Notre Dame was picked Sunday over Texas A&M for the final College Football Playoff spot and will face No. 1 Alabama in the semifinals while Clemson and Ohio State were paired in the CFP for the third time.
The Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide will meet Jan. 1 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, after a late pandemic-related relocation from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. The Tigers and Buckeyes are set to play the same day at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans — if all goes according to plan.
The national champion of this college football season played through a pandemic is scheduled to be determined Jan. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.
The Fighting Irish (10-1) are back in the playoff for the second time in three seasons, becoming the first team to lose a conference title game and make the selection committee’s final four. The Atlantic Coast is the second conference to have two teams in the playoff, joining the SEC in 2017, thanks to the famously independent Fighting Irish joining the league in football for a year because of the pandemic.
After sitting second in the CFP rankings for a month, Notre Dame was blown out 34-10 by Clemson in the ACC championship. That opened the door for Texas A&M (8-1), which had been lurking in fifth but was unable to become the third team in the playoff’s seven-year history to make the field without even winning its division.
Selection committee chairman Gary Barta, the Iowa athletic director, said Notre Dame’s extra victory against a ranked opponent pushed the Irish over the top.
Notre Dame beat Clemson and North Carolina, which had been 15th in the previous playoff rankings. Texas A&M’s only victory against a team that was in the committee’s ranking was Florida. The Aggies played Alabama in October and lost by 28 points.
Barta said Ohio State’s six-game schedule wasn’t much of an issue for the committee, overcome by the Buckeyes going undefeated and winning the Big Ten.
Oklahoma surged to sixth in the final rankings after closing with seven straight victories and a Big 12 title. Unbeaten Cincinnati finished seventh, making the Bearcats the top-ranked team among Group of Five conference champions and guaranteeing them a spot in one of the New Year’s Six bowls.
The rest of rankings and the major bowl pairings were still to come.
Notre Dame’s reward will be a matchup with Alabama (11-0), the Southeastern Conference champion that is back in the playoff for the sixth time after missing out last year. The last time the Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide played was the 2012 BCS championship game and the Tide won 42-14.
Clemson (10-1) is in for a sixth straight season, only missing out on the first playoff. Ohio State (6-0) is making its third appearance. The Tigers have won two playoff titles and the Buckeyes won the first after the 2014 season.
Clemson-Ohio State is a rematch of last season’s dramatic semifinal in Glendale, Arizona, won 29-23 by the Tigers. The two teams also met at the Fiesta Bowl in the 2016 playoff and Clemson beat the Buckeyes 31-0.
One of the semifinals was scheduled to be played at the Rose Bowl, but a move was announced Saturday night. The change was made after coaches and school officials from playoff contenders complained about California’s COVID-19 restrictions that bans spectators from sporting events and would have made it impossible for players’ families to attend the game.
The Rose Bowl twice asked for a special exemption from the state and was denied.
Playing the game at the home of the Dallas Cowboys will allow 16,000 fans to attend. Because of that, Barta said, the committee placed top-seeded Alabama there to give it the possibility of more of a home-field advantage.
The Superdome is currently set to have 3,000 fans at the other semifinal, but that number could go up.
This season has been filled with disruptions as teams navigated COVID-19 outbreaks, contact tracing that sent players into extended quarantine and daily uncertainty about whether games will be played.
Ohio State had three regular-season games canceled and the Big Ten had to change a minimum games played rule earlier this month just so the unbeaten Buckeyes could play in the conference title game Saturday against Northwestern.
Still, 87% of the games scheduled were played.
College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock has said a team selected to a semifinal would not be replaced if it could not play on the scheduled date. The game would be postponed if necessary and a every effort would be made to make it up.