Alabama will meet Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. Over at the Cotton Bowl, the new site of the second national semifinal, Clemson will meet Ohio State.
In the end, the College Football Playoff selection committee was unable to completely avoid controversy, which seemed a possibility as these four teams cruised through the regular season.
That changed with Clemson's 34-10 win against Notre Dame in the ACC championship game. A narrower win would've made the Fighting Irish a no-brainer for the top four, given the overtime victory against the Tigers earlier this season. Instead, Clemson's lopsided margin opened the door for Texas A&M to land in fourth.
Notre Dame's case rested on beating Clemson and North Carolina, winning nine games against Power Five competition, beating four opponents with winning records and, unlike the Aggies, reaching the conference championship game.
The remaining three teams were locked into the semifinals after Saturday.
How the playoff shakes out depends on the answer to this question: Can anyone stop Alabama? No team has yet, even if the Alabama defense has had several down moments, most recently in giving up 46 points to Florida in the SEC championship game. But the fate of the national title hinges on whether there's a defense capable of slowing Mac Jones, DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris and this offense.
Here are the winners and losers from the final playoff rankings:
Clemson defensive lineman Bryan Bresee pressures Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book during the first quarter of the ACC championship game. (Photo: Ken Ruinard, USA TODAY Sports)
Adding Notre Dame to the conference in 2020 ended up being a good thing. Who knew? With two teams in the semifinals, this is easily the best year of ACC football during the playoff era and perhaps the most successful season since the conference added Florida State in the early 1990s. Sending two teams to the playoff was once considered something only the SEC could do — since the SEC did just that during the 2017 season, when Alabama and Georgia met for the national title. Now the ACC can be mentioned in the same breath. But it might be a one-off: Despite this year's success, Notre Dame has no plans to join a conference anytime soon.
Notre Dame's loss was a plus for Ohio State, since it moved the playoff spotlight off the Buckeyes and onto the Irish. Before Saturday, the biggest question regarding the committee's process was whether OSU should be considered a legitimate contender given the six-game regular season. (In comparison, the other three playoff teams played at least 11 games.) While the Buckeyes will still face questions about playing only six games, they are no longer considered the most controversial pick for the top four.
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The Aggies had a case but fell just short, likely due to the inability to win the SEC West. Fair, unfair? It was fair in this respect: A&M had just two wins against opponents with a winning record, though one was Florida. The Aggies also didn't pop off the screen the same way as Clemson, Ohio State and even Notre Dame, the ACC title game notwithstanding. On the other hand, A&M beat eight SEC opponents, is on a seven-game winning streak and lost just once, to Alabama.
Despite the disappointment of coming in fifth — even if that's a sign of major progress under coach Jimbo Fisher — let's make a strange argument for why the Aggies are, in fact, a winner. Making the playoff would've meant a rematch with Alabama, which very likely would've gone the same way as the first meeting, a 28-point Alabama win. Rather than getting bombed on the sport's biggest stage, A&M can play in a New Year's Six bowl, beat a high-profile opponent, finish in the top four and develop major momentum as a legitimate championship contender heading into 2021.
Oklahoma was essentially eliminated from the playoff chase in October, after the Sooners dropped two straight games for the first time since 1999. That makes a regular season that ended with another Big 12 championship feel like a missed opportunity. Looking back, OU would've earned a return trip to the playoff by beating Kansas State, for example, and going into the postseason with just one loss. (There's no doubt the Sooners would win that matchup if played again today.) As with A&M, however, maybe missing the playoff is for the best.
Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg
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