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The College Football Playoff Is Set, and L.S.U. Is No. 1





The potential for chaos gave way to consensus: Louisiana State, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma will compete for a national title after their selections on Sunday for the College Football Playoff.

The season’s semifinalists, announced after the conference championship games and deliberations by a 13-member committee, made official that the playoff would include a trio of undefeated teams for a second straight year. And with a host of blue-chip programs damaged by at least two losses each, the committee’s picks also appeared more immune than usual from the bickering that has so often surrounded college football’s postseason.

Louisiana State, which overtook Ohio State for the top spot in the rankings on Sunday, will meet No. 4 Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta on Dec. 28. No. 2 Ohio State and third-ranked Clemson will play in the Fiesta Bowl, near Phoenix, later that day. The winners of the semifinal matchups will advance to the national championship game, scheduled for Jan. 13 in New Orleans.

“Obviously it’s an accomplishment, but it’s not our final destination,” said Ed Orgeron, the coach at L.S.U., after the committee announced that his team would make its inaugural appearance in the four-team playoff.

All of the semifinalists have offenses that rank among the nation’s top five, with L.S.U. and Oklahoma both averaging about 554 yards per game. On defense, Clemson has allowed just 10.6 points per game, the best such showing in the nation, while Ohio State has permitted 12.5, tied for the second-best mark.

The Pac-12 Conference was the lone Power 5 league excluded from the playoff, after its team with the greatest potential for a berth, Utah, lost on Friday night. By Sunday morning — and, in most respects, by late afternoon Saturday — the suspense surrounding exactly which teams would reach the playoff had ended and been replaced by a more nuanced debate over seedings and pairings.

Entering Sunday, there was little doubt that Oklahoma, which defeated Baylor in overtime for the Big 12 championship, would be seeded No. 4, because it was the only playoff-bound team with a loss. And although Clemson, the defending national champion, had amassed a record of 13-0, including a 62-17 shellacking of Virginia for the Atlantic Coast Conference crown, it seemed entrenched as a middle seed, a consequence of a schedule often mocked and critiqued for its relative ease.

That left L.S.U. and Ohio State, with résumés widely seen as superior, as the only teams to consider for the top ranking — and the right to bypass Clemson in a semifinal.

L.S.U., led by the Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback Joe Burrow, crushed then-No. 4 Georgia, 37-10, in the Southeastern Conference championship on Saturday. That win, which followed victories over Alabama, Auburn and Florida during the regular season, deepened the sense in Baton Rouge that L.S.U. had the most impressive series of wins because of its place in a league that likes to proclaim its weekly perils.

The Tigers also had a nonconference victory over Texas, a team that seemed far more formidable when it hosted L.S.U. in September.


Hoping not to be outdone, Ohio State, the first Big Ten team to reach the playoff since the 2016 season, spent this year decimating its opponents, and since Nov. 23, it has beaten three top-15 opponents by an average of almost 18 points. But its 34-21 victory over Wisconsin to claim the Big Ten title started as a slog and, coming soon after L.S.U.’s dominance over Georgia, fanned questions about whether Ohio State should retain the top rank it held going into the weekend.

Ohio State openly lobbied for the top seed — Chase Young, the star defensive end for the Buckeyes, said Saturday he believed his team was “No. 1 point-blank, period” — after its game. At least publicly, L.S.U. appeared more ambivalent about exactly where it would be placed.

Rob Mullens, the chairman of the selection committee, said that Saturday’s games had proven decisive after a season in which both Ohio State and L.S.U. took turns as the top-ranked team.

“These are two teams that have been really close the entire time,” said Mullens, who is also the athletic director at Oregon. “It’s just a matter of one does something to move slightly ahead of the other, and this weekend L.S.U. beat a highly-ranked, at the time, No. 4 Georgia team in an impressive fashion in the SEC championship.”

Mullens indicated that the committee’s discussions about seeding had focused on L.S.U. and Ohio State, with Clemson all but locked into the No. 3 slot. It came as little surprise: Even Dabo Swinney, the Clemson coach who has long argued that his program was undervalued, seemed to recognize over the weekend that his team had virtually no chance of receiving the top seed, or even the No. 2 spot.

“Just as long as we can be somewhere in the top four, I think we deserve that,” he said in Charlotte, N.C., the site of the A.C.C. title game, on Saturday. “We’ve earned that. I know we haven’t played anybody all year, but hopefully we can get a chance to be somewhere in the top four, because I think these guys, they deserve that.”

Arguments about seeding notwithstanding, the consensus around this year’s playoff field may momentarily curb the near-ritual hand-wringing over the size and scope of the sport’s postseason — a debate that surely would have been inflamed had Utah and Oklahoma both won conference titles and been able to brag about one-loss records.

But even before Utah faltered on Friday night, college athletics executives were showing only so much interest in swiftly altering the playoff format, which is governed by a contract that expires in 2026. Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner, asserted Friday that “the four-team playoff has worked, is working and can continue to work.”

Larry Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner, said before Utah’s loss that the playoff’s designers, including his conference, had known that a four-team format guaranteed that at least one Power Five conference would be left out every year.

Oregon, the Pac-12 champion that defeated Utah, moved to No. 6 and earned a berth in the Rose Bowl, where it will play Wisconsin. Georgia fell to No. 5 and was slotted against No. 7 Baylor in the Sugar Bowl. The Cotton Bowl will include No. 10 Penn State, giving the Big Ten three spots in the nation’s most elite bowl games, and No. 17 Memphis. Virginia slid to No. 24 with its loss to Clemson but will play ninth-ranked Florida in the Orange Bowl.

Jeff Arnold and Billy Witz contributed reporting.


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