by Emmet Mahon
Photo courtesy of Colin Hackley/Associated Press.
At the conclusion of the 2023-2024 college football season, one of the greatest traditions in sports will go away. With the College Football Playoff expanding to 12 teams next year, the debate of who the true national champion is will likely end. For decades, most fans have had a complaint about how the champion was crowned. First, we had the poll system. Coaches had one poll, and writers had another. On occasion, there would be different teams at the top. Debate and complaints rained down from the sporting heavens. It was a process rife with biases and acrimony. When the dust settled, we sounded angry, but we were happy. We had something to talk about over a shot and a beer.
Tired of the complaints, the NCAA turned to the Bowl Championship Series. A committee was established to use a combination of polls and internal discussions to select up to 10 teams to play in bowl games, with two teams assigned to play for the national championship. It did not have the rancor or vindictiveness of the polls, but it did have obvious flaws. Primarily, what would happen if there were more than two obvious contenders. In the end, the game was played, One team would hoist a nice crystal football, we would debate and complain, but were happy.
Eventually, the obvious flaws become too much to overcome, and the NCAA pivoted to the College Football Playoff. A four team, three game tournament to crown the king of college football. That’s what they said, but, in reality, it was just an excuse for the NCAA and their media partners to drive an International Harvester combine through a field of money. For the most part, the selection committee got the four best teams into the playoff. There was some debate and arguing over the fourth entrant, but we were happy.
With this being the final year of the current format, we had one last chance to debate and argue and be happy. Afterall, who, aside from the two teams impacted, are going to seriously debate the merits of 12 versus 13? So, we anticipated the announcement of the four semifinalists. Prepared our mini brackets and envisioned our own national champion. Then the CFP committee tossed a grenade into the room and full-scale chaos erupted. A seemingly set final four of Georgia, Michigan, Oregon, and Florida State was blown to smithereens in the span of 24 hours.
Upset losses to Oregon and Georgia pulled the pin. The convincing win by Texas in the Big 12 title game positioned them nicely for inclusion by virtue of their impressive win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa earlier in the year. By early Saturday evening, most had agreed that spots one through three belonged to Big Ten champion Michigan, Washington out of the PAC 12, and Texas. That left three teams for one spot, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida State.
The Seminoles captured the ACC title with a less than stellar 10-3 victory over then #14 Louisville. That win was enough to extinguish the hopes of Georgia. The final choice would be between 12-1 Alabama and 13-0 Florida State. As the Grail Knight informed Indiana Jones, they chose poorly, and selected Alabama.
The faces of the committee members did not melt from their skulls, but a meltdown ensued across the college sporting world. SEC apologists, led by most of the ESPN college football “experts”, quickly started trotting out their defense of the decision. Their line of attack was passionate but wanting. For every point, there was a counterpoint equally, if not superior, to support the Seminoles. The CFP committee Chairman Boo Corrigan sat for several interviews trying to explain his group’s rationale. His shifting points and explanations sounded a lot like when you catch your five-year-old eating a cookie in between meals. With each argument weakened, he shifted to the next implausible explanation, hoping that with the correct amount of sorrow in the eyes, and pouting boo-boo lips, his story might be eventually believed. For the most part, it landed flat.
The most convincing of his arguments is that Florida State is not the same team without star senior quarterback Jordan Travis. Mythbusters would label this confirmed. He presented as evidence the offensive woes FSU has displayed since the Travis injury. Travis is a nice player. He was not a projected first round selection. He was not considered a Heisman Trophy contender. He’s not Joe Burrow. If his absence is such a death blow why did the committee move the Seminoles down the week it occurred? It couldn’t possibly have to do with the committee having convinced themselves there was no way an SEC team could possibly be on the outside looking in, could it?
Many of the Alabama faithful state that Florida State would possibly lose substantially with true freshman Brock Glenn taking starting snaps. That would be the likely outcome, except he will not be the starting QB in any bowl game. That will be backup Tate Rodemaker, who sustained a concussion in FSU’s final regular season game. Rodemaker was questionable and a game time decision against Louisville. He is a capable backup who would have close to a month to recover and get first team reps in whatever game plan Head Coach Mike Norvell schemes up. To suggest he would be a stumblebum, turnover machine, or could not produce points is silly. Additionally, Florida State has a ferocious defense. They rank in the Top 20 in FBS in scoring defense, red zone defense, and total defense. There is no reason to believe that the Seminoles could not keep the game close into the 4th quarter when anything can happen.
The next stolen cookie defense is that FSU fails the “eye test” and would be a decide underdog on betting lines. So were the Washington Huskies in the PAC 12 title game. Oregon was close to a double-digit favorite at kickoff. To most pundits, their victory, and participation in the CFP semifinals was a foregone conclusion. That didn’t turn out so well. This isn’t EA College Football 2K23. This is real people making real plays, making real turnovers, committing real penalties. These games have real results. There are lots of big, beautiful casinos all over America because when it comes to betting, the house is usually correct. Casinos, however, can and do go bust because sometimes they are wrong. They play all the games for a reason.
The SEC is the king of the conferences they next proclaimed. Most years, that is correct, by a large margin. However, in the words of Florida State icon Lee Corso, not so fast my friends. The SEC had a 7-9 out of conference record. Their lone win of significance in that category was disappointing Kentucky beating Louisville. The same Louisville that Florida State smothered in the ACC Championship. Conversely, the ACC was 10-9 in out of conference play. Two of those victories were achieved by the Seminoles, against the SEC. They smashed LSU and handled the Gators, while noticeably shorthanded, according to the CFP committee.
Alabama deserves credit for defeating the two time defending champions and ended their 29 game unbeaten streak. So what? How is what happened in 2021 and 2022 germane to any playoff discussion in 2023? The Corrigan Cronies proclaimed Florida State is not the same team it was a few weeks ago. How different is Georgia from last January? Three NFL first round picks are no longer playing for the Bulldogs. They have a new starting quarterback. Wasn’t changing quarterbacks a factor to be held against a certain team recently? Corrigan implied as much. If a victory over Georgia is the epic event the committee would like you to believe, why did they drop the Bulldogs from first to sixth in the final regular season rankings? That, by the way, is one spot behind Florida State, the supposedly inferior team.
In 1972, the Miami Dolphins completed the only undefeated season in NFL history. In week two of the 1973 season, they were defeated by the Oakland Raiders. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle did not make that as a criteria for the Raiders to make the playoffs later that year. Wipe the crumbs from your face Boo before announcing to the world you didn’t take the cookie.
There are other contradictions tied up in this mess. Buffoonish talking heads have the audacity to bring television ratings into the discussion. Precedents have been bent, or ignored, to achieve a desired result. Many outside of the SEC/ESPN/Disney bubble see it. Players such as Oregon State quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei have expressed frustration and disappointment at the situation. Their believe that if you work hard, play your best, and defeat every foe, you have earned the right to play for a national championship. When Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence was injured during a Monday Night Football game, social media exploded with mocking postings claiming that the Buffalo Bills should replace the Jaguars in the playoffs if their star QB is unavailable. They know.
How do things play out from here? For the most part, nothing major will occur. Elected officials will put out angry press releases and issue threatening letters. That could lead to political grandstanding and a collective eyeroll from the sporting public. Lawsuits will be filed, and probably summarily dismissed, although, all it takes is one sympathetic judge. The words “the motion for discovery is granted” could lead to additional drama. Quietly the CFP and ESPN will find a way to make up the difference between the $6 million dollar conference payout for the CFP semifinal and the $4 million payout for Florida State’s participation in the Orange Bowl. That won’t make Mike Norvell happy, but it might make the stomachs of President Richard McCullough and Athletic Director Michael Alford settle some. Maybe the biggest outcome is Florida State’s hastened desire to leave the ACC and the subsequent dominoes that would tip over. For now, enjoy the games. Argue and debate over a shot and a beer. And be happy.
Well, Boo, this is another fine mess you have gotten us into.
Emmet Mahon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org