Nobody in Texas is too broken up over Florida State being left out of the College Football Playoff. FSU (13–0) finished fifth in the selection committee’s final ranking, behind 12–1 Texas and 12–1 Alabama. The rationales and arguments behind that decision were convoluted as ever—the only college competition with more debating than college football is probably, well . . . college debating (which is not an NCAA sport).
But at the end of the day, the CFP committee’s judgment couldn’t have been simpler: that the Big 12 champion Longhorns and SEC champion Crimson Tide were better than cinthe ACC champion Seminoles. And fans of Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU, Houston, and Texas A&M would surely feel the same if their team was in a position to play for a national championship. Problem is, the committee’s rankings failed another Texas team: SMU. The Mustangs upset favored Tulane in the American Athletic Conference championship game to win the school’s first outright conference title since 1982 (that infamous—and now-beloved—Mustangs dynasty also tied for the Southwest Conference title in 1984).
Because Tulane had been the highest-ranked team from the second-tier Group of Five conferences for much of the season, and the AAC has typically been the best of those conferences, it stood to reason that the Ponies’ win over the Green Wave—on Tulane’s home field, no less—would have been enough to put them in a New Year’s Six game. But the AAC title was not enough to elevate 11–2 SMU over 13–0 Liberty, which won the Conference USA championship game at home against New Mexico State. (Former AAC member Cincinnati is the only non–Power 5 school to have made the College Football Playoff, in 2021, and the conference’s champion had been the Group of Five’s top CFP team for six straight years until the committee snubbed SMU.)
Before those games, the CFP had ranked Tulane number 22 and Liberty number 24; the final ranking had Liberty at 23, one slot ahead of SMU. That put the Flames into the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day against a marquee team (number 8, Oregon, led by quarterback Bo Nix, a finalist for this year’s Heisman Trophy), while SMU will play 6–6 Boston College in the Fenway Bowl—yes, at the baseball stadium just miles from BC’s campus—on December 28.
“If you watched our game and you watched the [Liberty–New Mexico State game], anybody who knows football couldn’t have deduced anything different than who would give Oregon the best game,” SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee said at his press conference following the final rankings.
But, 13–0 is 13–0, right? Unless you’re Florida State, which won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship and dropped from fourth to fifth in the decisive CFP ranking, even as number-seven Texas and number-eight Alabama won their conference championship games and rose to number three and number four, respectively.
Granted, the argument over whether Alabama or FSU is more worthy of a spot in the national semifinal is bound to be more heated and exacting than the debate between SMU and Liberty. The demotion of the Seminoles was also unprecedented, based in part on a season-ending injury for starting quarterback Jordan Travis in November. That allowed the CFP committee to proclaim that FSU was not the same caliber of team it had been through its first eleven games, even though the Seminoles then went on to win a rivalry game against Florida and the ACC title tilt against Louisville without Travis. Other factors, such as strength of schedule, overall conference quality, statistical power rankings, the eye test, and the core argument of “best team” versus “most-deserving team” were also considered.
Problem is, all of those reasons to leave Florida State out of the top four are also reasons why SMU should have had an edge over Liberty—as American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco was happy to point out.
“[W]e are stunned and disappointed in the College Football Playoff committee’s egregious decision to exclude SMU from a New Year’s Six bowl.” Aresco said in a written statement. “It is especially disappointing to see that the committee appears to have applied different standards in SMU’s case than they did with the selection of the top four teams.” The North Texas–based commish also noted that in past years undefeated AAC teams, like Central Florida and Cincinnati, were “often ranked behind two- and three-loss teams based on the committee’s assessment of strength of schedule. Apparently, that same assessment did not apply in this case when it was clearly warranted.”
The CFP committee was supposed to be an improvement over its predecessor, the Bowl Championship Series selection process, which used a combination of opaque computer rankings and old-school polls to come up with a final ranking of the nation’s best college football teams. That system probably sounds good to SMU right now. Both the Associated Press and American Football Coaches Association polls had SMU ahead of Liberty while also ranking Florida State in the top four. Jeff Sagarin (who was formerly one of the BCS computers) rated SMU twenty-fifth and Liberty fiftieth, while ESPN’s Football Power Index rating puts the Mustangs at number 18 and Liberty at 49.
Then there’s strength of schedule (also per ESPN’s FPI). While SMU’s ranking at 76 is firmly middle-of-the-pack, Liberty’s was dead last: 133rd out of 133 Football Bowl Subdivision schools. What the pollsters and coders saw that the CFP committee didn’t is that SMU’s road losses to Big 12 opponents Oklahoma and TCU were worth as much as, if not more than, Liberty’s best non-conference wins over Bowling Green and Buffalo (both of the Mid-American Conference). And yet the committee still managed to rank the likes of 9–3 LSU and 8–4 Oklahoma State—to say nothing of 10–2 Missouri, Penn State, and Ole Miss—well ahead of Liberty. But if a third- or fourth-place SEC, Big 10, or Big 12 team is simply better and more battle-tested than a 13–0 Conference USA champion, so is an 11–2 AAC champion.
“It’s terrible the message it sends: just schedule wins,” SMU athletic director Rick Hart told Stefan Stevenson of the Dallas Morning News. “That’s different from what we’ve been asked to do previously.”
Down in Tallahassee—which is home to both Florida State and the Florida state capitol building—everyone’s still up in arms about the Seminoles. Not just on the college football message boards, but at the highest levels of government (the Venn diagram on that is smaller than you’d think).
Florida senator Rick Scott sent a letter to CFP chairman Boo Corrigan demanding to see all of the committee’s notes and voting data, and college football rubberneckers of all political leanings are hoping the Republican senator will get what he’s asked for (and share it with the public). Florida governor Ron DeSantis and the state’s attorney general, Ashley Moody, have also been on the warpath, promising to spend state money and resources on legal action. And somehow, on top of that, a state representative from neighboring Georgia joined in!
All the noise from Florida, at least, was enough to get a response from CFP executive director Bill Hancock, who wrote a letter to Scott and other officials reiterating that the Travis injury and FSU’s weaker strength of schedule played significant roles in the committee’s decision to keep the Seminoles out of the playoff.
So whither SMU? Neither Texas governor Greg Abbott nor senator Ted Cruz have taken up for the poor Ponies. Abbott, of course, is a Texas Ex who’ll be rooting for his alma mater in the College Football Playoff, and Ivy Leaguer Cruz is also on that bandwagon (both the governor and the senator took up for TCU last year, too).
Obviously, SMU being denied a trip to the Fiesta Bowl has not generated as much controversy as Florida State being left out of the playoff. Hence, SMU’s plight hasn’t generated enough heat for the state’s politicians to sense an opportunity to score political points. But with the CFP expanding to a field of twelve next season, the stakes will soon be higher. Instead of competing for one spot in a minor New Year’s Six bowl, the highest-ranked Group of Five team will be tangling for a single guaranteed playoff spot—an improvement over the old system, but with little chance of a second team being considered.
Fortunately, SMU doesn’t have to worry about that, as they are on their way out of the Group of Five and into a power conference. Y’know, the Atlantic Coast Conference. The one that Florida State just won. What could possibly go wrong?