The final College Football Playoff of the four-team era is rapidly approaching. The current format will give way to an expanded 12-team field in 2024, bringing an end to one of the most interesting eras in this sport's history. If there's one lesson to be learned from the last decade or so, it's that not all playoff fields are created equally.
We've seen some absolutely loaded four-team fields pass by through the years. We've seen some total duds as well. With this being the final four's swan song, though, it felt appropriate to look back and rank each College Football Playoff iteration based solely on the overall strength of the featured quartet.
Important factors like players and coaches involved, overall parity and individual team résumés are considered. Since the 2023-24 CFP field is included, the actual results of each year's semifinal and national championship games did not influence these rankings, though they might be mentioned for context.
Without giving too much away, this write is incredibly bullish on this year's crop of playoff teams. What happened with Florida State is a travesty and sets a dangerous precedent for the sport, but Michigan, Washington, Texas and Alabama should put on a show. But how does it stack up against four-team pods of playoffs past? Let's take a look.
The field: 1. LSU, 2. Ohio State, 3. Clemson, 4. Oklahoma
LSU stole headlines in 2019 -- and rightfully so -- with its record-shattering offense led by quarterback Joe Burrow, who won the Heisman Trophy by the largest margin in history. The Tigers offensive line won the Joe Moore Award as the best unit in the country, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire was a Doak Walker Award semifinalist and wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson each had at least 1,500 yards receiving as Chase claimed the Biletnikoff Award. There's no question that 2019 LSU is one of the greatest single college football teams of all time, but don't let that distract you from the rest of the field.
Burrow was one of three eventual first-round quarterbacks to compete in this playoff, joined by Clemson's Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State's Justin Fields. Burrow and Lawrence were the No. 1 overall picks in the 2020 and 2021 NFL Drafts, respectively, and Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts finished second in Heisman voting and went off the board in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. LSU, Clemson and Ohio State all entered the fray as undefeated conference champions, which marked a first in the playoff era.
The field: No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 Georgia, No. 4 Alabama
This is the only College Football Playoff to not feature an undefeated team. While some might see that as a knock on the overall strength of the field, it was a fantastic year for parity. All four teams lost in the regular season. Alabama didn't even play for a conference championship, losing its spot in the SEC title game to Auburn. The Crimson Tide needed serious help to make it in, with Georgia eviscerating Auburn in Atlanta and undefeated Wisconsin dropping the Big Ten Championship Game to a lower-ranked Ohio State team.
Oklahoma's loss came earlier in the season, and this was arguably Lincoln Riley's strongest squad during his time with the Sooners. Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy and had the likes of Marquise Brown, CeeDee Lamb and Mark Andrews as weapons in the passing game. Georgia's only loss on the year came at No. 10 Auburn in the regular season, a result the Bulldogs obviously avenged. It felt like all four teams had an equal shot at going the distance, which is a rarity under the current format.
The field: No. 1 Michigan, No. 2 Washington, No. 3 Texas, No. 4 Alabama
Florida State's controversial exclusion aside, this is, on paper, the most competitive final four we've been presented since the playoff's inception. Fitting, since the current format is going away next year. It truly feels like any of these four teams can walk away with the national championship. All of them have insanely talented quarterbacks that are going to be playing on Sundays in the not-too-distant future. Michigan is only favored by 1.5 points against Alabama, while Washington is a 4-point underdog to lower-ranked Texas. Combining those two spreads gives us the lowest average in College Football Playoff history.
All four teams won their conference championship. Michigan and Washington are undefeated. Texas has the best win of the year with its 10-point triumph against Alabama on the road. The Crimson Tide then decided not to lose again and handed Georgia its first loss in two years in the SEC Championship Game despite some ready to put the Nick Saban dynasty to bed just a few months ago.
The field: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Florida State, No. 4 Ohio State
The first playoff wasn't necessarily the best, but it is right up there. It starts with an elite pair of quarterbacks in Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Florida State's Jameis Winston, one of the greatest pairings to ever grace the playoff. Winston became the youngest player to ever win the Heisman in 2013 and Mariota followed that up by taking the Heisman home in 2014. Winston and Mariota were the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the 2015 NFL Draft, respectively. This playoff also heavily featured a future Heisman winner in Alabama's Derrick Henry.
Not to mention the insane coaching depth on display. The Crimson Tide were led by the legendary Saban, but he had Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator and Kirby Smart running his defense. Ohio State had assistants Tom Herman and Luke Fickell on staff, while six future first-round NFL Draft picks played a major role on that Buckeyes team. This field does get the benefit of hindsight, with a lot of the major figures moving on to have successful careers in the decade since, but it was loaded at the time and a great way to get things started.
The field: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Notre Dame, No. 4 Oklahoma
Clemson is doing some heavy lifting with this pod. The 2018 Tigers were an elite team that ripped through their regular season schedule, finishing the year with an average scoring differential of 44-14. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence took the full-time starting job from incumbent Kelly Bryant four games into the season and subsequently orchestrated one of the greatest true freshman campaigns ever, throwing for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns. Eight players on the 2018 Clemson defense were selected in an NFL Draft, including four first-rounders.
Even boasting all of that, the Tigers weren't the top seed. Alabama looked just as dominant. The Crimson Tide didn't have a single regular season game come down to the wire and weren't even tested until the SEC Championship Game when Georgia pushed them to the brink but couldn't finish the job. While it's great to have dominant teams, that made this playoff feel like a two-team race. Clemson and Alabama were both favored by double digits in their semifinal matchups and, sure enough, blitzed their way to the national championship.
The field: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Georgia, No. 4 Cincinnati
Of all the "non-traditional" teams to make the playoff, Cincinnati might just be the best. The 2021 Bearcats are certainly the most underrated. There's even an argument to be made that it's the greatest non-power conference team of the modern era. Cincy had four CBS Sports All-Americans, Jim Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Coby Bryant and nine NFL Draft picks on that team. Regardless of what may have happened afterwards, it certainly deserved a spot in the field.
This was also the year that Georgia had one of the greatest defenses in college football history. The Dawgs didn't allow a single opponent to reach 20 points in the regular season. Alabama scored 41 points in the SEC title game, which was more than the Bulldogs allowed in five games leading up to the postseason. Michigan also began its run of Big Ten dominance by wiping the floor with a good Ohio State team and winning the Big Ten title by 39 points. Really solid teams all around.
The field: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 TCU, No. 4 Ohio State
TCU is the odd man out here, and like Cincinnati, the Horned Frogs looked legit entering the CFP. The great divider between the Bearcats and TCU is the fact that Sonny Dykes' squad couldn't get it done in the Big 12 Championship Game and actually entered the semifinals riding an upset loss to Kansas State. Still, this is a team that had a Heisman Trophy finalist in quarterback Max Duggan and a first-round wide receiver in Quentin Johnston. Eight players total off this team were selected in the 2023 NFL Draft. Though it may not be considered in these rankings, TCU deserves a shoutout for actually winning its semifinal game. Best not to talk about what happened after that.
Ohio State is also a bit of a weak link here. Not only did the Buckeyes make it in without a conference championship, but they lost by 22 against Michigan and didn't beat a single team that finished the year ranked inside the top 10.
The field: No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Michigan State, No. 4 Oklahoma
Clemson was the only undefeated team in the crop, though the Tigers lost some of their luster as the season wound down. They narrowly avoided an upset against unranked South Carolina in the regular-season finale and then won the ACC Championship Game by eight points in a back-and-forth affair with North Carolina. By comparison, Alabama's only loss came three games into the season and it then won nine out of its next 10 games, including the SEC championship, by at least two possessions. Michigan State and Oklahoma both entered the playoff with losses to unranked teams on their résumés.
The only thing putting this field above any other is the relative star power involved. Clemson had quarterback Deshaun Watson and future first-round receiver Mike Williams. Alabama leaned heavily on Derrick Henry, who is still the last running back to win the Heisman Trophy. Baker Mayfield was in his first season as Oklahoma's starting quarterback and the Sooners' skill talent in 2015 reads like a list of All-American candidates: running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, tight end Mark Andrews and wide receiver Sterling Shepard.
The field: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Washington
Fun fact: This was the first College Football Playoff to not feature a reigning or former Heisman Trophy winner. While that has become more common in recent seasons -- this year marks the second straight set of playoff games in which the Heisman winner is excluded -- it was notable for the time. As the rankings might suggest, Alabama was the highlight here. Jalen Hurts started as a true freshman and the backfield boasted Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs and Bo Scarbrough. All 11 starters and several future key backups on the defense went on to play in the NFL. Clemson was strong as well, anchored by a defensive line featuring Carlos Watkins, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence with the aforementioned offensive pairing of Watson and Williams.
Ohio State and Washington drag this ranking down. Again, this may be a common theme, but the Buckeyes were the first team to make the CFP without winning a conference title. They were selected in favor of Penn State, a team that beat them in the regular season and actually won the Big Ten championship.
The field: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Notre Dame
It's just impossible to grade this College Football Playoff field on the same scale as any other. The sport was so impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic during the 2020 season that most leagues instituted a conference-only schedule. Ohio State played just six games and still made the final four. Notre Dame was forced to play an all-ACC schedule or face the possibility of not having a season at all. The Fighting Irish beat Clemson in the regular season, lost 34-10 in an ACC Championship Game rematch and still limped into the playoff. The whole time it felt like Alabama was going to run away with everything anyway after winning its 10 regular season games by an average of 32.7 points per contest.