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David Goldman/Associated Press
The 2018 College Football Playoff is certain to bring drama of some kind, but it’ll be tough to beat the national championships from the last two seasons.
Both title games featured a last-second touchdown, including an overtime winner when Alabama downed Georgia last year.
Yes, our expectations are still high for 2018. Clemson and Notre Dame will contest the first semifinal, followed by Alabama’s clash with Oklahoma. The winners will meet with the championship at stake.
When the CFP is over, though, where will those matchups rank in the playoff’s brief, yet thrilling, history?
We’re looking back at the previous nine games, ranking them based on entertainment value and competitiveness.
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LM Otero/Associated Press
Info: Dec. 31, 2015; Cotton Bowl; Arlington, Texas; national semifinal
Recap: Derrick Henry scored the first and last touchdowns of a game Alabama dominated. Calvin Ridley caught two scores for the Crimson Tide, who limited Michigan State to 239 yards of offense. Cyrus Jones also returned a punt 57 yards for a touchdown.
Key play: Shortly before halftime, MSU reached the red zone trailing 10-0. A score would’ve given Mark Dantonio’s team had a chance, but a Jones interception ended the threat and shattered the Spartans. Alabama ripped off 28 points in the second half.
Why it’s here: Michigan State’s defense played a terrific half but received no help from the offense. After the interception, the Cotton Bowl was simply waiting on the inevitable Alabama surge to put away a lifeless MSU offense.
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Info: Dec. 31, 2016; Peach Bowl; Atlanta; national semifinal
Recap: Washington scored the first touchdown of the game but hardly moved the ball after that. Alabama put up 24 unanswered points, largely thanks to the rushing attack. Bo Scarbrough powered his way to 180 yards and two touchdowns.
Key play: In the closing minutes of the first half, UW trailed just 10-7. However, quarterback Jake Browning panicked on a screen pass and threw the ball directly to Ryan Anderson for a pick-six that handed Bama a 17-7 lead.
Why it’s here: Defense was not to blame in Washington’s downfall. The Huskies allowed only 326 yards—Alabama’s second-lowest output of the season. But with a combined per-play average of 3.97 yards, it wasn’t exactly an entertaining contest.
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Info: Jan. 1, 2018; Sugar Bowl; New Orleans; national semifinal
Recap: Alabama jumped ahead 10-0 in the first quarter, but it was a pair of second-half turnovers that propelled the Crimson Tide past top-ranked Clemson. Da’Ron Payne snagged a deflected pass, and Mack Wilson returned an interception for a touchdown.
Key play: Payne’s interception thwarted a promising Clemson drive. Even a field goal on that possession would’ve trimmed the deficit to one point, while a touchdown would’ve put the Tigers in the lead.
Why it’s here: Same as the other two Alabama blowouts. Hey, great defense! Also, some truly mediocre offense. The Crimson Tide mustered only 261 yards in this slugfest, a huge credit to an outstanding Clemson defense that didn’t get any help.
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Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Info: Dec. 31, 2015; Orange Bowl; Miami Gardens, Florida; national semifinal
Recap: In a battle of then-sophomores Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield, Clemson used a dominant second half to topple the Sooners. Watson accounted for 332 yards of offense and two touchdowns, while Wayne Gallman rushed for 150 yards and two scores.
Key play: After stopping Oklahoma on a 4th-and-1 at Clemson’s 30-yard line, the Tigers needed only four plays to take a 13-point third-quarter lead. Watson found Hunter Renfrow for a 35-yard touchdown, and the Sooners were never within one score again.
Why it’s here: The first half was exciting! The second half was not. Oklahoma’s six drives after the break resulted in three punts, two interceptions and a turnover on downs. Clemson had control.
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Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
Info: Dec. 31, 2016; Fiesta Bowl; Glendale, Arizona; national semifinal
Recap: Ohio State wasted two scoring chances with missed field goals in the first quarter and never threatened again until it was too late. Clemson held the Buckeyes to a paltry 3.8 yards per snap, and Watson posted 316 yards of offense.
Key play: The Buckeyes forced a three-and-out to begin the second half. Step one, complete. Get some points on the board, and maybe a comeback could happen. Instead, two plays later, Mike Weber fumbled. Ohio State’s next four possessions resulted in two three-and-outs and two interceptions.
Why it’s here: Unlike the games Alabama controlled, Clemson thoroughly dominated on both sides of the ball. The Tigers doubled up OSU’s yardage, accumulating 470 compared to 215.
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Eric Gay/Associated Press
Info: Jan. 12, 2015; Arlington, Texas; national championship
Recap: Ezekiel Elliott obliterated Oregon for 246 yards and four touchdowns, three of which happened from the last play of the third quarter to the end of the game. Cardale Jones, in his third career start, collected 280 yards of offense and two scores.
Key play: Holding a 28-20 lead with just over 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Jones connected with Jalin Marshall on a 3rd-and-5 from Oregon’s 31-yard line. Had the Buckeyes not converted, they would’ve attempted a field goal. A miss would’ve given the Ducks some hope, but three plays later, Elliott scored.
Why it’s here: Oregon hung around into the fourth quarter, setting up a potentially dramatic finish to the first-ever CFP championship. Ohio State ultimately took complete control, scoring a couple of touchdowns and forcing two punts to cruise home.
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Info: Jan. 1, 2015; Rose Bowl; Pasadena, California; national semifinal
Recap: Marcus Mariota and an explosive Oregon attack dismantled Florida State. The Ducks amassed 639 yards of offense, eclipsing the 300-yard mark through the air and on the ground. Mariota gathered an even 400 total yards, and Thomas Tyner rushed for 124.
Key play: Oregon scored three touchdowns in the first 11 minutes of the third quarter, so FSU couldn’t afford an empty possession. However, the Ducks scooped up a fumble by Jameis Winston, returned it for a touchdown and took a commanding 45-20 lead.
Why it’s here: While a 39-point margin suggests a snoozer of a game, the Rose Bowl was action-packed. Oregon and FSU combined for 1,167 yards, seven turnovers and only six punts. If you missed a drive, you probably missed something important.
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Info: Jan. 1, 2015; Sugar Bowl; New Orleans; national semifinal
Recap: Before wrecking Oregon in the championship, Elliott diced Alabama’s defense too. The future first-round NFL draft pick registered 230 yards and two scores, while the Buckeyes intercepted three passes in the second half to stymie the Tide.
Key play: This could be one of two. Defensive end Steve Miller had a 41-yard pick-six to give the Buckeyes a 34-21 edge. We’ll stick with Zeke running 85 yards effectively untouched with 3:24 remaining and putting Ohio State up 14 points.
Why it’s here: Once the Buckeyes pulled ahead in the second half, they kept Alabama at a safe—while uncomfortable—distance. Still, this matchup wasn’t decided until Tyvis Powell picked off a Hail Mary in the end zone as regulation expired.
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Info: Jan. 1, 2018; Rose Bowl; Pasadena, California; national semifinal
Recap: The highest-scoring CFP showdown to date, this Rose Bowl featured a Heisman winner in Mayfield and a dynamic backfield duo at Georgia. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combined for 367 yards and six touchdowns to counter Mayfield guiding a 531-yard effort from the Oklahoma offense.
Key play: Michel’s 27-yard scamper in overtime ended the game, but Georgia simply needed points on the drive. Lorenzo Carter blocked Austin Seibert’s 27-yard field goal when the Sooners had the ball to begin the second overtime period.
Why it’s here: By far, this thriller was the best national semifinal. While we can’t boost it over a trio of championship tilts, as OU coach Lincoln Riley said, it was “an epic Rose Bowl game.”
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Info: Jan. 11, 2016; Glendale, Arizona; national championship
Recap: This was the Deshaun Watson, Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard show. Clemson’s quarterback piled up 478 yards of offense and four scores, while Henry bulldozed the Tigers for 158 yards and three touchdowns. Howard caught five passes for 208 yards and two scores. So, naturally, special teams decided this outcome.
Key play: After a 33-yard Adam Griffith field goal brought the title game to a 24-24 deadlock, Nick Saban called for an onside kick. Griffith couldn’t have chipped the ball any better to teammate Marlon Humphrey. Howard scored two plays later, and touchdowns on Alabama’s next two possessions sealed the victory.
Why it’s here: The teams combined for 40 points in the fourth quarter during the national championship. Need we say more? But it didn’t feature a last-play touchdown; two others did. Pretty simple.
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Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Info: Jan. 8, 2018; Atlanta; national championship
Recap: Ah, the 2017 title game—otherwise known as the day Tua Tagovailoa became famous. He replaced two-year starter Jalen Hurts at halftime because Alabama trailed 13-0 with 77 yards of offense. Tagovailoa threw for 166 yards and three touchdowns, including a 41-yard score in overtime for the championship win.
Key play: Down 20-13 late in the fourth quarter, the Crimson Tide faced a 4th-and-4 at Georgia’s 7-yard line. Tagovailoa dropped, drifted left and managed to find Calvin Ridley in heavy traffic for the game-tying score.
Why it’s here: A true freshman quarterback started for one team. A true freshman quarterback opened the game as a backup for the other team, yet became the hero. It went to overtime. There was a walk-off touchdown. Any more questions?
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John Bazemore/Associated Press
Info: Jan. 9, 2017; Tampa, Florida; national championship
Recap: Alabama and Clemson squared off in a rematch of the previous season’s title clash, and the victory changed hands. Watson again shredded the Tide, amassing 463 yards and four touchdowns. Clemson recovered from a 14-0 deficit and scored 21 fourth-quarter points to stun top-ranked Alabama.
Key play: Dabo Swinney looked at the clock and saw 0:06. Alabama led 31-28, so Clemson could’ve kicked a field goal and forced overtime. But Swinney trusted his quarterback, and Watson connected with Renfrow, who gained separation on a legal pick play for the two-yard touchdown with a single second left in regulation.
Why it’s here: Considering how the championship finished, that should be evident. Context, though, affirms the 2016 national title’s place as the best CFP game ever. Clemson won a rematch while Swinney dethroned his former boss Saban.