Notre Dame, despite ACC title game loss, to join Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State in playoff

Alabama head coach Nick Saban joins Najee Harris (left) and Alex Leatherwood on the stage following the Crimson Tide’s 52-46 SEC championship game defeat of Florida on Saturday.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban joins Najee Harris (left) and Alex Leatherwood on the stage following the Crimson Tide’s 52-46 SEC championship game defeat of Florida on Saturday.

Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images

A season filled with uncertainty brought on by the pandemic will end with a perfectly predictable College Football Playoff.

Alabama against Notre Dame. Clemson against Ohio State. Four of the bluest of blue bloods and the teams that have comprised the top four in the rankings for nearly two months. Notre Dame was picked Sunday over Texas A&M for the final spot, ending what little drama there had been.

“It’s been a unique season in so many ways,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said.

Not when it comes to the teams playing for the national championship.

The top four teams in the selection committee’s first rankings of the season were the same teams at the end, just in different order. Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson and Ohio State also have held the first four spots in the AP Top 25 since Oct. 25.

Only 11 schools have reached the playoff and all four of these participants have been there before.

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. The Tigers and Buckeyes are set to play the same day at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

The national champion is scheduled to be determined Jan. 11 in suburban Miami.

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 final four. It was a novelty made possible only because of the pandemic, which pushed the Irish into a conference for the first time in school history.

The ACC is the second league to have two teams in the playoff, joining the SEC in 2017.

After sitting second in the CFP rankings for a month, Notre Dame lost to Clemson 34-10 on Saturday in the ACC championship game. That opened the door for No. 5 Texas A&M (8-1), but the Aggies were unable to become the third team in the CFP’s seven-year history to make the field without winning even its conference division.

Selection committee chairman Gary Barta, the Iowa athletic director, said Notre Dame’s extra victory against a ranked opponent gave it an edge over Texas A&M.

“A great part of our discussion was related to those two resumes,” Barta said.

Notre Dame beat Clemson and North Carolina, which had been 15th in the previous playoff rankings. Texas A&M’s only victory over a CFP team was against Florida. The Aggies played Alabama in October and lost by 28 points.

Oklahoma surged to sixth in the final rankings after closing with seven straight victories and a Big 12 title. The Sooners will face seventh-place Florida in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 30.

Unbeaten Cincinnati finished eighth, 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. Cincinnati will meet Georgia in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Pac-12 champion Oregon will face Iowa State in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2.

Notre Dame’s reward will be a matchup with Alabama (11-0), the SEC 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 the playoffs for the sixth straight season. Ohio State (6-0) is making its fourth appearance.

One of the semifinals was scheduled to be played at the Rose Bowl, but a move was announced Saturday night after coaches and school officials from playoff contenders complained about California’s coronavirus restrictions that ban spectators from sporting events and would have made it impossible for players’ families to attend the game.

Playing the game at the home of the Dallas Cowboys will allow 16,000 fans to attend. The Superdome is set to have 3,000 fans for the Sugar Bowl, but that number could rise.

This season has been filled with disruptions as teams navigated viurs outbreaks. More than 100 games were canceled or postponed since late August and more than a dozen teams — including Pac-12 members with .500 or better records Stanford, Washington, USC, Utah and Arizona State — have said they had no plans to play in a bowl even if they were invited.

Ralph D. Russo is an Associated Press writer.