Why college football’s identity crisis resulted in Florida State being cheated

This sport’s identity crisis has existed since the inception of the College Football Playoff a decade ago, but never before have we had to come to terms with it the way we did on Sunday.

That identity crisis? Whether the teams that play for the national championship should be the best or the most deserving. In the nine years before this season, the best and most deserving seamlessly became one, resulting in cut-and-dried decisions on which teams would make the field.

In the final season of the four-team era — before it expands to 12 in 2024 — the CFP committee was charged with a very difficult decision that was guaranteed to result in a worthy team feeling cheated. The committee, for the first time, was actually going to have to choose what it values more — the teams that earned it or the teams that look the best on TV.

Florida State, the most deserving, became the first unbeaten Power 5 conference champion left out of the field. The Seminoles were the ones left feeling cheated.

And with that one decision, the committee didn’t just choose teams in a given year. It revealed to the world the ugly truth about college football — this sport is a beauty contest where decisions on which teams can win the national title are sometimes made as much in a cozy hotel boardroom in Grapevine, Texas, as they are on the actual field.

The Playoff field is as follows: 1. Michigan, 2. Washington, 3. Texas, 4. Alabama.

Michigan and Washington made it through the season unscathed. Texas lost a nail-biter in its rivalry game to Oklahoma, and the Longhorns, wait for it, beat Alabama.

We wouldn’t be having this discussion if Florida State’s star quarterback, Jordan Travis, didn’t break his leg two weeks ago. But the Seminoles team that just beat Louisville 16-6 in the ACC Championship Game was relying on a third-string quarterback. The win was far from impressive.

The committee, knowing it was going to unjustly break someone’s heart, decided to break Florida State’s. In that room on Saturday night, the committee members decided the Seminoles weren’t good enough for us.

That’s not what sports are supposed to be about. And with the four-team CFP era ending after this season, fans will be viewing it as a broken system that needed to be changed rather than the first frontier of the modernization of the sport.

It’s very easy to fathom why the committee couldn’t choose between Alabama and Texas. Alabama is a one-loss SEC champion that beat Georgia on Saturday, ending the Bulldogs’ 29-game winning streak. Texas, a one-loss Big 12 champion, beat Alabama by 10 points in Tuscaloosa in September.

Many fans were hoping that the SEC would be left out entirely for the first time, but the committee — charged with picking the “best teams” — couldn’t ignore what the ultra-talented Crimson Tide accomplished. But if Alabama goes, how could the committee leave the team out that beat it?

It couldn’t.

This is probably the path of least resistance. Outside of Florida State fans, the general population will move on convinced that the Playoff semifinals will be more entertaining with more high-level teams. The best teams, as they say, won out.

The problem with choosing the best is that it’s entirely subjective and ultimately misleading given this is a sport that routinely features unpredictable results and unforeseen runs. The last time a team was relying on a third-string quarterback heading into the College Football Playoff — Ohio State in the inaugural season of the four-team field — won the national title.

The difference between those Buckeyes and this Florida State team was that Ohio State won the Big Ten title game that year 59-0. Florida State was in a close game with Louisville that was, quite frankly, not an enjoyable watch for people who love the excitement of big-time offense. Perception, wrongly, became reality.

“Florida State is a different team,” CFP committee chair Boo Corrigan said after the field was revealed. “You look at who they are as a team without Jordan Travis — they are a different team.”

That’s a well-informed opinion that’s probably true. It, however, is not a fact. You could make the case that Florida State is so good that it won a Power 5 conference championship game with a true freshman quarterback. In the CFP, Florida State would have gotten second-string quarterback Tate Rodemaker back with a month to prepare for a semifinal game.

Florida State was robbed.

And its head coach didn’t hide his disappointment.

“I am disgusted and infuriated with the committee’s decision today to have what was earned on the field taken away because a small group of people decided they knew better than the results of the games,” Mike Norvell said in a statement. “What is the point of playing games?”

As difficult as it would have been, the right thing for the committee to do would have been to leave Alabama out. Most of us know in our gut that the Crimson Tide — the most talented team, on paper, in the sport — are one of the four best teams. Alabama is certainly equipped to win the whole thing.

But Alabama — like peers Georgia and Ohio State, teams with a wealth of raw talent on their rosters — lost a game (at home). Better teams have been left out in the past than this Alabama team because losses had consequences.

Alabama’s loss to Texas didn’t have a consequence because we’re enamored with the SEC and what it means to beat Georgia. It didn’t matter that Alabama — though perceived to be an entirely different team in September — lost to the Longhorns. That game could have been a Playoff game in September. It turns out it was an exhibition.

There are plenty of people who are against the expansion of the field to 12 because of the sanctity of the regular season. But if the games in the regular season aren’t going to matter when it comes to picking the final four, then there are no consequences for expanding to 12.

The regular season didn’t decide who made it this year. Thirteen people did.

The games mattered. The results didn’t.

(Photo of Mike Norvell: Isaiah Vazquez / Getty Images)

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