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Ranking the Best College Football Playoff Games of the 4-Team Era

There's officially one game left in the four-team era of the College Football Playoff, and while the format hasn't always been perfect, we cannot deny that the past decade has included some of the most thrilling and iconic games in college football history.

Ahead of the national championship game between Michigan and Washington, let's take a look at the 10 best games provided to us by this current format. And stay tuned to see if Michigan and Washington are able to crack this formidable list with another unforgettable clash.

No. 10: 2024 Semifinal at the Sugar Bowl - Washington 37, Texas 31

Yes, this one just happened, and midway through, it didn't look as if it was on the way to being a classic. Ultimately, it featured early intensity paired with the late-game drama that kept us on the East Coast on the edges of our seats long into the night. Michael Penix Jr. put together one of the most prolific playoff passing performances we've ever seen en route to the Huskies' first berth in an official national championship game, while Texas' Quinn Ewers led a furious comeback that came up just short.

After the game looked as if it would be a shootout early on, Washington found some stops and pulled away to a 34-21 lead with less than eight minutes remaining in the game. Finally, Adonai Mitchell — no stranger to big semifinal catches, but we'll get there in a second — hauled in a Touchdown for Texas. And eventually, late-game mismanagement from Washington gave the Longhorns four shots to win the game from just outside the Washington 10-yard line. Each one fell flat, ending a thriller that came out of nowhere with one last semifinal win for the Pac-12, just the second in conference history.

No. 9: 2016 National Championship - Alabama 45, Clemson 40

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 11: Derrick Henry #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide runs for a 50 yard touchdown in the first quarter against Jayron Kearse #1 of the Clemson Tigers during the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 11, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.

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The first-ever playoff featured an iconic semifinal — again, we'll get there — but the championship game itself was lackluster, spurring questions about the format on the heels of an iconic final championship game from the BCS. The second championship game left no doubt that the playoff had the ability to produce entertaining results, as No. 2 Alabama took down No. 1 Clemson in a real seesaw game.

It was a contest packed with future NFL talent, highlighted by Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, who ran for 158 yards and three scores for Alabama, as well as legendary Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who tossed four touchdowns and racked up over 400 yards in the loss. Clemson jumped out to an early lead before Alabama tied it at halftime. The Tide first pulled ahead in the second half before the Tigers stormed back, but 'Bama grabbed a fourth-quarter lead it wouldn't relinquish despite repeated responses from Watson. Clemson would have to wait another year for its ring, which would come in incredibly dramatic fashion — a game that just might show up later on this list.

No. 8: 2022 (New Year's Eve) Semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl - TCU 51, Michigan 45

Now we're getting into the territory of some iconic upsets. Michigan was 13-0 after routing Ohio State in Columbus; and it was favored by well over a touchdown against TCU, which hadn't even won the lesser Big 12 conference. But none of that mattered to the Horned Frogs when they took the field on New Year's Eve.

They had been waiting for this chance, perhaps with more anticipation than anyone. They were one of the most famous BCS snubs back when they were a Group of Five team, and they were controversially booted out of the first edition of the CFP as well. We won't talk about what happened next, because the semifinal result was enough to live in school lore forever. The Frogs shocked a phenomenal Michigan defense by scoring over 51 points, and they were able to fend off a furious comeback attempt from JJ McCarthy and company in the upset win.

No. 7: 2019 (December) Semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl - Clemson 29, Ohio State 23

This wasn't the first playoff meeting between Clemson and Ohio State, and it wouldn't be the last, but it was definitely the most entertaining. It was, however, a clash of undefeated squads, and the first-ever meeting between quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields after the two were top-ranked prospects in the same high school class in Georgia.

Fields and the Buckeyes jumped out to a 16-0 lead against the defending national champions, but it was all Clemson from that point on. Starting in the second quarter, the Tigers stormed back with three consecutive touchdowns. The Buckeyes reclaimed the lead early in the fourth quarter but failed to tack on insurance. That came back to bite them, when a strike from Lawrence to Travis Etienne with under two minutes left gave Clemson the lead once more. Ohio State marched to the Clemson 23-yard line, but Fields threw a game-ending pick with just seconds left, sealing the defeat in an iconic clash.

No. 6: 2015 Semifinal at the Sugar Bowl - Ohio State 42, Alabama 35

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 01: Cardale Jones #12 of the Ohio State Buckeyes scrambles out of the pocket against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 1, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Ohio State defeated Alabama 42-35.

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We've arrived at the playoff's very first upset, which not-so-coincidentally took place on the first-ever playoff game day in the initial year of the format. Ohio State was down to third-string quarterback Cardale Jones, who had just made his first career start in the Big Ten Championship Game with a 59-0 win over Wisconsin. To many, that game left little doubt that the Buckeyes belonged in the top four, but there was still plenty of controversy surrounding their inclusion.

Everything looked to be going as expected when No. 1 Alabama pulled ahead to a 21-6 lead after Ohio State was forced to kick a pair of short field goals at the end of long drives. But Ohio State wasn't done. The Buckeyes opened up a 13-point lead by scoring four consecutive touchdowns; and while Alabama eventually started firing back, it wasn't enough. The Buckeyes pulled off an upset to remember, and Urban Meyer was well on his way to yet another ring, his first in Columbus.

No. 5: 2022 (New Year's Eve) Semifinal at the Peach Bowl - Georgia 42, Ohio State 41

We've spent a lot of time talking about the Buckeyes, but there's one more Ohio State game we need to touch on — and the first of several classics involving the Georgia Bulldogs. This one happened just a year ago, on New Year's Eve 2022 just hours after Ohio State's bitter rival Michigan had lost a shocker to TCU in the other semifinal. Georgia was sitting at No. 1 in every poll as an undefeated defending national champion, and Ohio State barely squeaked in as an at-large team in a weak field. But from the way the teams competed, you never would have known those things.

Even though he's done so much winning, it could be argued that this loss was the best coaching job of Ryan Day's career, as he had the juggernaut Bulldogs on the ropes — a feat that looked even more impressive after Georgia pulverize TCU in the national championship game by a score of 65-7. Ohio State led by 14 going into the fourth quarter and never gave up that lead until there was under a minute left, when Adonai Mitchell — there he is again — snagged a go-ahead touchdown to give Georgia a one-point advantage.

Ohio State fought back once more and was able to set up kicker Noah Ruggles with a potentially game-winning 50-yard field goal. But, just as the clock struck midnight, Ruggles' attempt missed very wide left, and Georgia was on to another national championship game.

No. 4: 2024 Semifinal at the Rose Bowl - Michigan 27, Alabama 20 (OT)

As far as "football cinema" goes, this one just might top the list. We're talking about the most iconic venue (the Rose Bowl), the most iconic conferences (the Big Ten and SEC) and, of course, two of the most iconic programs: Michigan and Alabama. The Wolverines were finally No. 1 in the nation for the first time since 1997, while the Crimson Tide were in the rare position of being underdogs with something to prove.

There were some uncharacteristic miscues from both sides, as Michigan's typically excellent special teams units failed in just about every capacity, while Alabama's center couldn't snap the ball. Still, this game had as much intensity as you could have ever hoped for, with trick plays and crushing defensive stops galore. Michigan stopped Alabama from pulling away early before taking the lead themselves in the second quarter. After a scoreless third quarter, Alabama asserted itself, taking a seven-point lead that felt insurmountable given Michigan's second-half offensive performance.

But for once, coach Jim Harbaugh's squad was ready to fight back and finish the job. Quarterback JJ McCarthy made several do-or-die plays en route to a game-tying touchdown, forcing overtime. For Michigan's drive, Blake Corum powered his way into the end zone and the history books with a pair of dominant runs. And then Michigan's defense stood tall, shoving Jalen Milroe on fourth-and-goal to seal the program's biggest win in decades.

No. 3: 2017 National Championship - Clemson 35, Alabama 31

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 09: Quarterback Deshaun Watson #4 of the Clemson Tigers on a passing play during the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Raymond James Stadium on January 9, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. The Clemson Tigers defeated The Alabama Crimson

Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

This was the second of four consecutive playoffs to feature Alabama against Clemson in either a semifinal or the national championship — and it was, by some distance, the most iconic. After years of being the class of the ACC but unable to get over the hump against the best of the best, Dabo Swinney and Deshaun Watson finally got Clemson to the mountaintop — against the most iconic program of the era no less.

Alabama raced out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, leading many to wonder just how much the Tide would win by this year. But Clemson wasn't done just yet. It whittled the lead down to 24-14 by halftime, setting the stage for at least a competitive second half. With under five minutes left in the game, Watson and the Tigers had clawed all the way back and held a 28-24 lead.

Of course, four minutes is way too much time to give Alabama. True freshman Jalen Hurts led the Crimson Tide on a furious comeback drive, capped off by his very own 30-yard touchdown run. Clemson was on the ropes again but made it all the way to the 2-yard line with just seconds left. As the clock ticked down to just one second, Watson capped off a 420-yard, three-touchdown, interception-free passing performance with a strike to Hunter Renfrow, all but sealing the title for the Tigers for the first time since 1981.

No. 2: 2018 Semifinal at the Rose Bowl - Georgia 54, Oklahoma 48 (2OT)

We can talk all we want about how important defense is to overall quality of competition, but in terms of entertainment value, there's just no beating the 2018 Rose Bowl. This game featured the most points in a playoff game — and, yes it took two overtimes, but that didn't make it any less fun. If anything, it just amped up the intensity.

This Rose Bowl was unconventional in several ways. It didn't feature the Big Ten or the Pac-12, and was just the first one to make it to overtime. Still, even purists had to admit that it was a special event with tremendous star power on display, with Heisman winner Baker Mayfield on Oklahoma's side and a whole litany of future NFL players on Georgia's.

The Sooners dominated early on, racing out to a lead that got as big as 31-14 with six seconds to go until halftime, but Georgia was able to salvage a field goal just before the half, which would prove to be very important. The Bulldogs owned the third quarter, as they shut out Oklahoma and scored the first two of three consecutive touchdowns, allowing them to take a fourth-quarter lead. Oklahoma fought back and regained the lead themselves before Georgia finally equalized with under a minute left, forcing overtime.

Miraculously, after four quarters full of offense, the two teams traded field goals in the first overtime. Oklahoma was held to a field goal attempt once more in the next period, but they missed it, opening the door for Georgia to win it with a field goal of their own, which they did. The Bulldogs were on to the national championship game, and both sides could finally exhale.

No. 1: 2018 National Championship - Alabama 26, Georgia 23 (OT)

This is where quality of competition meets deep-seated rivalry meets entertainment value and overall drama. If this game was a fictional football movie, it would be criticized for being too unrealistic, too perfect. Of course, the same could be said of the entire Georgia season — this game came just a week after the contest in the No. 2 spot on this list — but the ending of this contest was very different for the Bulldogs.

Georgia had won the SEC and earned the top spot in the playoff, but Alabama was able to squeak in as an 11-1 team, with its only loss being to an Auburn team that also took down Georgia in the regular season. At halftime, it looked as if Georgia was the SEC champ for a reason: It was up 13-0 in what was shaping up to be a dominating defensive performance.

Then, Nick Saban made a halftime change. He benched quarterback Jalen Hurts, who previously won the SEC Offensive Player of the Year award as a freshman and had only lost two games in college. In came Tua Tagovailoa, a top recruit who had essentially not yet played for the Tide, to win them a national championship. Tagovailoa wasn't perfect, but he was electrifying as he helped Alabama fight back into the game, eventually linking up with Calvin Ridley late in the fourth quarter to force overtime.

Georgia had to settle for a long field goal in that overtime period, which Rodrigo Blankenship nailed. After that, Tagovailoa was back on the field. He took a long sack, seemingly crushing Alabama's chances of sealing the win in that first overtime, but then lightning struck. He found a deep-ball opportunity to future Heisman winner DeVonta Smith on the very next play, winning the national championship in walk-off fashion.

According to ESPN Analytics, the Bulldogs' odds of winning peaked at 93% in that second half, got as high as 84.7% in the fourth quarter, and rose back to 76.4% in overtime after the sack of Tagovailoa. But it wasn't enough. You have to truly bury Alabama to beat them, and they never did. The rest, as they say, is history. The game will live on forever as an all-time classic, and the best of the four-team playoff era.

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