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College football's 64-team bracket: Can Alabama get back on top?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Now the fun begins.

ESPN.com's fictional football tournament has been reduced from 64 teams to 16. Here's how we reached this point.

The initial installment featured upsets and drama, but the real buildup begins in these rounds. Not only are dormant rivalries rekindled, but quarterbacks are reunited with their former teams. All four No. 1 seeds -- Clemson, Alabama, Georgia and LSU -- are still alive, just as they were last year. But for how much longer?

As a reminder, original seeds were determined by ESPN's preseason Football Power Index. Again, blame Brad Edwards, not me. But at this point, the seeds don't matter as much as the matchups, and there are some great matchups ahead.

Let's dive in.


Southeastern region

Regional semifinals

(1) Clemson 38, (5) Missouri 21: This one's for you, Kelly Bryant. The former Clemson quarterback gets a chance to beat his former team and outshine the man who replaced him, Trevor Lawrence. Bryant performs well, recording two touchdowns and no turnovers, but Lawrence shows why he's a generational talent, throwing four touchdown passes to four different receivers, as the defending champs move on.

(6) Wisconsin 27 (2) Notre Dame 24: Thankfully, these two teams will meet for real in 2020 (Green Bay's Lambeau Field) and 2021 (Chicago's Soldier Field), their first matchups since a three-game series from 1962 to 1964. Notre Dame will enter the season with more guarantees on its roster, but Wisconsin will pull off the mini-upset behind an emerging defense and an offensive backfield of quarterback Graham Mertz and running back Jonathan Taylor.

Regional final

(1) Clemson 31, (6) Wisconsin 20: Lawrence and the Tigers see another championship within reach. After Taylor puts Wisconsin on top early, Clemson surges for 21 points in the second quarter, as Travis Etienne rushes for two touchdowns. Clemson then turns things over to Isaiah Simmons and the defensive front seven to bottle up Taylor in the second half.

How we got here

First round: (1) Clemson over (16) West Virginia, (2) Notre Dame over (15) Purdue, (3) Auburn over (14) Duke, (13) Arizona over (4) Mississippi State, (5) Missouri over (12) NC State, (6) Wisconsin over (11) BYU, (10) Cincinnati over (7) USC, (9) Arizona State over (8) Baylor

Second round: (1) Clemson over (9) Arizona State, (2) Notre Dame over (10) Cincinnati, (6) Wisconsin over (3) Auburn, (5) Missouri over (13) Arizona


South region

Regional semifinals

(1) Alabama 31, (5) Utah 17: The Crimson Tide won't have any excuses this time after losing to the Utes by the same score in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. A championship run is on the line, and Tua Tagovailoa elevates his play in the second half to hold off a tough Utes squad. Three Alabama receivers haul in touchdown passes as the Tide advance.

(7) Texas 27, (3) Texas A&M 25: Everything is bigger in Texas, including the arrogance on both sides that keeps this natural rivalry from happening. Thankfully, the tournament forces the Aggies and Longhorns to play, and it will be epic. Picture five lead changes, both quarterbacks and defenses showing out, Jimbo Fisher and Tom Herman nearly coming to blows and Texas surviving, thanks to the same score as the teams' last meeting in 2011.

Regional final

(1) Alabama 31, (7) Texas 24: After a relatively easy path to this point, Alabama faces its first major test from the team Nick Saban nearly left Tuscaloosa to coach once upon a time. Texas physically keeps up with the Tide, thanks to quarterback Sam Ehlinger's tough running and a fast, swarming defense. But Tua won't be denied, throwing long touchdown passes to Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III in a big third quarter.

How we got here

First round: (1) Alabama over (16) Appalachian State, (2) Florida over (15) Kansas State, (3) Texas A&M over (14) Memphis, (13) Syracuse over (4) Tennessee, (5) Utah over (12) Texas Tech, (11) Boise State over (6) UCLA, (7) Texas over (10) UCF, (9) Nebraska over (8) Miami

Second round: (1) Alabama over (9) Nebraska, (7) Texas over (2) Florida, (3) Texas A&M over (11) Boise State, (5) Utah over (13) Syracuse


East region

Regional semifinals

(1) Georgia 37, (13) Pitt 10: Sometimes the talent edge is too steep, and Pitt's fun run ends against a Georgia team peaking at the perfect time. Quarterback Jake Fromm and running back D'Andre Swift account for two touchdowns apiece, and the Bulldogs' defense overwhelms Pitt after allowing an early A.J. Davis scoring run.

(3) Penn State 22, (2) Michigan 21: The Wolverines' defense has justifiably received more attention lately, but watch out for this PSU group. Penn State's recent gains in recruiting and development pay off as Micah Parsons forces two turnovers and Yetur Gross-Matos ends Michigan's last-gasp drive with a fourth-down sack of Shea Patterson.

Regional final

(1) Georgia 28, (3) Penn State 21: Both offenses struggle early, as the outside linebackers -- Penn State's Parsons and Georgia's Brenton Cox, Monty Rice and D'Andre Walker -- repeatedly reach the opposing backfield. In the end, Georgia's offensive line and run game prove too much, as Swift and Zamir White both reach the end zone in the second half.

How we got here

First round: (1) Georgia over (16) Colorado, (2) Michigan over (15) Western Michigan, (3) Penn State over (14) Cal, (13) Pitt over (4) Michigan State, (5) South Carolina over (12) North Carolina, (6) Florida State over (11) Ole Miss, (7) Iowa over (10) TCU, (9) Kentucky over (8) Washington State

Second round: (1) Georgia over (9) Kentucky, (2) Michigan over (7) Iowa, (3) Penn State over (6) Florida State, (13) Pitt over (5) South Carolina


West region

Regional semifinals

(4) Ohio State 31, (1) LSU 27: Buckeyes fans are rarely a conflicted bunch, but they'll be struggling to root against LSU's Joe Burrow. Few Ohio State quarterbacks were more beloved than Burrow, who never started a game but grew in popularity before transferring to LSU. Burrow plays well against his former team, but Justin Fields, J.K. Dobbins and K.J. Hill play a bit better, sending the Ohio State faithful home mostly happy.

(2) Oklahoma 37, (11) Virginia 28: After taking down Stanford and Oregon, Virginia will have a good plan of how to slow down Jalen Hurts and the Sooners. It will work for a half before OU's offensive talent -- Hurts, CeeDee Lamb, Grant Calcaterra, Trey Sermon, Kennedy Brooks -- takes over with a 21-point third quarter. Bryce Perkins and the Hoos hang around until a late interception by Tre Norwood.

Regional final

(4) Ohio State 37, (2) Oklahoma 35: Buckle up. This will be fun. There are some connections, too, as Hurts and Fields both entered last year's SEC championships as backups, for Alabama and Georgia, respectively (and Hurts became the hero for Bama). Also, first-year OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch spent last season on Ohio State's defensive staff. There won't be a ton of great defense in this one, as the running backs -- Dobbins, Sermon, Brooks -- steal the show. Ohio State wins on a field goal.

How we got here

First round: (1) LSU over (16) Maryland, (2) Oklahoma over (15) Arkansas, (3) Oregon over (14) Northwestern, (4) Ohio State over (13) Vanderbilt, (5) Washington over (12) Indiana, (11) Virginia over (6) Stanford, (10) Oklahoma State over (7) Minnesota, (8) Iowa State over (9) Virginia Tech

Second round: (1) LSU over (8) Iowa State, (2) Oklahoma over (10) Oklahoma State, (11) Virginia over (3) Oregon, (4) Ohio State over (5) Washington


National semifinals

(1) Alabama 37, (1) Clemson 31: Bama-Clemson V begins like the previous version, as Clemson jumps ahead early on a long touchdown pass from Lawrence to Higgins. But this time, Tua and the Tide aren't staggered and deliver a near flawless second half to take control. Tagovailoa finishes with three touchdowns and no interceptions to outpace Lawrence and reach the national title game.

(1) Georgia 30, (4) Ohio State 28: One theme of this tournament is pitting transfer quarterbacks against their former schools, and Ohio State's Fields gets his chance on a big stage. The former Bulldog accounts for three of Ohio State's four touchdowns (two rush, one pass), but Fromm shows why he's QB1, with three touchdown passes on 68 percent completions. Rodrigo Blankenship is the hero for UGA with three field goals, including the game winner from 44 yards out as time expires.


National championship

(1) Alabama 31, (1) Georgia 30: After playing just twice in a decade, the Tide and Bulldogs meet for the third straight season in an extremely high-stakes matchup. Once again, Georgia takes an early lead behind Fromm's precision passing and two Swift touchdown runs. And for the third straight year, Alabama breaks Georgia's heart because of a backup quarterback. Mac Jones comes off the bench to relieve an injured Tagovailoa and find Ruggs for the winning touchdown pass with 6 seconds left.