The College Football Playoff Just Screwed a Team Like Never Before

The College Football Playoff selection committee has an easy job most years, and the committee members do it well. The playoff began in 2014, and for the first nine years, the committee put the right four teams in the field each season. It didn’t always get the seedings perfectly, and its complete disregard of undefeated teams from outside the Power Five conferences was infuriating. But when the dust settled on the Sunday after the conference championship games, the correct four teams were obvious or close to it. The committee held up its end by putting those four teams in the tournament.

2023, it turned out, presented the first truly brutal choice in committee history. Michigan and Washington were shoo-ins as the undefeated champions of the competitive Big Ten and Pac-12. Two spots remained for three teams: Texas, Florida State, and Alabama. Texas was maybe not quite a shoo-in but was close enough. It was impossible to justify placing the Longhorns behind Alabama because Texas held the ultimate trump card of a head-to-head win over the Crimson Tide back in Week 2, in Tuscaloosa, no less. The committee agreed and put Texas in the third spot. That left FSU and Alabama—the Seminoles holding both a 13–0 record and the championship of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Tide at 12–1 as champions of the Southeastern Conference.

Leaving out Alabama would’ve been tough. Leaving out Florida State would’ve been a travesty. But the committee picked the travesty and told FSU that a perfect season, capped off with a power-conference championship on Saturday night, was not good enough to compete for the national title. FSU finished fifth, while Bama took the fourth spot and will play Michigan in a Rose Bowl semifinal on New Year’s Day. In spurning the Noles, the powers that be crossed an explicit Rubicon. They told teams at the highest level of the sport that winning football games is less important than looking like you will win football games.

The selection committee’s remit is to pick the four best teams. It sounds straightforward, but in practice it hasn’t been. Best can mean many things, but in the context that playoff officials have used to explain it, the concept of “best team” is separate from “best résumé.” As College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock said last week, “ ‘Most deserving’ is not anything in the committee’s lexicon.” The committee purports to care not about who has earned a playoff berth with their results on the field—only about ranking teams by how good they are. Perhaps this makes the selection of Alabama similarly straightforward: FSU is 13–0, but the Seminoles have lost star quarterback Jordan Travis for the season. He is the program’s heart-and-soul player, and even his top backup, Tate Rodemaker, missed the ACC Championship with a concussion. The Seminoles played in a conference with less depth and quality than the SEC, which wasn’t as strong as usual this year but still presented a gauntlet for Alabama. The Crimson Tide beat No. 1 Georgia to win that league, ending the Bulldogs’ 29-game win streak and their reign of two national titles in a row. If the playoff committee really wants the “best” teams, 12–1 Alabama over 13–0 Florida State is no problem.

But in practice, the playoff has lied for years about its preference for the best teams over the ones that have earned a spot by winning games. In 2015, computer rating systems thought Ohio State was the fourth-best team in the country. The Buckeyes lost to Michigan State, however, and even though the Spartans would’ve been underdogs in a rematch with Ohio State, it was the Spartans who got a playoff berth because they’d beaten Ohio State on the field. In 2018 Ohio State had a 12–1 record and Big Ten championship crown but missed the playoff because Notre Dame had gone 12–0 against a lesser schedule and Oklahoma had a matching 12–1 record with a much less embarrassing loss than Ohio State’s. (The Sooners lost by 3 to rival Texas, while Ohio State took a 49–20 blowout loss to a middling Purdue.) It didn’t matter that Ohio State had played a harder schedule than either team. The Buckeyes had taken an awful loss, and they paid for it. In 2021 Notre Dame went 11–1. The one loss was to Cincinnati, which played in the nonpower American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats didn’t lose a game all season, and so nobody thought much of it when their head-to-head win over Notre Dame carried the day and they claimed the final playoff spot, even though it hailed from outside the power leagues. And just last year, in 2022, Alabama again had one more loss (two) than a team the Tide would certainly have been favored to beat on a neutral field (TCU, at 12–1). The Horned Frogs made the field over them anyway, because losing games mattered.

And all of that was just fine. The committee claimed that it wanted the “best” teams year in, year out, but what it really wanted was the power-conference teams that had done the best job of piling up wins and avoiding blemishes. It’s hard to do that better than winning all of one’s games. But the committee decided that this year—with FSU in an unexciting ACC and dealing with a devastating quarterback injury—was the time to stand on a principle that has long gotten lip service but never had real heft. The committee always picked among power-conference teams based on real results, not theoretical ones. That it chose this moment to be honest for the first time is what makes FSU’s omission from the playoff feel like a betrayal. The committee is telling the rest of the sport that, even at the power-conference level, winning is secondary.

Unless the committee doesn’t see the Noles’ ACC as a power conference at all. That’s where this decision might reverberate the most. Florida State has been rattling its saber loudly all year that the ACC is not a suitable home for the Noles as one of the sport’s blue-blood programs. The conference is locked into a media-rights agreement with ESPN that runs to 2036 and ensures that ACC teams remain financially behind their peers in the Big Ten and SEC. FSU reportedly dipped its toe into private equity waters last summer as it explored the financial option of breaking its membership with the ACC. Now the school has a clear indicator that it will be a second-class citizen in playoff seeding going forward. The event will expand to 12 teams next year, but FSU will be under the correct impression that it will always look lesser when the committee compares it to schools in the Big Ten and SEC. (All four of this season’s playoff teams will play next year in one of those two leagues.) If this snub nudges FSU out the ACC’s door more quickly, it will destabilize life for the rest of the ACC and pour kerosene on a trend of consolidation that TV money has already started. Game results matter less now, and so do all teams not inside the new Power Two. FSU may see an automatic qualifier for future ACC champions as an easy path to postseason access, but just as easily, the school could look at how it was treated this weekend and decide that to get a fair shake, it needs either a different affiliation or none at all.

For decades, one loss could end a team’s title hopes. Two almost certainly did. Every game was crucial to teams that eyed the ultimate prize. It’s fine that the new competitive structure will provide more grace going forward, as one or two losses won’t automatically sink a team. But what the committee did this weekend, in the final moments of the four-team playoff format, contributed to a justifiable skepticism that what happens on the field means anything at all. At the highest echelon, college football turned out not to be a yearlong sporting competition but what ESPN analyst Booger McFarland correctly dubbed “a beauty pageant.” FSU won the most, but it did not look the best, so Alabama—which played a playoff team, Texas, and lost—will get to pull the lever again. Ah, well. When the playoff expands to 12 teams, teams like Alabama will justifiably get more grace when they lose a game. But this year’s playoff has only four, and an unbeaten team missed it.

Pandora’s box is open now. As a rightfully aggrieved FSU head coach Mike Norvell said after it came down, the committee’s decision perverts all kinds of incentives. Travis, the star FSU quarterback, got hurt against a nonmajor opponent on Senior Day two weeks ago. Should the program have sat him down for that game, knowing that an injury would be used against them in playoff consideration? Should they have lied about his medical status, claiming he was day-to-day in the hopes that the committee would assume he could return? Or, as Travis asked himself, should he have broken his leg earlier in the year so the team could have had time to show its stuff without him? If anything other than winning matters most, these are all reasonable questions, as absurd on their face as each sounds.

The playoff we’re left with will be fun, no doubt. Michigan will play Alabama in a beautiful setting at the Rose Bowl. Washington will meet Texas at the Sugar Bowl, treating everyone who watches to an offensive exhibition. As the committee members watch, they will smirk and feel great satisfaction that they treated the world to these blockbuster matchups instead of trotting out a backup (or even third-string) Florida State quarterback to see what he could do against the Wolverines. After all, he’d probably get crushed. It will never cross the minds of the people who made the decision that the Noles deserved to see for themselves and that a bunch of people watching would have preferred the chance to see them try.