The College Football Playoff race is hardly the only tough decision the bowl committees will have on the line in the ensuing weeks.
It’s not very often that a team loses by 43 points and then plays in a better bowl game than the team which blew it out by that margin, but that’s a distinct possibility in the ACC.
It feels like it’s been years, but a little over 10 weeks ago, Louisville crushed Florida State, 63-20. It was one of the most lopsided losses in histories of both a No. 2 team in the polls and Florida State football itself. The Cardinals led at halftime by 25, and needed merely half of the third quarter to extend that lead to 39.
Louisville outgained Florida State that day, 530-284.
But ever since, the Cardinals haven’t really been the same. They played another strong game at Clemson two weeks later, a 42-36 loss, but in many ways, Louisville peaked on Sept. 17.
Florida State is peaking right now. The Seminoles finished their season on a four-game winning streak and demolished Florida 31-13.
Since that fateful day in Kentucky, Florida State has won seven of its last nine and six of its final seven contests, and its two losses were by a combined five points, one of which was to the same team that knocked off Louisville (Clemson).
Even more impressively, the Seminoles went on their tremendous run to end the year without their best defensive player – sophomore safety Derwin James. The Florida State coaching staff has repeatedly said all year that losing James was the equivalent of a contending playoff team losing its star quarterback. That’s how valuable he is to the Seminoles’ defense, and he missed the final 10 games of the year.
Based on how the Seminoles played that day, it’s not at all a shocker that the first game James missed was against Louisville. In the seven other conference games excluding the contest versus the Cardinals, Florida State allowed an average of 21.4 points per game. Against Louisville, the Noles were all out of sorts in their first game without the defensive quarterback.
That’s not to say Florida State would have beaten Louisville had James played, but it undoubtedly would have been a different game. Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson would have found it more difficult to scramble for big chunks of yards with a roaming James on the field. Without James, Jackson ran for 146 yards and four touchdowns.
Even if the Louisville-Florida State matchup had been scheduled a month later and James still didn’t play, it quite possibly could have been a different game.
The Cardinals sleepwalked through the final seven weeks of their schedule. For awhile, we gave them the benefit of the doubt because they pulled out fourth quarter comebacks against Duke and Virginia and then destroyed Boston College, but that all stops after losses. Louisville ended the season losing to both Houston and at home against Kentucky.
Other than their signature victory over the Seminoles, the Cardinals’ 2016 resume is blah at best. Louisville didn’t face any ranked opponents other than Clemson, so they have zero big wins other than the early one versus Florida State.
On the other hand, Florida State defeated three top 15 opponents (at least they were at the time) — Ole Miss, Miami and Florida. Florida State did lose to North Carolina, which ended up resulting in the Seminoles having two fewer ACC victories than the Cardinals, but Louisville was fortunate to have much easier cross-divisional opponents. While Florida State lost to North Carolina and beat Miami — two teams that spent substantial time in the top 25 — Louisville struggled with Virginia and Duke, two teams that combined to win two conference games.
Still, both Louisville and Florida State finished the year at 9-3.
Head-to-head is usually the best way to measure which team is more deserving of a bowl bid, but 2016 may have an exception in both the Big Ten and ACC.
Louisville may have embarrassed Florida State; however, bowl bids aren’t rewarded in September. The Seminoles deserve the Orange Bowl bid (assuming Clemson makes the CFP) over the Cardinals.