Every college football team has its own set of goals and aspirations that, if attained, would define the season as a success. For some, that’s a winning record; for others, anything short of being crowned national champions in January is an utter failure.
Only the top four teams will have a chance to make a run at the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Atlanta on Jan. 8, but all 12 of these teams have enjoyed spectacular seasons to this point to secure themselves a spot in the New Year’s Six bowl games. Let’s take a look at the 12 teams and dive deeper into the 2017 season that each experienced.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Associate Editor of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
12. UCF Knights (12-0)
Perhaps the most impressive of the many accolades for the 12-0 American Athletic Conference champions is their mark as the first FBS team to go from a winless regular season to an undefeated regular season in only two years. The Knights might have to play this Peach Bowl without head coach Scott Frost, who accepted the head coaching position at Nebraska but is still considering coaching UCF one last time in the bowl game. Regardless, new head coach Josh Heupel is set to take over after two years as the offensive coordinator at Missouri.
11. Washington Huskies (10-2)
The Huskies played only one ranked opponent in 2017, beating No. 14 Washington State 41-14 in the annual Apple Cup. They peaked at ninth in the College Football Playoff rankings but then lost by eight at Stanford, ending any chances of another playoff run. Washington opened its season with a 16-point, non-conference win over Rutgers, and will take on another Big Ten opponent in Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl. Normally the Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup is primed for a Rose Bowl showdown, but Pasadena will be home to a College Football Playoff semifinal this season. In fact, this isn’t even the premier Big Ten/Pac-12 bowl game, as Ohio State and USC will battle in the Cotton Bowl.
10. Miami Hurricanes (10-2)
Known for the energy and flair of the turnover chain, Miami had one of its best seasons in recent memory. The Hurricanes stormed out to a 10-0 record, jumping as high as No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Miami didn’t play a ranked team until November, when it handily beat No. 13 Virginia Tech and No. 3 Notre Dame at home in consecutive weeks. Things took a turn when the ‘Canes lost their finale to Pitt and then were blown out of the water by Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. The U will have a chance to rebound in its own backyard (literally) since the Canes were slotted for the Orange Bowl against Wisconsin, which will be played in Hard Rock Stadium.
9. Penn State Nittany Lions (10-2)
The Nittany Lions started 7-0 and climbed as high as No. 2 in the polls. One of their most dominant performances came in a 42-13 stomping of No. 19 Michigan. That would be about the end of the “happy” in Happy Valley, however. Penn State then lost a pair of heartbreakers in consecutive weeks, first to No. 2 Ohio State and then at No. 24 Michigan State, by a combined four points. They fell all the way to No. 16 after those two losses but came back to win their final three games and secure a spot in the Fiesta Bowl opposite Washington.
8. USC Trojans (11-2)
The heavily hyped Trojans opened the season at No. 4, and then immediately made a statement with a strong win over No. 14 Stanford in Week 2. A loss to Washington State dropped USC to No. 14, but the Trojans took a few steps forward entering a de facto playoff elimination game with No. 11 Notre Dame. A 49-14 loss in South Bend all but erased any chance USC had of making the playoff, but the Trojans have since reeled off five straight wins, including in the rematch with the Cardinal in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Next up is a highly anticipated clash with Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.
7. Auburn Tigers (10-3)
What a roller-coaster ride of a season it was for Gus Malzahn and the Tigers in 2017. Auburn started at No. 12 in the polls coming into the year, and right away suffered a blow with a Week 2 loss at No. 3 Clemson. To make matters worse, the Tigers suffered their first conference loss at unranked LSU just a few weeks later. Just when all thought hope was lost, Auburn proceeded to upset the No. 1-ranked team twice in three weeks at Jordan-Hare, first Georgia then Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Clinging to slim playoff hopes even with two losses, Auburn had to win the SEC Championship Game to have a chance, but a 28-7 loss in a rematch to Georgia sealed the Tigers' fate. They'll finish their season in Atlanta taking on undefeated UCF in the Peach Bowl.
6. Wisconsin Badgers (12-1)
The Badgers started the season ranked ninth in the country and climbed as high as No. 4 during the regular season (was No. 3 entering the Big Ten Championship Game). Wisconsin’s schedule didn’t feature a ranked opponent until Nov. 11, when the Badgers beat Iowa and Michigan in back-to-back games. A Big Ten title was not to be, however, as Ohio State took down Wisconsin in Indianapolis. The Badgers will look to end the season on a winning note when they face Miami in the Orange Bowl.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes (11-2)
Auburn (see earlier) was definitely not the only team in this list with some major ups and downs during the year. The Buckeyes came in at No. 2 in the nation but in Week 2 lost by 15 at home to Oklahoma, an early-season blow for a playoff contender. But Ohio State rallied to win its next six, including in an epic finish against No. 2 Penn State when J.T. Barrett rallied the Buckeyes to a 15-point, fourth-quarter comeback. Fortunes turned the very next week, though, when the Buckeyes inexplicably lost by 31 points at unranked Iowa, a loss that would loom large come playoff selection. Ohio State did win its final four games including the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin, but that loss at Iowa doomed the Buckeyes from making the playoff. They’ll now play USC in the Cotton Bowl in a matchup of two of college football's most storied programs.
4. Alabama Crimson Tide (11-1)
The Crimson Tide were the AP No. 1 all season long, though they initially were No. 2 to Georgia in the College Football Playoff rankings (they soon climbed back to No. 1 after Georgia’s loss to Auburn). Alabama opened with a big win in Atlanta vs. No. 3 Florida State, a game in which Seminoles quarterback Deondre Francois suffered a season-ending injury. The Tide remained undefeated until the Iron Bowl when they lost 26-14 at No. 6 Auburn, handing the Tigers the SEC West as well. Alabama now will face Clemson for a third straight year in the College Football Playoff after narrowly sneaking into the top four, only this time it won’t be for the national title.
3. Georgia Bulldogs (12-1)
Georgia started at No. 15 in the AP poll but slowly made its climb to the top with wins at No. 24 Notre Dame and at home against No. 17 Mississippi State. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 in the first College Football Playoffs rankings of the season, but lost shortly thereafter at No. 10 Auburn. They got their revenge in the SEC Championship Game, however, and now will play No. 2 Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. This marks Georgia’s first-ever appearance in the College Football Playoff and its first Rose Bowl since 1942.
2. Oklahoma Sooners (12-1)
The Sooners came into the season at No. 7 but jumped right up to No. 2 two weeks later after traveling to Columbus and beating No. 2 Ohio State by 15. Oklahoma suffered the only blemish of its season with a stunning home loss to then-unranked Iowa State, but first-year head coach Lincoln Riley and company regrouped quickly. The Sooners won out including ranked wins at Oklahoma State and against TCU before beating the Horned Frogs again in the Big 12 Championship Game. Baker Mayfield ran away with the Heisman Trophy voting in his final season, bringing a career that had him transfer from Texas Tech and joining Oklahoma as a walk-on full circle. All that's left for Mayfield is to lead his Sooners to a victory over No. 3 Georgia in the Rose Bowl to earn a shot at a national championship.
1. Clemson Tigers (12-1)
The Tigers have done arguably the best job — outside of undefeated UCF — of handling their business this season, especially against quality opposition. Clemson’s résumé features wins against five ranked teams, four in the regular season. The Tigers’ only loss was at Syracuse in the middle of the season after QB Kelly Bryant was injured in the game and could not return, but they rallied to win out including in Raleigh against a very good NC State team. In its most recent game, Clemson dominated Miami 38-3 in the ACC Championship Game to secure the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff. Now, the Tigers will look for a second straight victory over Alabama to have a chance at winning back-to-back national championships.