College Football Playoff to release polls ... but why?
IRVING, Texas -- Though it's run by the same conference commissioners and overseen by the same executive director (Bill Hancock), the College Football Playoff folks want you to know their new toy is completely different than their old one (the BCS). For one thing, the CFP, unlike the BCS, is an actual entity with an office building and staff members. For the first time, it has a full-fledged p.r. director. Media briefings at this week's spring meetings here have been far more organized than they were when a BCS banner still hung behind the podium.
But when it comes to the one element that should elevate the CFP to a higher level of sophistication than its predecessor -- the revolutionary new 13-member selection committee -- organizers have unfortunately decided to resurrect a certain staple of the old system. And the end result could be far more bewildering and frustrating to teams and fans than anything the BCS computers ever spit out.
On Wednesday, Hancock and committee chairman Jeff Long, Arkansas' athletic director, unveiled the official Selection Committee Procedures. They include a recusal policy (which states, primarily, that committee members can't discuss or vote on their current employer), the balloting process (it largely mimics the NCAA basketball method) and data for consideration (strength of schedule, head-to-head results, etc.)
But in stark contrast to the NCAA basketball committee -- and in a departure from two years worth of previous comments on the matter -- the football committee will release it own weekly Top 25 rankings, beginning this season on Oct. 28. There will be six such editions leading up to the one that actually matters.
"Early on there was some thought that we would go into a room at the end of the season and come out with the top four, but that didn't last very long," said Long.
Other than moving their grand ESPN unveiling show from Sunday nights to Tuesday nights, this new made-for-television poll (and that's precisely what it is) will inevitably become a more confusing version of the old weekly BCS standings.
"I think [a weekly poll] is what college football fans have come to expect," says Long. "Whether it was the polls prior to the BCS or once the BCS [standings] came out, I think that's what fans want."
The fans may want it now. We'll see how they feel when the first edition comes out and their favorite team is ranked six spots lower than it is in the AP poll. Or when that team inexplicably drops three spots on next week's show through no fault of its own.
The whole point of the selection committee was to replace the simplistic horse-race nature of Top 25 polls -- where teams only move up if someone above them loses -- with a more deliberative evaluation method. Now the playoff folks are going to try to do both.
"The concept will be, if the season ended today, these will be the rankings," said Hancock.
But the season won't end that day. And a lot can change from one week to the next.
Imagine it's Nov. 18, the date of the committee's fourth scheduled rankings. Oklahoma is 9-1 and ranked No. 3 in both the AP and coaches polls. The committee decrees the Sooners are No. 3, too. OU fans rightfully figure if its team wins out, it will be in the playoffs.
A week later, though, after beating 2-9 Kansas 55-7, the Sooners drop from third to fifth in the playoff rankings. Between playing the hapless Jayhawks and losses that week by its three non-conference opponents (Louisiana Tech, Tennessee and Tulsa), OU's strength of schedule nosedived over the weekend. When the committee sat down to compile their new rankings -- and organizers insist they'll start from scratch each week -- the Sooners' resume was less impressive than it was a week earlier, and now they appear at risk of missing the playoff altogether.
The fans will freak out. Coach Bob Stoops will go ballistic. And yet, as his own athletic director says, the committee would have dutifully fulfilled its task.
"It doesn't mean they did anything wrong, it's just the process is more developed -- and that would be fair," said Joe Castiglione, who serves on the NCAA men's basketball committee and was here as part of the CFP's advisory group of ADs. Just because a team is ranked in a certain spot one week, he said, "doesn't mean a team can hold on to that spot -- unless its overall body of work supports its ranking. There's so many different elements that go into it week to week. Things change."
To be clear, I've long been a pro-selection committee guy. I believe it to be a far more enlightened method than asking 120-plus coaches and sportswriters to hurriedly throw together a Top 25 ballot by early Sunday morning. Committee members have been given iPads for the specific purpose of watching as many games as possible (they'll have access both to the TV broadcast and coaches' film cut-ups). A third-party company is currently developing a data platform that will provide them with "countless pieces of statistical information for every FBS team." They'll have an extra 48 hours to devote to the task.
And while fans will likely hold their conspiracy theories about potential biases, I have enough familiarity with the basketball process to know it's virtually impossible for any one member to brainwash the other 12 into voting a certain way. The recusal policy released Wednesday does not specifically preclude Tom Osborne from discussing and voting on former Big 12 nemesis Texas, but the man has a pretty decent track record of integrity. I'm not too worried.
"We've got a lot of precedent," said Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick, who serves with the commissioners on the CFB's Management Committee. "We have all of our sports with one exception, postseasons determined by selection committees. We have a comfort level and experience level."
The difference is, all those other selection committees don't sit down to produce their bracket having already done so for six straight weeks. Just like the AP or coaches poll, it's hard to imagine last week's ballot won't impact the following week's.
The Oklahoma scenario I used earlier, while possibly frustrating for fans, would actually be an example of the committee functioning as designed. What about the opposite? If Oliver Luck, for example, has been convinced for the past month that Auburn is the third-best team in the country, will he really be inclined to reevaluate the Tigers on a blank canvas the fifth time around?
And remember, these rankings don't just determine the four playoff teams. The committee will use them to fill any open spots in the other four "New Year's Six" bowls (Fiesta, Orange, Cotton and Peach). A whole bunch of teams and fan bases' travel plans will hinge on that order come Dec. 7. Yet they'll undoubtedly be reading into earlier versions that theoretically have no relation to the final product.
Long concedes there could be much volatility from one week to the next. "[A team's] schedule, at that point we're ranking early on, maybe they haven't had the kind of resume yet to really ascertain how strong a team they are," he said.
Which begs the obvious question: Why do it then?
The commissioners' spin is that the weekly rankings will be doing the fans a favor. In the nearly two years of buildup to the new system they've been constantly reassuring folks that there will be no shortage of transparency regarding the selections. And this is their mechanism? Long, poor guy, will go on ESPN every week and explain their rationale. Admirable.
"You may find this shocking but occasionally people would complain the BCS wasn't transparent enough," said Swarbrick. The weekly poll will "try to take that off the table and have a certain level of transparency here. It removes that from the discussion. You may disagree with the outcomes, but we don't want people worrying or discussing the procedural elements of it."
No matter the procedures, the advent of the committee is going to be a shock to the system for most fans. For nearly 80 years they've been conditioned to view voter polls as the sport's ultimate arbiter. Undefeated trumped one loss, one loss trumped two losses, etc., etc. There's no understating what a radical change the "body of work" approach will be.
Which is why it would have been better to just rip off the Band Aid. Flip the switch. Instead, we'll be stuck somewhere in between the two eras, sweating a weekly poll that is in no way a traditional poll but will look exactly like one.
Welcome to the College Football Playoff. It's a whole new day -- that day being Tuesday.