Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen remembers Utah's undefeated, BCS-busting 2004 season that was punctuated with a win against Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl.
How could he forget?
"We won every game by [nearly] 21 points, beat three different BCS schools, and didn't get the opportunity to play for the national title," said Mullen, who was the Utes' quarterbacks coach that season under Urban Meyer. "I thought we were deserving but didn't have that opportunity."
Has the opportunity to win a national title truly expanded with the four-team College Football Playoff? The answer lies within each individual committee member's stance on whether they should choose the four best teams or the four most deserving ones.
Just like choosing the top four teams is a subjective process, so is drawing a concrete distinction between the best and most deserving résumés. Should you go with a Power 5 team with a tougher schedule that has one or two losses (best), or an elite Group of 5 team that went undefeated against a weaker schedule, with just a couple of marquee wins (most deserving)?
The selection committee simply isn't going to seriously consider a team from the Group of 5 that hasn't played any ranked opponents (like Marshall in 2014, which was undefeated through the first 11 games), but had Memphis gone undefeated last year after knocking off No. 13 Ole Miss, there's no question the Tigers would have deserved to be considered. The so-called best teams from the Power 5 conferences have more wiggle room. Because of their talent and aggressive scheduling, they can afford one or two losses because they have played against more elite competition.
It's debatable -- or is it?
"The mission stated right up front, the role of that committee is to pick the four best teams," said Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, a former committee member. "Not the four most deserving, not the fan favorites, not the Cinderellas. None of that language is in there. It says the four best teams, and so that might mean something different to everybody in the room, but it's still a constant reminder, here's our mission, let's stick to it."
That, of course, is the perspective of a retired three-star general.
The entire 12-member committee hasn't necessarily stuck to its mission, according to ESPN's Stats & Information group.
ESPN's data from the past two years show the committee has actually sided with the teams that play a tougher schedule. Seven of the past eight teams to make the playoff ranked in the top four of ESPN's strength of record metric prior to being chosen for the CFP. The metric is designed to answer the question: Which team's record is the most impressive given its schedule? It measures how difficult it would be for another top-25 team to achieve the same record. However, only four of the eight playoff teams have ranked in the top four of ESPN's Football Power Index, which is designed to measure the best teams going forward.
"If they played our schedule, that 12-0 record would be 7-5 ... If it hurts their feelings, well, I'm sorry."West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen is certainly on the side of picking the four best teams.
Holgorsen said an undefeated team from a Group of 5 conference (the American, Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC or Sun Belt) wouldn't have the same success against a Power 5 league schedule.
"If they played our schedule, that 12-0 record would be 7-5 and vice versa," said Holgorsen. "I think strength of schedule is incredibly important. If you say that's not fair to the non-Power 5, then I'd say well then tell that non-Power 5 to do specific things to be in the Power 5. Because each and every one of them would jump at that opportunity in a heartbeat. It's not our fault being in the Power 5 they're not, and they may have a really good football team, but I'm sorry, you don't play the schedule that we play, and I don't think you would be undefeated if you played our schedule. If it hurts their feelings, well, I'm sorry."
With so much emphasis placed on strength of schedule, it's certainly possible an undefeated team could still be left out in favor of a one-loss conference champion that played a more difficult lineup. The most obvious example is whether an undefeated Houston team deserves a top-four spot ahead of a one-loss Power 5 champion. As of right now, Houston's only two ranked opponents this season are No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 19 Louisville.
"If a team plays the schedule that this team will play and wins every one of their games," said Houston coach Tom Herman, "the answer is absolutely yes, or the system is broke and we need a new system."
The conversation goes deeper than Houston.
Last year's Ohio State team had a lousy schedule but was oozing NFL draft potential. Did it deserve a spot, since it was among the best teams talent-wise? Iowa finished the regular season 12-0 and was deserving of a top-four spot, but certainly didn't look like one of the best teams in the country during its loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said it's impossible for the committee to compare teams fairly when every conference schedules differently.
"I am not satisfied right now with the College Football Playoff components because we do not have equal data points across the leagues," said Fitzgerald. "Until there are equal data points, in my humble opinion it still has to be the most deserving because you've got some leagues playing FCS, some leagues not. Some leagues playing nine games, some not. Those are two huge differences in my opinion that really have to be taken into consideration right now as we move forward. We're on one end where it's an extreme. If you run the table in the Big Ten and you're being compared to a one-loss team in the SEC and they played an FCS team and only eight league games, I don't know how it's a comparable data point."
Coaches in the SEC West think their league strength of schedule should outweigh the fact that they may also play some unheralded nonconference opponents. Even Mullen, in spite of his experience with Utah, now has a different perspective.
"If a team plays the schedule that this team will play and wins every one of their games, the answer is absolutely yes or the system is broke and we need a new system."Houston coach Tom Herman on whether his team can make the playoff
"Having been in the SEC West, the question would come, would that [Utah] team have had enough depth to go undefeated through the SEC West?" he said. "Not, 'Could that team have beaten anybody?' I think that team could've beaten any team in the SEC West. I think we could've beaten USC. Could we have gone through a league like the SEC West week in and week out and taking that grind and having the depth of players to be able to do that? Where would a Houston on any given day could beat anybody in the country, if they played in the SEC West, how would they do after playing Texas A&M, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State on consecutive weeks? Not just Week 1, not just Week 2, Week 3 and 4, how would they do?"
"I've been on both sides of this," said Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery, who was at Baylor two years ago when the Bears finished No. 5 in the committee's final ranking. "It's a tough discussion, but I think it is the most deserving. As you look at the schedules and the losses and who they played and all of those things, those are all components of what's going into your body of work.
"I think we put together a body of work that should've gotten us in," he said of the 2014 Baylor Bears. "With the politics and everything else that went down during that time, I still believe in my heart as a conference if we would've selected -- instead of trying to get two -- if we'd have just said here's our true champion, put them in, I think it would've happened that year and we would've had a chance to go play for it."
But Baylor's "body of work" that season also included wins over SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo.
"Strength of schedule to me is, in my opinion, what should matter most," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. "That's one person's opinion. Otherwise, why would we be playing Houston and Ohio State in our nonconference schedule?"
To prove, of course, that the best team is also the most deserving.