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Does FSU set precedent for future unbeatens?

12/11/2014
Under the old BCS system, 13-0 Florida State would likely have been No. 1 heading to the postseason. Rob Kinnan/USA Today Sports

Win after win this season, Jimbo Fisher was defiant, grounding his defense of his program's résumé in facts -- not, as he'd often analogize, in figure skating.

The decision on Florida State's playoff berth was made Saturday, Fisher declared upon winning another ACC title. This was no beauty contest, there were no style points. The Seminoles were 13-0, the lone unbeaten team. They were the defending national champs, and their slide from the top of the rankings would grind to a halt, at least according to their coach.

Then came Sunday, and the Noles were ranked third, and their repeat run was extended (at least) a few more weeks by the selection committee, and none of the other chatter surrounding their legitimacy seemed to matter.

"I don't get into all that," Fisher said when asked if FSU should be No. 1. "Whether you're in and whether you're 1 or 3 or 4 or 2, whatever it may be, you're going to play a great team."

Fisher can breathe easy and say that now in the era of the College Football Playoff. That his team will travel 2,000-plus miles to the Rose Bowl for its first playoff game does not matter to him so much as the fact that his team, at the end of the day, is in the tournament.

Still, there was all that late-season politicking. From an undefeated coach from a Power-5 conference. The only undefeated coach.

And his team only checked in at No. 3.

If it takes all that for a brand-name program riding a 29-game winning streak to crack the field, how does the future bode for other perfect teams in this system? Moreover, is FSU lucky that its supposed underwhelming 13-0 mark -- as underwhelming as a 13-0 mark that featured 12 Power-5 opponents can be -- came in the first year in which four teams are playing for the title instead of two? The latter is unlikely. By most measures, FSU would have probably been No. 1 this year had the BCS formula been in play.

Should that come as a sigh of relief for other programs that have been in the Noles' shoes before? Or should those programs look at what happened this season and thank the football gods that their perfect seasons came during the time period that they did?

At the heart of the matter is the simple question of whether winning games is no longer enough to control one's championship destiny.

"Winning's too hard in college football not to be evaluated on a full body of work," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said, adding, "When you win 12 games and you go undefeated, no matter how you do it, you cannot overlook that kind of work. So I would be hopeful in saying this because I can't speak for others, but I know how I feel. It's too hard to win in college football, and to leave somebody out that's undefeated would go against the reason why we compete for only 12 or 13 weeks a year."

Kelly speaks from the experience of coaching a 12-0 team two years ago. As the lone unbeaten team, the Irish were a given as the regular season's No. 1, regardless of the fact they entered the national title game as double-digit underdogs, a forecast that proved prescient when No. 2 Alabama routed them. Kelly's last team at his previous stop, Cincinnati, also ran the regular-season table, ranking third behind two fellow unbeatens.

Knowing what it takes to win every week -- and perhaps helping his own team, which lost in Tallahassee this season -- Kelly voted FSU No. 1 in his final coaches poll ballot. He had company: Cincinnati's Tommy Tuberville, UConn's Bob Diaco and Memphis' Justin Fuente had the Noles atop their ballots as well. All three coaches have been part of perfect campaigns before — Tuberville at Auburn, and Diaco and Fuente as assistants at Notre Dame and TCU, respectively.

That was not exactly the norm, though. LSU's Les Miles and Alabama's Nick Saban both had FSU third. Joining them were two coaches who know what it's like to be on the outside looking in despite undefeated seasons: TCU's Gary Patterson ranked FSU fourth, and Washington's Chris Petersen, formerly of Boise State, ranked the Noles third.

Looking out for your conference brethren is one thing -- though Patterson didn't even do that, voting his team third behind Alabama and Oregon -- but what explains the gap between between No. 1 and FSU? Has the new way of thinking already permeated the voters?

"In the old system, we know we needed to be undefeated," said Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin, who was an assistant on two undefeated Broncos teams that did not play for the title. "The way it is now, that’s not the case and here we are."

Harsin is referring to Boise State's spot in the VIZIO Fiesta Bowl despite two losses. But his reasoning may help explain the current way of doing business at the top of college football.

"I think as far as we’re concerned, the years of winning and what we’ve done in the past does help us in the position we’re in now," he said. "We can use an Alabama as an example. One-loss Alabama over undefeated Florida State. Florida State’s undefeated but Alabama’s ranked ahead. Why? Because it’s Alabama."

On Sunday, with his postseason fate settled, Fisher sounded at ease. He talked about everyone learning the new process at once. He reasoned that criteria would become clearer and more consistent with time.

What had to seem like a charade these last seven weeks proved strenuous. The ensuing defense routine was fatiguing. FSU was on to play Oregon, and maybe play beyond that, and that was all that seemed relevant moving forward.

"I just think winning is so hard and when you repeat things, people are going to prepare for you differently," he said. "They're going to prepare for you in the offseason, and to overcome so much adversity and the things we've overcome defending our championship and still being able to go undefeated, I think is a tremendous feat."

So, too, does the committee. At least in this case.