The 2018 College Football Playoff semifinals confirmed something we already knew — Alabama and Clemson are the two best programs in college football. And, boy, did they ever confirm it. Through 73 minutes of game action on Saturday, the Tide and Tigers out-scored their respective opponents by a combined 58-3.
Next Monday night will decide which of the two will lay claim to not only the best team of the 2018 season, but the best program in college football in this particular moment. Should Clemson win, Dabo Swinney’s bunch would pull even in their ongoing annual CFP series at 2-2, with a 2-1 advantage in title games — including victories in the two most recent championship clashes. Should Alabama win, Nick Saban’s dynasty would pull even further away from their most credible rival by claiming a 3-1 advantage, a 2-1 advantage in championship games and an unprecedented six national championships in 10 seasons.
But as I sat through the hours upon hours of garbage time on Saturday, I started to wonder: if Alabama and Clemson are obviously Nos. 1 and 2 in the sport right now, who is No. 3?
There are three credible candidates here, whose arguments will be laid out below:
Georgia: Kirby Smart’s program is the only team other than Alabama and Clemson to actually win a College Football Playoff game since the system’s first season. (Think about that for a moment.) It took an epic comeback for Alabama to wrest last season’s national championship game away from Georgia, and a similarly epic comeback to take the 2018 SEC championship away from the Bulldogs. With a win over Texas in Tuesday night’s Sugar Bowl, Georgia would be 25-4 with one SEC championship, two SEC East championships, two New Year’s Six wins and two AP top-5 finishes in its past two seasons.
Ohio State: No matter what happens in Santa Clara, the following statement to remain true — the only program to win a national title in the Playoff era other than Alabama and Clemson is Ohio State. In the 7-year Urban Meyer era, the worst seasons were 2013, where the Buckeyes were undefeated until a Big Ten Championship upset by Michigan State, and 2016, where the scarlet and gray went 11-2 and reached the Playoff. With a win over Washington in Tuesday’s Rose Bowl, Ohio State would finish the Meyer era at 86-9 with six 12-or-more win seasons, three Big Ten championships, two Playoff trips, six AP top-6 finishes and, oh yeah, a national title.
Oklahoma: Admittedly, this would be a much easier case to make if Oklahoma could field a somewhat competent defense. Though the Sooners are 0-3 in their Playoff appearances, they did not suffer the same fate as a 2015 Michigan State, a 2016 Ohio State or a 2018 Notre Dame. OU led Clemson 17-16 at the half in the 2015 Orange Bowl (before losing the second half 21-0), they held leads of 31-14 and 45-38 over Georgia (before blowing both of them), and they won the final 43 minutes last night over Alabama 34-17 (after losing the first 17 28-0). There’s something to be said for consistency, and since Riley joined the program Oklahoma is 46-8 with four Big 12 championships, three Playoff appearances (as many as Georgia and Ohio State combined), two Heisman Trophy winners and, at worst, four AP top-7 finishes.
Your milage may vary on how you’d rank the above three, and arguments can be made for every one of them.
But what is abundantly clear at this point is the hierarchy of college football at this point goes Nos. 1 and 2 (and perhaps even a big gap between 1 and 2 if Alabama treats Clemson like it did Oklahoma), then a big gap, then Nos. 3, 4, and 5, and then an even bigger gap before you get to the likes of Penn State, Auburn, Washington, UCF, Wisconsin and the rest.
That hierarchy will remain until someone catches Alabama and Clemson. Chances are, it’s one of the above three.