Key Games That Shaped The 2016 College Football Playoff

The College Football Playoff has been set. We know the four teams, but the fates of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Washington could have been different.

Unfortunately, the 2016 college football regular season is over.

Army put a bow on the year this past Saturday, claiming a 21-17 win over Navy at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore to snap a 14-game losing streak and beat the Midshipmen for the first time since 2001.

Now all of the attention turns to the postseason, which kicks off this coming Saturday, as well as the third College Football Playoff.

But before we move ahead to all of the bowl games and the CFP, let’s take a look at the games that had the biggest impact on the selection committee’s formation of this year’s four-team playoff.

Saturday, September 3

No. 15 Houston 33, No. 3 Oklahoma 23

This was the game that helped make Tom Herman a legitimate candidate for the Texas opening. While expectations were high that Charlie Strong could turn around the Longhorns, Herman became the hot name in large part because of this statement win. While Houston would tail off, there was, for a time, legitimate New Year’s Six and even College Football Playoff discussions for UH.

Meanwhile, this was a game that the Sooners needed to win in order to be in the mix for a playoff spot. Or they needed to beat Ohio State two weeks later (more on that in a bit). Greg Ward Jr. and the Cougars were the much better team for four quarters, as Bob Stoops and Co. shockingly stumbled out of the gate in one of the Cougars’ biggest nonconference regular-season games in recent memory.

Saturday, September 17

No. 3 Ohio State 45, No. 14 Oklahoma 24

This was a key game on the Buckeyes’ playoff résumé, especially because Urban Meyer’s squad did not have the opportunity to play for a Big Ten title. Wide receiver Noah Brown, who entered the game with five catches and one touchdown in his career, tied a school record with four touchdown receptions for a team that lost 16 starters from last year’s squad and was playing in a hostile environment. The win over OU, who finished the season very strong, definitely helped the Buckeyes’ strength of schedule, which the selection committee rewarded. It was a road win over the Big 12 champion, which finished No. 7 in the final CFP rankings, to go along with wins over Wisconsin and Michigan.

Of course, OU needed this win to make up for the loss to Houston. The Sooners could have been a one-loss team with a win over the Buckeyes, which would have very likely been good enough to place them in the CFP.

Saturday, September 24

No. 4 Michigan 49, Penn State 10

The lopsided nature of this game did not do the Nittany Lions any favors in their quest for a spot in the CFP. The Wolverines had six rushing scores in a 49-10 rout, and there were very few, if any, college football observers that would have predicted that James Franklin’s team would bounce back from this loss as it did. While PSU was a wounded unit against the Wolverines, a 39-point loss is tough to overcome. The committee ultimately couldn’t overlook this loss even with PSU ultimately being the Big Ten champ. If it would have been a seven-point setback, could PSU have snuck in over Washington? Keep in mind that PSU’s loss to Pitt was not nearly as crushing, as the Panthers beat both the Big Ten and ACC champs to help them move into the final CFP Top 25.

Saturday, October 1

No. 5 Clemson 42, No. 3 Louisville 36

This was the game of the year in the ACC, and it featured two players—Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson—that would finish No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the Heisman Trophy race. The Tigers rallied behind Watson’s five touchdowns (including two in the final seven minutes) after Bobby Petrino’s squad eliminated an 18-point deficit. Louisville came a yard short of a first down on its fourth-down effort with 33 seconds left in the game to help the Tigers escape. Even with the loss, the Cardinals remained a CFP contender until they were throttled by Houston.

Meanwhile, the win enabled the Tigers to stay in the CFP race even after the loss later in the season to Pitt. Remember that a slew of upsets that same day really didn’t affect the top portion of the CFP rankings. A second loss for Clemson likely would have knocked Dabo Swinney’s team out of the mix, so this was a must-win game.

Saturday, October 22

No. 1 Alabama 33, No. 6 Texas A&M 14

I went back and forth on which game from Alabama’s season to highlight. Initially I was going to go with the team’s win over Ole Miss early in the year, simply because the Crimson Tide had to rally from a three-touchdown deficit to claim a 48-43 in a SEC win. But ultimately I elected to go with ‘Bama’s 33-14 win later in the year over Texas A&M because the 6-0 Aggies had the 7-0 Tide down 14-13 well into the third quarter. It wasn’t until star defensive end Jonathan Allen had a scoop-and-score defensive touchdown in the final seconds of the third quarter that Alabama was able to relax a bit, and it was the last game before an open date, with LSU coming up the following week.

Nick Saban’s squad showed its mettle with its collective back to the wall, and it won despite the defense giving up back-to-back long touchdown drives late in the second quarter and to open the third. It also won despite two interceptions from true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts.

Saturday, October 29

No. 4 Washington 31, No. 17 Utah 24

Chris Petersen’s Huskies faced their first major test of the season when they went to Salt Lake City for a tilt with Utah. It was a close contest all the way through, with the difference being a Dante Pettis 58-yard punt return for a touchdown with 3:25 remaining that helped U-Dub remain undefeated.

Kyle Whittingham’s squad may have stumbled a bit down the stretch, but the Utes pushed the No. 4 team in the country about as hard as a team could be pushed. Petersen and Co. would drop a game to USC down the line, but winning this game put them in position to stay in the CFP mix. And it was the team’s toughest test up to that point in the season.

Saturday, November 19

No. 2 Ohio State 17, Michigan State 16

I feel like this game has become forgotten, but this could have easily been a Buckeyes loss. Mike Weber ran for 111 yards and a touchdown, and Urban Meyer’s squad held off Sparty after Mark Dantonio’s team missed a two-point conversion with 4:41 remaining.

The contest fell one week before The Game against Michigan, and Meyer was almost bit once again by his nemesis Dantonio, whose team derailed the Buckeyes’ national title bids in two of the previous three seasons. After LJ Scott scored on a one-yard run with less than 5:00 left, Tyler O’Connor’s pass on the two-point conversion attempt was intercepted in the end zone. O’Connor was then picked off on MSU’s final possession. Ohio State’s strong pass defense was the difference, and OSU remained with just the one loss the rest of the season.

Saturday, November 26

No. 2 Ohio State 30, No. 3 Michigan 27 (2 OT)

A week after the near-loss to Michigan State, the Buckeyes survived a double-overtime thriller in Columbus against rival Michigan. Jim Harbaugh was quite furious about a couple of key officiating calls, including a spot on a fourth-and-1 for the Buckeyes in the second overtime. And the Wolverines would have remained in the CFP race instead of the Buckeyes if they had won this game the day after Thanksgiving.

Michigan would have earned a trip to Indy by winning the Big Ten East division, so only a win over Wisconsin would have stood in its way of a playoff berth. Football is often a game of inches, and it was for Michigan in this year’s instant-classic edition of The Game.

MORE: Campus Insiders’ 2016 All-American Team