GRAPEVINE, Texas — It was between 1:30 and 2 a.m. CT on Sunday after the conference championship games when the 13 members of the College Football Playoff selection committee finally left their meeting room. They had been sequestered for hours as they determined the top four teams in the country.
They knew what they could potentially wind up with — and it didn’t feel good.
As difficult as it was for them to remove their emotions from the process, the sinking feeling about excluding an undefeated Power 5 conference champion was tempered by the belief that they did what they were tasked to do — vote for the four best teams.
“All of us had the emotional tie, like, ‘Holy s—, this is really going to suck to do this,'” one committee member told ESPN. “We talked about that over and over, and we just kept coming back [to] are they good enough with what they have to win a national championship, and it just kept coming back [to] we didn’t think they could.”
There wasn’t any discussion about the SEC being left out because the committee maintains that it talks about teams, not conferences. There wasn’t any serious consideration to include Alabama without Texas because there was so much respect in the room for the Longhorns’ Week 2 win in Tuscaloosa. There also wasn’t enough support in the room to deem Georgia “unequivocally” one of the four best teams in the country — the standard for teams that don’t win their conference title.
Instead, the crux of the debate into the wee hours of Sunday morning centered around how to evaluate Florida State, which beat Louisville with its third-string quarterback after both Jordan Travis and his backup, Tate Rodemaker, were sidelined by injuries. While the Seminoles’ defense impressed the committee — and had all year — there were significant concerns about FSU’s offense.
Undefeated Michigan had won the Big Ten. Undefeated Washington won the Pac-12. Alabama knocked off the selection committee’s No. 1 team, Georgia, to win the SEC, and one-loss Texas, which easily won the Big 12, had knocked off the SEC champion in September.
And now Florida State had found a way to win — again.
It was the final layer of complication in what was already the most difficult, controversial decision any CFP committee has had to make in a decade of the four-team playoff. Never before has an undefeated Power 5 conference champion been excluded from the CFP — but never before have seven Power 5 teams finished the regular season with one or fewer losses. “We’ve never had a year with eight teams at the top as good as these are, and the five conference champions 1 through 5, we’ve never had it come out that way,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said. “My feeling is it probably was the toughest.”
FOR TWO AND a half days on conference championship game weekend, the CFP’s selection committee hid in plain sight.
While families clad in Christmas-themed clothes infiltrated the sprawling Gaylord Texan resort for its annual ice sculpture exhibit, the most powerful people in college football went nearly unnoticed, save for one cardboard sign bearing the CFP logo that some fans paused to look at as they exited the elevator and headed to their rooms.
“Is Bama in?!” one man asked a security guard sitting on a stool outside the meeting rooms Saturday night after the Tide’s SEC championship win against No. 1 Georgia.
The guard just shrugged.
As it turned out, one-loss Bama was in — at the expense of undefeated ACC champion Florida State. It was an unprecedented decision that sparked outrage throughout the sport. FSU coach Mike Norvell said he was “disgusted and infuriated.” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said, “It’s unfathomable.” Travis, the Seminoles’ injured quarterback, said he wished he had broken his leg earlier in the season so the committee could have seen that the team was still great without him.
The committee is steadfast in its belief it got the decision right.
“At the end of the day, everybody had the same goal in mind — do we have the four best teams?” a committee member said. “And we all felt pretty good that we do.”
It wasn’t until the ACC championship game began to unfold, though, that the members’ opinions began to truly take shape. The group grew concerned as it watched the Noles struggle to get a first down in the first half. There is a section in the committee’s protocol that specifically refers to the “unavailability of key players … that may have affected a teams performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance.” That allowed the committee to do something it intentionally avoids every other week: look ahead.
“People really wanted to talk about it,” a committee member said. “We don’t really have that conversation while we’re watching games. But we’ve got to talk about the elephant in the room. What just happened? We talked about 13-0. We talked about the teams they beat. And they were a conference champ. All of that. It took a while.”
Hancock rarely, if ever, shares voting results with the people in the room, though sometimes he’ll mention if they were close or not. The votes are cast privately on each committee member’s laptop. The committee members simply hover their mouse over a team and click to vote. If a committee member is recused from voting for a certain team, it’s shaded in gray on his or her laptop, making it impossible to click on.
They vote on the teams in small batches and continue through the process of voting and debating in groups until the entire list of 25 is compiled. So it’s not as if they begin talking about Texas and Alabama and vote around them to make it fit.
“People may not believe it, but we don’t say, ‘Oh gosh, if we vote this way, the SEC is going to be left out,” one source said. “That never came up. Ever. We literally look at teams, put them up against each other, and say, ‘Who did they beat? Who did they not beat? Who have they beaten on the road? What’s their strength of schedule?’ Look at the matrix and all the data.”
The only time the committee members know the vote is when it’s a tie, because they have to vote again. There was a sense within the room on Saturday night, though, that the more they voted, the closer the group came to agreeing that Florida State should be No. 5.
Boo Corrigan, the chair of the committee and the athletic director at NC State, said the group voted on the top four between six and eight times, and that there was “never a moment of rushing it.” One source said the conversations were “tense” at times. Another said it “never got heated, never got ugly,” but it was “way more complicated and way more agonizing than some people may think.”
The committee met again at 8:30 a.m. CT on Sunday morning and began discussions and voting again.
Because the selection committee is composed of people from different backgrounds — former coaches, players, sitting athletic directors and a former sports reporter — there are different perspectives in the room.
Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart is one of them, and he had the unique experience of having seen Alabama, Georgia and Louisville, FSU’s title game opponent, in-person because his Wildcats faced them, too. He was given opportunities to share his thoughts on each of those teams with the group. Corrigan said the coaches had conversations about: “Who do they want to play? Who do they not want to play?”
“They’ve got a significant voice in the room,” he said.
In the end, though, the difference between Alabama and Florida State boiled down to the committee’s written protocol, particularly the emphasis on strength of schedule — which gave Alabama the edge — and the section that allowed committee members to project what Florida State might look like in a semifinal without their star quarterback.
Not having Heisman hopeful starter Travis “changes their offense in its entirety,” said Corrigan, “and that was really a big factor with the committee as we went through everything.”
So was the Longhorns’ double-digit win at Alabama in Week 2. The committee had been consistent in honoring the head-to-head result all season and felt it was important to be consistent with that on Selection Day — even though they believed Alabama had improved since that September loss.
“That’s something you just can’t ignore,” one person said. “At the end of the day, they scheduled them, they played them at their house, they won and they beat them — and that was big.”
It wasn’t just the committee’s decision to exclude Florida State that drew criticism Sunday afternoon.
The group rewarded undefeated No. 23 Liberty with a New Year’s Six bowl bid instead of two-loss No. 24 SMU, which beat a ranked team in its AAC title game. In addition to voting multiple times at the top of the ranking, the committee also voted repeatedly at the bottom, which pushed the morning meeting to its cut-off time of 11 a.m. CT. The results kept flipping between Liberty and SMU, but ultimately, the group deemed Liberty better.
American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco was fuming.
“For a decade, that committee used an unfair strength of schedule argument against our great undefeated UCF, Cincinnati and Houston teams, which played genuinely tough schedules with P5 opponents,” he told ESPN, “and then they apply a clear double standard to this situation.”
One former selection committee member was stunned and said the inconsistencies in this year’s ranking were “glaring.”
“This may need a complete reset before next year,” the former committee member said. “If Liberty is a Group of 5 playoff team over others, that’s a problem. No Power 5 opponents on the schedule, and the record of teams they’ve beaten is weak.”
NOT SINCE 2014, the inaugural season of the CFP, has the committee generated anything close to this much controversy. That year, the committee dropped TCU from No. 3 to No. 6 in the final rankings in large part because the Big 12 at the time didn’t have a conference championship game.
Now, in the final season of a four-team system, an entirely different group of 13 committee members snubbed an undefeated team that won its conference title. The backlash, according to multiple sources, has been significant, including some from colleagues, friends and peers, in addition to vitriol from Florida State fans.
This would have been the perfect season for the new 12-team playoff format to begin. Next year, the CFP will include the five highest-ranked conference champions and the next seven highest-ranked teams, assuming the proposed new format is rubber-stamped by the presidents and chancellors at their annual meeting before the national championship game in Houston. That guarantees a spot for each power-conference champ and a Group of 5 conference champion. As excited as fans might be for the more inclusive system, Hancock warned that it won’t solve the problem of a talented team being left out.
“People look for perfection, and there will be some teams that don’t quite make it in 12 who are going to be asking some serious questions,” said Hancock, who will retire after this season. “I laugh because the easy answer is to say, ‘Yeah, I wish we had 12.’ But that’s not going to be the panacea that some of us might think it might be. It’s going to be great, don’t get me wrong, but it won’t be perfect.”