Halftime Sports

When winning doesn’t matter: column

December 7, 2023

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Vince Lombardi has a famous quote: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” On December 3rd, 2023, the College Football Playoff committee decided to disagree with the coach, whose name graces the Super Bowl trophy, when they kicked unbeaten Florida State to the curb, leaving them without a chance to compete for this year’s National Championship. 

When describing the sport of college football, the final result is binary: a win or a loss. A simple outcome. Two possibilities. But the College Football Playoff committee’s decision to leave out a team that won every game they played and replace them with two other teams, each with one loss to their name, creates a third outcome that throws a wrench into the simple result of football: win sexy with big plays and marquee players. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to be a team that has a history of success and is beloved by a big TV network. 

To be fair, Florida State’s 16-6 victory over Louisville to win the ACC Championship and move to 13-0 was ugly. That’s what happens when your star quarterback goes down with a season-ending injury just two weeks before. And yet, with an 18-year-old, third-string, true freshman quarterback, they gutted out a win against a fantastic Louisville team, ranked No. 14 by the playoff committee, that beat the brakes off of national power Notre Dame only a month prior. 

For some inexplicable reason, however, this season’s College Football Playoff semifinals are without the Florida juggernaut. No. 1 Michigan (13-0) will face off with No. 4 Alabama (12-1) in the Rose Bowl, while No. 2 Washington (13-0) will take on No. 3 Texas (12-1) in the Sugar Bowl. Florida State, who came into conference championship week ranked No. 4 before winning the ACC Championship and remaining undefeated, is ranked No. 5, and thus will not get a chance to play for a national championship. 

Good to know this entire season didn’t matter. The results on the field don’t matter. The committee members looked into the future and decided there was no possible way a Florida State team without its starting quarterback could compete, so why bother even letting them try? It’s not like in the first-ever rendition of the College Football Playoff, Ohio State won a national championship with their third-string quarterback. Florida State did everything right on the field — a perfect season that included three wins over top-20 teams, as well as wins over two SEC teams on the road, all while having a Heisman-candidate quarterback, senior Jordan Travis, and one of the top defenses in the country — but since Travis broke his leg, it wasn’t enough.

“In the eyes of the committee, Florida State is a different team without Jordan Travis,” committee chair Boo Corrigan said. “One of the things we do consider is player availability.”

This ignores the fact that Travis was already out for Florida State’s previous game, a 24-15 victory with rival Florida. Following that win, the Seminoles entered the Top 4 again. So, how was No. 4 FSU leapfrogged by two teams ranked No. 7 and No. 8 at the beginning of the week? 

Texas and Alabama are national brands with fan bases that stretch far beyond their respective states. They have NFL talent across the field, and most importantly (apparently), they have healthy quarterbacks. They’re the only position that seems to matter after all. 

In a world so unfair and subjective, we turn to sport as the last institution of fairness and objectivity, especially on the gridiron. Two teams enter; one team leaves victorious. But the CFP committee proved that this final bastion of hope has been crushed. Politics and subjectivity pervade and affect everything, and even college football can’t escape those long shadows. 

It’s why there will be a 12-team playoff next year, and it’s why individual matchups like “The Game” between Michigan and Ohio State or the “Red River Rivalry” between Texas and Oklahoma will matter less, since the stakes will be lower. I personally did not want a 12-team playoff since regular season rivalry games would matter less; then the committee proved the regular season did not matter at all. 

When UCF suffered the same fate back in 2017 (they were the only undefeated team in the country, but were also left out of the four-team playoff), the prevailing notion was that their strength of schedule wasn’t strong enough since they were not a Power 5 program. Less than a decade later, that logic is out the window: for the first time in the history of the College Football Playoff, an undefeated Power 5 conference champion will not vie for the biggest crown in the sport. 

Florida State’s strength of schedule may have been weaker, but their resume, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, was still better than Alabama and Texas. Florida State defeated a higher-ranked team than Texas did during Championship weekend, and FSU’s margin of victory since Jordan Travis’s injury has actually been wider than each of Alabama’s wins with their starting quarterback over the same stretch. Texas at least has the argument that they defeated Alabama head-to-head by double-digits in Tuscaloosa earlier this year, so they deserve a place in the top four. But Florida State will be sitting on the couch with the rest of us come January 1st, watching Alabama play in a game they belonged in.

The simplest thing about sport has also become, apparently, the most difficult thing to parse. Wins are supposed to matter. Losses are supposed to matter. The tangible, concrete successes of an undefeated Florida State team have been replaced by the intangible and nebulous question of which team would be favored to win. One-loss Alabama will have a chance to play for a national championship. Undefeated Florida State will not. The College Football Playoff selection committee just made it abundantly clear what it means to win—nothing at all. 

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