By Billy Witz
The metaphorical white puffs of smoke sent up by the College Football Playoff selection committee on Sunday signaled that the panel had chosen the four teams that would vie for this season’s championship — and that Florida State, unbeaten champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference, was not among them.
This caused smoke of a different sort to emanate from the Seminoles’ ears.
Florida State’s resume was hard to beat. The Seminoles began the season by walloping Louisiana State, which was led by the presumptive Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Jayden Daniels. They won at Clemson in overtime. In other weeks, Florida State showed the mettle of an elite team by persevering when not at its best — something that unbeaten Michigan and Washington were able to do but that Texas and Alabama, both with one loss and chosen to fill out the playoff field, were not.
The Seminoles’ only shortcoming was being shorthanded: Their star quarterback, Jordan Travis, broke his leg last month against North Alabama.
When his backup, Tate Rodemaker, suffered a concussion in a win the next week at Florida, it left Brock Glenn, a true freshman who had thrown four passes to that point, in charge against Louisville.
The Seminoles’ defense stiffened, the running game eventually got unstuck, and Glenn accomplished his most important task — he did not lose the game.
Still, the unsightliness of Florida State’s offense (and memories of last year’s championship game fiasco, when Georgia trounced Texas Christian, 65-7) moved the committee to a new precedent: It did not allow an unbeaten conference champion from one of the five marquee conferences to participate in the playoff.
Florida State players sat in stunned silence as the committee rankings were revealed on television. Travis, with his surgically repaired leg in a cast, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he wished he had been injured earlier in the season so the committee could take a fuller measure of his team.
Mike Norvell, the coach at Florida State, said in a statement that he was disgusted and infuriated. “What happened today goes against everything that is true and right in college football,” he said. “A team that overcame tremendous adversity and found a way to win doing whatever it took on the field was cheated today. It’s a sad day for college football.”
Mostly, though, the committee’s decision was a reminder of what college football is — a televised beauty pageant.
An enduring allure of American sports is that it is the rare place where the deck isn’t (so heavily) stacked, where meritocracy matters. You want to win a race? Be the first to cross the finish line. You want to win a Super Bowl? Finish with one of the best seven records in your conference and you’ve got a chance.
College football has rarely been that.
Instead, the 13-person committee, made up of a rotating cast of administrators, former coaches and players, and former sportswriters, does its work behind closed doors. Only the committee chair speaks to the news media.
The opaqueness of the process, along with the influence of the television networks, which have been the puppet masters of conference realignment, lends itself to conspiracy theories that fans in other sports usually reserve for game officials — and, perhaps, the weighting of NBA draft lottery Ping-Pong balls. The only thing that can be said for certain about college football’s last team in and last team out is that Alabama will draw more eyeballs than Florida State.
(An irony of the moment is that the playoff is expanding to 12 teams next year, something that might have occurred by now if not for distrust among conference commissioners that was fueled by duplicitous dealings with one another during the latest realignment wave.)
For nearly a century, college football was a largely regional sport — and the teams reflected that. Florida teams were fast. Texas teams were tough. Big Ten teams were bruising. California was where quarterbacks were raised. And a conference championship meant something: The winner of the Big Eight would play in the Orange Bowl. The Southeastern Conference champ would go to the Sugar Bowl. A trip to the Rose Bowl was the carrot for the Big Ten and Pac-10 champs. Independents, such as Notre Dame, Miami, Florida State and Penn State, and runners-up would fill out the postseason field.
The champion was crowned by a vote of coaches or writers or any association that wanted to hand out a trophy.
It was a comfortable (and lucrative) enough arrangement until the 1990s, when almost every year seemed to bring about a disputed champion. Because the Rose Bowl kept the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions anchored in Pasadena, California, undefeated Washington had to share the championship with undefeated Miami in 1991 and undefeated Michigan had to share the crown with undefeated Nebraska in 1997.
The next year a playoff plan was hatched.
The Bowl Championship Series formula weighed the coaches’ and writers’ polls, computer rankings, strength of schedule, losses and quality wins to determine the top two teams, which would play each other to decide a champion. (A simulated BCS formula this year included Florida State in the top four but left out Texas.)
It worked briefly — until its second year, when Florida State, which had lost to Miami in the regular season, leapfrogged the Hurricanes on the strength of the computer rankings. In the fifth year, the sportswriters disagreed so vehemently about the choice of Oklahoma and Louisiana State in the title game that they awarded Southern California with The Associated Press national championship award.
And the year after that, in 2004, undefeated Auburn was left out in favor of Oklahoma and USC, which were also undefeated.
It was not until a decade later, in 2014, that the playoff was expanded to four teams.
That year, Ohio State — which crushed Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game behind its third-string quarterback — leapfrogged TCU and Baylor, which were tied atop the Big 12 standings, and snagged the final playoff berth.
When Ohio State won the national championship, it may have justified the committee’s decision, but it still haunts TCU and its fans, who feared a similar snub last year after losing the Big 12 title game in overtime.
“Every year there’s a playoff, so you remember that feeling,” said Kevin White, a wide receiver and senior captain in 2014. “It’s an every year thing: What if? It doesn’t get any easier. It’s always there.”
And so White, a sales manager in Round Rock, Texas, where he grew up, knew better than most the hurt that Florida State players were enduring on Sunday. “I know what they’re feeling,” he said. “You just want a chance to prove it on the field.”