were factored in, but it’d be boring if just the champions made the list. OK, enough chit-chat. On with the list.
8. 2016 Clemson
Postseason result: National Champions (d. Alabama 35-31)
The eighth-best team of the Playoff era actually did win a national championship. We’ve had some really great title games at this time, and some stinkers as well. This championship game will go down as one for the ages. Deshaun Watson completes the pass at the goal line to former walk-on Hunter Renfrow with one second left in the game to deny Alabama back-to-back championships after coming up just short against the Tide the year before in the championship. This team's dismantling of Big Ten Champion Ohio State 31-0 in the semifinal was very impressive as well.
6 members of this team were drafted in the 2017 draft, including 2 first-rounders in Watson and receiver Mike Williams, both of whom are having really solid NFL careers. Watson finished 2nd in the Heisman Trophy voting to Lamar Jackson, and the Clemson defense had 4 All-Americans on it. This team finally pushed the Tigers over-the-top into the conversation about the best programs in the country, and Dabo Swinney’s program’s standing in the national conversation has only gone up from this time.
7. 2019 Ohio State
Postseason result: CFP semifinalist (lost to Clemson, 29-23)
A non-champion ahead of a champion! How could I??? In any other year, the 2019 Ohio State Buckeyes would have been the runaway national champions. They ran through the difficult Big Ten gauntlet with relative ease, set all kinds of offensive records, and had 2 of the top 3 picks in the 2020 draft (and 10 total draft picks), including shutdown corner Jeff Okudah at number 3 overall to our beloved Detroit Lions. Also, you can’t forget about Chase Young, who was drafted number 2 overall to Washington. Side note: Chase Young is the most intimidating human I’ve ever seen in person. Granted, they were wearing their all-black uniforms when I saw him, so I think that added some extra fear, but damn. I did not envy the people assigned to block him that night.
They ran into some unfortunate luck in the CFP semifinal against Clemson that derailed their dream season. Justin Fields was hobbled due to a knee injury in the Michigan game, J.K. Dobbins was battling an injury, and they had one massive call in the game go against them that took a touchdown off the board. I firmly believe that this team is one of the best I’ve seen in person, it just wasn’t meant to be this past season for them. They are ready to reload though, their recruiting numbers are scary. The 2020 Buckeyes could very well be number 1 on this list come next offseason.
6. 2017 Georgia
Postseason result: National runners-up (lost to Alabama, 26-23 in OT)
Georgia has been so damn close to breaking through against Alabama in the Kirby Smart era. Kirby must be a better man than me because I still wouldn’t be able to sleep about the two losses to the Tide in back-to-back years in the same building. (In Atlanta, too. Just cruel.) Georgia choked in the 2017-18 national championship game against Alabama, plain and simple. They were beaten by a true freshman quarterback that was thrown into the fire in the title game. However, that doesn’t take away from the raw talent and skill that was on this Georgia roster.
There was a laundry list of things that went wrong at the end of that title game for the Dawgs, but the fact remains that this was one of the better college teams ever assembled. Jake Fromm was the freshman starting quarterback whose draft stock was never higher than it was after this game. Roquan Smith won the Butkus Award and was an all-time great college linebacker. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were the best college football running back duo since Reggie Bush and LenDale White back in the days of USC’s national dominance. This Georgia team deserved a national championship. They were the SEC Champions. They just couldn’t get it done against Bama.
5. 2017 Alabama
Postseason result: National champions (d. Georgia, 26-23 in OT)
The only Alabama team on this list is the one that needed every second of the championship game to somehow squeak by Georgia. The 2018 Alabama team is definitely good enough to be on this list, but I attribute their postseason success to another flukey play against Georgia in the SEC Championship game (Kirby, wyd faking that punt??). Then they laid an absolute egg in the title game against Clemson. Hence, no list for you 2018 Tide!
Anyway, Nick Saban’s two finest coaching moments in his career took place in national championship games. The perfectly executed onside kick against Clemson in the 2015 natty. Pulling your two-year starting QB (who led you to back-to-back title games, no less) out of the game in the second half in favor of a true freshman that ends up throwing a dime in overtime to win the title. You can’t write this stuff.
The team itself was really good, of course. TWELVE NFL Draft picks. A school and SEC record (at the time). FOUR first-rounders. Six first-team All-Americans. I mean, come on. Recruiting and development are the two biggest factors to success in college football, and this Tide team could be the model.
4. 2015 Ohio State
Postseason result: Fiesta Bowl Champions (d. Notre Dame, 44-28)
I knew this team was good. But going back and being reminded of all the names put me on the floor. I’m having a moment of nostalgia and appreciation for the brilliance of Mark Dantonio at the moment. If anyone tries to tell you that Mark Dantonio’s best win at Michigan State is not the 2015 victory in Columbus against Ohio State, you have my permission to remove them from your life. I mean, come on. That cold, rainy, fateful November afternoon in Columbus will be remembered as the game that Michael Geiger walked off senior day with countless windmills, but the fact that this game was even within 3 scores is a miracle itself. This Buckeye team had FIVE FIRST ROUND NFL DRAFT PICKS. The most ever. Connor Cook didn’t even play!!! Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry somehow found a way to beat a team that saw 12 players drafted, on the road, on their senior day. The MSU fullback, Trevon Pendleton, caught a touchdown pass too. Because of course he did. Remember the muffed punt that directly led to one of Ohio State’s touchdowns? Sheesh. They should make a 30 for 30 about this game.
Joey Bosa. Ezekiel Elliot. Michael Thomas (2nd round draft pick, btw. WTF?). Eli Apple. Darron Lee. Von Bell. J.T. Barrett. Braxton Miller. Those are just a few of the names on this team. The Buckeyes won the first CFP national title the year before, and it will stump me till the day I die how they didn’t win it again in 2015. Mark Dantonio’s finest hour was on November 21, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
3. 2018 Clemson
Postseason result: National champions (d. Alabama, 44-16)
The second Tiger title team to make the list, Clemson in 2018 was highly undervalued until they absolutely mopped the floor with Alabama in the championship game in Santa Clara. This was when the world was truly introduced to Trevor Lawrence in all his glory. These Tigers were the first ones to ever go 15-0 in the history of college football. The Clemson defensive line had 3 first-round draft picks in Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, and Dexter Lawrence. On the same college defensive line. Lordy. Opposing quarterbacks didn’t stand a chance.
Travis Etienne was the ACC offensive player of the year, and the Tigers scored a school-record 664 points that season. The names and numbers might not be quite as impressive as some others on this list, but this team’s performance in the 2 playoff games are arguably the most impressive in the entire history of the CFP. They dismantled two really good teams in Notre Dame and Alabama, the latter of whom was favored in the national championship game. Their playoff performance alone was enough for me to rank them this high. It was never really in question who the alpha dogs were that year.
2. 2014 Ohio State
Postseason result: National champions (d. Oregon, 42-20)
The first champions of the playoff era went on a run that is only surpassed by number 1 on this list. After losing in a pretty miserable fashion to Virginia Tech at home in September, the Buckeyes never looked back. Braxton Miller is lost for the season in preseason camp. Young J.T. Barrett took the reins for the regular season, and when he was badly injured in the Michigan game, Cardale Jones came in and went on arguably the greatest 3-game run in the history of college football. 59-0 over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game to sneak into the playoff. 42 points against the vaunted Alabama defense in the semifinal. Then finishing it off with a maddeningly good performance against Oregon in the inaugural CFP Championship game. Urban Meyer’s finest coaching hour, no doubt.
The NFL draft picks aren’t as strong with this team, but that was only because all of the guys I named on the 2015 OSU team above weren’t eligible for the draft yet. This Ohio State performance had national implications as well, because it elevated the Big Ten back into the conversation as one of the strongest leagues in the country. These Buckeyes set the precedent for greatness in the playoff era, and should be talked about as one of the best teams.
1. 2019 LSU
Postseason result: National champions (d. Clemson, 42-25)
Maybe it’s recency bias, but I don’t think so. The run that the 2019 LSU Tigers were on the entire season is nothing short of remarkable. 7 wins against top-10 teams at the time they played. 5 of those teams finished in the top 10. Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy, threw an FBS-record 60 touchdowns, and was the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft after transferring from Ohio State after the 2017 season. They had a 1,400 yard rusher in Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and TWO 1,500 yard receivers in Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. Chase won the Biletnikoff award as the best receiver in the country.
The defense wasn’t too shabby either. Grant Delpit won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back, and he and true freshman Derek Stingley Jr. were both first team All-Americans. Oh, and linebacker Jacob Phillips led the SEC in tackles. No biggie.
14 total draft picks. 5 first-rounders. Ed Orgeron won every single coach of the year award out there. Joe Brady, the man behind the revival of LSU’s offense, was the Broyles award winner as the best assistant coach in the nation. I think it’s pretty clear that the best college football team in the playoff era, and arguably ever, is the 2019 LSU Tigers.