Almost exactly one year ago, with Alabama coming off a 10-2 regular season in which it missed the SEC Championship, legendary head coach Nick Saban hit the campaign trail.
Appearing on an ESPN live broadcast, Saban made a last-ditch effort to boost his Crimson Tide into the picture.
“One thing that I would add to this whole playoff conversation: if we played these teams in question, would we be underdogs or not?” Saban preached to the nation. “And that should answer everybody’s questions relative to who the best teams are at present. That’s how this should sort of play out.”
Saban was ridiculed nationwide for his take, and rightfully so. You don’t determine who gets the right to play for a national championship based on what a theoretical sportsbook might have to say. Obviously, you instead determine it based on which teams earned it with their performance on the field.
Obvious, this was, until the afternoon of Dec. 3, 2023.
When the College Football Playoff committee voted to omit 13-0 Florida State from the final bracket of the four-team era, it didn’t just make history by excluding an undefeated Power 5 conference champion for the first time.
It also made the most indefensible, anticompetitive, and hypocritical decision the CFP has seen since its creation in 2014. And whether one looks at statistical metrics, or general past precedent, the same conclusion is reached: in a setting where there was no clear right answer, the CFP managed to get it more wrong than anyone could have envisioned.
Let’s revisit that 2022 season. Entering the year unranked, TCU had a seemingly endless run of close wins, with eight of its 12 regular season victories coming by 10 or fewer points (including this iconic ending at rival Baylor), before its luck ran out in an OT loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship. Traditional juggernaut Alabama, led by the likes of 2023 NFL first-round picks Bryce Young, Will Anderson and Jahmyr Gibbs, lost two games by a combined four points on the road to Tennessee and LSU.
Did anybody outside of Fort Worth actually think TCU would be favored over the Crimson Tide on a neutral field? Of course not. But, simultaneously, did anyone outside of Tuscaloosa believe the Tide had earned a playoff spot? Certainly not, and as a matter of fact, it was referred to as one of the less controversial selection weekends of the CFP era.
Why was this not controversial? Because, despite what the CFP’s members consistently claim in interviews – and what the CFP website says in its Selection Committee Protocol – the committee had always rewarded the “most deserving” teams rather than the “best” teams, up until this weekend. Since individual anecdotes aren’t evidence, we can look beyond last year’s Horned Frogs to hammer this point home.
In 2018, after Georgia had undefeated No. 1 Alabama on the ropes in a classic 35-28 SEC Championship, did most people think the 12-0 Notre Dame squad with five one-score wins was better than them? In 2016, after Michigan took its second loss in an extremely controversial double-overtime battle against Ohio State, was Washington necessarily better than the Wolverines?
How about 2015, when the defending national champion Buckeyes had 12 players who would go on to be picked in the ensuing NFL Draft, including three in the top 10 (Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Eli Apple)? Would Vegas have perceived the Connor Cook-led Michigan State team to be a better squad?
The answer to all of those questions is a firm “no.” And, despite that, there was little controversy about any of those playoff decisions. That’s for one simple reason. Up until this year, the CFP participants were chosen based on who had the best season to that point, rather than who was predicted to be the best moving forward. The 2023 season was an abject, and unjust, departure from that.
Admittedly, the “most deserving” modus operandi led to some playoff games that weren’t particularly competitive. 2018 Notre Dame, 2016 Washington and 2015 Michigan State all lost their opening playoff games by at least 17 points. 2022 TCU outperformed its underdog predecessors by stunning Michigan in last year’s semifinal, but the Horned Frogs were then the victims of the largest blowout in bowl game history a week later.
As such, it’s very possible that the 65-7 massacre at SoFi Stadium in January was a reason for the committee’s 180-degree turn. But each season should be treated independently, as a prior team’s struggles should not prevent a completely unrelated, and deserving, team from getting its own chance.
Credit the CFP if you want for finally adhering to the guidelines listed on its website, but said guidelines are an extreme reversal from the way the playoff had been run for the past decade. But enough about the past. Let’s break down the present. What makes Florida State such a deserving team?
There’s a lot that matters here beyond the 13-0 record. It’s a dangerous philosophy to simply believe that the teams that win the most games deserve to be in the playoff. For example, no one is realistically beating the table for Liberty to get in, nor was Coastal Carolina a realistic contender in 2020, or Boise State in 2006, and so on. Your record at the end of the regular season matters, but so does who you played on the path there. That’s what makes the Seminoles’ exclusion even more egregious.
Since the creation of the BCS in 1998, Florida State became the third undefeated team from a power conference to miss the BCS Championship or CFP, joining 2004 Auburn and 2009 Cincinnati. And while that’s already very rare company, even that doesn’t do justice to the lack of precedent for FSU.
Both Auburn and Cincinnati’s unbeaten seasons occurred when only two teams reached the BCS title game, rather than the CFP’s four. Furthermore, both of those teams were snubbed in favor of other teams who were also undefeated. In 2004, Auburn escaped the SEC unscathed, but with USC and Oklahoma both dominating wire-to-wire, they controversially came out on top of the BCS rankings. In 2009, with the Big East being far weaker than the SEC or Big 12, it was much simpler, with the Bearcats being the obvious “odd team out” behind Alabama and Texas.
While this year’s Florida State team also finished behind Alabama and Texas in a cruel coincidence, the similarities end there. Both the Crimson Tide and Longhorns usurped the Seminoles despite having one loss apiece – Alabama having fallen to Texas, and Texas having lost to Oklahoma.
It’s hard to argue that those aren’t “quality losses.” But what’s even better than a quality loss is having no losses at all. Particularly when you also have some quality wins to match.
The Seminoles weren’t just an undefeated Power 5 champion (as if that’s an easy title to achieve). But they were also an undefeated P5 team that was bold enough to schedule two SEC teams in out-of-conference play, and beat them both. LSU is the current No. 13 team and features the Heisman favorite in Jayden Daniels. Yet the Tigers lost by 21 points to Florida State, their biggest margin of defeat this season – even bigger than the one dealt to them by Alabama.
When adding No. 15 Louisville and No. 22 Clemson into the mix alongside LSU, Florida State has three wins over teams currently ranked in the CFP’s top 25. FSU is one of three teams to have a 2-0 record or better against current top-15 teams … and the other two, Michigan and Washington, are the top two seeds in the playoff. For the sake of comparison, Alabama is 3-1 against top-15 squads, while Texas is 1-1.
“Top 15” is an arbitrary cutoff, but what’s not arbitrary are metrics that holistically evaluate a team’s entire season. When throwing such rankings into the picture, FSU continues to meet the standard of a playoff team. Via ESPN’s Strength of Record, a metric meant to evaluate how difficult it would be to achieve your record given the schedule you played, the Seminoles are ranked third, ahead of fourth-place Alabama and fifth-place Texas. From 2014-22, 32 of the 36 teams entering bowl season ranked in the top four in SOR reached the CFP.
In Bill Connelly’s “Resume SP+,” which serves a similar purpose but also incorporates scoring margin, Florida State is as high as second, even surpassing 13-0 Washington.
While our TRACR rankings are intended to be more predictive than reflective, they tell a similar story. TRACR (Team Rating Adjusted for Conference and Roster) is an all-encompassing metric that accounts for how good a team is on a play-to-play basis, relative to the opponents it plays. A rating of zero is considered to be the FBS average, and the gap between any two teams’ ratings is the expected score differential if those teams played at a neutral site (e.g., if Team A’s TRACR was 14.5, and Team B’s was 11.5, we’d expect Team A to beat Team B by three points).
And in this year’s TRACR rankings, we see that not even the predictive metrics unanimously have the Seminoles on a lower tier than the Crimson Tide or Longhorns, as eighth-ranked Florida State is actually ahead of Texas (10th) and Alabama (11th).
There certainly are some predictive metrics out there with FSU behind Alabama and Texas. But, once again, focusing too much on these takes away from what the playoff has always been about. As a rightfully frustrated FSU coach Mike Norvell alluded to, it’s an inherent part of sports that the game results have to matter. The performances we’ve already seen should be rewarded, rather than the performances we expect to come. Otherwise, why not simply let Vegas oddsmakers decide who gets in the playoffs, and throw Georgia (No. 2 in TRACR) and Ohio State (No. 4) in the bracket?
“(The committee) changed the way success is assessed in college football, from a tangible metric – winning on the field – to an intangible, subjective one. Evidently, predicting the future matters more,” FSU Athletic Director Michael Alford said. “They chose predictive competitiveness over proven performance; subjectivity over fact.”
Still, none of this can be discussed without touching on the elephant in the room: Jordan Travis’ leg injury. It’s a fair assumption that, with the exact same record and the exact same ACC schedule, the Seminoles would be playoff-bound if Travis was going to play.
“Florida State is a different team than it was the first 11 weeks,” CFP selection committee chairman Boo Corrigan said. “As you look at who they are as a team right now, without Jordan Travis, without the offensive dynamic he brings, they are a different team, and the committee voted Alabama four and Florida State five.”
In fairness to Corrigan and the rest of the committee, the FSU offense has taken an objective step back since Travis went down. The Seminoles have averaged 20.0 points in their past two games, down from 38.3 in Travis’ 10 full games played. The hit to the passing offense has been particularly tremendous, as FSU’s passers have combined for 189 yards and no touchdowns in those two games, while Travis averaged 273.5 yards with 20 touchdowns and two interceptions in his 10 full games.
Furthermore, Section 2 of the CFP’s Selection Committee Protocol states that the committee will consider “other relevant factors, such as unavailability of key players and coaches, that may have affected a team’s performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance.”
But while such words might harm the chances of any potential upcoming lawsuits, they still don’t align with how the committee has operated in the past, nor how they should operate in the future. It’s an extremely reasonable take to believe that FSU’s chances of taking down a team like Michigan or Washington are significantly lower now than they would be with a healthy Travis on the field. But the purpose of the playoff shouldn’t be – and until 2023, never was – to create the most exciting matchups for fans. It was to reward the teams that earned those coveted playoff spots.
And let’s not forget the inaugural College Football Playoff. Two-time reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller missed the entire 2014 season for Ohio State with a shoulder injury, and then backup and Heisman candidate J.T. Barrett fractured his ankle late in the Buckeyes’ win over Michigan, pushing third-stringer Cardale Jones into action for the Big Ten Championship and beyond. Despite that, the CFP granted Ohio State the No. 4 seed over fellow one-loss teams TCU and Baylor … and all they did was win the first CFP title in the sport’s history.
No one is guaranteeing that Florida State would have the same fate. As a matter of fact, FSU was far from a flawless team even when Travis was on the field, heavily struggling in nailbiter wins over Boston College, Clemson, and Miami.
But what can be guaranteed is that the Seminoles at least deserved a chance to try. There was no objective correct answer regarding who to omit from the bracket, as this was the first time in the CFP era that every Power 5 champion finished with one or fewer losses. But there were two answers that were far more correct than the one the CFP committee ended up choosing.
In the time between Saban’s infamous “underdog” quote and the revealing of the 2022 playoff teams, Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde was one of many journalists to rip on Saban’s desperate approach. In what he surely intended to be a tongue-in-cheek paragraph, the veteran journalist wrote:
“Make no mistake, the two-loss Tide do not deserve to be in the Playoff. Nor will they, unless the selection committee has a collective nervous breakdown Sunday morning. If the committee abandons all previous protocol and chooses teams based on Las Vegas point spreads and tradition, Bama has a chance.”
As it turned out, Forde was merely a year too early.