Mock selection committee: How a four-team playoff would look now
During his 32 years in college athletics, Jim Livengood has hired and fired coaches, endured an NCAA investigation and served as chairman of the NCAA men's basketball selection committee. On Nov. 26,
By the end of the 138-minute conference call, Livengood and the other athletic directors realized the myriad challenges that the selection process will present; many concluded that it will be more difficult than selecting 37 at-large teams in basketball. Among the biggest challenges: a finite number of teams that are difficult to compare; multi-million dollar stakes; lack of relative data; and potential conflicts of interest. "Wow, is this committee going to have pressure," Livengood said. "The thing that jumps out at me is that there are just four teams, it's not enough of a sample. I was not a proponent of going larger than four, and this changed my mind totally."
SI's mock selection committee exercise produced a simple conclusion: While the move to a four-team playoff has been largely praised, the resulting process may be more complicated and controversial than the current system.
Last summer, the conference commissioners who oversee college football's postseason reached a landmark agreement to do away with the contentious, 14-year-old BCS. They replaced it with a four-team playoff comprised of semifinals played at existing January bowl games and a standalone national championship game played at least a week later.
Just as notably, they also agreed to move away from the polls and computer ratings currently used to determine the nation's No. 1 and 2 teams in favor of a basketball-style selection committee comprised of college administrators. That committee will decide the fate of teams' national championship hopes as well as their share of an annual $610 million ESPN contract announced last week. "It will be one of the most prestigious assignments in sports, and one of the most scrutinized," Bill Hancock, executive director of the new postseason system, said this summer. "And the members will need to understand what they're getting into."
For a glimpse into the vexing challenges the committee will face, SI enlisted 11 athletic directors representing each FBS conference and the independents. (The lineup originally included four conference commissioners or executives, much like the basketball committee, but following a Nov. 12 BCS meeting in which our project was discussed, all reluctantly pulled out.) Former NCAA executive Greg Shaheen, who for the past 12 years served as the lead facilitator for the men's basketball selection committee, spearheaded the exercise for SI. He compiled detailed fact sheets on each team, established voting protocol and nimbly moderated the selection process.
While we entered the process curious to find out which teams would be selected, a fascinating psychological study unfolded. We saw how interpersonal dynamics affected the process and how committee members dealt with the unavoidable conflicts of interest that come with their jobs. Take realignment, for example. Remarkably, within 48 hours of our call, three of the 11 athletic directors -- Tom Jurich of Louisville, Chris Massaro of Middle Tennessee State and Terry Holland of East Carolina -- were part of a conference membership change. It underscored how intertwined the college sports world is and how many potential conflicts -- real or perceived -- could arise.
"You have to deal with what's in front of you, you have to deal with the facts," said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, a mock committee member. "You can't let your emotions get in the way of the decision-making process because one team left your conference and went to another. It takes a strength of fortitude to do that."
The four-team field our committee selected will undoubtedly please SEC and Pac-12 fans and leave one Big 12 program particularly miffed, while the process offered a window into how college football could look in the future: more teams running up the score to impress the committee, more teams scheduling tougher games to improve their résumés and another layer of scrutiny added to a sport that's already under a microscope.
"It hits you in the face when you start looking at the last couple of spots and how many teams can make legitimate claims for consideration for the last two spots," said Mississippi State AD Scott Stricklin. "It's going to be a daunting task when the real committee gets together."
Here's how SI's mock committee went about selecting four teams for a hypothetical playoff to cap this season.
On a pair of Nov. 19 preparation calls, the group agreed to consider all teams in the BCS top 12, plus any remaining one-loss teams in the top 20. By Nov. 26, that list consisted of: 12-0 Notre Dame, 11-1 Alabama, 11-1 Georgia, 11-1 Florida, 11-1 Oregon, 10-1 Kansas State, 10-2 LSU, 10-2 Stanford, 10-2 Texas A&M, 10-2 South Carolina, 9-2 Oklahoma, 10-2 Nebraska and 11-1 Kent State. For the purposes of this exercise, the group was told to assume that the higher-ranked team would win this weekend's conference championship games. (Most notably, that meant assuming Alabama will hand Georgia a second loss.)
Committee members were given materials on each team several days in advance. To begin the call, Shaheen asked each member to submit his top four teams (in no order), which would become the first four discussed. The teams they chose -- Notre Dame, Alabama, Georgia and Florida -- mirrored the current BCS top four. Oregon, LSU and Kansas State also received votes.
Shaheen then opened the floor for discussion and the result was ... silence. No one dared to speak first. "That's typical," said Shaheen, who observed 12 NCAA tourney selections. "That's a very human thing. It's not like all of us went to the party and were immediately the life of the party."
Per committee policy, Stricklin (SEC) and Navy's Chet Gladchuk (independents) were prohibited from discussing their conference's teams, while Smith, a Notre Dame alum and former assistant coach, recused himself. Finally, Holland spoke up on behalf of a candidate from the SEC -- though interestingly, not one of the teams playing at the Georgia Dome this Saturday.
"I like Florida," Holland said. "They had four wins -- until Florida State moved down to No. 13 [last weekend] -- against the field that was under consideration, and their one loss was to a very good Georgia team, 17-9. They're very good defensively, obviously. I kind of like them even ahead of Alabama."
"Terry, I agree," said Livengood, "but it's really hard when each team had [one] loss and they did meet head-to-head, even though it was such a close game."
"I do understand that," replied Holland, "but again they [the Gators] did play a large number of teams in that field, and they were successful except in the game against Georgia. ... It's so close."
For the group's first ballot, the two teams that received the most votes would become the top two seeds in the bracket, while the other two would be held back for further consideration. "We only put two teams in at a time," said Shaheen, "because you have to have absolute confidence you're getting them as close to each other as possible."
The vote (like in golf, the fewer points the better) went:
1) Notre Dame: nine (seven first-place votes)
(Stricklin, Gladchuk and Smith did not vote.)
At that point, Shaheen opened the floor for discussing any remaining team under consideration. And that's when certain dynamics began to develop.
For instance, Ohio State's Smith quickly emerged as the group's alpha dog, in part because of his familiarity with the process from having served as an NCAA basketball committee chairman. He and Livengood often broke bouts of silence. But while others focused mostly on scores and schedules, Smith, a former Fighting Irish defensive end, had strong football-centric opinions.
For example, Smith on Stanford: "Stanford benefitted from playing Arizona earlier in the year. That was a high-scoring contest [the Cardinal won 54-48 in overtime] but it was against an offense where they learned a lot about themselves and what they needed to do in order to face a similar offense that Oregon runs. .... They've definitely gotten better. That's why I have Stanford as a team that should be up there a little bit higher."
Stanford became one of the most hotly discussed teams, in part because of its controversial overtime loss to No. 1 Notre Dame ("I can see where Stanford should still be ahead of Oregon despite two losses," said Holland), but also because the Cardinal embodied a fundamental debate between the members: Is the goal to pick the four best teams of the season or the four playing the best right now?
"I like Stanford because of how they're playing right now," said Livengood.
"Maybe one of the hottest teams right now is A&M," said Washington State's Bill Moos.
Middle Tennessee State's Massaro, an Oregon proponent ("The way they've dominated most of their opponents has been extremely impressive," he said), felt differently than his colleagues. "I'm more a body of work guy," Massaro said. "The games in September are just as important as the games in November. To me, the hot team doesn't matter as much." That prompted West Virginia's Oliver Luck to note, "There's a long break until soon-to-be playoffs and the championship game. There's a long history of teams cooling off because they have 38 days [off]."
It was soon time to cast the second ballot, for which members were asked to rank the four best teams still under consideration. The top two would join holdovers Georgia and Florida on the final ballot. The results:
Stunningly, that meant Kansas State -- a recent No. 1 team and the presumptive 11-1 Big 12 champion -- did not make the committee's top eight. Most members could not get past the Wildcats' 52-24 drubbing by then 4-5 Baylor.
"Even though they [have] one loss, it's a nasty loss," said Moos. "That's why I left them out. The other ones we're talking about are overtime losses and tough opponents."
"I just think Texas A&M and Oregon would beat 'em," Smith said of the Wildcats. Asked if he would have said that even before the Baylor loss, Smith replied: "Yep, I would have."
Demonstrating just how thin the difference is between teams, Stricklin noted, "If Pittsburgh had made that [33-yard] field goal in overtime, I don't know how strong Notre Dame would be in this conversation. Kansas State and Notre Dame both have road wins at Oklahoma and both have good wins, but Kansas State lost to a .500 team basically, and Pittsburgh would have been similar for Notre Dame."
Notre Dame, remember, was a near-consensus choice for the No. 1 seed.
Finally, it came time for the most important vote: The committee would rank remaining contenders Georgia, Florida, Oregon and LSU, with the top two vote-getters claiming the third and fourth playoff spots.
1) Florida: 12 (six first-place votes)
(Stricklin and Moos did not vote.)
And so the Gators and Ducks would move on to the playoffs. Georgia fans would surely cry foul given the head-to-head win over Florida, and Stanford fans would be incredulous about a bracket that included an Oregon team the Cardinal beat.
"I'm confused," said Shaheen, whose sarcastic sense of humor provided comic relief throughout the call. "This was supposed to be the promised land. I thought we were solving everything with this new system."
In one of the committee's preparation calls last week, there was a moment when it became clear this would be more than just a fun way to pick four teams for a playoff. It came when Shaheen uttered the words: "Lives are going to change." His point: Having seen first-hand the impact of picking the 37th at large-team for the NCAA basketball tournament, he could imagine what will hang in the balance for the fourth football playoff participant.
"It confirmed my thought how hard this is going to be for three, four, five, six," said Ohio State's Smith. "I think one and two are clearly going to emerge. But three and four: Oh my God."
The consensus among SI's mock committee members was that the exercise gave them a better understanding of what will be at stake for the real committee. The difference between teams four and five is a sliver on paper and a canyon in meaning. There's not expected to be a significant financial gap in the monetary payout for teams No. 4 and No. 5, as team No. 5 will still go to a lucrative high-profile bowl. But there's no way to quantify how many millions making the playoff could mean to a school in terms of exposure, recruiting and the university's overall profile.
"It's one thing when you're leaving out the 69th team," said ECU's Holland. "It's another when you leave out the fifth team, and it's so dag-gone close. I was struck by the magnitude of what's involved, the money and everything else."
After digesting the call and following up with interviews with the athletic directors, SI came to a few conclusions. Some of the reverberations will be tangible, such as the notion that teams will no longer get away with playing a slew of Sun Belt schools. Georgia, for example, played a relatively weak schedule this year within the SEC, a fact that came up multiple times in conversations. With conferences getting more bloated and often adding mediocre teams, simply playing one's league schedule may not be good enough anymore.
No one has taken the scheduling notion more seriously than Smith, who recently added Oregon, Texas and TCU to the Buckeyes' future out-of-conference schedule with the playoff in mind.
"I think it's going to cause people to re-think how they're scheduling," Smith said. "It's good for college football. It really is."
Not as good for college football: the temptation for coaches to run up the score. For years during the BCS era, the sport's leaders tweaked formulas to negate the impact of margin of victory. But numerous participants in SI's call said that they realized style points will be more of a factor than ever.
"Even if you say you're not going to look at it, you're going to look at it," Luck said of margin of victory. "You have to grasp onto something. I don't know any way around not doing that."
Since there are so few common opponents, committee members on the call were constantly going back to any comparative scores. They referenced blowouts versus close games, for example Oregon's 49-0 win over an Arizona team that took Stanford to overtime.
"That scares me," Smith said of the reemergence of importance of margin of victory. "You know why. It's obvious. I did not think about or anticipate the experience would take me there."
Smith relayed a telling anecdote from his time as chair of the men's basketball committee in 2011. The group was debating the case of VCU, a controversial addition to the field.
"It really came down to someone in the room seeing VCU multiple times and saying, 'Guys, I'm going to tell you, this team is better than those teams and here's why.'"
Smith called it the "shirts vs. skins" conversation, meaning the committee members had to forget about uniforms, conference affiliation and history and rely on their eyeballs and instincts to determine if VCU belonged in the field. Obviously, the Rams did: They stormed to the Final Four that year, validating the controversial choice.
"At some point in time, you have to say, 'Who is better?'" said Smith. "The body of work and the data might not bring you clarity."
And in the case of a football committee, statistics may not offer much clarity either. It struck Smith how little available data there is for football compared to the reams that exist in basketball. The reasons are obvious: fewer teams, fewer games and less overlap between candidates.
"What are the acceptable metrics?" asked Stricklin, a self-described "numbers guy." He suggested engaging a numbers expert like Jeff Sagarin to "give you some other tools to compare with."
Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips said committee members will need to be intricately familiar with teams and will therefore need to block out large chunks of time each week to watch games.
"You're probably going to have to set exacting standards on what you're looking for," he said.
Interestingly, multiple committee members suggested that the difficulty of picking four teams could lead to the advent of a larger field. Livengood brought it up unprompted after the call. So did ECU's Holland. (It's likely not a coincidence that they represent leagues -- the Mountain West and Conference USA/Big East -- that will struggle to get teams into the top four slots.)
"I like the idea that this could lead to actually expanding the field," Holland said. "Of course you have to convince some presidents that's necessary."
The oddest dynamic of the call was that three of the ADs who took part in it ended up becoming major players in realignment within a span of 48 hours. This brought up some fascinating hypothetical ethical conundrums. If, say, Louisville was hoping for a Big 12 invite (it ended up in the ACC), would Jurich have been inclined to vote for Kansas State? Would Holland have favored a Big East team, as ECU courted that league for years? None of those topics came up during our mock call, but in this era of universities as free agents, it's hard to imagine that those scenarios won't exist. Luck said there must be trust in the room and that committee members must possess integrity that's beyond reproach.
"You'd like to think not," Stricklin said of perspectives being swayed by realignment. "But I can understand why you'd ask the question."
Stricklin and others said the SI mock exercise made them believe a bigger panel may be better. (No number has been set yet.) Multiple members were muted from the call because of conflicts, a virtual equivalent of making people leave from the room when certain teams were discussed. (Stricklin, as the SEC rep, couldn't participate in nearly half the discussions.)
Putting more people in the room could lead to more pressure deflected. Regardless of the final number, though, the committee members face a tough task.
"The eye-opening part of this whole thing is how much pressure is going to come to bear on those people," Livengood said, "and the scrutiny on the backs of those people."
Two years from now, a new era in college football begins with eyes wide open. This is not going to be easy.