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The College Football Playoff Has Never Been About Fairness

One-loss Alabama will have a chance to play for a national title. Undefeated Florida State will not. The College Football Playoff selection committee just told us where the sport is heading—and put the “best vs. most deserving” debate to bed once and for all.

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This season’s College Football Playoff semifinals are set. No. 1 Michigan (13-0) will face off with no. 4 Alabama (12-1) in the Rose Bowl, while no. 2 Washington (13-0) will take on no. 3 Texas (12-1) in the Sugar Bowl. Florida State, which went 13-0 and won the ACC title, is ranked no. 5 and will not get a chance to play for a national championship. The playoff selection committee’s decision to exclude the Seminoles, an undefeated Power Five conference champ, is unprecedented in the nine-year history of the event. It’s a choice that simultaneously adheres to the committee’s stated criteria and raises existential questions about the structure of college football and the importance of winning above all else.

Since the inaugural College Football Playoff after the 2014 season, those around the sport have debated whether the committee should choose the four “best” teams or the four “most deserving” teams. Should the committee compare rosters or résumés? Last Tuesday, executive director Bill Hancock made the committee’s stance clear. “Most deserving is not anything in the committee’s lexicon,” Hancock said. “The [committee members] are to rank the best teams in order, and that’s what they do. Just keep that word in mind: best teams.” He may as well have been quoting Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven and Snoop in The Wire. “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

But what does “best” mean, exactly? In the past, the only constants to the selection committee’s decision-making seemed to be that teams could not lose two games or get blown out by a mediocre opponent. This year, those principles did not help distinguish between potential entrants. And this season’s pool of contenders was more crowded than ever. There are three undefeated Power Five conference champs. In a system built purely to reward the strongest résumés, those three teams—Michigan, Washington, and Florida State—would definitely make the field. The question would be whether the fourth team is Alabama, Georgia, or Texas. Alabama beat Georgia in Saturday’s SEC title game, and Big 12 champion Texas beat Bama 34-24 in Tuscaloosa on September 9. By this logic, the calculus could have been simple: The three undefeated Power Five champs take the first three spots, and one-loss Power Five champ Texas gets the fourth.

But that’s not how it played out. Florida State was omitted from the playoff because its starting quarterback, Jordan Travis, and backup quarterback, Tate Rodemaker, are both injured. Third-stringer Brock Glenn went 8-of-21 for just 55 passing yards in a 16-6 win over Louisville in Saturday’s ACC championship game. The committee’s official selection principles listed on the playoff website include conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition, and comparative outcomes against common opponents. Crucially, they also include “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.” That last principle came into effect here.

“Florida State is a different team than they were through the first 11 weeks,” said Boo Corrigan, chairman of the playoff selection committee, on Sunday while explaining the decision.

By downgrading Florida State for its injuries at quarterback, the committee is following the guidelines. But now the guidelines themselves—downgrading the postseason chances of an undefeated team simply because of injury—are under fire. As Florida State athletic director Michael Alford wrote in a statement, “The argument of whether a team is the ‘most deserving OR best’ is a false equivalence. It renders the season up to yesterday irrelevant and significantly damages the legitimacy of the College Football Playoff.” He added: “The fact that this team has continued to close out victories in dominant fashion facing our current quarterback situation should have ENHANCED our case to get a playoff berth EARNED on the field. … This ridiculous decision is a departure from the competitive expectations that have stood the test of time in college football.”

Alford’s last point about teams succeeding behind backup quarterbacks has merit. The first College Football Playoff was won by Ohio State, whose team was led by third-stringer Cardale Jones. The title game after the 2017 season turned when Alabama head coach Nick Saban subbed out starter Jalen Hurts for backup Tua Tagovailoa at halftime. Backup QBs have recently triumphed in the NFL, too. The Philadelphia Eagles won Super Bowl LII with backup Nick Foles filling in for injured starter Carson Wentz.

And from a sporting perspective, it feels wrong for a team with a perfect record to not get a shot to compete for a championship. In what other sport can you win every game during the regular season and not even have the chance to contend for the title? Wins have to matter. The results of the season have to matter. To repurpose another quote from The Wire—a show about the people left behind and forgotten by institutions—you’ve gotta let Florida State play. This is America, man.

Yet this is also college football, and this is how college football has always worked. Take this quote from Walter Camp in 1919: “Football, however, is not a game where a great national championship is possible or desirable. The very nature of the sport would forbid anything like such a series of contests as are played in baseball.”

The college football national champion used to be determined by polls. Dozens of times over the past 150 years, multiple teams were crowned no. 1 by different polls; multiple champions are listed in the official NCAA record books from seasons as long ago as 1869 and as recently as 2003. In the BCS era, Boise State went undefeated in 2006 and 2009 but was not offered the chance to play for a title because it was part of the Western Athletic Conference. Auburn went 12-0 in 2004 but was left out of the championship game because USC and Oklahoma also finished that regular season without a loss.

In the playoff era, too, undefeated teams have previously been omitted from the four-team bracket. Central Florida went undefeated in the 2017 and 2018 regular seasons and never got a chance to compete in the playoff because it played in the American Athletic Conference. Cincinnati was excluded from the playoff in 2020 before landing the fourth and final spot in 2021. Schools from the Group of Five conferences (the AAC, MAC, C-USA, Sun Belt, and Mountain West) are often seen as lesser than those from Power Five conferences (the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12, and Big 12). That perspective seems to be deeply held in the playoff selection committee, where Power Five leagues are overwhelmingly represented in the voting body. We have seen for decades that going undefeated matters only if you have a seat at the table. What’s new this time is that the tables have turned, and the ACC is losing its seat.

The SEC and Big Ten are each expanding to become the two mega-conferences in college sports. USC, UCLA, Oregon, and Washington are realigning from the Pac-12 (or, uh, the Pac-2) to the Big Ten in 2024. Oklahoma and Texas are leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. Florida State and Clemson will likely explore similar moves given Sunday’s news. (If you can’t play ’em, join ’em.) As Rodger Sherman wrote for The Ringer in August, most pro sports in the United States have different origins but the same general model: 30ish teams spread out across 30ish cities with two conferences. Now college football is adopting a business model where 30ish teams will matter across two conferences, and everyone else will just kind of be there. The goalposts didn’t move on what mattered, but who. The outrage about the committee’s decision is partly about Florida State and partly about the ACC being treated like the AAC.

This whole situation is essentially a giant advertisement for the College Football Playoff’s expansion to 12 teams, which is scheduled to happen next season. But it’s also a reminder of what’s changed, for better and for worse, and what quiet parts can now be said out loud. Florida State deserved to make the playoff. But deserve’s got nothing to do with it.