Date: Dec. 31, 3 p.m. ET on ESPN
Location: Georgia Dome | Atlanta
No. 4 Washington Huskies
Best moment: The Huskies’ win over Colorado gave them their first conference title since 2000. Chris Petersen’s team arrived a year earlier than most anticipated it would, but the Huskies are worthy Pac-12 champions and the league is all too happy to have a representative return to the College Football Playoff.
Lowest moment: The loss to USC. This is the only blemish on the Huskies’ season. The home loss to the Trojans -- as well as how the Huskies lost to the Trojans -- gave the committee enough pause to question if this group was qualified. The Washington defense gave up 400 yards of offense while Jake Browning tallied his lowest passer efficiency rating since last season against -- you guessed it -- USC.
Key player: Browning. Washington often goes as Browning goes. During his career wins, he has averaged a 68 percent completion rate and a 6-1 ratio of touchdowns to turnovers. In losses, those numbers drop to a 57 percent completion rate and a 1-2 TD/turnover ratio.
Motivation level: High. Washington isn’t just carrying its own hopes -- it has the weight of the conference as well. After being boxed out of the playoff a season ago, the Pac-12 is back. Washington fans will rejoice that Petersen has this team in uncharted territory, and now is the time to prove that the loss to USC was the exception, not the rule, when playing talented teams.
-- Chantel Jennings
No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide
Best moment: In an undefeated season, picking one moment is too hard. So we’re going to cheat and call it a series of moments that lasted from Week 1 through Week 9 in which Alabama found a way to score without the offense ever taking the field. Everyone around Tuscaloosa became familiar with the acronym: N.O.T, as is non-offensive touchdown. Eddie Jackson scored on defense and special teams, Jonathan Allen had two fumble returns for touchdowns and Minkah Fitzpatrick had a pick-six. Even big noseguard Da’Ron Payne scored, creating a friendly competition with middle linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, asking him when he was going to find the end zone.
Lowest moment: At first, the play didn’t look bad. Maybe Jackson tweaked something or rolled an ankle. But, no, it was more serious than that. The cart was called on the field against Texas A&M and Alabama would lose its starting safety and emotional leader of the defense for the rest of the season. Even coach Nick Saban was dejected, telling reporters, “Eddie was a fantastic player for us, a great leader, I think an All-American player as a safety, at least in my book. We’re certainly going to miss him. What a great player. What a great competitor. What a great guy to have in this program in the time he’s been here. He’s done a fantastic job for us and I’m just sick for him and his family and hate it.”
Key player: Defensive end Jonathan Allen might very well be the best player on the best defense in college football but is he the most important? That’s debatable. You could make an argument that defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick is the key to the entire operation. At first, he was Alabama’s shutdown corner. Then Jackson was lost for the season and the true sophomore shifted to safety where he has played just as well, hauling in an interception in the regular-season finale against Auburn. With Maurice Smith and Kendall Sheffield transferring before the season and not a ton of experience to replace them, having Fitzpatrick’s skill and versatility has been invaluable to Alabama.
Motivation level: High. You can spend all day drooling over the talent Saban has assembled at Alabama. You can lose track of the championships he has won. But his real value this season might be the way he has motivated a team that ran the table during the regular season easily, won the SEC West with several weeks to go and never let off the gas. With a second consecutive national championship on the line, Alabama is going to be all-in on winning the semifinal game.
-- Alex Scarborough