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  • How will the playoff committee handle the possibilities of an independent Notre Dame squad or two teams from the same conference making it? A panel of media members went behind the scenes of the process.
By Ross Dellenger
October 16, 2018

GRAPEVINE, Texas — Before the next stage of voting, the committee chairman delivered a message to the room. “Reminder,” announced Brett McMurphy, “Notre Dame has no conference losses.”

A collective chortle came from the other 12 media members participating last week in a CFP mock committee meeting in a plush resort in suburban Dallas. McMurphy, the former ESPN reporter now with Stadium Network who acted as chair of the mock committee, smiled as he landed his well-timed joke, a few seconds before the committee rounded out the final 10 spots of its top 25 from a pool of about 15 teams—one of which included the Irish. The mock committee ranked teams based on the final regular season standings of 2013, and, yes, the Irish, 8–4 that season, made the cut at No. 21. But how will the real committee handle an undefeated or one-loss Notre Dame, with no league championship game, in deciding the CFP top four?

“It’s full body of work. We’ll be able to line up their résumé with anybody else,” says Rob Mullens, the real committee’s chair who was present for the mock selection. “They’ll have 12 games. Some others may have 13 games, but we’ll still put them side by side and look at their full body of work.”

A mock selection event last week gave media members an up-close view at one of the more scrutinized things in all of sports: picking college football’s final four. Print reporters (like yours truly), radio personalities (like Trey Schaap of KABZ 103.7 in Little Rock) and television broadcasters (like NBC’s Mike Tirico) chose the final top 25 in a process staged in 2013, the final year of the BCS. We embroiled ourselves in some of the same deliberations as real committee members, seated at the same tables in the same room at the same hotel (the Gaylord Texan), using the same analytics posted onto the same computer monitors.

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A look inside the process hints at how the committee may handle what could be this season’s two biggest quandaries: the inclusion of multiple teams from one conference and, for the first time since the end of the BCS, an independent in the mix. Notre Dame, currently 7–0 and ranked No. 4 in the AP poll, should be favored in its remaining five games. Road matchups at Northwestern and USC provide its highest hurdles. Meanwhile, two conferences—the SEC and Big Ten—have the potential to do something that’s happened just once (last year) in four seasons of the CFP: a conference sending two teams to the playoff.

Both of these situations—the entrance into the field of Notre Dame and two teams from a single conference—go hand in hand in a way. Last week’s mock selection illustrated one significant point: The committee is tasked with picking the “best four teams,” not necessarily the most deserving or those who claim conference titles. Executive director Bill Hancock and Mullens, in the room with media members during the mock selection, reminded us of that multiple times. If the best four include two from one conference and an independent without a conference title game, so be it. “There’s no mention of conference,” Mullens says. “It’s all individual schools and complete résumés.”

The Irish’s inclusion would bump a second Power 5 conference out of the playoff and opens the door for a stunning possibility: If the SEC or Big Ten was to send two teams to the playoff, three of the five power leagues would be left out. It’s possible, according to ESPN’s Playoff Predictor metrics. In fact, right now, the SEC has a greater chance at sending two teams to the playoff (26%) than the Big 12 has at sending one (25%). Notre Dame, meanwhile, has a 65% shot to make the field. Sure, chaos would have to ensue, but when has that stopped college football? Clemson would need to drop a game, Texas and Oklahoma would need to stumble or look poor winning, and two of three SEC teams—most likely LSU, Georgia and Alabama—would need to finish with one loss.

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Conference affiliation isn’t as important inside the committee room as it is outside. Media members last week spent time squabbling about conference strength, only to be reminded by Hancock and Mullens that they did not matter. “Do you penalize them for not being in a conference?” one media member asked Hancock and Mullens about Notre Dame. The response: no.

Another media member cracked a joke that sent the room into fits again. “We have five SEC teams in the top nine,” the person said. “We’ve got to do something about that.” The committee uses dozens of metrics in comparing one team with another—strength of schedule, points per game, top-25 wins—but it does not have available a conference power ranking. Why?

“The committee doesn’t need it,” Hancock says in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “The conference strength is going to be reflected in the teams’ strength of their schedule. The other reason we don’t believe strongly in conference numerical ranking, I don’t believe there’s an accurate way to rank a conference. Are you ranking the bottom against the bottom? The middle against the middle, top against the stop? Or are you cross-ranking them? Is the bottom from Conference A better than the bottom from Conference B? I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s relevant. We don’t believe there’s a valid way to statistically rank conferences and, furthermore, we don’t need to.”

Ross Dellenger

One of the greatest illustrations of the committee choosing “the best” four and avoiding conference biased came last year, when members left out Big Ten title winner Ohio State for a second SEC team, Alabama, that did not play in its conference championship game (12 games played to OSU’s 13). The Crimson Tide validated the committee’s selection a month later by winning it all.

This year, most believe an undefeated Notre Dame will be included, but what about a one-loss Irish team that does not have a 13th game in the form of a conference championship? What helps this ND team is its strength of schedule, something the committee takes under advisement. The Irish already have wins over two teams that are currently in the coaches’ top 25, along with a road victory at 4–2 Virginia Tech. Their crown jewel is a dominant win over Michigan, currently sixth in the AP, to start the season. “It’s all about comparing the games side by side, and it won’t be any different with an independent,” Hancock says. “One of our blessings is, all we have to do is pick the best four teams with no strings attached and no politics.”

The mock committee followed suit back at the Gaylord Texan. Media members cast their votes for the top four based on the 2013 regular season, and guess what? We chose two teams from one conference in the final four: 1) Florida State, 2) Auburn, 3) Michigan State and 4) Alabama. We left out two two-loss Power 5 conference champions, 5) Stanford and 7) Baylor. Will this year be more of the same? Asked that question, Mullens answers with something he’s learned in his three years as a committee member. “Don’t try to be predictive.”

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