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Is Florida State a lock for the College Football Playoff?

There’s a good rule of thumb if you’re looking for authentic barbecue: Avoid places with cloth napkins. Oh sure, a barbecue restaurant with table service, cloth napkins and menus with covers might serve you a perfectly fine meal. You’ll go away satisfied, if not necessarily overwhelmed.

But if you want the real stuff, if you want barbecue where you can taste the history and the spirit and the soul, well, you might need to go check out a less swanky joint. Maybe a smoker outside a gas station, maybe a soot-stained, cinderblock-walled joint with a history of health-code violations. It might not be the most aesthetically pleasing experience, but it’ll be the best ‘cue you’ve ever had.

The cloth-napkin-vs.-soot-stains debate crops up this time of year when we start considering which teams ought to be in the College Football Playoff. Do you go with a team that has a prettier record, or do you go with a team that’s got a few more dents and dings, but a whole lot more muscle?

The ACC right now is a cloth-napkin conference. Sure, they look good, with plenty of blue-blood names in their ranks. But if you’re looking for good, satisfying stick-to-your-ribs football, you’re probably going to want to look a bit more west. Only two teams from the ACC have ever made the playoff — Clemson, which managed the feat six times and very firmly holding, and Florida State, which did so way back in the debut playoff in 2015. The Noles are in position to return, but the path is a little more treacherous than Florida State fans might like.

It’s not Florida State’s fault that the Seminoles have a schedule loaded primarily with ACC teams — well, it kind of is, but let’s not get into that history now — but the end result is that at the exact moment its fellow CFP challengers are beefing up, Florida State is punching down.

Let’s just tear the bandage off right here. Five undefeated teams remain in the playoff hunt, and since two (Ohio State and Michigan) will play each other before season’s end, there’s a good chance we’ll get through the conference championship games with four undefeated teams. But there would be, in this scenario, two potentially very good one-loss teams: that Ohio State/Michigan loser and Texas.

In this scenario, Florida State will get into the CFP. But here’s a larger question: Should they?

Let’s dig into the numbers for some guidance. Only twice in the nine-year history of the College Football Playoff have three undefeated teams survived the regular season, in 2018 and 2019. And only twice has an undefeated team in the Top 10 not reached the playoff: Cincinnati in 2020, and UCF in 2018. In both of those instances, it was easy enough to dismiss the teams based on their less-than-Power-Five competition.

So if Florida State goes undefeated, they’re pretty much guaranteed to make the playoffs. ESPN’s College Football Playoff Predictor gives the Noles a 99 percent chance to make the playoff in that scenario, regardless of how everyone else performs.

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 14: Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jordan Travis (13) celebrates after breaking the school touchdown record with this touchdown in the second half during the game between the Syracuse Orange and the Florida State Seminoles on Saturday, October 14, 2023 at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Fla. (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Jordan Travis and the Seminoles have faced just two ranked teams this season. (Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Here’s where the questions begin, though. Is undefeated Florida State a better — not more worthy, better — team than, say, a one-loss Oregon (to Washington), a one-loss Alabama (to Texas) or a one-loss Ohio State or Michigan (to each other)? Do FSU’s key wins against LSU, Clemson and Duke stack up against the key wins of other challengers? Again, Florida State’s getting in if it runs the table … but shouldn’t there be at least a bit of debate about that? What’s more important, the record or the path traveled to get there?

Right now, ESPN stats puts Florida State’s strength of schedule at 58th. That’s well ahead of Michigan (111, though that will leap upward after the Penn State game this weekend) but significantly behind Alabama (8), Texas (10) and Ohio State (20), with Washington (41) and Oregon (63) in close proximity.

If Florida State happens to lose one of its final games — to Miami, North Alabama, Florida, or the ACC championship — then matters get a whole lot trickier. A loss to any of those teams, even in the ACC title game, would be more damaging than Alabama’s to Texas, Oregon’s to Washington, Texas’ to Oklahoma and Michigan or Ohio State to each other … and that’s just the losses we know of.

The CFP places a premium on conference championships, so there’s still a way back in for a one-loss Florida State, just like there is right now for Alabama, Oregon and Texas. A loss in the ACC championship drops FSU’s chances to 12 percent, per ESPN, while a loss in the regular season and an ACC championship win keeps the Noles’ hopes alive at 35 percent.

What it all boils down to — or smokes down to, if we’re keeping the barbecue metaphor going — is this: Florida State doesn’t have the luxury of teams like Ohio State, Georgia or Michigan, which could afford to lose a game and still have reasonable odds to make the playoffs. Thanks to the relative weakness of its remaining schedule and the overall ACC, FSU has no choice but to torch every game left on the slate … and even then, there might just be some nervous waiting for the Noles.