Blame Florida State’s omission from the College Football Playoff on ACC commissioner Jim Phillips

Blame Florida State’s omission from the College Football Playoff on ACC commissioner Jim Phillips

College football would have a 12-team playoff now if the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 hadn't torpedoed an earlier plan.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Dec 6, 2023, 7:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Dec 6, 2023, 7:00am CST

(A version of this story originally appeared in Berry Tramel’s newsletter, deliverable to your inbox twice a week. To sign up, see the form to the right of this article.)

By now, the debate over unbeaten Florida State’s omission from the College Football Playoff has been exhausted. Everyone has stated their case.

And both sides, Florida State and Alabama, have good cases. There are no right or wrong answers. Five teams, four slots. Square peg, round hole. 

The committee members who voted in Alabama, to the exclusion of Florida State, have been vilified, but their only real crime is continuing to elect a chairman incapable of solid communication. North Carolina State athletic director Boo Corrigan is the latest example.

But the true villain, or buffoon, or culprit, or any of a variety of descriptions you want to use, is Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner Jim Phillips.

That’s right. The commish of Florida State’s conference. This was a self-inflicted wound.

The root problem is that college football has five power conferences. Leagues that we all agree play the sport at a much higher level than the rest of Division I-A, in terms of resources, tradition and athletes.

And for 10 years, the sport has had a four-team playoff. Same old square-peg, round-hole problem. Five major conferences, four playoff berths. What could go wrong?

2023, that’s what could go wrong. All five leagues produced a champion that was playoff-worthy and obviously stellar. Michigan, Washington, Texas, Alabama and Florida State.

Someone had to be left out. No, that’s not right. Someone did not have to be left out. But Jim Phillips made sure someone would be left out.

Rewind to June 2021. A 12-team playoff model had been proposed by a subcommittee of Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and commissioners Bob Bowlsby (Big 12), Greg Sankey (Southeastern Conference) and Craig Thompson (Mountain West). The plan was widely hailed, incorporating a variety of desires, including both games on campus and preserving historic bowl games.

The major conferences were behind the model, and plans went into overdrive to get the 12-team playoff implemented by 2023.

Then came July 2021. News broke that OU and Texas were headed to the SEC, and the sport was set ablaze. The Big 12 was endangered. The Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 considered the move brazen and threatening the balance of power in college football.

And in August 2021, those three conferences announced an alliance. Those were heady days, I’m telling you.

Anyway, “The Alliance”  never was formalized. Nothing was signed. Nothing was declared, other than the three leagues wanted to counter SEC power and considered the Big 12 declining and irrelevant.

In retrospect, The Alliance was silly. The Big  Ten announced The Alliance, saying it was “unanimously supported by the presidents, chancellors and athletics directors at all 41 institutions” and “will be guided in all cases by a commitment to, and prioritization of, supporting student-athlete well-being, academic and athletic opportunities…”

That’s laughable now, considering that within a year the Big Ten added two California schools, and a year later the ACC did the same. Regularly crossing multiple time zones for conference games would seem to be the opposite of supporting student-athlete well-being, but I digress.

The Alliance in truth was nothing more than a stonewall of SEC initiatives, which the 12-team playoff appeared to be. The Alliance announced a hiatus on supporting the 12-team playoff, much to the chagrin of Sankey and Bowlsby.

Bowlsby realized the importance of the 12-team playoff to the Big 12, since the four-team playoff always excludes one of the Power Five conferences and sometimes two.

But arrogance clouded the vision of Phillips and Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff. They overplayed their hand.

Soon enough, the calendar made the decision — not enough time for the 12-team playoff to be implemented in 2023. 

Then in summer 2022, the Southern Cal/UCLA news broke. They were Big Ten-bound, and the ACC and Pac-12 realized their alliance was no stronger than parchment paper. Phillips and Kliavkoff scrambled to get the 12-team playoff back to the forefront of discussions, and an agreement was reached that the 2024 playoff would expand.

But not in 2023. And you know the rest.

The Pac-12 disintegrated, due to a lack of leadership and foresight by Kliavkoff. The Big 12 grabbed four Pac-12 members, starting in 2024. The ACC, in turmoil because of Florida State’s obvious dissatisfaction with the league, added Cal-Berkeley and Stanford.

And in 2023, the final year of the landscape looking anything like we’ve known, the four-team playoff remained. And the square peg met the round hole, with five elite champions in contention.

Florida State officials have been outraged, and Phillips has been pontificating. But they have only themselves to blame.

Give us a 12-team playoff for 2023, and the Seminoles would be preparing for a home playoff game against Liberty, with the winner headed to a quarterfinal showdown against Alabama, probably in the Peach Bowl.

Instead, the Seminoles are out of the playoff, done in by pitiful leadership from their own conference.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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