Bama, Clemson, Ohio State and ND reach College Football Playoff

The unevenness of a season played in the midst of a pandemic contributed to one of the most controversial semifinal pairings of the College Football Playoff era.

Players and coaches were sidelined by COVID-19, and numerous games were canceled as the sport limped to a tense finish line with the final CFP rankings revealed Sunday, with Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame selected in the top four.

No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Notre Dame will meet in The Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One on Jan. 1 at 4 p.m. ET, followed by No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl at 8 p.m. Both games will air on ESPN.

Notre Dame earned a playoff berth despite having been dominated in the ACC championship by Clemson on Saturday, losing by 24 points. CFP chairman Gary Barta explained the decision to include the Irish over No. 5 Texas A&M, saying it was “based on the complete analysis of the résumé” and the Irish having an additional win over a ranked team.

Ohio State, meanwhile, was selected having played only six games, five fewer than its fellow semifinalists. Three of the Buckeyes’ games were canceled because of COVID-19 cases.

Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher had taken aim at Ohio State’s schedule following the Aggies’ win over Tennessee on Saturday.

“Seven straight SEC wins,” Fisher said. “Some schools ain’t even playing seven games.”

On Sunday, Fisher said he still feels that way but is ready to move on to the team’s Orange Bowl preparation.

“I still believe [we’re a top-four team],” Fisher said Sunday. “But that’s my opinion on it and I’m very biased, and other people have other opinions, and that’s what makes the world go ’round.”

Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond called the CFP selection committee’s decision to leave the Aggies out of the top four a “JOKE” in a tweet and added that he thinks the SEC as a whole isn’t getting the respect it deserves.

Barta acknowledged that disparate schedules made the job of the selection committee difficult all season long, but he added that going undefeated and winning a Big Ten championship justified Ohio State’s position.

“We knew that that was going to be a problem, and we were addressing it along the way,” Barta said. “But in the end, there was not dissension in the room about naming Ohio State in that third spot.”

Like a number of coaches, Alabama’s Nick Saban emphasized the difficulty of having played a larger number of games.

“That was the big thing about this season: The people who played 10 and 11 games had to survive the grind,” Saban said. “And the grind of this season was a whole lot different than any other season. That’s why I thought those teams should be rewarded.

“But I think Ohio State has a great team, and they probably deserved to be in the playoff as well based on the quality of team that they have.”

Rather than having top seed Alabama play closer to home in New Orleans, the CFP chose to place the Crimson Tide in the Rose Bowl. The game was moved from Pasadena, California, to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, because of the growing number of COVID-19 cases in Southern California, along with the inability for players’ and coaches’ families to attend because of state restrictions during the pandemic.

Barta said the decision was made to reward No. 1 Alabama with the opportunity to play in front of the most fans possible since only 3,000 fans will be allowed in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium vs. 16,500 at Cowboys Stadium.

The Rose Bowl will mark the first time these two teams have met since Alabama beat Notre Dame 42-14 in the BCS National Championship game at the end of the 2012 season.

“We’re much better prepared than we were in 2012 in terms of the physicality on both lines,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “I think we have the ability to move the football, certainly. … We’ve been humbled about the way we play, and this team has always come back with a resilience and an edge about them, and they will against Alabama.”

The Sugar Bowl will serve as a more recent rematch, though, as Ohio State will look to avenge last year’s playoff semifinal loss to Clemson.

“The margin for error is tiny when you play a team like Clemson,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “So we have to learn from what happened last year and win all those 50-50 plays. We have to do a great job in all three phases. We’ve got to do a great job in the red zone. We’ve got to do a great job on third down. We have to do all those things that matter in big games, and if we do that, it will give us our best chance.”

The Tide (-17.5) and Tigers (-6.5) have opened as favorites at Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill in the two semifinal games.

The College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T will be played Jan. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.