Wasserman: CFP committee is in a historic bind, so it could do something we’ve never seen

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It’s easy to get lost in the College Football Playoff selection committee conference call transcripts. Most of what you’ll find is vague, uninformative nonsense you’d expect from people afraid to tip their hands.

CFP executive director Bill Hancock and committee chair Boo Corrigan are tasked with weekly check-ins with the media, but they refuse to project forward, deal in hypotheticals or say exactly how the committee feels. Corrigan is saddled with the responsibility of talking for 13 others — who often don’t agree — about an entirely subjective issue with incomplete data.

The result? Robotic responses to questions fans are dying to have answered. But there was one comment from Hancock this past week that stood out.

“Most deserving is not anything in the committee’s lexicon,” Hancock said. “They are to rank the best teams in order, and that’s what they do. Just keep that word in mind. ‘Best’ teams.”

Emphasis on “best.” It doesn’t matter how we feel or who we think deserves a seat at the table the most. It’s “best.” If you’re looking for a rough translation of what that means for the committee, here it is: “We can literally do whatever we want and justify it however we see fit.”

After Florida State’s ugly 16-6 win against Louisville in the ACC championship game Saturday night, the debate has become unhinged. For the first time in the 10-year history of the four-team Playoff, the committee is in a blender. If you root for chaos, this is chaos. The committee is tasked with making an impossible decision with no right or wrong answers. No matter what it does Sunday when the top four is revealed, there will be a team left out that feels it was cheated.

The committee, which has had a cushy decade-long run of a complicated system annually working out to an easy top four, finally has its back against the wall. That is unprecedented. Could that mean we’re about to see something we’ve never seen before?

Could we (gulp) see an undefeated Power 5 champion left out of the CFP for the first time?

You can’t make definitive statements about who is getting in or being left out as the final team. We’ve tended to look at past committees’ rankings and treat them like legal precedent. But precedent doesn’t exist in these rankings because the members of the committee change, and even if it did, we’re in a situation that has never been navigated. If you start a sentence with “There’s no way,” well, there’s probably a way.

Let’s get the locks out there. Michigan and Washington, both of whom are fully healthy 13-0 Power 5 champions, are most assuredly going to be in the College Football Playoff. Nobody is arguing that.

But the final two spots? Here is who we’re choosing from.

  • Florida State: Undefeated Power 5 champion with three Top 25 wins. It also beat both SEC schools it had on its schedule in LSU and Florida. However, the Seminoles are a subject of debate because star quarterback Jordan Travis suffered a season-ending leg injury a few weeks ago. Florida State beat Louisville in ugly fashion behind third-string quarterback Brock Glenn.
  • Alabama: One-loss SEC champion that just beat Georgia in the conference title game Saturday. The Crimson Tide have four wins over Top 25 teams and ended the Bulldogs’ 29-game winning streak. It seems almost unthinkable that the SEC champ — which is also the most talented team in the country — would be left out.
  • Texas: One-loss Big 12 champion with three Top 25 wins, including perhaps the best win in the sport this year: a 10-point victory over Alabama in Tuscaloosa in September. In a comparison between Alabama and Texas, how could the committee possibly leave out the Longhorns when they beat the Crimson Tide on the field?
  • Georgia: One-loss non-champion with three Top 25 wins. Although they may not have a marquee win on the same level of the other teams in this list, the Bulldogs certainly pass the eye test despite the loss.

Georgia has an uphill battle to make it in. You could make the case that the Bulldogs, as good as they are, shouldn’t even be in the discussion. Put them in the same category as Ohio State: an ultra-talented team that could likely make noise in the CFP but simply didn’t do enough to get in.

The real debate will likely be between the first three teams. But no matter how the committee sees the matter, it’s going to be a subjective decision made by well-dressed people in a conference room in Grapevine, Texas. Regardless of who gets left out, that program’s fans will lose their minds. And rightfully so.

This isn’t a column advocating for what should be done. It’s just outlining the unworkable decision that has to be made and why, for the first time ever, the committee may be willing to leave out an unbeaten team.

Remember that pesky word in Hancock’s answer.

Best. Best. Best. A million times, best.

In every year of the Playoff’s existence, the best and most deserving teams usually lined up. The only exception was the inaugural CFP season in 2014 when there was a decision to make between TCU and Baylor. The committee chose Ohio State instead of the Big 12 rivals, and the Buckeyes went on to win the national title.

Sure, former TCU coach Gary Patterson still carries resentment about being left out that year. Baylor fans surely still scoff at the result. But the public largely accepted the Buckeyes were the right choice. If two conference teams are indistinguishable from one another, pick the third option that went undefeated in Big Ten play and won the Big Ten championship game 59-0. It was painful, but it made sense.

Ohio State, funny enough, may come up again in the next 18 hours as it pertains to Florida State. The 2014 Buckeyes lost quarterback Braxton Miller before the season started that year, and backup quarterback J.T. Barrett was injured in the Michigan game. Ohio State was forced to turn to third-string quarterback Cardale Jones, who led the Buckeyes to three thrilling postseason wins and the first national title of the Playoff era.

Who are we to say Florida State stinks without Travis? It hasn’t lost, and football isn’t played in a board room. Yes, it’s really difficult to imagine this version of Florida State beating Alabama, Georgia or Texas, but it hasn’t lost. That’s the game. The season has to matter, right?

But if you put Florida State in because they “deserve it” for not losing, then you’re choosing between big, bad Alabama — which just slayed Georgia in Atlanta — and the Longhorns team that beat Alabama in September three months ago.

To some, it may seem like an easy decision. Florida State goes because it didn’t lose and Texas goes because it beat Alabama. Again, the games have to matter, right? If Texas gets left out, why did it even go to Tuscaloosa?

But then that means we get a CFP where the SEC isn’t represented, and anyone who watched the SEC championship game knows in their heart that both of those teams could beat any of the other programs currently in the discussion, including Michigan and Washington.

Or maybe the committee doesn’t choose between Texas and Alabama — two teams peaking at the right time — and leaves out the hobbled Seminoles. It may hurt to read that, but it has to be put out there as an option, even though the past decade has taught us that an unbeaten Power 5 champ could never be left out.

The committee had to be rooting for Louisville to bail it out. For one final time before the CFP moves to 12 teams, it wanted one clean and easy decision to go along with those nice dinners and hotel points.

Nope. This is impossible.

So we have to keep our hearts and our minds open enough to accept that maybe we go into Sunday not knowing anything. What we think is a lock or what the committee has done in the past does us no good. This group of 13 people could go rogue.

Someone is going to lose. That team may be undefeated.

The truth? Nobody really knows.

(Photo: Bob Donnan / USA Today)

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