If you haven't heard, there's a red-hot start-up company making waves down in Dallas. It's called College Football Playoff, and though it has fewer than 10 full-time employees at the moment, it's already secured at least $470 million in annual revenue. It's still more than 18 months away from its first product launch, yet it's already garnering significant media coverage.
However, the new venture's executive director (Bill Hancock) and newly minted Management Committee (the conference commissioners) are wrestling with an unavoidable dilemma. The same people dutifully plugging away at the new business -- renting office space, hiring key employees, spreading the word at industry conferences -- must oversee one more year of their former, less popular offering, the Bowl Championship Series. Even though they're actively planning a new method for determining 2014's national champion, they don't want the public to gloss over or discredit 2013's final BCS champ.
This line of thinking is understandable. Whichever team hoists the crystal football on Jan. 6 shouldn't have to face questions about who it might have faced in a hypothetical second postseason game, or whether it would have finished No. 1 in the new system. Unfortunately, though, the CFP folks' paranoia about this inevitable clash may lead to a major flaw in the new playoff's eventual launch.
The commissioners met on Tuesday in Colorado Springs, Colo., to begin narrowing down a field of more than 100 potential candidates for the much-discussed selection committee. Speaking with reporters afterward, they reiterated that they're in no rush to finalize the roster, which is expected to include a mix of active athletic directors, former players, coaches and administrators and other various football aficionados. "We're gonna be very deliberate about it and thorough," Hancock told USA Today and Yahoo! Sports.
But here's the concerning part: Hancock also said there are no plans to have the committee use the 2013 season as a "dry run" for the real thing. Why?
"We have a BCS champion to decide [in 2013]," said Hancock. "Any kind of parallel universe runs the risk of detracting from that champion and none of us want to do that."
The selection committee may well be the most important facet of the new playoff. There has never been anything like it in FBS football, which for more than 75 years has relied on the votes of sportswriters and coaches. The proposed panel's credibility will be essential to the public's acceptance of this new event.
Given those stakes, wouldn't the committee want to take advantage of a gift-wrapped opportunity to iron out the kinks?
There's a reason Google and other technology companies beta test new products before unleashing them for mass consumption. They don't hide a new version of Gmail under seal out of fear consumers will stop using the old one. On the contrary, they let employees and selected customers give new products a ride in hopes they find -- and can subsequently correct -- any potential flaws.
That's exactly what the playoff folks should do once they finalize the committee, even if they don't select all the members in time for the start of the season. Lock the group in a conference room for several days leading up to and following Championship Saturday and ask it to pick the field as if this were the real thing. (And stock the room with unlimited bagels, coffee and Pirate's Booty.) Then release its results and the rationale for the public to dissect. This exercise doesn't have to be completed the morning after the final BCS standings come out. By all means, give the real-life championship participants a week or two to bask in their accomplishment before opening a window into the parallel universe.
Then sit back and see what happens. While there's sure to be controversy and dissension no matter which teams the committee selects -- particularly among fans of teams snubbed from the imaginary playoff -- public feedback can still be extremely instructive. Do fans feel the committee emphasized the appropriate factors? Can the members adequately justify their rationale? Did, say, former coaches appear more knowledgeable about the teams than active athletic directors? Or vice versa? If so, should there be a change to the committee's composition?
While the exercise certainly runs the risk of undermining this year's championship game -- if, for example, the committee considers the BCS No. 1 team only deserving of a No. 3 seed in the playoff -- the notion of hurting someone's feelings over an imaginary matchup is a far lesser evil than harming the real playoff by failing to properly vet the selection process. If, say, a 73-year-old committee member proves more dedicated to his golf game than watching college football games, better to find out this year than next.
But apparently the commissioners feel any such mock exercise would be an imposition on potential committee members. "Don't waste all that time practicing to put on 'The Sound of Music' and then not let them put on 'The Sound of Music,'" said Hancock. While certainly a colorful analogy, it might not be the best example. Actors frequently go through the effort of rehearsing scenes, skits and even entire shows that don't end up making the final cut. It helps directors ensure that the public winds up seeing the best possible version of their production.
And this particular production, the first-ever College Football Playoff, will be seen by millions more viewers than any televised event but the Super Bowl.
There's one other option here. If the concern is truly that a dry run might overshadow the BCS' last hurrah, then wait until after the national championship game to conduct it. A retroactive exercise is better than not having one at all. It's a far from ideal scenario, however, because committee members' perceptions of the teams up for debate would undoubtedly be skewed by their subsequent bowl performances. The exercise will not truly be sound unless it happens in December, though the committee could certainly wait until February to release the results.
(A third option would be to conduct the mock selection but keep the results private; however, that would run contradictory to the commissioners' repeated assertion that the selection process will be transparent.)
In conversations with Hancock and many of the commissioners about this subject over the past year, it's clear they realize the committee's task will be difficult. In particular, the SEC's Mike Slive has done extensive research on the subject, and presumably others have as well.
But even those who have served on the NCAA basketball committee won't truly appreciate the unique challenges associated with this football committee until they've gone through the process once. That was the near-universal feedback we received last year from the 11 athletic directors who participated in SI.com's mock playoff selection. "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," Mississippi State AD Scott Stricklin said at the time. "It's going to be a daunting task when the real committee gets together."
All the more reason for the real committee to get together the first time when the stakes are imaginary. Come December 2014, it will be asked to perform an unprecedented task under scrutiny from tens of millions of fans. It will be the moment when the glitzy new start-up is expected to deliver its first real return. There's a whole bunch of them in Silicon Valley that would drool at the prospect of a low-cost, no-stakes practice run like the one playoff organizers might forgo this season out of deference for a soon-to-be discontinued product.