The 2018 college football season ended how many believed it would when it started in August and that’s with Clemson and Alabama sharing the field in the national championship game. The top two teams in the preseason AP Top 25 poll – No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson – earned the same seeds, respectively, in the College Football Playoff and met in the national championship game for the third time in four seasons.
Clemson defeated Alabama 44-16 behind true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s 347 passing yards and three touchdowns, running back Travis Etienne’s three total touchdowns and a dominant defensive effort by the Tigers.
Here are our postseason top 25 rankings for the 2018 college football season.
1. Clemson: The Tigers became the first FBS team to go 15-0 in the modern era of college football and they completely outplayed the top-ranked Crimson Tide despite entering Santa Clara, California, as the underdogs. Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney clearly made the right decision in electing to give the starting job to Lawrence last fall over veteran quarterback Kelly Bryant, who led Clemson to the College Football Playoff last season, and the Tigers’ defensive line lived up to its billing.
Clemson has now won two national championships in the last three seasons and it has proved itself as an equal to Alabama in the College Football Playoff era with each school winning two titles and claiming two of the four head-to-head matchups in the playoff.
2. Alabama: The Crimson Tide endured the worst loss of Alabama Coach Nick Saban’s tenure with the school as Clemson scored the game’s final 30 points. Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw two costly interceptions, including a pick-six that resulted in the points of the game, the Crimson Tide struggled extending drives on third and fourth down, and its defense was picked apart by Lawrence. Alabama was the second-best team in the sport this season but the gap between No. 1 and No. 2 was bigger than almost anyone could imagine.
3. Ohio State: For the third time in Urban Meyer’s seven-year tenure at Ohio State, the Buckeyes had an undefeated season or a one-loss season capped off by a bowl win that didn’t result in a national championship. Maybe Ohio State truly was one of the four best teams but a 49-20 loss at Purdue prevented the Buckeyes from getting the chance to prove it in the playoff.
4. Oklahoma: The Sooners ended up covering the spread in their 45-34 loss to No. 1 Alabama in the Orange Bowl but the 21-0 hole they found themselves in at the end of the first quarter shows there was a porous defense-sized gap between Oklahoma and Alabama. It’s hard to ask anything more from Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley in his first two years as head coach: a 14-4 record, two Big 12 championships, two College Football Playoff appearances and two Heisman Trophy winners.
5. Notre Dame: For the second time in the last seven seasons, Notre Dame was on the receiving end of a postseason blowout when there were national championship implications on the line. The Fighting Irish’s 30-3 defeat against Clemson in the Cotton Bowl, combined with their 42-14 loss to Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship, shows Notre Dame isn’t quite on the level of college football’s premier programs this decade but a 12-0 regular season is still an incredible accomplishment.
6. LSU: The Tigers ended UCF’s 25-game winning streak with a 40-32 win in the Fiesta Bowl with many of LSU’s defensive starters sitting out the game. LSU’s 20-point win over then-No. 2 Georgia was on the short list of the best wins of the season and at their best, the Tigers were a team worthy of playoff consideration.
7. Georgia: A season that could’ve ended in an SEC Championship and College Football Playoff berth instead resulted in a two-game losing streak to end the Bulldogs’ 2018 campaign. Georgia outplayed Alabama for three quarters but also found itself down three scores in loss to LSU and Texas. The Bulldogs were probably national championship-good in 2018 but the way their season ended means they may not be remembered that way outside of the state.
8. Florida: The first year of the Dan Mullen era at Florida should be considered a resounding success with a 10-3 season capped off by a Peach Bowl win over No. 7 Michigan just one year after a four-win season. The 2018 season marked the first season that Florida has won at least 10 games and won its bowl game since 2009.
9. Texas: The Longhorns were the best team on the field in their 28-21 Sugar Bowl win over a No. 5 Georgia team that some college football fans believed should have made the playoff. Half of Texas’ wins in the 2018 season were against opponents that were ranked at the time of the matchup, including No. 7 Oklahoma and No. 16 Iowa State. Had at least one, let alone multiple, of Texas’ narrow losses to Maryland, Oklahoma State and West Virginia gone the other way, the Longhorns could have been in the College Football Playoff conversation.
10. UCF: The Knights’ incredible two-year run of 25 straight wins and nearly back-to-back undefeated seasons came to an end against LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. Had starting quarterback McKenzie Milton been healthy, maybe UCF would have strung together 13-0 seasons.
11. Michigan: It’s amazing to think about how quickly the perception of Michigan changed from when it arrived in Columbus ranked No. 4 in the CFP rankings with just a seven-point loss to Notre Dame as its only blemish. In their final two games against Ohio State and Florida, the Wolverines lost by a combined score of 103-54. Michigan has gone 10-3 in three of the four seasons of Coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure in Ann Arbor and that might just be the neighborhood the program lives in now.
12. Washington: The Huskies’ 28-23 loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl was a fitting end for Washington, which lost four games by a combined 15 points. Washington was the best team in the Pac-12, as shown by its Pac-12 Championship and 28-15 win at then-No. 8 Washington State, but it didn’t quite live up to its preseason ranking in the AP Top 25.
13. Washington State: You could make the case that 2018 was the best season in the history of Washington State football. It was the first time the Cougars won 11 games in a season, they won a bowl game for just the seventh time ever, they reached the fringes of the College Football Playoff conversation and quarterback Gardner Minshew II was a Heisman Trophy contender.
14. Kentucky: The Wildcats being ranked in the AP Top 25 in football is an accomplishment. Kentucky cracking the top 15 is something that has happened just six times since Bear Bryant left the school after the 1953 season. Mark Stoops led Kentucky to a 10-3 season and a Citrus Bowl win over No. 12 Penn State, marking the school’s best season in 40 years.
15. Penn State: It’s hard to get a gauge on how good Penn State was in 2018. The Nittany Lions nearly lost to Appalachian State at home in Week 1, then they beat eventual ACC Coastal champion Pitt 51-6 in Week 2. Their three-point Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky was their third loss of the season by four points or less, joining back-to-back narrow home losses to Ohio State and Michigan State in the fall. In quarterback Trace McSorley’s final season, Penn State’s 2018 season feels like a missed opportunity after the Nittany Lions had No. 4 Ohio State on the ropes.
16. West Virginia: Like Washington State, West Virginia had a fairly special 2018 season that ultimately fell short of the team’s goals but the Mountaineers were still on the periphery of the College Football Playoff conversation and they had a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in Will Grier. Now the program enters an offseason after losing Coach Dana Holgorsen, Grier and a talented pair of wide receivers in Gary Jennings Jr. and David Sills V.
17. Fresno State: The Bulldogs’ 2018 season was one of the best in program history. Fresno State went 12-2, winning the Mountain West title on the road at No. 22 Boise State and the Las Vegas Bowl against Arizona State. The Bulldogs’ only losses came on the road by seven points at Minnesota and Boise State.
18. Texas A&M: The first year of Jimbo Fisher’s tenure at Texas A&M should be considered a success after the Aggies finished second in the challenging SEC West with wins over then-No. 13 Kentucky and No. 7 LSU. Texas A&M gave No. 2 Clemson its best shot in Week 2 and its other three losses came on the road against Alabama, Mississippi State and Auburn. A 52-13 win over NC State in the Gator Bowl should continue an upward trajectory in College Station.
19. Syracuse: The Orange finished with a 10-3 record for the first time since 2001 thanks to a 34-18 win over West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl. Syracuse’s season was arguably more impressive when you consider two of its three losses were to teams that made the College Football Playoff (Clemson, Notre Dame) and the third was against Pitt, the ACC Coastal champion.
20. Northwestern: The Wildcats capped off a 9-5 season, which included an appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game, with a 31-20 win over No. 17 Utah in the Holiday Bowl. Despite starting the season 1-3 and losing all of its non-conference games, Northwestern won eight of its final 10 games.
21. Utah: The Utes’ season ended on a two-game losing streak with losses in the Pac-12 Championship and Holiday Bowl but Utah won the Pac-12 South and continued an impressive run of being ranked in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s top 25 rankings. Utah has been ranked in the CFP rankings the sixth-most of any school nationally.
22. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs finished fourth in the SEC West and they beat Auburn and Texas A&M when both schools were ranked. In losses to Kentucky, Florida, LSU and Alabama, Mississippi State scored just 16 total points as its offense consistently struggled to move the ball but its defense ranked third nationally, according to Football Outsiders’ S&P+ rankings.
23. Utah State: The Aggies won 10 consecutive games in the regular season, only losing at Michigan State by seven points in Week 1 and at Boise State in Week 13. Utah State nearly played for the Mountain West Championship but the latter of those two losses prevented it from clinching the Mountain division. Utah State showed off one of the nation’s highest-scoring offenses in its 52-13 win over North Texas in the New Mexico Bowl.
24. Iowa State: The Cyclones continue to be a factor in the Big 12 as they beat No. 25 Oklahoma State and No. 6 West Virginia, and finished third in the conference. A 28-26 loss to Washington State in the Alamo Bowl was a disappointing end but back-to-back 8-5 seasons combined with Coach Matt Campbell staying in Ames should signal a bright future for Iowa State.
25. Boise State: The First Responder Bowl being canceled prevented Boise State from having the opportunity to win an 11th game for the second year in a row but the Broncos had a productive regular season with a Mountain West Championship Game appearance and wins over two ranked opponents – Fresno State and Utah State. Boise State Coach Bryan Harsin has led the school to at least 10 wins in four of his five seasons as head coach.