The four-team College Football Playoff is going out as it came in: Steeped in controversy.
The reasons, however, are different. Nine years after TCU and Baylor were left out in favor of Ohio State in the inaugural 2014 CFP, Florida State has found itself on the outside looking in while Alabama sits at No. 4 in the Rose Bowl against Michigan.
The 2023 playoff field shares quite a few factors with 2014, but it's more like looking in a funhouse mirror. A team made its way in with a third-string quarterback and ultimately won the national championship (Ohio State). A team dropped from No. 3 to No. 6 despite winning in the final week of the season (TCU). And not one, but two conference champions (albeit co-champions) were left out in the cold because their conference simply couldn't protect them (Baylor and the Horned Frogs).
See the distortion yet? Florida State was kept out because of its quarterback. It dropped from No. 4 to No. 5 despite winning a conference championship in its final week. And it was left out as an undefeated conference champion, the first time that has ever occurred in the four-team College Football Playoff.
So, how do the specifics of these two situations compare? Florida State, of course, moved from No. 4 to No. 3 in the 2014 rankings, when TCU routed Iowa State 55-3 and Baylor defeated No. 9 Kansas State 38-27 on Dec. 6, a day before being left out of the final CFP top four while Ohio State got in. Third-string QB Cardale Jones led the Buckeyes to a dominant 59-0 win over Wisconsin (thanks in large part to Ezekiel Elliott), leaving no doubt that he and the Buckeyes could compete with anyone in the country.
The reality is, despite the comparable situations, different seasons mean different factors are applied. If it feels like all of the conversations about four vs. five are splitting hairs and talking in circles, it's because the CFP is made up of humans with thoughts and biases, rather than the computers of the BCS.
With that in mind, here's a trip down memory lane to see how 2014 compares to 2023 — and an attempt to find some commonalities between two impossible scenarios.
What happened in the 2014 College Football Playoff?
The 2014 College Football Playoff had one extremely weird X-factor: The Big 12's lack of a conference championship game.
Heading into the final week of the season, championship week, the top teams in the country were:
Alabama (vs. Missouri in SEC championship)
Oregon (vs. Arizona in Pac-12 championship)
TCU (vs. Iowa State)
Florida State (vs. Georgia Tech in ACC championship)
Ohio State (vs. Wisconsin in Big Ten championship)
Baylor (vs. Kansas State)
Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, and Ohio State all won their respective conference championships, while TCU and Baylor also had victories in "regular season" games. The committee ultimately dropped third-ranked TCU to No. 6, moved Baylor up one spot to No. 5 and moved Ohio State into the playoff at No. 4.
Jones went 12 for 17 passing for 253 yards and three touchdowns vs. the Badgers while Elliott carried the Buckeyes with 220 rushing yards and another three touchdowns. In all, it was the kind of dominant performance the Buckeyes needed without quarterbacks Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett: Miller didn't see the field that year after tearing his labrum during practice, and Barrett broke his ankle against Michigan. Even without Barrett, Ohio State moved from No. 6 to No. 5 in the penultimate rankings.
Here's where things get tricky, and where the committee set a precedent that would give itself unilaterality in selecting the top four teams:
"That's what really resulted in the committee voting that dramatic change in the last weekend because we fully vetted the criteria and protocols we were given by the management committee," said former committee member and Kansas athletic director Jeff Long in 2018 of the protocols taken into account by the CFP, per ESPN. "I think there was also a feeling that we didn't have to act like a poll. We were a group of 12 individuals voting. That gave some latitude to when we looked at all of those criteria, we had the full body of work, we could make a decision that moved someone on the last week."
In other words: Jones looked really good, and Ohio State looked dominant. If TCU and Baylor had played each other on Dec. 6, the conversation very likely would have looked completely different.
Interestingly, then-Big 12 commissioner Brett Bowlsby invoked a commonly used talking point this year when talking about the lack of championship game.
“It’s not within our prerogative to bind the selection committee in that way," Bowlsby said at the time, per The Oklahoman, in the week leading up to 2014 championship week. "The committee’s charge is not to select the most deserving team. The committee’s responsibility is to select the best teams.”
2023 College Football Playoff results
The situation heading into championship weekend in 2023 was similar...ish.
There was a doomsday scenario for the committee that would lead to broken hearts and utter chaos: Florida State, Washington, and Michigan all win to become undefeated Power Five champions, Alabama defeats Georgia to put both SEC teams at one loss and Texas wins to be a one-loss conference champion with a head-to-head win over Alabama.
And ... that's exactly how things played out. Here's how the top six looked coming in (all games played were conference championships):
Georgia (vs. Alabama in SEC championship)
Michigan (vs. Iowa in Big Ten championship)
Washington (vs. Oregon in Pac-12 championship)
Florida State (vs. Louisville in ACC championship)
Oregon (vs. Washington in Pac-12 championship)
Ohio State (idle)
Texas (vs. Oklahoma State in Big 12 championship)
Alabama (vs. Georgia in SEC championship)
Oregon was effectively eliminated with a 34-31 loss on Friday, whereas Ohio State was effectively eliminated a week earlier in its 30-24 loss to Michigan. Georgia also dropped out with its 27-24 loss to Alabama, sliding Michigan and Washington up to Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.
That left three teams competing for two spots: Florida State, Texas, and Alabama.
Florida State's Brock Glenn struggled at times vs. Louisville, completing 8 of 21 passes for 55 yards. Tate Rodemaker, the presumed starter for Florida State in a potential postseason game, was 12 for 25 for 135 yards against Florida. But the FSU defense ruled the day in both games without Travis.
Ultimately, Texas got the No. 3 spot and Alabama got to No. 4, despite Florida State beating Louisville 16-6 behind a dominant defensive performance. The justification was that it came down to the four "best" teams over the most "deserving."
The rationale was that Alabama looked like the stronger team during championship week than Florida State.
"Florida State is a different team than they were the first 11 weeks," Corrigan said on ESPN. "Coach (Mike) Norvell, their players, their fans, 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. And the committee voted Alabama four and Florida State five."
How does the CFP committee pick teams?
The selection process has not changed since the inception of the College Football Playoff.
The committee decides by conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition, common opponents and other relevant factors like injuries. This decision came down to the "other relevant factors" category (although the two teams did share LSU as an opponent).
Ultimately, there was one answer for why the committee selected Alabama over Florida State: The eye test. The Crimson Tide defeated No. 1, two-time defending national champion Georgia and got the nod.
Did the CFP committee follow its precedent?
Whether the College Football Playoff followed previously set precedents is going to depend on point of view.
The real precedent the committee set in 2014 was that it is a group of individuals that can value what it wants to set a top four, whatever that criteria may be. TCU technically did what it needed to to hold serve that year, but Ohio State got a "championship" and showed it could dominate with its next quarterback.
Florida State did the same thing and met the championship criteria, but the committee ultimately decided Alabama was the "better" team. The precedent established in 2014 was that the committee doesn't need to follow its own precedent, creating this situation.
This will all be rendered moot next year with the 12-team playoff, when the discussion will be No. 12 vs. No. 13. There will be less fervor, but the debates will continue as they always have.
Florida State would have made it under any other format. But exigent circumstances harmed the Seminoles in a tangibly painful way this season.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: 2014 CFP, revisited: FSU's 2023 snub informed by inaugural playoff