Florida State, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and Proving Otherwise
The poetic injustice of snubbing an undefeated team
For a few minutes on September 2, 2006, Kevin Kouzmanoff was the best hitter in baseball history. The bases were loaded for the Cleveland now-Guardians when Kouzmanoff strolled to the plate in the first inning of his Major League debut. The first pitch from the Texas Rangers’ Edinson Volquez was a juicy fastball at the letters. Kouzmanoff was ready for it and blasted it out to the deepest part of Ameriquest Field.
From the time the ball left his bat until he took strike one his next time up in the third inning, Kouzmanoff had hit a grand slam on every pitch of his MLB career. It’s the best possible outcome for a hitter, and he achieved it not just with all of his at-bats or swings, but every single pitch he’d ever seen. With a sample size greater than zero, each MLB pitch to Kouzmanoff had ended with four more runs on the board. It was also the first time in history that those words applied to any player, as no one had ever hit a grand slam on their first career pitch before.
I remember this happening. I was 14 years old and a diehard Cleveland fan. The mere news of giving Kouzmanoff, one of the organization’s top prospects and arguably the best hitter in all the minor leagues that year, a cup of coffee when rosters expanded was already one of the brightest silver linings of a forgettable Guardians season. Then it turned out, at least for a little while, that he literally did nothing but hit grand slams. It was an amazing thing to dream of.
As the NCAA football season wound down this weekend, four out of 133 Division I FBS teams presented perfect 13-0 records for the College Football Playoff committee’s consideration. Of these undefeated schools, Big Ten champion Michigan was awarded the first of four spots in the tournament, and Pac-12 winner Washington earned the #2 seed. Liberty University, the top team out of lesser-regarded Conference-USA, was omitted as expected. And in what many consider a surprise upset, the CFP committee selected 12-1 Texas and Alabama to round out the tournament at the expense of undefeated Atlantic Coast Conference champion Florida State.
I neither know much about nor am heavily invested in college football. The only non-pro football game I’ve watched this year was the heavyweight matchup of Brown vs. Yale. But I’m something of a romantic about sports feats that offer a glimmer of hope beyond what you know is rational.
I’ve written before about Shohei Ohtani, and the what-ifs surrounding the elbow injury that ended his precedent-shatttering season prematurely; about Mike Trout, and just how early on in his historic career one could have reasonably declared him the best player in baseball; about Eric Thames, the journeyman Quad-A player who returned from South Korea to hit like Babe Ruth for three weeks before he pulled a hamstring and came down from orbit. Bringing it back to football, my mind still wanders to the alternate universes where the Philadelphia Eagles got the ball back in Super Bowl LVII or a single missed call didn’t mar Baker Mayfield’s legacy. Especially recently, as Baseball Hall of Fame voting season is upon us and I’m mulling over my hypothetical ballot, I’ve been thinking a lot about the narrative distinction between turning back into a pumpkin and getting swallowed by extenuating circumstances. Between actually failing and never having a real chance to prove it.
The argument for snubbing Florida State is clear. The CFP’s Bill Hancock laid the groundwork for this outcome in advance. The committee’s job is is “to rank the best teams in order,” he explained in a widely shared quote last week. “Just keep that word in mind: best teams.” While the ACC is a Power Five conference, winning it is not as prestigious an honor as Texas and Alabama winning the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference titles, respectively. By at least one measure, Texas and Alabama’s schedules each ranked among the five hardest in all of FBS, while Florida State went undefeated against the 55th-toughest slate of opponents. (Liberty’s schedule rated the second-easiest.) And FSU surely looks worse on paper without recently injured quarterback Jordan Travis. “‘Most deserving’ is not anything in the committee’s lexicon,” Hancock had emphasized. Fair enough.
For most of my career I had a professional interest in identifying indicators of sports performance beyond the box scores and standings, so I respect the CFP’s ability to make this distinction. The consensus among people who know college football is that Texas and Alabama indeed have stronger rosters. Most tellingly, the reaction from Michigan’s team when they learned they were playing Alabama instead of Florida State was a sign that the committee got this right.
But we know that the 12-1 teams can lose, because they have. The little irrational voice inside my head looks at Florida State (and, for that matter, Liberty) and wonders: Maybe they can’t be beat. Isn’t the whole point of sports, of the constant drive for athletes to reach achievements thought impossible, to find out?
It didn’t take long to see that Kevin Kouzmanoff was indeed human. He grounded out in his next at-bat and finished the game 1-for-4. He homered again a day later, then hit just one more in 14 games before the end of the season. Kouzmanoff had a solid career, enjoying a four-year run as a roughly league-average third baseman from 2007-10, yet it was all downhill from that first pitch. In 2,729 more MLB plate appearances, he hit two grand slams.
No one really thought that Kouzmanoff would keep up his grand-slams-only streak forever, or even for long. But if the Guardians had pinch-hit for him in his next at-bat and optioned him after the game — if he’d never had the chance to prove that he couldn’t — then there would be no way to assuage that flicker of imagination. It strains less credulity by many orders of magnitude to think that Florida State could beat the best teams in college football. It is antithetical to what it means to be both a high-level athlete and an ever-faithful sports fan that they won’t get to try.
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