Give college football credit for consistency. Its motto could be “College football, handing out raw deals and disputed champions since 1869 . . . ” The manner of and formats for determining a national champion at the highest level have changed over the years, but the outcries over unfairness and injustice have not.
Since the Associated Press poll first crowned a champion (Minnesota) in 1936, college football has been chasing its tail and an effective and foolproof way to determine the best team. No matter the acronym — AP, BCS, or CFP — the controversy, confounding logic, and lack of consensus in distilling who and what constitutes a champion have remained. The pigskin beauty pageant element to crowning a winner has endured, whether the judges are flawed computer formulas or flawed human beings.
The latest self-inflicted wound for this great sport is undefeated Florida State (13-0) getting snubbed from the College Football Playoff’s final four in favor of one-loss teams Texas and Alabama, becoming the first undefeated Power 5 team during the CFP era not to be selected. Full disclosure: Yours truly is a diehard Florida State fan since the days of Deion Sanders donning a double-bar facemask and midriff-revealing jersey. But I was asked to write this column, and my heart would ache for the damage done to the credibility of the sport even if it weren’t my team left out in the CFP cold.
You could see this coming for the Seminoles. It wasn’t a surprise once ‘Bama, the biggest brand name in college football playing in its most venerated — and, this year, overrated — conference, ended Georgia’s 29-game winning streak in the Southeastern Conference title game on Saturday. Still, this travesty, or “Travis-ty” because the logic behind leaving out FSU rests upon a season-ending injury to star quarterback Jordan Travis on Nov. 18, lays bare college football’s flaws. It creates poor playoff precedents.
The CFP committee defended its decision, expressing that it picked four teams (undefeated Michigan and Washington were the top two seeds) capable of winning the national championship. Neat. Netting a college football champion too often relies on perception and projection more than performance. The sport’s Achilles’ heel is that it bathes itself in the ambiguous eye test.
If you’re a fan who loved the group-play round of the NBA’s In-Season Tournament, where point differential ruled, understand that’s hardly novel. In college football, how you win and by how much has long reigned supreme.
Even if you think the CFP committee got it right from its Texas bunker you must admit there are some pesky problems with its logic.
First, the decision undermines the sport’s tentpole product, the life-or-death nature of the regular season. College football has the most suspenseful and impactful regular season. Every game is a big game because one loss can cripple your championship case. But the committee has rewritten those rules.
As Florida State coach Mike Norvell said, “What’s the point of playing the games?” if they’re not going to be honored.
The regular season is the lifeblood of the sport, but it got tossed aside like a gum wrapper because the Romanian judge didn’t like how FSU stuck the landing.
Second, it’s bad precedent to omit a team based on injury. This could affect next season’s 12-team playoff. That putative format will include the top five ranked conference champions and seven at-large teams.
Will an at-large team be overlooked if it loses a star? If two teams are close and one is healthier, why wouldn’t the healthier team argue that there’s precedent for health being the determining factor? It’s a slippery slope.
If Washington quarterback and Heisman finalist Michael Penix Jr. goes down in practice between now and the CFP semifinals, will the Huskies be forced to forfeit their slot? They won’t be the same team, which was the argument used against Florida State after it won its final two games with backup Tate Rodemaker and third-string QB Brock Glenn, who started the Atlantic Coast Conference title game with Rodemaker in concussion protocol.
Also, did the committee even acknowledge Rodemaker would start the CFP semifinal? Rodemaker didn’t light the world on fire in his start vs. Florida, but he came off the bench last year to lead Florida State to a 35-31 win over Louisville. It seems a rash assumption to presume he couldn’t win a CFP semifinal.
Third, the committee abrogated its prior rankings and endorsed ranking recency bias. Entering Championship Saturday, Florida State was fourth. Yet it dropped behind the Crimson Tide, who were eighth — eighth. You must question the legitimacy and viability of the previous four sets of rankings if a team can go from eighth to fourth with one win.
That would indicate the whole process is too volatile and unreliable, even for former president Donald Trump.
Yes, Georgia was No. 1. But the Bulldogs had been fading a bit and the reverence for their 29-game winning streak was somewhat specious. The two-time defending national champions didn’t boast the same roster or quarterback that won the first 17 games and two titles. Different year, different team.
Also, this wasn’t a vintage SEC campaign. The league traded on its exalted reputation. Its third-best team was Ole Miss or Missouri, hardly heavyweights.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, a Certified FOB (Friend of Belichick), did a phenomenal coaching job, along with Tommy Rees, Bill O’Brien’s replacement as offensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa. But this isn’t a typically talented Tide team. There’s no Bryce Young or Patrick Surtain Jr.
It also seems the committee conveniently forgot that ‘Bama, whose lone loss came to Texas, was one poorly-played miracle pass away from being a two-loss team. It should’ve lost to Auburn, which couldn’t hold off the Tide on fourth and goal from the 31 with 43 seconds left.
Finally, the whole point of the CFP is to crown an undisputed champion. The door has been opened to a split national title, which hasn’t happened since 2003. If Texas or Alabama win the CFP and FSU defeats Georgia in the Orange Bowl, it’s conceivable either the AP or the coaches’ poll could vote a 14-0 Seminoles squad No. 1.
That would render the CFP irrelevant and bring us right back to zero.
There probably is no foolproof, clear-cut system for determining a college football champion. Some team or constituency will always feel aggrieved. Argument is inescapable.
But when you stray too far from the results to create those issues, it’s no longer a charming quirk. It’s self-inflicted ignorance and an ingrained inability for college football to get out of its own way.