Rarely has crowning a champion in college football come without controversy along the way. After decades of enduring polls (and later the BCS) with the occasional split national championship rearing its ugly head under both systems, the sport seemingly found its long-awaited solution with the four-team College Football Playoff in 2014. That quickly proved to be fools gold as the far more subjective CFP, with its 13-person selection committee calling the shots, bred controversy that arguably dwarfed that of its much-maligned predecessors.
It culminated Sunday with an unprecedented uproar when Florida State, the 13-0 ACC champion, was locked out of the four-team field in favor of both one-loss Texas and Alabama, of access to playing for a national title. Granted, excluding an undefeated Power Five champion is a scenario we are unlikely to ever witness again; the CFP moves to 12 teams in 2024 with auto-bids for the five highest-ranked conference champions.
As we prepare to set sail on this chapter of the CFP, it's time to revisit the biggest controversies -- and there were plenty of them -- from the four-team era.
One of the committee's more controversial decisions came in the CFP's first year, thanks in large part to No. 5 Ohio State's stunning 59-0 rout of No. 13 Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game with third-string quarterback Cardale Jones under center. The blowout, as impressive as it was, left the committee in an unenviable position. All four teams ahead of the Buckeyes in the penultimate CFP Rankings— No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 TCU, and No. 4 Florida State — also won that weekend. So did No. 6 Baylor, which sat three spots behind TCU despite boasting an identical record and the head-to-head edge over the Horned Frogs.
Any scenario that put Ohio State in the field required moving out a team that also laid claim to a conference title. Of the penultimate top-four, only TCU lacked an outright league title -- the Big 12 title game had not yet been brought back -- and finished as conference co-champions with Baylor. That was enough for the committee to send the Frogs, one day removed from a 55-3 win against Iowa State, from No. 3 to No. 6 (one spot behind Baylor) to allow Ohio State to sneak in at No. 4. The Buckeyes went on to upset Alabama in the semis and Oregon in the national championship for an unlikely title run. For TCU and Baylor, they could only watch and wonder what might have been.
Made the cut: Ohio State (11-1)
Excluded: Penn State (11-2, Big Ten champion)
After conference titles and head-to-head results ruled the day in 2014 and 2015, the committee faced a Big Ten dilemma in 2016. Ohio State checked in at 11-1 with defining victories at Big 12 champion Oklahoma and in its annual rivalry against a top-five Michigan team. However, the Buckeyes missed the Big Ten Championship Game after losing to Penn State, which ultimately beat Wisconsin for the league title.
Alas, a conference title coupled with a head-to-head win over Ohio State wasn't enough for the Nittany Lions to become the first team to reach the CFP with multiple losses. Early season defeats to Pitt and Michigan were enough for the committee to reverse precedent, excluding Penn State at No. 5 while the Buckeyes qualified with room to spare at No. 3. Washington took the No. 4 spot after finishing as the 12-1 Pac-12 champion. That Ohio State later lost 31-0 to eventual national champion Clemson in the CFP semifinals only increased the clamoring among Penn State fans that their team had been robbed of a spot.
Made the cut: Alabama (11-1)
Excluded: Ohio State (11-2, Big Ten champion), Wisconsin (12-1), UCF (12-0)
2017 was the year that solidified the theory of multiple losses effectively disqualifying a team from CFP contention. It also debuted two teams from the same conference -- the SEC. Though Alabama was an 11-1 SEC West runner-up, it edged 11-2 and Big Ten champion Ohio State for No. 4. The Buckeyes effectively became Penn State from the year before as a two-loss, power-conference champion left out in favor of a one-loss team with one fewer game played.
The Crimson Tide went on to win it all, beating No. 1 Clemson in the semifinals before outlasting No. 3 Georgia in overtime of the national championship. But that wasn't until after their credentials were scrutinized in Big Ten country.
UCF shouldn't be forgotten, either. The Knights ended the regular season undefeated but never sniffed the CFP, finishing at No. 12 in the final rankings. Upon beating SEC runner-up Auburn in the Peach Bowl to finish an overall 13-0, there was zero hesitation by UCF, the flag bearer for the Group of Five, to claim a national championship as the only unbeaten FBS team.
It's no surprise that the sheer wackiness of the pandemic season in 2020 caused headaches for the CFP, especially when it came down to Ohio State, Texas A&M and Notre Dame. The Buckeyes were the undefeated Big Ten champion, but only after playing a mere six games thanks to the abbreviated Big Ten season and additional cancellations. The Fighting Irish, a temporary ACC member, suffered its lone loss in the ACC Championship Game against Clemson, a team it beat in the regular season. The Aggies failed to even reach the SEC Championship Game after an early season loss to Alabama but rebounded with seven straight wins.
Although Texas A&M and Notre Dame both played, and won, more games than Ohio State, the Aggies -- the only team that failed to reach its conference title game and beat every team on its schedule -- were the odd men out. Ohio State finished at No. 3, Notre Dame at No. 4 and Texas A&M at No. 5. Like the Aggies in the regular season, the Buckeyes and Fighting Irish were both undone by the Crimson Tide in the playoff. Still, Texas A&M felt it stood a shot in a potential rematch that it was never afforded.
Made the cut: Texas (12-1, Big 12 champion), Alabama (12-1, SEC champion)
Excluded: Florida State (13-0, ACC champion)
Alabama's SEC Championship Game upset of unbeaten, two-time national champion Georgia threw the CFP picture into a blender. Three teams — Michigan, Washington and Florida State — stood as undefeated Power Five champions, a benchmark that had never failed to grant CFP access in previous seasons. While Alabama had a strong case to round out the field as the SEC champion, Texas presented a roadblock. The Longhorns beat the Crimson Tide in the regular season before emerging as the 12-1 Big 12 champion, ensuring that any CFP field involving Alabama would also involve Texas based on the head-to-head results.
Sure enough, the committee affirmed both the SEC's pull and Texas' win over Alabama ... at Florida State's expense. The Longhorns and Crimson Tide both leaped ahead of the Seminoles and into the top-four while FSU fell to No. 5, becoming the first unbeaten Power Five team to miss the CFP. Injuries to starting quarterback Jordan Travis and backup Tate Rodemaker were referenced as reasons for the fall, but the blowback was still swift and severe as FSU came to terms with the fact that, even at 13-0, it never controlled its own destiny.