You think you can pick the right teams? A visit to the College Football Playoff mock selection proves that ranking teams is a lot harder than it appears.
DALLAS—When the time comes to replace current College Football Playoff Selection Committee member Steve Wieberg, he of USA Today fame, I'm pretty convinced I won't be getting a call.
I don't think I have the patience for the job, honestly. You think ranking teams 1-15 is hard? Try 16-25.
It's easy, when the playoff rankings come out each week—which will start this season on Tuesday, Nov. 1—to get all huffy about where your team did or did not fall, and scream and yell about how if you were on the selection committee, you'd be able to put aside all your biases and rank teams how they truly deserve, and give college football fans what they really want. Well, I doubt it. Because I just sat in the official room of the selection committee, here at the Gaylord Texan hotel, and let me tell you, it was no easy task.
There's a lot about the selection and ranking process that the general public does not understand (I consider myself part of the general public group, just to be clear). Bill Hancock, executive director of the CFP, told us that people don't get the simple process of voting for teams in small blocks rather than just ranking everyone 1-25. This allows for in-depth discussion at every position, without being overwhelmed by the starting pool of 30-40ish teams. Voting in groups makes the task less daunting. It's actually pretty genius. And once you have a top 25, you can decide if you need to re-rank any groupings which means by the time you walk out of the room, you're feeling really good about the overall final ballot, at least theoretically.
About that: So in our mock selection, we used the 2010 final standings. You'll remember that as the year Auburn won the national championship over Oregon because Michael Dyer's knee was not down, and the year TCU beat Wisconsin 21–19 in the Rose Bowl. We were told to "forget" about the postseason results and focus only on what's in front of us, which were regular season finishes, conference championships and a whole lot of stats. (If you're an analytics junkie, get ye to a mock selection.)
We had some heated discussion about the top four teams: Auburn and Oregon were set at one and two, respectively, but we went back and forth on TCU vs. Wisconsin in the three and four slots, and had knock-down drag-outs about spots five through eight. (OK that's an exaggeration. At most we had a heated discussion.) I was not a Boise State believer as belonging in the top eight. But it became clear I was fighting a losing battle so in the interest of time, I eventually yielded to the group.
That prompted me to ask real-life CFP chair Kirby Hocutt (played in our mock selection by USA Today reporter and good friend George Schroeder) how many times he thinks people in the room don't agree with what's happening, but know they're not going to change anyone's mind, so they keep their mouth shut after awhile. Hocutt said that he's confident each time the committee leaves the room, they "walk out of here believing we did the very best job, even if it's not a total consensus." I'd be curious to know, in ten years, where different committee members ranked teams individually.
Other things that struck me as interesting:
• For me, deciding which teams are in and which teams are out will always come down to the eye test. I've felt this way about hoops for years. But Hocutt says the room is a good mix of people who value the eye test and people who value numbers/metrics. I'm a big believer that numbers often lie, or at least mislead, but if we had any sort of uniformity in his exercise, it would be boring.
• Committee members don't just get games on their CFP-issued iPads, they get condensed games, which are whittled down to 45 minute videos. I am instantly jealous and would appreciate this for #Pac12AfterDark games that go into the early hours of the morning.
• There's lots of discussion outside the selection committee room about if and when the playoff will expand to eight teams, but Hancock and Hocutt shared with us that in previous mock selections this year, most former players—who now work as school or conference administrators or media members—are adamantly against adding another game, fearful of the wear and tear on their bodies. Now I'm convinced we need to hold an anonymous survey of every current FBS player in college football to ask if they'd like to see the playoff move to eight teams.
• A few people in our group expressed disbelief at the committee's ability to dismiss what former Ohio State president Gordon Gee once referred to as "little sisters of the poor" in reference to Boise State and TCU, two teams that he did not believe were worthy of competing in the big, bad BCS. Group of Five schools still fight this battle, but to me, it's pretty simple: Because of what Boise State and (former Group of Five) TCU have done over the last decade of college football, you have to at least consider the little guys. Certainly Power Fives, by virtue of tougher conference schedules, will always have an edge. But Boise State and TCU put small schools on the map and you have to consider them. (I believe you need to go undefeated to get that consideration so Houston, you've got eight more wins to go this season.)
• People also expressed doubt about the committee members' ability to check their biases at the door. Hancock empathized with this, saying that's human nature to question if that's possible. But he praised the professionalism of the committee and compared bringing your personal bias into a work room to "swearing in church—you just don't do it." It's pretty remarkable the steps the CFP has gone through to make sure no one could be accused of bias. For example as we voted down the ballot, Rob Mullens (who bore a striking resemblance to Matt Baker of the Tampa Bay Times and wasn't wearing any Nike) wasn't allowed to vote not just on Oregon but on anyone who might wind up playing Oregon in the postseason.
• As a musical aside: Hancock kept referring to the "Federalist Papers," the front-and-back sheet entitled "How to Select the Best Four Teams to Compete for the College Football National Championship." That was the first position paper adopted by the BCS group in June 2012. Every time he said "Federalist Papers" I quietly hummed a few verses from whatever Hamilton song was currently in my head. I think the selection room could be jazzed up if everyone did this starting on Nov. 1. I think it would make for even higher ratings on the weekly ESPN show.
Overall the point of the exercise was "exposure to the process." I have a better understanding and appreciation after participating in the mock selection. And come Nov. 1, I'll know how hard it was to rank Nos. 16-25.