Lessons from the College Football Playoff

Early in this century, a computer algorithm would evaluate all Division I college football teams and spit out the two “most deserving” of a spot in the national championship game. After a 2011 championship game that saw Alabama and LSU play each other for the second time that season, with the game finishing with a score of 9 to 6, people grew upset with a computer deciding who played for a title.

So, in 2014, the rules were changed. And now, a committee of humans selects the four best teams, and those teams compete in a playoff for the title. This committee of athletic directors, former coaches, and prominent figures watches the games and ranks the teams (instead of using rankings based on a computer algorithm). The thinking in the rules change was that humans could make more appropriate contextualized decisions after watching college football teams with their own eyes.

After nine years of this approach, many people have been generally favorable of the committee’s work. And many people believed the committee had established fairly consistent standards of what it would take for a team to be ranked in the top four, thus having the chance to play for the national championship. However, on December 3, 2023, this sentiment toward the committee shifted when the committee broke a nine-year precedent by leaving out a team, the Florida State University Seminoles (FSU), that had not lost a single game all season.

This decision sparked debate throughout the country, and some fans were outraged that a Power 5 team was left out of the playoff when it had done everything possible to play for a title. The counterargument was that FSU had been left out due to weak strength of schedule and an injured star quarterback. While the decision of which teams make the playoff is beyond anyone’s control outside of the committee, the decision has important implications for any team wanting to reach the top of Division I college football.

The lesson that can be taken away from this decision is to always push harder when faced with adversity. If you want to be the best, whether that’s the best leader, co-worker, parent, or spouse, you must be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Had FSU shown more capability on the football field following the loss of their quarterback, they would have had the chance to play for the championship. Alabama, the team that took FSU’s spot, had to overcome an early season loss, show growth throughout the season, and beat a juggernaut in their last game just to be considered. What all of these playoff teams have in common is that they knew the goal they wanted to achieve (to make the playoff) would not be easy, and they would do whatever it took to give themselves a chance.

If you and your team want to succeed at the highest level, these are important lessons to keep in mind. Striving to push outside of your comfort zone and tackle complicated problems will prepare you to achieve success in the long term. Don’t shun the easier path; taking an easy path may be less scary at first, but buck the comfortability and push to achieve things people didn’t think were possible — the rewards reaped at the end of the journey will be worthwhile. So, consider the misfortune of FSU as a cautionary tale to all who underperform in the face of adversity. While achieving goals along an easy path may appear to be a measure of success, such achievements may not compare favorably to the success of others when “the committee” is making its decisions.

Lessons from the College Football Playoff was originally published in Horizon Performance on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.