Well, this is awkward.
For nine years, the selection committee lived in relative comfort, gifted by the college football gods one relatively easy decision after another, a choice between paper or plastic — one that might be better, one that’s easier, neither particularly important. What little controversy it endured — Ohio State in 2014 and 2022, Alabama in 2017 — was largely from a vocal minority because the toughest calls were always determined on the field.
Not this year.
Here we are, on the heels of the final playoff rankings in the final year of the four-team format, and the committee has a mess on its hands.
Credit Nick Saban for Step 1 of Operation Chaos. Saban’s Tide toppled the season’s biggest domino, upending two-time defending champion Georgia 27-24 in the SEC championship game.
Credit Florida State’s suffocating defense for Step 2. The Seminoles racked up seven sacks, 14 tackles for loss, 10 pass break-ups and may have given Jack Plummer a wedgie at midfield just for laughs.
Credit Iowa’s offense for Step 3 because it made Michigan’s life easy Saturday and also because no one has ever typed “Credit Iowa’s offense” before and we wanted to see how it felt.
And credit Texas, not just for Saturday’s Big 12 title win against an overmatched Oklahoma State, but for beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa back in September. If Alabama’s L had come against anyone else, the committee’s job would be far simpler, but that head-to-head win is the underpinning of all the controversy that awaits.
The case is compelling for each of the contenders.
In the aftermath of Alabama’s stunning home loss to Texas in Week 2, the Tide looked dead in the water. But Saban found a brilliant workaround to his biggest dilemma, benching Jalen Milroe against an overmatched USF team in favor of Plans B and C. In doing so, he allowed Milroe to rally his team from the sideline, earning the players’ respect in the process, and he allowed Tide fans to see just how barren the cupboard really was behind Milroe, thus ending any clamoring for an open competition. In one seemingly inexplicable move on a September Saturday in Tampa, Saban turned his team’s glaring weakness into a foundation upon which he could rebuild the offense. Saban plays chess. The rest of us play Connect Four and routinely forget about the diagonals.
The result of Saban’s genius? Milroe blossomed as he led the Tide to an easy win over Ole Miss, out-gunned Jayden Daniels and LSU and delivered a miracle throw into the back of the end zone on fourth down from 30 miles down I-280. Then Saturday, Milroe did perhaps his best work — not with fireworks or magic, but with one efficient, flawless, precise decision after another.
The dime to Jermaine Burton in the back of the end zone.
Jalen Milroe dimes Jermaine Burton to boost Bama’s lead before half
Jalen Milroe throws a nice pass over the middle to Jermaine Burton for an Alabama touchdown.
The shovel pass to Isaiah Bond on third-and-2 to set up a touchdown.
The scrambles through traffic on that final, clock-draining drive as Georgia’s defense flailed helplessly in an effort to get off the field and give the offense one last shot at a win.
It was all so brilliantly methodical — Saban the surgeon and Milroe the scalpel, each slowly excising Georgia from the playoff.
That Georgia was forced to endure this misery with Ladd McConkey and Brock Bowers both battling injuries will undoubtedly leave the Bulldogs wondering how much different things might’ve been. That two of the biggest plays of the game — Burton’s touchdown catch and Trezmen Marshall’s fumble recovery — came from former Georgia players who transferred to Alabama is a gallon of salt into the Bulldogs’ wounds.
At least the selection committee understands Georgia’s pain.
To punch a ticket for Alabama invariably means leaving either Florida State or Texas at the alter.
And how could the committee — chaired by an ACC athletics director — ignore Florida State? At 13-0, FSU would be the first undefeated Power 5 conference champion to be ranked outside the top four in modern college football. Sure, FSU is without Jordan Travis the rest of the way, and yes, Brock Glenn hardly looked the part Saturday. But the rest of the FSU roster has proven its worth. Braden Fiske, Tatum Bethune and the rest of the defense dominated, Lawrance Toafili and Trey Benson found just enough spark for a few fireworks, and Mike Norvell has proven he is among the nation’s elite head coaches.
Leaving Florida State out in spite of its flawless record would be an absolute slap in the face of the ACC, which has a long history of self-inflicted “Three Stooges” eye pokes, but has never had an undefeated team shut out of a chance to play for a national title.
Could Texas be left out instead? Could the committee make the argument that this Alabama team, in early December, is far better than the one that lost to the Longhorns in early September? That seems an empirical fact, but it also ignores that Texas, too, has made strides since then, and it implies that September games are little more than a dress rehearsal for what comes next. To ignore Texas’ win in Tuscaloosa requires more leaps of basic logic than the average Congressional hearing on NIL.
Sure, we feel for the folks on the committee. No one joins a group like this expecting to do real, hard work. They’re in it for a few trips to Texas, a catered lunch, a few laps in the hotel pool.
Now they have Greg Sankey quoting “Sesame Street” to justify the SEC’s inclusion, suggesting the SEC is just built different from everyone else. “Me want cookie” would’ve sufficed though.
Now they’re meeting in the state of Texas with the Longhorns’ future in their hands. Surely they’ve all seen the “Don’t Mess with Texas” T-shirts for sale at Buc-ee’s. The slogan implies the results would be unpleasant.
Now they’ll have to figure out how to explain to Jim Phillips that the ACC’s undefeated champion may not be among the five best teams in the country. Perhaps they’ll note that, if not for Phillips’ pushback against playoff expansion, there might be a 12-team playoff now. We’re sure he’ll take that well.
Now, they’re left to parse a host of dissimilar metrics, to predict impossible hypotheticals, to weigh the fates of three of college football’s blue bloods — five if you count Georgia and Ohio State — and deliver a verdict.
There are no good options now, and that seems like a fitting way to say farewell to the four-team era.
Texas dominated, but was it enough?
By the end of Week 13, there were eight teams with something approaching a reasonable case for a playoff berth, with some more substantive than others. But of those eight teams, none seemed to get less critical attention than Texas.
That changed as the Longhorns strutted through the second half of a Big 12 championship game they dominated almost from the opening snap.
Quinn Ewers threw for 452 yards and four touchdowns, the bulk of it before halftime. It was the third-most passing yards in Texas history. The Horns racked up 662 yards of total offense — the most in a Power 5 conference title game since Auburn in 2013 and nearly 400 more than Oklahoma State managed Saturday. After the first quarter, Texas never led by less than 14, and the second half was largely a long victory parade.
When the dust settled, it seemed clear Texas’ résumé warranted some deeper discussion, if for no other reason than only one team in America was gifted a championship belt by the Undertaker.
The Undertaker is ready to hand deliver the belt to the Big 12 champion ???????? pic.twitter.com/f8M19vVBEm
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) December 2, 2023
In recent weeks, the debates have raged over how many SEC teams deserved consideration, what a QB injury does to a team’s playoff odds. But if Texas came up in discussion, it was usually as a stubborn problem to work around: How could the committee get Alabama in when the Longhorns had a head-to-head win in Tuscaloosa? The assumption was Alabama might be a playoff team, but Texas certainly was not.
And yet, how can we deny what happened Saturday against Oklahoma State?
Texas is easily one of the best 4 teams in the Country. Period.
— Robert Griffin III (@RGIII) December 2, 2023
Oh sure, Texas beat Oklahoma State less emphatically than 6-6 UCF, but who’s splitting hairs here (besides the committee)?
And yes, it’s possible we’re overreacting a bit because we’ve simply waited so long for Texas to finally, truly, undeniably be “back.”
The old “Texas is back” line is a little like the knock-knock joke about the banana: Repeat the same line enough times and it becomes funny, then annoying, then kind of sad. But suffer through the seemingly endless refrain and eventually, you reach the punchline: Orange you glad we didn’t say “Horns down?”
Or perhaps we’ve overlooked Texas because, in truth, after the Alabama game, there were so few moments for the Longhorns to state their case, and in the one that mattered most, Oklahoma QB Dillon Gabriel led a two-minute drive that left Texas with a loss and a position at the back of the line for playoff hype.
Things might’ve been different if there’d been a rematch Saturday, if Oklahoma State hadn’t stunned Oklahoma in what might well be the final Bedlam, if the Sooners hadn’t coughed up a game they had every opportunity to win. If Texas had gotten another shot at its arch rival, had reversed the earlier result and avenged its lone loss, wouldn’t the playoff case be a simple one? How, after all, would that case have been any different than Oregon’s, had the Ducks won the Pac-12 title? And in that case, Oregon’s playoff bid seemed a near certainty. (An aside: Is keeping Texas out of the playoff the next best thing to making the playoff for Oklahoma fans?)
Still, if Texas misses the cut, it will become just the second one-loss Power 5 conference champ to miss out, joining 2018 Ohio State (and, of course, not counting the Big 12’s 2014 co-champs, Baylor and TCU). In any other year, the Longhorns’ path would be obvious.
Instead, all that’s certain is that Texas will leave the Big 12 with a championship — one that came in dominant fashion and delivered, if not a path to the playoff, an end to the jokes.
When Texas announced it would head to the SEC, it was hard to see how the Longhorns — more than a decade removed from national relevance — was in it for anything other than money and prestige. But now, as Texas looks toward the future in a new league, in a new era of college football, it can do so with the knowledge that it is more than just a brand.
Texas is back. Now, stock up on bottled water and canned goods, download the bulk of your Netflix queue and head to your underground bunker. The end is near.
So long, Pac-12
There are so many “What if” moments for the Pac-12 on its road to annihilation. What if Texas had joined back in 2011? What if the league hadn’t gone six seasons without making the College Football Playoff? What if George Kliavkoff hadn’t been out-maneuvered by the Big 12 last summer? What if the Duck had been commissioner instead of Larry Scott?
Change any one of those things, and the fate of the Pac-12 might be different. Instead, we’ve reached the end of the line for the conference as we know it.
But in its final act Friday, the Pac-12 delivered one emphatic statement, one more brilliant performance on a national stage that both assured an end to its playoff drought and, like a sizable portion of Taylor Swift’s catalogue, provided a reminder that we’ll all be sorry when it’s gone.
The Pac-12 mascots were hugging each other even when they got off stage and presumably were allowed to drop the mascot act pic.twitter.com/xNWffO75oI
— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) December 2, 2023
Washington beat Oregon 34-31. Michael Penix Jr. and Bo Nix both looked worthy of being in the Heisman Trophy discussion, even if neither likely did enough to win it. The two teams who’ve played two of the best regular-season games of the past two seasons delivered another all-timer, with Washington taking a 20-3 lead, Oregon storming back to go up four, Washington turning the tables once again and the two teams trading blows during a furious final three minutes of action.
Washington is 3-0 against the Ducks in the past two seasons, and yet each game felt like the balance of power could tip on any snap. All three Huskies wins came by three points. Each installation has been the best of college football, showcasing genuinely brilliant play and undeniable drama and fun.
And the next time these two teams play, it will be as part of the Big Ten, a league whose very DNA seems to run opposite to what the Huskies and Ducks have delivered over the past 15 months.
Friday was perhaps a swan song for Nix, whose college career is remarkable in its own right — revered recruit, reviled flop, reborn superstar. In 2019, Nix began his career with a win over Oregon, but wrapped his freshman season completing just 57% of his throws. On Friday, he likely finished his career as Oregon lost again, this time with Nix at the helm, at the end of a season in which he completed 77% of his throws. If nothing else, Nix’s path is a testament to persistence, to belief in oneself, to the inescapable truth that talent alone can take you only so far. The stars need to align even for the best of us.
Bo Nix unsure if he’ll play in Oregon’s bowl game
Bo Nix discusses his bowl game plans and reflects on his final season in college football.
Much of the same can be said for Penix, who took Indiana — Indiana! — to unprecedented heights during COVID, transferred to Washington, teamed with Kalen DeBoer and became one of the most dangerous passers in college football. The result is a 13-0 Washington team that, while the committee is unlikely to agree, has a genuine claim to the No. 1 overall seed. The Huskies now have six wins against FPI top-25 opponents this season — something only 2017 Clemson, 2019 LSU and four different Alabama teams have done in the playoff era. That Washington has scratched out close wins in so many of those contests seems to be the knock on the Huskies, but at some point, it has to seem more of a trend. No team will arrive in the playoff more battle tested.
Whether that next step for Washington is the coda to a conference that was, perhaps, too strange and beautiful for this world, or the first step in the Huskies’ next phase, Friday was a chance to sit back and soak in the wonder that was the Pac-12.
We look forward to their reunion tour in 2033 with Blink-182 and one of the original members of the WAC opening.
SMU leaves AAC on high note
In a game with New Year’s Six implications, an ACC team turned to a QB making his first career start in hopes of winning a conference title.
No, not Florida State. It’s SMU!
With Preston Stone out for the American Conference championship, SMU went with freshman Kevin Jennings, who threw for 203 yards, ran for 63 more and had a TD pass in the Mustangs’ 26-14 win over Tulane.
The win gives SMU at least a fighting chance at a New Year’s Six bid, as Tulane and undefeated Liberty were the lone ranked Group of 5 teams entering championship week.
It also gives the Mustangs an AAC title in its final season in the league.
Indeed, this week’s action proved a perfect distillation of college football in 2023: Three teams won conference titles in leagues they will not be a part of next year — SMU, Texas and Washington.
A fourth team, Boise State, won the Mountain West with an interim head coach after firing Andy Avalos on Nov. 12.
It’s a reminder that change in this sport is like artificial intelligence or Nicolas Cage movies — neither good nor bad by definition, but simply an inescapable reality that can bring great joy when done well and, in the wrong hands, could destroy all of humanity or, worse, make “The Wicker Man.”
Under the radar play of Championship Week
The Conference USA title game began as a battle between two of the top QBs in the Group of 5, but after New Mexico State’s Diego Pavia left the game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury, it was Liberty’s Kaidon Salter who provided all the fireworks.
With Liberty clinging to a 42-35 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Aggies’ backup Blaze Berlowitz (who also may have been a Dick Tracy villain in the 1930s comics) threw a pass into the end zone that Brandon Bishop intercepted with a nifty one-handed grab. On the ensuing drive, Salter turned a broken play into a 35-yard, game-clinching touchdown.
Kaidon Salter crosses goal line for 35-yard rushing touchdown
Kaidon Salter crosses goal line for 35-yard rushing touchdown
Liberty’s win moves the Flames to 13-0 and likely assures them a New Year’s Six bid after Tulane’s loss to SMU, while head coach Jamie Chadwell is now 44-6 since the start of 2020.
Under the radar game of Championship Week
The committee’s playoff decisions won’t be nearly as controversial as the ending to the Big 12’s Dr Pepper Tuition Giveaway on Saturday.
In the contest, Ryan Georgian, a student from Penn, and Gavin White, a student from Ohio State, took turns throwing footballs into giant cans of Dr Pepper, with the winner to get $100,000 toward tuition. The two men traded chest passes — a move that should be outlawed long before anyone puts a stop to the “tush push” — with the scorekeepers calling it a 6-6 tie at the end of regulation. The only problem? Dr Pepper apparently hired Pac-12 refs to judge the contest, and the judges had inadvertently awarded Georgian an undeserved point. (This would prove to be the only good thing that happened to a Georgian on Saturday.)
Are these Big 12 refs? The Dr. Pepper Halftime toss – watch the guy on the left get credit for 6 after only nailing 5. pic.twitter.com/fYwUoElxOv
— Marc Istook (@MarcIstook) December 2, 2023
The contest then went to overtime, where Georgian prevailed.
Only later was the mistake discovered, and Dr Pepper made good by awarding both men the prize.
Not to be outdone, Mr. Pibb offered to buy both men lunch at Arby’s if they could give him a ride to the airport later.
College Football 2023 in memoriam
How is it possible the 2023 college football season is already behind us? What once felt like an interminable wait for Week Zero suddenly shifted to a spring into bowl season. In many ways, it feels like we hardly had a chance to bask in all the glory of 14 weeks of excellence, accomplishment, heroics and whatever Akron was doing this year.
As the great Boyz II Men once said, “Jet black Benz, plenty of friends, and all the Philly steaks you can eat.” Or, as they also, more pertinently said, “And so we’ve come to the end of the road.”
It means the end for the Pac-12, possibly for high-caliber QBs in Nix, Caleb Williams and Drake Maye, for playoff rankings, bowl projections and Jim Harbaugh suspensions (for now).
So, before we take our first timid steps into the postseason, let’s take a moment to say a fond farewell to so many wonderful moments from 2023.
The Rise of Prime
It feels like just yesterday national media was celebrating the rise of college football’s next great coaching genius at Colorado.
But the shine of Prime’s Colorado makeover in September quickly faded after a 42-6 loss to Oregon in Week 4, and by year’s end, it was manifestly clear the job of rebuilding the Buffs wasn’t a one-year process.
Looking back, Colorado was essentially the Vanilla Ice of college football. Even in the moment, most people with a discerning eye understood this to be a charade — all sizzle, but little steak — but the song was so catchy that soon enough everyone was singing along. It was inescapable and, because this is how society works, its mere ubiquity was an adequate substitute for ability. Then Oregon’s Dan Lanning played the role of Suge Knight and, well, we all sort of regret any photos we may have taken wearing parachute pants or suggesting Shedeur Sanders was a Heisman favorite.
The guy behind the guy
In the absence of Deion Sanders content to fill the airwaves, a new hero emerged from the ether — a man named Connor Stalions.
The Michigan sign-stealing scandal had everything: A polarizing head coach, a hilariously named patsy who disguised himself as a Central Michigan staffer, ludicrous conspiracy theories involving rival Ohio State coach Ryan Day’s brother. It was every dumb, hilarious, raucous and inexplicable aspect of college football rolled into one story. At the center of it all was Stalions, the former military man turned Harbaugh henchman tasked with infiltrating Ohio State’s game plan and possibly attaching lasers to sharks for the inevitable invasion of the Upper Peninsula.
Not since David Hasselhoff donned fake facial hair in order to play his evil twin on “Knight Rider” has someone with a lame goatee made such an outsized impact on the larger cultural zeitgeist. Stalions is nothing short of a college football hero.
The turnover trident
No story of the 2023 season offered so much hope only to ultimately end with such bitter disappointment as the saga of the Texas State band attacking Nevada with a trident.
Over the course of about three hours, we went from learning that a member of the band had thrown a trident at Nevada players during its Sept. 23 game to then learning the trident was supposed to be used when Nevada celebrated turnovers (because if Reno is known for anything, it’s ocean mythology) followed by the Bobcats using the momentum created by the trident attack to score 35 straight points in a valiant comeback win followed by news that no band member actually threw the trident followed by the realization the trident had just been laying on the ground untouched the whole time followed, two months later, by Nevada firing coach Ken Wilson, presumably for lack of trident awareness.
FINAL UPDATE ABOUT THE TRIDENT INCIDENT: The person in question DID NOT throw a trident at the Nevada players. The Turnover Trident in question was lying on the ground and was given to the student section which obviously caused a bit of a stir. https://t.co/CzdhDCoYLk
— Colton McWilliams (@ColtonBMc) September 24, 2023
To paraphrase the great Ron Burgundy, “That de-escalated quickly.”
Shane Beamer’s foot
You have to credit the South Carolina coach: He’s a man who takes his football seriously.
The passion may have proven a bit too much following the Gamecocks’ loss to Florida in October, when he vented frustrations by kicking a Gatorade cooler and breaking his foot.
In fairness, the alternative would’ve been sucker punching Darude, and no one wants that.
“You got us over the hump tonight.”
— Chandler Mack (@chandlerdmack) November 19, 2023
Pitt‘s blue vase
After a disastrous 1-4 start to the season, Pitt appeared to find the perfect cure: A blue vase.
According to early reports, the vase sat in the entryway to Pitt’s football building and was intended as a receptacle for players’ negative thoughts.
Whether that was actually its purpose remains a dubious proposition, and we never settled on whether it should be officially referred to as the jug of joylessness or the flagon of forlornness. But the important point is that it worked!
HOMECOMING VICTORY LIGHTS ✨
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) October 15, 2023
In Pitt’s next game, it pulled a stunning upset of undefeated Louisville, leading head coach Pat Narduzzi to explain the miracle victory in blunt terms.
“We talk about ‘blue vase-ing’ it, just find a way to get it done, no matter what it is,” Narduzzi said. “We were going to find a way to get it done.”
Unfortunately, Pitt’s emotional support ottoman and duvet of despair all proved less successful as the Panthers finished 3-9.