Opponents of a college football playoff long argued that a playoff would diminish the value of the regular season. I was not among those critics, as I believed a four- or six-team playoff could enhance the regular season, though anything beyond that would potentially diminish the importance of regular season excellence by letting potential 3-loss teams into the playoff.
Perhaps I was mistaken. After Tuesday’s College Football Playoff rankings came out, putting 12-0 Florida State behind three one-loss teams, it’s worth reconsidering whether the playoff committee has diminished the importance of consistent regular season excellence.
“We're turning into figure skating. We're judging," Jimbo Fisher said on Monday. "That is the thing I loved about basketball, football. It's won on the field, you know what I'm saying? But it is what it is." Fisher is right. And this committee has about as much credibility at this point as the infamous Cold War era Russian judge.
Florida State is undefeated in a Power 5 conference that has the most Power 5 nonconference wins, one of two conferences with a winning record (10-7) against other Power 5 competition. (The other is the Pac 12 at 8-3.) The ACC closed out the season by going 4-0 against the SEC, which is 5-6 against Power 5 conferences in 2014. Somehow that all adds up to put the ACC fifth among Power 5 conferences, according to ESPN’s power ratings. Wait, what?
Never mind that a Virginia Tech team that struggled mightily in the ACC beat Ohio State at home. That doesn’t count because Ohio State was inexperienced at the time. Never mind that Boston College bludgeoned Southern Cal—now ranked 25th in the playoff rankings—that was a fluke. Never mind that Georgia Tech beat rival Georgia at home (the same UGA that won at SEC East Champion Missouri 34-0). The ACC is clearly the weakest conference—despite what the on-field results say.
You know how everyone knows this? It’s because Florida State has gone 16-0 in the ACC the last two seasons. The ACC must be weak since FSU dominated them so badly in 2013 (don’t pay attention to Clemson beating Ohio State in the Orange Bowl!), and FSU’s inability to run up the scores against such a bad conference in 2014 only shows how weak the Seminoles are. But it also shows how weak the ACC is as well, because they can’t seem to beat the Seminoles. See? It all makes sense.
Never mind that Florida State has more wins over the SEC over the past two seasons than Arkansas—and just as many in the 2014 calendar year. Never mind that the following traditional powers all have more losses to current ACC teams over the past three years than Florida State:
Ohio State: 2
Southern Cal: 2
Notre Dame: 3
But if that wasn’t enough, Florida State played as many Power 5 nonconference games (counting Notre Dame for obvious reasons) this season as Alabama, Oregon, and TCU combined. And unlike those teams, the Seminoles won all of those games—despite the added pressure of being the reigning BCS champions and continuing what is now a 28-game win streak. (Yes, I agree last year’s results shouldn’t be factored into this season’s body of work, but as Matt Leinart has explained, the extra difficulty of being the hunted champion and sustaining that kind of streak should be taken into account.)
But none of that seems to matter because the Seminoles haven’t earned enough style points. Their toes haven’t been pointed, they haven’t turned their palms out enough when doing spirit fingers, and their faces have shown stony resolution rather than exuberant passion. Florida State has grinded while the committee has wanted artistry. They want “game control,” apparently caring more about whether a team is able to get an early lead than a team’s ability to finish on top. Herm Edwards must be shaking his head right now.
Oh, it’s all about “body of work,” you say? Take a look at the comparative bodies of work from the remaining one-loss teams and explain how Ohio State could justifiably be ranked ahead of Baylor.
Ohio State has two quality wins: a 10-2 Michigan State team that has not beaten a top 25 team and gave up 40+ points while losing its only two games against ranked opponents and a narrow win over a Minnesota team that was blown out by TCU. The Buckeyes lost at home against a below-average ACC team and went to overtime against the only other good defense they have played this season (a Penn State team without an offense).
Florida State has played fewer games against truly bad teams than anyone else among that group, has just as many quality wins as TCU and arguably Alabama, and of course lacks that loss everyone else has. Good enough for fourth, right?
Those resumes speak for themselves. Winning in the regular season used to mean something. Now? You’d better have your spirit fingers perfect or it doesn’t count.
Postscript: Geographical Considerations
All that said, I’m not entirely surprised that Florida State has dropped to fourth, as the committee’s directives state that they are to take geography into account when putting the final matchups together. It makes sense to put the eastern teams together in the Sugar Bowl and the western teams in the Rose Bowl. It’s certainly easier for fans to travel to nearer sites. I'm just surprised they did it a week early.
But if that's really the motivation here, it’s silly to seed the third and fourth teams at all and try to defend TCU being ahead of Florida State. I imagine there would be far fewer complaints if they simply said, “We have Alabama and Oregon at the top and would match Florida State and TCU with them, respectively, due to regional considerations.”
At any rate, it’s clear that if the top four win out, these matchups will hold, regardless of how the teams wind up being seeded. They clearly intend to match Alabama and FSU while putting TCU and Oregon together.
Postscript 2: What If FSU Loses to Georgia Tech?
Everyone knows Florida State is clearly out if they lose this weekend to Georgia Tech (a very legitimate possibility given FSU’s exhaustion, Winston’s distracting week, and the Yellow Jackets’ red hot play of late), right?
Wrong. Again, go back to the body of work spreadsheet listed above. Even with a loss to Georgia Tech, Florida State’s schedule stacks up perfectly well against TCU, Baylor, and especially Ohio State. The Seminoles would still have a reasonable chance of working into the field because the committee is likely to be reticent to put both Big 12 teams into the field while Ohio State’s resume is inferior to FSU’s even with a loss.
But even if the committee doesn’t see it that way, there’s still a more than 50% likelihood that two of the one-loss teams lose this weekend, and a one-loss Florida State (with a loss to a top-10 opponent) will not be left out of the playoff in favor of a two-loss team. Presuming Alabama beats Missouri, the committee would still likely get its wish of an Alabama-Florida State semifinal.
So even if Florida State should lose on Saturday, all hope is not lost for the Seminoles. But FSU certainly doesn’t want to put its fate in the hands of the Russian judge. You never know when the absence of sequins on the uniforms just might be the thing to keep you out of the playoff.