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The plays that shaped the College Football Playoff

On the road to the College Football Playoff, one play can often determine a team's fate. A timely kick return here or a defensive stop there can be the difference between being in the top four and being on the outside looking in.

THE Plays That Shaped the Playoff

Sometimes on the road to the College Football Playoff, fates can be decided by one play. A completed pass here or a defensive stop there can be the difference between being in the playoff committee's top four and being on the outside looking in at other teams in the semifinals. Each of the four playoff teams had a signature moment that kept its playoff dream alive, and others had moments when they fell just short.
Who's In
1 Clemson

The Play

Week 10: CLEM 38 -- NCST 31

NC State scored on its opening drive after a costly interception thrown by Kelly Bryant. Clemson's offense was going nowhere. It was still early in the first quarter, but the Wolfpack were threatening to put Clemson behind the eight ball. Until Ray-Ray McCloud stepped in. The Tigers' return man took a punt 77 yards, cutting inside, then out, then straight down the field for a touchdown that tied the game and, more importantly, injected some much-needed life into Clemson in a critical showdown on the road.

Win Probability

Why it Mattered

The teams have gone in opposite directions since, but this was a game that, at the time, decided the ACC Atlantic, and in the early going, it looked like NC State might have the upper hand. Bryant was struggling, Clemson's defense looked perplexed, and the start of the game looked eerily reminiscent of that ugly upset at Syracuse. But McCloud's punt return was a needed jolt and, as it turned out, the difference in a seven-point Tigers win.

Week by Week Rankings

Game Opp W/L Rank
1 vs KENT W 5
2 vs AUB W 3
3 @ LOU W 3
4 vs BC W 2
5 @ VT W 2
6 vs WAKE W 2
7 @ CUSE L 2
8 vs GT W 7
9 @ NCST W 4
10* vs FSU W 4
11 vs CIT W 2
12 @ SCAR W 3
13 vs MIA W 1
*CFP RANKING

Playoff Odds

Looking back, the playoff committee ought to send a nice gift basket to McCloud because a Clemson loss here would've been a nightmare scenario. NC State almost certainly would've secured the ACC Atlantic, leaving Clemson with two losses and no championship game. But, of course, the Wolfpack had two losses, too, which means the ACC likely would've been left out of the playoff. Instead, Clemson is the No. 1 seed and will again face Alabama in the College Football Playoff at the Allstate Sugar Bowl (8:45 p.m. ET Jan. 1 on ESPN & ESPN App).

FPI Playoff Odds

42%
To Beat Alabama
22.9%
To Win Title
2 Oklahoma

The Play

Week 10: OU 62 -- OKST 52

Oklahoma State was about to take a 45-41 lead in Bedlam late in the third quarter. Instead, Mason Rudolph's ill-advised pass into double coverage toward the back of the end zone was intercepted by Oklahoma safety Will Johnson, giving the Sooners the ball at the 20-yard line.

Win Probability

Why it Mattered

Oklahoma State was finally about to get over the hump against the Sooners. Instead, Baker Mayfield took Oklahoma back down the field for a touchdown three plays after the interception, putting the Sooners up by two scores again. The Cowboys had chances late in the fourth quarter, but they never got that close to taking the lead again. Oklahoma escaped Stillwater with its third consecutive Bedlam win.

Week by Week Rankings

Game Opp W/L Rank
1 vs UTEP W 7
2 @ OSU W 5
3 vs TUL W 2
4 @ BAY W 3
5 vs ISU L 3
6 vs TEX W 12
7 @ KSU W 9
8 vs TTU W 10
9 @ OKST W 5
10* vs TCU W 5
11 @ KU W 4
12 vs WVU W 4
13 vs TCU W 3
*CFP RANKING

Playoff Odds

After the loss to Iowa State, the Bedlam victory put the Sooners back on track for the Big 12 title and catapulted them back into the driver's seat for the College Football Playoff. All that stood between Oklahoma and the playoff the rest of the way was TCU, which the Sooners easily defeated twice to earn the No. 2 seed. OU will face Georgia in the College Football Playoff at the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual (5 p.m. ET Jan. 1 on ESPN & ESPN App).

FPI Playoff Odds

47%
To Beat Georgia
17.7%
To Win Title
3 Georgia

The Play

Week 14: UGA 28 -- AUB 7

Auburn wasn't going down without a fight. In the fourth quarter, with Georgia nursing a 13-7 lead, the Tigers converted a third down, and then Jarrett Stidham ran another 12 yards to get the ball near midfield. Georgia pushed back, as Lorenzo Carter stripped Kerryon Johnson of the football and Roquan Smith recovered, setting up a Terry Godwin touchdown that put the game out of reach.

Win Probability

Why it Mattered

After the way Auburn throttled Georgia during the regular season, winning by 23 points at home, the Bulldogs needed to put the game away. The fumble did just that. It signaled that no, this would not be Johnson's or Stidham's or any other Tiger's day. It would by Kirby Smart's defense and the right arm of freshman quarterback Jake Fromm that would carry Georgia to an SEC championship and into the Rose Bowl against Oklahoma.

Week by Week Rankings

Game Opp W/L Rank
1 vs APP W 15
2 @ ND W 15
3 vs SAM W 13
4 vs MSST W 11
5 @ TENN W 7
6 @ VAN W 5
7 vs MIZ W 4
8 vs FLA W 3
9 vs SC W 1
10 @ AUB l 1
11 vs UK W 7
12 @ GT W 7
13 vs AUB W 6
*CFP RANKING

Playoff Odds

As soon as it became clear that Georgia would win the SEC, a playoff spot for the Bulldogs was clinched. One loss -- even a 23-point loss -- wasn't an issue because a) they were able to avenge it by beating Auburn the second go-around and b) they had a conference championship. Even the seeding, which had them winding up at No. 3, was obvious after the way Oklahoma dismantled TCU earlier in the day.

FPI Playoff Odds

53%
To Beat Oklahoma
24%
To Win Title
4 Alabama

The Play

Week 11: ALA 31 -- MSST 24

With the sound of cowbells ringing in their ears and facing a third-and-15, the Tide's offense took the field at Mississippi State with the score tied and 31 seconds remaining. Jalen Hurts took the shotgun snap and hit Calvin Ridley in the middle of the field, and Ridley raced for the first down. The next play, Hurts found DeVonta Smith for the game-winning score.

Win Probability

Why it Mattered

At the time, Alabama was being held together by duct tape and super glue. Outside linebackers Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis were out, as were inside linebackers Shaun Dion Hamilton and Mack Wilson. What's more, veteran guard Ross Pierschbacher was sidelined. Although it wasn't a pretty win, this win said that Alabama, which had breezed through the SEC until then, could get the job done in crunch time.

Week by Week Rankings

Game Opp W/L Rank
1 vs FSU W 1
2 vs FRES W 1
3 vs CSU W 1
4 @ VAN W 1
5 vs MISS W 1
6 @ A&M W 1
7 vs ARK W 1
8 vs TENN W 1
9 vs LSU W 2
10* @ MSST W 2
11 vs MER W 1
11 @ AUB L 1
*CFP RANKING

Playoff Odds

There's no way around it: A loss at Mississippi State would have ended Alabama's playoff hopes. The loss to Auburn two weeks later would have made sure of it. Although the committee could stomach a team without a conference championship or a team with two losses, it hasn't shown that it is willing to accept both.

FPI Playoff Odds

58%
To Beat Clemson
35.4%
To Win Title
Who's Out
5 Ohio State

The Play

Week 2: OU 31 -- OSU 16

Three Ohio State linebackers bit hard on a fake handoff to Trey Sermon on Oklahoma's first drive of the second half. Fullback Dimitri Flowers had no problem slipping past the trio and into a wide-open patch of green, where Baker Mayfield found him with a short pass. Flowers needed only one move to beat a Buckeyes safety to the corner of the end zone.

Win Probability

Why They are Out

After both teams stumbled through two quarters, Ohio State started the second half with a long kick return and a go-ahead score on its home field. Flowers, who burned the Buckeyes for seven catches and 98 yards, tied the score five plays later and sucked some life from the Horseshoe. The Sooners never looked back while pulling away in what has been the most consequential nonconference matchup in each of the past two seasons.

Week by Week Rankings

Game Opp W/L Rank
1 @ IND W 2
2 vs OU L 2
3 vs ARMY W 8
4 vs UNLV W 10
5 @ RUT W 11
6 vs MARY W 10
7 @ NEB W 9
8 vs PSU W 6
9 @ IOWA L 6
10* vs MSU W 13
11 vs ILL W 9
12 @ MICH W 9
13 vs WIS W 8
*CFP RANKING

Decreased Odds In Playoff Berth

-7%

Oklahoma built an early cache of cachet by beating a recent national champion and playoff hopeful on its home turf -- enough to make the Sooners a sure thing for the selection committee, despite a home loss to Iowa State. Ohio State, on the other hand, painted itself into a corner. Had the Buckeyes beaten Oklahoma in early September, it's far more likely that the committee would have forgiven their clunker of a loss at Iowa.

6 Wisconsin

The Play

Week 14: OSU 27 -- WIS 21

Trailing by six in the final minutes of the Big Ten title game, Wisconsin drove into Ohio State territory and had a first down from the 43. Alex Hornibrook dropped back to pass. His left tackle, Michael Deiter, was flagged for holding just before Hornibrook threw a pass downfield to freshman receiver Danny Davis. An Ohio State defender tripped up Davis as the ball flew past them to the turf.

Win Probability

Why They are Out

The odds for Wisconsin's first playoff berth heading into the conference championship game were simple. Win, and they were definitely in. Lose, and they are definitely out. A fourth-quarter surge renewed hope for the Badgers to hold on to one of the top four spots, but the holding call sucked the life out of what was shaping up to be a promising and dramatic final drive. In the process, it opened the door for a debate between Alabama and Ohio State for which team was more worthy of replacing Wisconsin as the last team in the playoff.

Week by Week Rankings

Game Opp W/L Rank
1 vs USU W 9
2 vs FAU W 9
3 @ BYU W 10
4 vs NW W 9
5 @ NEB W 10
6 vs PUR W 7
7 vs MARY W 5
8 @ ILL W 5
9 @ IND W 9
10* vs IOWA W 8
11 vs MICH W 5
12 vs MINN W 5
13 vs OSU L 4
*CFP RANKING

Decreased Odds In Playoff Berth

-44%

Wisconsin's offense, not built for big chunks, fell quickly out of step after the holding call. A pass interference penalty on the Buckeyes would have been offsetting and would have kept the Badgers on the short side of the field. Instead, facing first-and-20, Hornibrook threw three straight incomplete passes before tossing a game-clinching interception on fourth down. The momentum the Badgers had spent most of the second half building was gone in an instant, and so was their comeback bid in the Big Ten title game.

7 Auburn

The Play

Week 7: LSU 27 -- AUB 23

Down nine at home and only a few weeks removed from an embarrassing loss to Troy, LSU needed a spark. So D.J. Chark opted not to call for a fair catch as he fielded a punt early in the fourth. He doubled back, immediately turned to his left and found open space. Auburn's cover team overplayed its hand, and Chark got the edge and had only the punter to beat for a touchdown.

Win Probability

Why They are Out

It wasn't the end of the Auburn's season, of course. In fact, it didn't have much of an impact at all on Malzahn and Co.'s playoff chances. Because after being left for dead, the Tigers played their way back into the playoff hunt by running the regular-season table and beating two No. 1-ranked teams -- Georgia and Alabama -- in three weeks, creating a win-and-you're-in scenario in the SEC championship. If Auburn had beaten Georgia in Atlanta, it would have become the first two-loss team to make the playoff.

Week by Week Rankings

Game Opp W/L Rank
1 vs GASO W 12
2 vs CLEM L 13
3 vs MER W 15
4 @ MIZ W 15
5 vs MSST W 13
6 vs MISS W 12
7 @ LSU L 10
8 @ ARK W 21
9 @ A&M W 14
10 vs. UGA W 10
11 vs ULM W 6
12 vs ALA W 6
13 vs UGA L 2
*CFP RANKING

Decreased Odds In Playoff Berth

-7%

Chark's punt return was a back-breaker for an Auburn team whose offense had suddenly cratered. After starting the game on a 20-0 run, it was as if Jarrett Stidham and Kerryon Johnson had lost their touch. Gus Malzahn refused to throw the football on first down, and LSU was allowed to creep back into the game. The 20-point lead evaporated and LSU went on to win.

8 USC

The Play

Week 5: WSU 30 -- USC 27

Down 30-27 with less than two minutes to play against Washington State, USC still felt good about its chances as it started from its own 25-yard line. Then Jahad Woods happened. The WSU linebacker blitzed up the middle and forced QB Sam Darnold to fumble, and the Cougars pounced on it to seal an upset win.

Win Probability

Why They are Out

As an 11-2 Pac-12 champion, USC didn't have a strong case to be included in a playoff field that features four one-loss teams. However, if the Trojans were a 12-1 conference champion with 11 Power 5 wins and a schedule that featured 12 straight games, the committee would have had trouble justifying a playoff without USC in it.

Week by Week Rankings

Game Opp W/L Rank
1 vs WMU W 4
2 vs STAN W 6
3 vs TEX W 4
4 @ CAL W 5
5 @ WSU L 5
6 vs ORST W 14
7 vs UTAH W 13
8 @ ND L 11
9 @ ASU W 21
10* vs ZONA W 17
11 @ COLO W 11
12 vs UCLA W 11
13 vs STAN W 10
*CFP RANKING

Odd For Playoff Berth After The Loss

11%

Until that point, USC had good reason to expect that Darnold would make sure the Trojans found a way to win. It was just two weeks earlier that he guided them on a drive with less time to set up a game-tying field goal against Texas, and his heroics leading USC back against Penn State in the Rose Bowl last season came against steeper odds. Instead, the play ended the game and removed USC's margin for error the rest of the year.

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