Imagine this: Alabama, Florida State, and Ohio State win their remaining games, as expected, to finish at 13-0. The day before the ACC championship game, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is suspended for the rest of the season. The Seminoles still win, but don’t look nearly as impressive without their Heisman candidate leading the offense.
Do voters, who had supported Florida State over Ohio State for weeks, change their minds and put the Buckeyes No. 2 on their ballots? For Ohio State and the college football world, it would be 1973 all over again.
That year, Michigan and Ohio State met at the end of the regular season and tied 10-10. Both teams were undefeated but only one could represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl, a game which the conference had lost the previous four years. Michigan’s starting quarterback, Dennis Franklin, got injured against Ohio State and many assumed he would not be able to play in the Rose Bowl. As recounted in the Big Ten Network’s recent documentary, Tiebreaker, the decision on which team to send was settled by a vote among the conference’s athletic directors. Franklin’s injury factored into the decision, and Ohio State was chosen to represent the Big Ten.
Winston is facing allegations of sexual assault. Having no inside information on the case, I’m in no way suggesting Winston should or will be suspended. I’m simply asking, What if he is?
That leads us to another question: What is the purpose of the national championship game? In Tiebreaker, Dennis Franklin says the Rose Bowl representative should have had nothing to do with which team had the best chance of winning (Ohio State did go on to beat Southern Cal, 42-21). He believed Michigan had the better season and was therefore more deserving.
A Winston suspension should not change how Florida State’s season is viewed. Given how the human polls have looked the past few weeks, the Seminoles are the clear-cut No. 2 team. Even a close, sloppy win in the ACC title game, with or without Winston, likely wouldn’t change that. And the computer rankings wouldn’t be affected, as they only care about past results, but one thing is clear: everyone has Alabama and Florida State in the national championship game.
The SEC has won the last seven national championships, with Alabama dominating the last two. Unlike in 1973, the voters in this case are made up of people representing all conferences, so their agenda won’t be as united. But many will still vote with the intention of providing the best game possible. If they think Ohio State is better than a Winston-less Florida State, perhaps they’d vote that way.
A similar situation occurred in basketball in 2000. Kenyon Martin, the eventual national player of the year for Cincinnati, broke his leg in the conference tournament, a game Cincinnati would lose. Once a lock for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Cincinnati was given a 2 seed because Martin wouldn’t be playing.
The Martin and Franklin situations involve injuries, not suspensions. It remains to be seen whether voters would view the circumstances differently. And again, Winston has not been suspended and may never be. The allegations against him are serious and no football game should overshadow that. But they are completely separate issues. It’s not up to voters to determine Winston’s guilt or innocence. They are, however, responsible for picking the national championship matchup.
Forty years ago, the Ohio State football team benefited from a vote influenced by an opposing player’s presumed absence. Could the same thing happen this season?