Grapevine, TX -- On Oct. 27 the 13-member selection committee for the first College Football Playoff will meet at the palatial Gaylord Hotel, just a short drive from the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
That committee, which includes college football icon Archie Manning, Wisconsin's athletics director Barry Alvarez, and Nebraska legend Tom Osborne, will begin a process of evaluating teams that will conclude on Dec. 7 when the committee picks the four teams that will play for the national championship.
In an effort to educate the public and (hopefully) demystify how the process will work, the College Football Playoff organization, led by executive director Bill Hancock, invited 17 media members to take part in a simulated, or mock, selection process last Thursday in the very room where the committee will do its work.
I was fortunate to be a part of that group. I learned a lot, but the most important thing I learned is something that I suspected and was simply validated by seven hours of intense number crunching and spirited, but friendly, arguments with my fellow scribes and broadcasters. The committee has an impossible job and no matter which four teams it picks after crunching all the data, the fans of the teams ranked 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 are all going to be mad. All of them will be convinced that they are as good as No. 4 and that the only reason they were left out were politics or bias or both.
The committee's charge, as it was explained to us, is to pick the four "BEST" teams for the College Football Playoff--not the four most "DESERVING" teams, but the four best teams. And determining the difference in "best" and "deserving" is not merely a matter of semantics.
First, a few basics:
In order to have a complete body of work on which to base our deliberations, the 2008 season was chosen. You'll recall that was a pretty wild year. Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech all tied for the Big 12 South championship. Oklahoma got the berth in the Big 12 championship game because it won the final tiebreaker, which was the highest ranking in the next-to-last BCS Standings. More on that later.
Florida, who lost to Ole Miss 31-30 at home on Sept. 27, 2008, won the rest of its games after "The Promise" from quarterback Tim Tebow. The Gators beat No. 1 and undefeated Alabama in the SEC Championship game. Two teams from non-BCS conferences, Utah and Boise State, finished 12-0.
We received very detailed briefing books that included a page on each FBS team listing its regular season results, Top 25 results, conference and non-conference breakdowns. Also included on each team was a host of statistics presented in a "data analytics platform" compiled by SportsSource Analytics, a company hired by the CFP for this very purpose. We would not lack for numbers.
How detailed were these statistics? Well, they included things like "relative scoring defense" which measured what opponents scored against a team relative to what the opponents had averaged. Example: Teams that played Alabama scored only 48.89 percent of their scoring average when they played the Crimson Tide. That's pretty good.
Each media representative would play the role of a specific member of the committee. I, along with Pete Fiutak of Collegeinsiders.com, played the role of Archie Manning. That was significant because of the "recusal policy" in place to keep members from voting on schools where they have a personal or financial interest. What it meant was that any time a vote involved Ole Miss I was not allowed to participate. In the same vein the person representing Alvarez could not vote on Wisconsin, etc.
Each member of our committee was required to arrive at the meeting with our own Top 25 teams in no particular order. Each member of the committee had a laptop that fed into a central database that would record the votes. Any team that was included in three or more of these ballots went into the pool of teams that began the process. A total of 34 teams made the first cut.
Our first task was to select a Top 25. Then we would place the top four teams into the national semifinals, which this year will be held in the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2015. Then it was our job to set the pairings for the four remaining bowls that are part of the CFP: Fiesta, Cotton, Orange and Chick-fil-A Peach.
I won't get too deep into the weeds on the selection process, only to let you know that there were seven rounds of voting needed to get us to 25 teams. In the first three rounds we would debate groups of six teams and the top three vote getters would be placed on the board. The three teams not chosen would be holdovers and would be joined by three more teams to form another group of six. We would debate that group, take a vote, and three more teams would be placed on the board. In all, we voted in three groups of three and four groups of four to give us 25.
At each step of the process we would go back and do a sanity check. There is a lot of redundancy in the discussions. That is by design so that every team gets a thorough hearing.
There were passionate arguments for every team that we put into the Top 10, especially for the teams who made the top four and the playoffs. According to the instructions given to the selection committee, when teams are comparable then the following criteria must be considered:•Championships won.
•Strength of schedule
•Head-to-head competition (if it occurred)
•Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting, or placing emphasis, on margin of victory).
•Injuries and other factors that could impact a team's post-season performance.
Note that the criteria are NOT listed in order of importance. That's up to the individual voter.
And when all of the arguments were over the top four were:
- Southern California.
The rest of the Top 10 were: 5) Penn State, 6) Alabama, 7) Utah, 8)Texas Tech, 9) Ohio State and 10) TCU.
As the No. 1 seed, Florida earned the right stay close to home and play in the Sugar Bowl. So the semifinals pairings were:
Sugar: No. 1 Florida vs. No. 4 USC
Rose: No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 3 Texas.
The rest of the CFP bowls were as follows:
Cotton: No. 8 Texas Tech vs. No. 10 TCU
Orange: No. 13 Virginia Tech (ACC champ) vs. No. 6 Alabama
Fiesta: No. 9 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Boise State
Peach: No. 5 Penn State vs. No. 7 Utah
I can't list all of the arguments we had getting to these six matchups, but here are the few of the most intense ones we knew people would talk about:
Alabama: The Crimson Tide finished the regular season undefeated and ranked No. 1. Alabama played a classic game with No. 2 Florida in the SEC championship game and lost 31-20 due to a magnificent performance by Tebow. Alabama fell to No. 4 in the final BCS Standings. A strong argument was made that Alabama should not fall below No. 4.
But at the end of the day our committee decided that conference champs USC (Pac-12) and Penn State (Big Ten), each of which also had one loss, both deserved to be ranked ahead of Alabama.
We knew excluding Alabama from the top four would be controversial. But the committee took three separate votes on the top four. The order never changed. And we were told there was a significant voting gap between No. 4 USC and No. 5 Penn State. So the committee felt strongly that USC, which dominated its competition after an early road loss to Oregon State (27-21), was the No. 4 team.
If conference championships are so important, why was Texas, who did not win its conference, chosen No. 3? It was an interesting case study. As I said earlier, Texas won the regular-season meeting with Oklahoma but then lost at Texas Tech (39-33) on a late touchdown. Texas Tech was boat-raced at Oklahoma 65-21. The three teams finished in a tie for the Big 12 South championship. Oklahoma won the tie-breaker, which went to the highest ranked team in the BCS Standings. As a result, Oklahoma got the spot in the Big 12 championship game where it beat Missouri to finish 12-1. Texas fans were not happy at the time but our selection committee felt they deserved a spot because of the win over Oklahoma and an 11-1 record.
The vote created a rematch between Oklahoma and Texas in the Rose Bowl. Couldn't you just change the seedings to avoid a rematch? Nope. Hancock and Jeff Long, the AD at Arkansas and the chairman of the real selection committee, were in the room with us. They were very clear: Once the committee's vote sets the seedings, they cannot be changed simply to avoid rematches or create better match ups.
The pairings for the other four bowls were based on the rankings and the discretion of the committee to create the best matchups and potential sellouts. We could take geography into consideration which is why we put Texas Tech and TCU in the Cotton Bowl.
We also learned that if the Big Ten (Rose) or SEC (Sugar) champions was "displaced" from its host bowl or not in the playoff, that champion was required to play in the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach but could not play in the Orange. So we put No. 5 Penn State, the Big Ten champ, into the Peach Bowl against Utah.
Virginia Tech won the ACC with a 9-4 record and was locked into the Orange Bowl. At No. 6, Alabama was the highest ranked non-champion available and was sent South. No. 9 Ohio State would play No. 11 and undefeated Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Finally, you'll note that three teams outside of the Power Five conferences-Utah, Boise State, and TCU-were chosen to be in the other four CFP bowls. I don't think that will happen when the real Selection Committee makes its announcement a little less than two months from now.