NEW YORK -- Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long -- better known to most college football viewers as College Football Playoff selection committee chairman Jeff Long -- was asked Wednesday what advice he’d give to the next chair of the committee (who could, by the way, be Jeff Long).
“Don’t do it,” Long cracked while on stage at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum.
He’s kidding, but Long readily admits the first year of the playoff selection process was a learning experience for everyone involved. Long, CFP executive director Bill Hancock and ESPN senior vice president Rob Temple provided a bit of a postmortem to the process Wednesday. The takeaway? Judging by the enthusiasm of the men on the stage, the controversial weekly rankings might change logistically, but they aren’t going away.
Long believes the committee and playoff organizers can solve many of the issues that arose by better educating fans on the process. This is true in terms of helping to get fans accustomed to the possibility that the rankings could swing wildly from week to week because, unlike poll voters, committee members start from scratch each week.
“The fans in general still haven’t grasped the fact that we start every week grabbing 30 teams from each committee member,” Long said. “Those teams come into our pool. Then we start at the top and get a group of six teams. Then we discuss and debate and then vote those teams one, two, three. We hold over three teams. We go grab six more, throw them into the pool, discuss and debate. We do that all the way through the top 25. So each week when I talked about starting with a clean sheet of paper, that’s what we meant.”
This is Long’s way of explaining how TCU could drop from No. 3 in the rankings released Dec. 2 to No. 6 in the rankings on Dec. 6 despite pummeling Iowa State 55-3. This also is his way of explaining how Mississippi State jumped Michigan State in the final ranking in spite of the fact that neither team played in the final week. (Through conversations with people familiar with the committee deliberations, I got a more complete answer to that second one, and I wrote about it in this week’s #DearAndy column.) Those swings were jarring to fans accustomed to the relative stability of the poll system and the BCS rankings, which decided who would play for major college football’s national title the previous 16 seasons.
Long said the CFP executive committee (the 10 FBS commissioners) originally suggested ranking teams every other week and starting earlier in the season. In the end, it was decided the committee would release rankings weekly but would not release its first set until Oct. 28. This allowed half a season of data to come in, hopefully removing any elements of preseason hype or lingering reputation from the previous season.
Hancock said the weekly rankings also were created to provide some familiarity. “That’s what college football fans have come to expect,” Hancock said. “If we weren’t doing a ranking, someone else would fill that space -- whether it’s the [Associated Press] or the coaches’ poll.”
This is an interesting point. Poll voters didn’t agree with the committee at first. For example, after Alabama beat Mississippi State on Nov. 15, poll voters decided undefeated Florida State was the new No. 1. The Seminoles received 43 of 60 first-place votes in the AP poll and 39 of 62 first-place votes in the coaches’ poll. Two days later, the committee moved the one-loss Crimson Tide to No. 1 and left Florida State at No. 3 for a second consecutive week. Poll voters eventually moved Alabama ahead of the Seminoles, but did they do that only because of the committee’s rankings?
What if the football committee acted like the men’s basketball committee and met only once at the end of the season? Would Florida State have remained No. 1 in the polls? Probably. Then how jarring would the final reveal have been when the Seminoles found out they were No. 3 and had to play in the Rose Bowl instead of the Sugar Bowl?
We told you all along that the rankings existed partially to provide ESPN with more programming, and nothing Temple said Wednesday refutes that. ESPN was pleased with the ratings for the Tuesday-night reveals -- just under a one share. “It tells us there is enormous interest in this,” Temple said.
But the rating of the reveal only tells part of the story. The weekly rankings made their own gravy across ESPN’s platforms, driving the narrative of shoulder programming such as College Football Live and provoking debate on ESPN Radio and ESPN.com. Since ESPN pays about half a billion dollars a year to televise all aspects of the playoff, it expects a return on its enormous investment. The weekly rankings offer a better return, which is why they likely will stay unless the group of commissioners has significant objections.
Long also addressed two of the other major questions produced by the selection process. The first? How much did other athletic directors or conference leaders lobby committee members on behalf of their teams? “I got one text from an AD friend who was pushing for something in the endgame, but that was it,” Long said. “No other interference. No other ADs or conference commissioners or staff tried to influence it.” Long said the system of having committee members assigned to monitor each conference -- including calls seeking factual information from conference leaders -- helped establish a line of communication that avoided blatant lobbying.
Long also addressed the other big question that arose Sunday. Were committee members swayed by Ohio State’s brand? Did the Buckeyes get in because they have a bigger name than Baylor or TCU? “The Ohio State brand had nothing to do with it,” Long said. “It was never discussed in the committee. It was focused on that football team.”
Later, Hancock addressed another popular question about the playoff. How long until we see an eight-team system? “There is no talk about eight at all in our group,” Hancock said. “That’s why we did the four-team tournament for 12 years. We want people to know this is a stable event. … We know there is a tipping point beyond which the postseason begins to erode the regular season. We just can’t have that happen in college football. Four doesn’t get to the tipping point. Four doesn’t go too far. Four goes just far enough.”
Suuuuuuuuuurrrrre, Long, I believe you. But I’m just going to leave a link to a compilation of BCS-era Bill Hancock quotes about how awful a playoff would be right here. So feel free to place your bets on when the playoff will expand. I’ll set the over/under at the six-year mark.