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When Winning No Longer Matters

The playoff committee passing up an undefeated Florida State over Alabama shows that performance is less important than perception. That is a problem for Iowa and for college football as a whole.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Texas Christian Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday afternoon, the College Football Playoff committee announced the four teams selected to take part in the 2023 playoffs and compete for the national championship. Michigan, who soundly defeated Iowa to claim its third consecutive Big Ten title, was predictably slotted as the number one seed, while fellow undefeated conference champion Washington was given the number two seed. Noticeably absent from the top four, however, was another undefeated Power Five champion in Florida State, who was passed over for a playoff spot in favor of one-loss Big 12 Champion Texas and one-loss SEC champion Alabama.

With only three undefeated Power Five teams and four playoff spots to fill, Texas seemed the most likely team to join Michigan, Washington, and Florida State by virtue of their head-to-head road win over Alabama on September 9, as well as their strong play down the stretch. However, the decision to include Alabama in the college football playoff at the expense of a 13-0 Florida State team is a baffling one. The Seminoles breezed through most of their schedule this season (including a decisive 45-24 neutral site victory over LSU in the opening week), but also proved it could win close games with tightly contested road victories against teams like Clemson and Boston College. They scheduled aggressively in the non-conference by playing two SEC opponents outside the friendly confines of Doak Campbell Stadium and defeated every team they faced en route to a championship victory over a talented and well-coached Louisville team. However, Florida State’s accomplishments on the field were deemed insufficient to outweigh the strength of Alabama’s SEC Championship victory over a Georgia team that had won the past two national championships and entered last weekend ranked #1 in the country. This victory vaulted Alabama from #7 to #4 in the playoff rankings and was apparently enough to convince the committee that they were a better team than Florida State despite them having won fewer games than the Seminoles.

The other factor which hurt Florida State’s status as a playoff contender was the season-ending injury to its star quarterback Jordan Travis. While the Seminoles boasted one of the country’s top offenses with Travis at the helm, his injury called into question whether Florida State could score enough points to keep pace with the sport’s best teams if they made the playoff. Travis’ backup Tate Rodemaker completed only 48% of his passes for 134 yards in his first start against Florida, while the third-string quarterback pressed into duty against Louisville completed only 8-21 for 55 yards. Apparently, the Seminoles’ lack of success through the air without Travis was sufficient to justify vaulting Alabama over the Florida State based on the assumption that the Noles’ passing game would not improve prior to the playoff games and that, without a dynamic passing attack, the team was undeserving of an opportunity to compete for a championship. The fact that Ohio State won the inaugural CFP with their third-string quarterback or that Florida State beating a ten-win ACC team with their third-stringer might actually be a testament to how absurdly talented their team is rather than a detriment (seriously, watch go watch how bad Alabama’s offense was against one of the worst defenses in the country when they played without starting QB Jalen Milroe) apparently never crossed the committee’s mind.

There are several problems with the committee’s decision to exclude Florida State from the playoff, with the most obvious being that it seemingly invalidates the importance of regular season games. Elevating a one-loss Alabama team over an undefeated Florida State squad shows that the playoff committee does not truly value winning as the ultimate metric of a team’s success, instead defaulting to some nebulous and inherently subjective perception to conclude that Alabama was the better of the two teams. While the committee’s job is to select the four best teams rather than the four most deserving ones, the actual outcome of games seems to be the clearest way to determine who the best teams truly are. The outcome of Florida State’s thirteen games this season paint them as a superior team to Alabama. Not only did the Noles navigate their schedule without a single loss (to say nothing of having not lost any games at home), but they produced a larger margin of victory over their common opponent (LSU) despite the Tigers’ quarterback going down to injury late in the Alabama game (which, according to the playoff committee’s logic, is a near death sentence for a team’s competitive hopes). Florida State also played in fewer one-score games than Alabama (three compared to Bama’s four) and, unlike Alabama who defeated a 4-8 Arkansas squad by only a field goal, all of Florida State’s competitive contests came against teams that achieved bowl eligibility. Even Florida State’s difficulties putting away their rival Florida in the final week of the regular season paled in comparison to the sheer improbability of Alabama’s win over Auburn, a win they truly backed into after their probability of victory had fallen to .1%.

Two arguments in favor of Alabama making the playoff over Florida State are that the SEC champion should not be left out of the playoff and that Alabama’s victory over Georgia was impressive enough to justify their inclusion. However, neither of these arguments stand up to close scrutiny. The perceived SEC supremacy has not been reflected in reality this year; the ACC has a better record than the SEC in non-conference games against Power Five opponents (10-9 vs. 7-9), and the committee appears to have conveniently forgotten how poorly the SEC performed in its high-profile early season games. It was only once the SEC started playing OTHER SEC TEAMS that the conference started to look better. Even Alabama’s win over Georgia, impressive as it may have been, does not erase the Crimson Tide’s loss to Texas earlier in the season, nor does it inherently mean that they are among the top four teams in the sport. Georgia had similarly struggled against 6-6 teams like Auburn and Georgia Tech and 5-7 South Carolina, and the Bulldogs had not exuded the same air of invincibility that they showed over the past two seasons. Alabama’s victory over Georgia could just as easily be seen as proof that the Bulldogs were overrated rather than evidence that the Tide deserved a playoff berth.

Iowa fans who have read this far into the article might be wondering what any of this has to do with the Hawkeyes. Unfortunately, the committee’s decision to exclude Florida State from the playoff could have several damaging effects on college football, even in a world where the sport expands the number of teams that make the playoff. Selecting a one-loss Alabama team over an undefeated Florida State unthinkingly reenforces the narrative that the SEC is the strongest conference in college football despite the lack of evidence to support that assumption this year, while also showing a clear deference to past success as an indicator of future performance. If the actual results of games matter less than the names on the front of the team’s jerseys or a team’s potential to perform well in the future, it invalidates college football as a meritocracy and casts the playoff as an entity that serves only to advance the interests of the sport’s most powerful and lucrative brands (in this case, Alabama and the SEC hype machine). This decision also elevates the importance of individual players (in this case, Jordan Travis) over the success as a team in determining what programs are worthy of a title shot, while also selectively placing added importance on the quarterback position. Texas was not penalized in the playoff rankings for the season-ending injury to star running back Jonathan Brooks, nor was Michigan penalized for the loss of All-American lineman Zak Zinter. However, the loss of Florida State’s quarterback was apparently enough to make the committee think they were worse than Alabama despite the Noles having proven they could win games on the strength of their defense and running game.

If wins and losses are replaced by the eye test to determine the best teams, the teams that win games in the most aesthetically pleasing ways (a lot of offense and a lot of passing touchdowns), will almost always be prioritized over those who win in less conventional ways. Once the playoff expands to 12 teams, how easy would it be for the committee to pass over a 10-2 Iowa team that won games on the strength of its defense rather than elite quarterback play in favor of a 9-3 SEC team that dropped a few games early, but is loaded with future NFL draft picks, four and five star recruits, and “has looked really good over the past few weeks, we promise!”? When title shots are determined less by what your team has done on the field and more by how you look doing it, how well your team or conference has performed in the past, and how well you might play against elite competition if given the opportunity, teams like Iowa who lack the preseason hype, sustained history of playoff success, and whose roster looks less impressive on paper than it does in practice will always be left on the outside looking in.

After the playoff field was announced, ESPN college football analyst Booger McFarland (himself an alumnus of an SEC school) called Florida State’s exclusion “a travesty to the sport.” Florida State, who is itself a blueblood program, may not seem deserving of the concern or sympathy of Iowa fans who are understandably focused more on whether their team can recover from their faceplant in the Big Ten Championship and rebound with a strong performance in the Citrus Bowl. But if the committee can arbitrarily decide that an undefeated Florida State squad is unworthy of competing for a national championship, don’t believe for a second that they would not do the same thing to deserving Iowa teams in the future.