Clemson’s Best Games in Four-Team Playoff Era

The clock struck midnight on the four-team College Football Playoff model with the conclusion of Monday’s National Championship Game between No. 1 Michigan and No. 2 Washington at Houston’s NRG Stadium.

The College Football Playoff will expand to 12 teams beginning with the 2024 season, although the exact formula for determining the number of automatic bids vs. at-large bids is still being finalized. Most expect the 12 participants will consist of five conference champions and seven at-large bids.

In the meantime, Michigan’s 34-13 victory over Washington signaled the end of a postseason model that should be remembered fondly by Clemson fans. Those fans witnessed two national championships under coach Dabo Swinney, as well as six straight ACC titles, and annual campus pizza parties on Selection Sundays that preceded wins over blue blood programs like Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame.

Between 2015-16 and 2020-21, the Tigers made a record six straight appearances in the Playoff. Only Alabama’s eight appearances in the four-team postseason topped the number reached by Clemson, a program that had less prestige and history next to its name than heavyweights in Tuscaloosa, Columbus, and elsewhere before the Tigers created their own run of dominance.

“Clemsoning?” Swinney’s program put an end to that phrase.

With all eyes turned toward the future 12-team Playoff, here’s a look back at some of the Tigers’ best performances in the now-defunct four-team model.

Honorable Mention: 2015 National Championship Game vs. Alabama (Glendale, Ariz.)

Syndication: Greenville News
Syndication: Greenville News

Yes, Alabama won this game after getting 24 fourth-quarter points to survive a 45-40 thriller. But this was the game that proved Clemson was prepared to take on the “big boys” of a college football world the Tigers were already in the midst of remaking. Deshaun Watson threw for 405 yards and forced Alabama’s Nick Saban to dial up an onside kick just to keep the ball out of the hands of Clemson’s star quarterback. That’s why this game gets a mention — not for who won or lost, but for the fact that it established Clemson’s spot among the sport’s elite in the years that followed.

2015 Orange Bowl vs. Oklahoma (Miami Gardens, Fla.)

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On New Year’s Eve 2015, Clemson’s defense pitched a second-half shutout over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl to secure a spot in just the second ever College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Clemson blasted the Sooners, 37-17, behind Watson and a defense led by Ben Boulware that shut down future Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield.

2019 Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State (Glendale, Ariz.)


Ken Ruinard / staff, The Greenville News via Imagn Content Services, LLC<br>Clemson Vs Ohio State Fiesta Bowl
Ken Ruinard / staff, The Greenville News via Imagn Content Services, LLC
Clemson Vs Ohio State Fiesta Bowl

Trevor Lawrence hit Travis Etienne on a 34-yard touchdown with 1:49 left to cap a 94-yard drive, and the Tigers’ defense held off a furious last-minute effort by Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields to secure Clemson’s fourth trip to the National Championship Game in the Playoff era. Clemson erased a 16-0 first-half deficit in this battle of unbeaten teams to end a 19-game Ohio State winning streak.

The Tigers were 14-0 after the win, giving them 29 consecutive victories overall. Only No. 1 LSU — considered by many as perhaps the best team in modern college football history — kept Clemson from winning its third national title in four years.

2016 Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State (Glendale, Ariz.)

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Making the trek to the desert was a frequent occurrence for Clemson in the four-team Playoff era. That included one of the Tigers’ most dominant, complete-game bowl victories in program history when they shut out No. 3 Ohio State, 31-0, on New Year’s Eve 2016 to set up a rematch vs. Alabama in the National Championship Game. The win over the Buckeyes brought a little redemption for Watson, Boulware, and others from the 2015 team, given that it happened on the same field where the Tigers’ season had ended the previous year. But it was nothing compared to what Clemson would savor just 10 days later in Tampa.

2018 Cotton Bowl vs. Notre Dame (Arlington, Texas)

BART BOATWRIGHT/Staff, The Greenville News via Imagn Content Services, LLC
BART BOATWRIGHT/Staff, The Greenville News via Imagn Content Services, LLC

It’s doubtful that many people were surprised by Clemson’s dominant performance over outmatched Notre Dame, but the Tigers’ 30-3 victory showed just far how apart the gap was between Nos. 2 and 3 that year. Clemson got three second-quarter touchdown passes from Trevor Lawrence that included two long strikes to receiver Justyn Ross and another touchdown catch from Tee Higgins with just two seconds remaining in the first half to put this one to bed early.

2018 National Championship Game vs. Alabama (Santa Clara, Calif.)

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

No one was quite sure what to expect for Clemson vs. Alabama IV, but few expected the sheer romp that ensued night in the Bay Area at Levi’s Stadium. The freshman Lawrence passed for 347 yards and three touchdowns, and Clemson outscored Alabama, 30-3, from the second quarter on for a stunning 44-16 victory.

A.J. Terrell set the tone for the evening when he intercepted a pass from Tua Tagovailoa on Alabama’s first drive and returned it 44 yards for the game’s first score. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, Swinney could have named the score.

2016 National Championship Game vs. Alabama (Tampa, Fla.)

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

You never forget the first one. True, Clemson had won the national championship on New Year’s Day 1982 when the Tigers beat No. 4 Nebraska, 22-15, in the Orange Bowl (after both No. 2 Georgia and No. 3 Alabama had lost that same day). But for two generations of Tiger faithful, Clemson’s 35-31 win over Alabama at Raymond James Stadium on Jan. 9, 2017 was their first taste of championship glory.

The victory brought an end to a 35-year championship drought and in slaying the beast that was ‘Bama, it cemented Clemson’s status as one of college football’s elite programs of the modern era. Watson was spectacular in his final college game, throwing for 420 yards and accounting for four touchdowns, including the game-winner to Hunter Renfrow with just 1 second left on the clock.

Jordan Leggett had several big catches on the game-winning drive to help break Alabama’s backs as Clemson avenged its loss to the Crimson Tide from the previous January in Glendale.

Story originally appeared on Clemson Wire