Despite skepticism, selection committee based on sound principles

Wednesday October 16th, 2013

College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock (left) introduced Jeff Long as committee chair.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

We live in an age where everything in sports is either amazing or awful, with nothing in between. So it should come as no surprise that the Twitterverse made up its collective mind that the College Football Playoff selection committee will be awful before organizers even sent out the official release early on Wednesday afternoon.

For contrarian's sake, however, it's worth asking: Is it possible to at least entertain the notion that the newly anointed committee might actually be ... a good thing?

Laugh, I know. How could I possibly be so dense as to think that something conceived by college football's power brokers -- in fact, most of the same exact people (Bill Hancock and the conference commissioners) who run the BCS -- won't be a colossal disaster? In fact, why are we even bothering to stage this much-anticipated playoff that everyone spent decades clamoring for when we already know it's going to be a complete train wreck, right?

That outcome is entirely possible. Your skepticism is certainly warranted.

But here's where why I came away encouraged from Wednesday's announcement. It had little to do with the names of the 13 members, who have already been known for more than a week at this point. All of them are extremely distinguished professionals, and all are perfectly qualified to perform this task, provided they commit the necessary time.

I came away encouraged because from the day it was first announced that there would be a committee some 16 months ago, the process always loomed more important than the people. On Wednesday, along with names and bios, playoff officials released a selection committee "Fact Sheet" detailing the mission, principles, voting process and more. Among the highlights:

• Remember the hubbub last year over whether the four-team playoff field should be limited solely to teams that win their conference? The commissioners ultimately nixed that idea, but came up with a list of five principles the committee will use to "distinguish among otherwise comparable teams." That list includes conference championships, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition, comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory) and "other relevant factors such as key injuries that may have affected a team's performance during the season or likely would affect its postseason performance."

Whether the members actually stick to those principles remains to be seen. But on paper, it's hard to argue those are anything but sound factors to consider. That's particularly true for the last part, which acknowledges that teams are not exactly the same in early December as they were in early September.

Most importantly, by simply writing down these criteria, the playoff already has more clearly defined parameters than the sport's past 77 years of poll-selected champions.

• The voting process will be conducted by "a series of ballots through which the committee members first select a pool of teams to be considered, then rank those teams." This is the exact same process used by the NCAA basketball committee, and which used in its mock selection exercise last season. It's much more intuitive than trying to rank 25 teams at once, as it allows members to first hone in and compare a small number of teams to each other before comparing them with a larger group.

• "Committee members directly associated with any team under consideration during the selection process will recuse themselves from any deliberations associated with that team, and will not participate in any votes involving that team." This means that Barry Alvarez, for example, will have no say in determining Wisconsin's fate. This rule may sound obvious, but it's important, and on a conference call on Wednesday, committee chair Jeff Long said the group will consider whether to implement further recusals. (For instance, should Oliver Luck recuse himself when discussing Stanford?)

• "No one single metric will be identified as paramount over all other data." In other words, this committee will not have an equivalent to RPI, an outdated system that remains a centerpiece of the basketball selection process. This is a good thing, too, provided the committee members to subscribe to some sort of hard data to supplement simply watching the games.

• The committee will meet in person several times, beginning in midseason, before sitting down during the final weekend to devise the official pairings, both for the semifinals and the other Big Six bowls. This will be particularly important during the first year, when members go through this process for the first time. They'll be more comfortable with both the process and each other by the time they sit down to do the real thing.

The word I would use to describe all of the above principles is "sound." Now, if you believe it's all a smokescreen and that a former Secretary of State, Air Force superintendent and Hall of Fame coach will ignore these guidelines -- instead spending their meetings smoking cigars, playing golf and ultimately selecting the four schools at which their closest friends work -- hey, don't let me stop you. On Wednesday's conference call at least, all parties used words like "humbled" (Alvarez) and "honored" (Tyrone Willingham) to describe their new roles.

"... You don't punch a clock in any of the business I've been in, whether coaching or athletic director, you just go 'til you get the job done," said Alvarez. "I'll go about this the same way, whatever the time takes to get it done, I'll get it done."

"This was such a great step for college football, I couldn't say no," said Willingham, "... even if it took 24 hours a day."

Now, I do have one major quibble. According to Hancock, the committee will release its own Top 25 rankings "about every other week," four to five times, starting in midseason. The goal is to replicate the "excitement" generated by the current weekly release of the BCS standings.

Yet this system is supposed to be a departure from the BCS, not a replication. One of the flaws of the current system is the horse race nature of Top 25 polls. The committee will essentially release its own version, which will then go out into the ether, inevitably be met with criticism, which in turn might influence the group's next set of rankings.

Hancock insisted the committee will start from scratch each time. In addition, committee members will be provided condensed cutups of games (just the actual plays) to watch during the week, and they'll be provided with reams of statistics (hopefully advanced statistics) and be individually assigned to monitor a specific conference and report back to the group.

If executed properly, all of these represent infinite improvements over the existing AP and Coaches' polls, for which there are no stated guidelines besides "don't be biased," and which the only games many participants see are the ones they either cover or coach on Saturday. Sitting in a room and deliberating with 12 other people charged with the same task should only further inform and enlighten committee members' decisions.

For all of those reasons, I'd suggest trying to temper the skepticism at least a little bit and give this thing a year to see if maybe, possibly it actually works. It probably will be neither amazing nor awful, but for a public that's endured 16 years of the harebrained BCS standings, it could be a lot worse than "sound."

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