OPINION — New Year’s Day will mark the tenth iteration of the four-team College Football Playoff as the SEC champion and four-seed Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1) takes on the top-seeded Big Ten champion Michigan Wolverines (13-0) in the Rose Bowl, while the second-seed Pac-12 champion Washington Huskies (13-0) will face the three-seed and Big XII champion Texas Longhorns (12-1) in the Sugar Bowl. The teams will battle it out for a chance to play for it all in the national championship game the following week at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.
This is the final season of the four-team playoff at the FBS level of college football — the playoffs expand to 12 teams next season — and it is also the most controversial. For the first time since the College Football Playoff began in 2014, an undefeated Power Five conference champion will not be among the four finalists with a shot to play for it all. FSU joins the 2004 Auburn Tigers as the only other undefeated Power Five team to be denied an opportunity to play for the championship since the BCS/CFP era began 25 years ago.
Did the CFP Committee get it right when it chose to include Alabama over FSU? I believe they did. The directive of the committee is to, among other things, assign the top four teams to the playoff semifinal sites. Does that mean the best four teams or the most deserving four teams? When selecting the top four teams, the CFP bylaws state, “The CFP Committee will consider four criteria when teams are deemed comparable: championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition, and comparative outcomes of common opponents.” The Committee then works within those parameters to carry out its assignment.
Taking those criteria alone, both Alabama and Florida State won their respective conference championships. As for strength of schedule, Alabama’s schedule ranked as the fifth most difficult, while FSU’s was ranked 55th. More schedule context: the SEC has three teams in the other NY6 bowls. The ACC has one. The SEC runner-up is No. 6 in the final ranking. The ACC runner-up is No. 15. The SEC has five teams in the top 13. The ACC has one team in the top 14. FSU had two victories over ranked teams, while Alabama had four. FSU likes to mention it was 2-0 versus the SEC…but Alabama went 9-0.
The teams did not face one another during the season but did share a common opponent: LSU. Florida State beat the Tigers by 21 on the road, and Alabama beat them by 14 at home.
Beyond those explicit criteria lies the question of whether the Committee should take the best team or the most deserving team. Many times, those two are one and the same, but sometimes they are not. Florida State went undefeated in a Power Five conference, which is no small feat; however, the team’s starting quarterback, Jordan Travis, one of the most dynamic players in college football and FSU’s all-time leader in total yards, suffered a season-ending injury in its next to last game of the regular season. With an injury to FSU’s best offensive player, its quarterback, and undeniable leader, the arguably more deserving team cannot be considered the best team in determining the final spot in the playoffs.
Alabama, though it lost in week two at home against Texas, has won 11 straight games, culminating in an SEC championship by beating two-time defending national champion and consensus number one Georgia Bulldogs. Given the current station of the two teams, the Committee clearly believed that Alabama was the better team right now and opted to put them into the playoffs instead of the ACC champion Seminoles.
It is important to note that the CFP Committee is allowed to consider “other relevant factors such as key injuries that may have affected a team’s performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance.”
“Florida State is a different team than they were through the first 11 weeks,” CFP Committee chair and North Carolina State athletic director Boo Corrigan said on ESPN. “An incredible season, but if you look at who they are as a team right now, without Jordan Travis, without the offensive dynamic that he brings to it, they are a different team.”
Corrigan went on to say, “Player availability is very important. I think someone said, ‘You can lose a running back, you can lose a wide receiver, but a quarterback as dynamic as Jordan Travis, it changes their offense entirely.’ And that was a big factor.”
As much as the College Football Playoff appeared destined to produce great matchups and classic contests upon its inception, the results have not borne that out. There have been 18 semifinal games under the current college football playoff setup, and the average margin of victory in these games has been 19 points — hardly compelling football. In 12 of the 18 games, the game was decided by more than three scores, with a third of those 12 being decided by 30+ points. Half of all the semifinal games were decided by 20 points or more, with only five of the 18 ending in a one-score game. There has been at least one blowout in every CFP semifinal save for last season. I believe the Committee’s focus was on creating the best game possible within the boundaries of its process, and they determined that a full-strength Alabama squad would be a more compelling matchup and produce a better game with Michigan than a Florida State team starting a backup quarterback.
The first semifinal game will be played between the two winningest college football programs in the country: Alabama vs. Michigan.
A Big Ten team has made the CFP eight times, going 2-6 in the semifinals, losing by an average of 17.5 points in the six losses. Against the SEC in the CFP, the Big Ten is 1-3, losing by an average of 20.6 points. Michigan is 0-2, losing by an average of 11.5 points. The Big Ten has produced one national champion in the CFP era — Ohio State (2014).
The SEC has been represented 11 times in the CFP, going 10-1 in the semifinals with an average margin of victory of 15.2 points. Alabama is 6-1 in the semifinals with an average margin of victory of more than 20 points per game. The SEC has produced six national champions in the CFP era—Alabama (2015, 2017, 2020), Georgia (2021, 2022), and LSU (2019).
The second playoff game involves Washington and Texas, representing two conferences that have had very little success in the CFP. This will be Washington’s second appearance (0-1) and only the Pac 12’s third overall appearance, having gone 1-1 in the semifinals. Texas will be making its CFP debut and is the Big XII’s fifth participant in the CFP. The Big XII is 1-4 in the semifinals, garnering its first victory last season when TCU defeated Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl. Neither conference has produced a national champion during the CFP era.
Alabama vs. Michigan. There has been little to no parity in the Big Ten over the last decade, with the Big Ten Western Division going 0-10 in the conference championship game. This has perhaps given fans and pundits a false sense of just how good the Big Ten champion really is, and it has shown up in the CFP.
This Michigan team, though, is perhaps the Big Ten’s most complete team it has ever sent to the CFP, while Alabama may well be sending its worst playoff team.
Michigan boasts the nation’s second-ranked defensive unit in yards allowed and leads the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 14 TDs all season and giving up just over 9 points per game. Alabama, though not to that level, brings in the 18th-ranked defense and allows just over 18 points per game. But what about context?
The Big Ten has four of the nation’s top five defenses in terms of yards allowed per game. Is it because these defenses are great, or have they feasted on poor Big Ten offenses? The highest-ranked Big Ten offense is Ohio State at 36th and the conference has the nation’s worst offense (Iowa) and five teams with offenses ranked 116th or worse.
As a comparison, the SEC has five teams ranked in the top 25 offensively.
I have seen this movie too may times. A Big Ten team runs roughshod through its conference only to run into a more athletic team from the SEC, ACC, or Big XII and look quite pedestrian. This game has all the makings of an all-time great post-season game and one of the best semifinal games the CFP has produced. Expect a hotly contested defensive battle from these two teams, with Alabama defeating Michigan.
Texas vs. Washington. Washington and Texas bring in two of the nation’s most prolific offenses guided by two of college football’s best signal callers. Texas ranks ninth in total offense, running up 475 yards per game, and Washington is just behind at 469 yards per game. Washington puts the ball in the end zone more often, averaging almost a touchdown more per game. The Huskies are the 10th highest-scoring offense in the country at 37.7 points per game, but Texas is right there, averaging 36 points scored.
The difference in this one could very well be defense. Texas ranks 23rd in total defense, while Washington is 90th. Texas is allowing just two touchdowns per game compared to Washington, which gives up over a touchdown more per contest. The Longhorns hold its opponents to just 17.5 points per game, whereas The Huskies give up almost a touchdown more at 23.6 points per game.
Whereas the Rose Bowl could be a great game because of defense, I believe the Sugar Bowl could be equally exciting because of offense. I believe this year’s CFP semifinal matchups will deliver the same excitement and drama equal to what we saw last year. I like Texas to defeat Washington.
Alabama vs. Texas. These teams have played once already this season and twice in two years. Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian was Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator for two seasons. In short, these teams know one another. There will be NFL athletes all over the field for this one on both sides of the ball. The Alabama offense hasn’t been great this season and ranks 53rd nationally. Texas’ offense is absolutely rolling right now and playing with a ton of confidence and I believe that will be the difference. Give me the Longhorns to be the 2023 FBS national champions.