WHAT JUST HAPPENED?

October 13, 2014

Six weeks into the Playoff Era, chaos reigned and the questions piled up. What have we learned? Who's really No. 1? What will happen next? And what the heck is playing on Condi's iPad?

THE FAMOUS shrimp toast had all been consumed in the downstairs dining room at City Grocery in Oxford, Miss., as last Thursday night bled into Friday morning. Upstairs, the bar hummed as football fans already in town for the Alabama--Ole Miss game enjoyed a different kind of appetizer. On the televisions hanging on the wall, Arizona shocked Oregon, 31--24. As all the barflies pondered what the loss meant for the Ducks' playoff chances, I wondered something else: Is Condoleezza Rice watching this?

I'd never concerned myself with the former secretary of state's television viewing habits before, even when she worked in the executive branch. But now I want all the details, because Rice is on The Committee.

She and the other 12 members of the College Football Playoff selection panel will decide which four teams play for the national title. No longer can the credit or blame be spread among 62 coaches, 105 Harris Interactive Poll voters and faceless computer rankings. These 13 people will decide. So I want to know if they all watch on Saturdays from the kickoff of the first noon Big Ten game until the final whistle of the last Pac-12 game. I want to know if, when they're catching up on the games they didn't see live, they're watching the television broadcast or the end zone view that the coaches use to diagnose line play. (Members of the committee have access to all of that through apps loaded onto their iPads.)

A few hours before Clemson played Florida State on Sept. 20, Tigers athletic director Dan Radakovich, another committee member, sat in a box in Doak Campbell Stadium. "Is that one of those magic iPads?" I asked. Yes, Radakovich said, on Sundays this season that tablet will hum with games stripped of commercials and breaks between plays. Homework will be done.

Still, I want all the details. I want to know if West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck's cable provider carries the SEC Network. I want to know if former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who in 2008 helped torpedo an attempt to expand the postseason, cares enough about football to put in the time that he did when he was on the NCAA men's basketball tournament selection committee. I want to know if former USA Today writer Steve Wieberg, who left newspapers in '13 to work in public affairs for the Kansas City Public Library, is as diligent now as he was on deadline. I find myself unnecessarily concerned with their ability to take in as much football as possible. What are they watching? What are they thinking? How are they going to screw this up?

Speculating about the committee's deliberations, which will roll out weekly beginning on Oct. 28 and produce a final ranking on Dec. 7, has become a critical part of my college football viewing experience. "It can be as much or as little as you want to put into it," says Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, the committee's chair. "But I think there is a commitment by everybody in that room to do the work that's necessary."

Long, who was once a Michigan graduate assistant, likes to watch the coaches' cut-ups so he can see the sideline and end zone views. He used his chairmanship of the committee to persuade his wife that he needed a man cave in his home featuring three 4K flat-screen televisions. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, another committee member, has a poolside cabana with a 70-inch television for game watching. (When he's not at the Badgers' game, of course.)

"I guess that's the difference between a Wisconsin football legend's and an old sportswriter's salary," Wieberg cracks about his modest 42-incher. But he does have a comfy leather chair that holds him, a laptop and an iPad. Wieberg's cable service in Lawson, Mo., doesn't carry the Big Ten Network or the Pac-12 Network, so he watches those games on the computer and the tablet. As he did when he was a reporter, Wieberg takes copious notes. Through the first five weeks he had watched all or part of 79 games involving 85 teams. He keeps a dossier on his computer on each team, and because he is one of the point people for the SEC (with Luck) and the independents (with Radakovich), he pays special attention to those teams. "I need to do this right because this needs to be done right," Wieberg says. "This is a big deal." As for Rice, I still don't know if she saw that Oregon game. Her chief of staff said Rice was not doing media interviews last week.

THE PLAYOFF has changed everything and nothing. We're still obsessed with how teams are ordered, but the targets of our obsessions have changed. For decades conference commissioners and athletic directors argued that any sort of bracketed tournament would devalue college football's regular season. Quite the contrary. This arrangement has made the regular season even more fun. We don't write off teams after their first loss, because we know they remain very much alive. We can't stop talking about how the committee will view a blowout or a squeaker.

This wild past weekend produced more questions than answers. In the BCS era Oregon's loss at home to the 24-point underdog Wildcats probably would have crushed the Ducks' chances of playing in the title game. Alabama's loss at Ole Miss might not have completely eliminated the Crimson Tide, but it would have cast serious doubt on Alabama's candidacy. Now, Tide coach Nick Saban can stand up after a loss, as he did last Saturday, and proclaim that all his team's goals remain attainable. It will be the truth. Given the ruggedness of the SEC West and the parity of a college football landscape in which TCU can beat Oklahoma, and Utah can beat UCLA, it seems possible that Saban might be able to say the same thing even if the Crimson Tide incur a second loss—depending on the opponent and how many other top teams have been beaten.

Last week, we wondered how the committee would view an undefeated team from outside the five wealthiest conferences—the Power Five. BYU looked like a team that could go 12--0. Then, this past Friday, Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill broke his left leg and BYU fell to Utah State. Marshall of Conference USA looks like the only team from outside the Power Five capable of going undefeated. Will the Thundering Herd, who don't play a single Power Five team, get a spot in the playoff? Probably not with that schedule. Would the committee slot Marshall in the big-money bowl spot reserved for the highest-ranked champion of the Group of Five conferences (the American, Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West and the Sun Belt)? Maybe. Unless East Carolina, with its win at Virginia Tech and its annihilation of North Carolina, wins the AAC. That's the other part of the committee's job. It must place teams in the other four high-dollar bowls, which is part of the reason why it will produce a Top 25 instead of simply four playoff teams.

With the BCS, fans understood how teams were selected. Well, maybe not entirely—most of the programmers who designed the various computer rankings in the BCS formula refused to reveal their algorithms. Still, there was a certain comfort level with the dysfunction. But now we don't even know what criteria the committee will use. Sure, the CFP has issued guidelines:

• Conference championships won.

• Strength of schedule.

• Head-to-head competition.

• Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incentivizing margin of victory).

• Other relevant factors such as key injuries that may have affected a team's performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance.

What does that mean?

"Our mantra is the best four teams," Long says. "We're going to select the best four teams."

But what does that mean?

"Thirteen different people view what 'best' is differently," Long says. "That's the human dynamic, and that's what makes it exciting."

The committee's Top 25 won't be assembled like the coaches' poll or the AP poll. Committee members won't simply hand in individual lists and have them tabulated. Like the members of the NCAA men's basketball committee, the whole group will discuss every spot. Arguments will erupt, and the talking points won't differ much from the arguments on bar stools and radio shows across the country. "We'll be able to vet and look at wins and losses and stats, unlike any other poll that's ever been done," Long says.

This method will—hopefully—produce a more critical examination of teams. Most AP and coaches' poll voters don't penalize a top-ranked team that doesn't lose even if other undefeated teams beat better competition and look better. That's why committee members shouldn't pay attention to polls. "I don't at all, actually," Wieberg says. "I don't want to have any other frame of reference, particularly not one that is rooted in the preseason."

That's a good idea. The polls released after the weekend of chaos reveal more flaws. Arizona, with a better record and a head-to-head win against Oregon, landed two spots behind the Ducks in the coaches' poll. TCU, with a better record and a head-to-head win against Oklahoma, landed three spots behind the Sooners in the coaches' poll. Michigan State sits ahead of Oregon in both polls despite an identical record and a 19-point loss to the Ducks. Of course, even committee members may argue that the Ducks are a different team, thanks to a decimated offensive line. Left tackle Tyler Johnstone tore an ACL before the season began and won't be back. The next left tackle, Jake Fisher, injured his left leg on Sept. 13 against Wyoming, and the original right tackle, Andre Yruretagoyena, injured his foot against Michigan State on Sept. 6. Both may or may not come back.

Florida State, which has had its own injury issues on the defensive line, tops the current AP and coaches polls, but should it? The Seminoles appeared mortal in a win over a then unranked Oklahoma State. They were lucky Clemson gagged away a lead when the Seminoles' starting quarterback, sophomore Jameis Winston, sat out with a suspension. Then, with Winston back, Florida State fell behind by 17 in the first quarter at N.C. State. It won, but it has yet to look like the best team in the country. Their injuries along the defensive line remain troubling. If there comes a moment when the Seminoles have to face a quality opponent without junior defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and junior defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, they should not be favored. So why are they still No. 1? Because they started at No. 1, and they haven't lost. Florida State looks like one of the four best teams—but maybe not the best team.

At the moment that could be Auburn, which has beaten improved Arkansas, sneaky-good Kansas State on the road and LSU. Or it could be Mississippi State, which beat LSU in Baton Rouge and then whipped Texas A&M in Starkville, Miss. Fortunately, the Tigers and the Bulldogs will attempt to settle that argument Saturday in Starkville. In fact, we probably should wait out the October SEC West bloodbath before declaring anyone in that division dominant. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 (Oregon-UCLA, USC-Arizona, Stanford--Arizona State) and the Big 12 (TCU-Baylor, Baylor--West Virginia, Oklahoma State--TCU, Kansas State--Oklahoma) might provide a little more clarity in a few weeks—just in time for, oh, Oct. 28.

In the meantime we can watch and wonder. What game is retired coach Tyrone Willingham watching? What about Archie Manning? Is retired Lieut. Gen. Michael Gould in front of a television right now? What about Wieberg? Did he just see that blown coverage? The answer to the last one is probably yes. "It's not a bad way to spend a Saturday," Wieberg says. "You get up and say, 'O.K., honey, I'm going to plop myself down here in front of this television. I'll see you Sunday morning.'" For the committee, that final ranking on Dec. 7 will end a fun but grueling task, the reward for which will most likely be more complaints. Some things never change.

"THIRTEEN PEOPLE VIEW WHAT IS 'BEST' DIFFERENTLY," LONG SAYS. "THAT'S WHAT MAKES IT EXCITING."

FLORIDA STATE, WHICH HAS INJURY ISSUES ALONG THE DEFENSIVE LINE, TOPS THE CURRENT AP AND COACHES' POLLS, BUT SHOULD IT?

NOW IT GETS REAL

Only one of the 2013 preseason top four would have made a year-end playoff. One would-be playoff team wasn't even in the Top 25 until Week 10.

[The following text appears within 2 charts. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual charts.]

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

ALABAMA #1

OHIO STATE #2

OREGON #3

STANFORD #4

FLORIDA ST. #11

5 10 15

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

AUBURN

MICHIGAN ST.

STARTED SEASON TOP 4

FINISHED SEASON TOP 4

The AP Top 10 got reshuffled after Week 6—with more soon to come. The circles indicate the teams' toughest games.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

FLORIDA ST. #1

ALABAMA #2

AUBURN #6

MICHIGAN ST. #8

BAYLOR #10

5 10

NOTRE DAME OLEMISS MISSISSIPPI ST. TCU ARIZONA

RANKING THROUGH WEEK 7

FUTURE WEEKS

GAME AGAINST TOP 25 OPPONENT

GAME AGAINST TOP 10 OPPONENT

SI PREDICTS THE END-OF-SEASON FINAL FOUR

FLORIDA STATE VS. OKLAHOMA

FLORIDA STATE

SUGAR BOWL

1 AUBURN

The Tigers look like the best of the SEC West right now, and the committee will most likely view the team that takes that division as best equipped to win two games against elite competition and award it the No. 1 seed.

2 FLORIDA STATE

The Seminoles have more flaws than last year's national-title team, but when they're at full strength they can beat anyone. Florida State might be the only undefeated team when the playoff begins.

3 MISS. STATE

The Bulldogs have a Heisman contender at quarterback in Dak Prescott and a front seven that can stuff the run and harass a quarterback. Like Auburn, they will have played some of the nation's best already.

4 OKLAHOMA

The Sooners just lost to TCU, but they have the talent to win out. The Big 12's ruggedness at the top should help Oklahoma in the eyes of the committee—and will likely doom the Horned Frogs.

ROSE BOWL

PHOTOPhotograph by Greg Nelson for Sports IllustratedWHAT A RUSH TCU's 37--33 home upset of No. 4 Oklahoma was part of a weekend that saw five to the top 10 defeated and threw the playoff race wide open.
PHOTOMSA/ICON SPORTSWIRELATE RISERS Tight end Ben Koyack caught a last-second heave to stun Stanford 17--14 and thrust the Irish into the playoff picture. PHOTOGARY BOGDON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PHOTOSTEVE DYKES/AP (MARIOTA)OUT OF LINE The Ducks lost to Arizona, but can they regain esteem if they win out and get their starting tackles back? PHOTOKEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES PHOTOGREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PHOTOSIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PHOTOJOHN DAVID MERCER/USA TODAY SPORTS THREE ILLUSTRATIONS TWO CHARTS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)