GRAPEVINE, Texas — The College Football Playoff selection committee meets in a hotel conference room suite here, behind a façade that looks like The Alamo, with a fake geyser erupting a couple of first downs away.
Strip away the artificial trappings that are part of the grand, massive and utterly over-the-top Gaylord Texan resort, and you have a still-new organization still trying very hard to acquaint the world with how it conducts is business.
Namely, how it decides which four teams will make it into its semifinals come December, and how the rest of its weekly and final top 25 rankings will take shape.
To that end, the CFP has set up six mock selection exercises this fall with a variety of groups and constituencies. Tuesday it was time for me and 12 other media members from across the nation (including former Advocate sportswriter Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated) to work our way through a mock selection exercise to see how a condensed version of the selection process works.
I participated in a similar exercise three years ago for the NCAA basketball tournament. That was exceptionally informative — starting with the fact none of us noticed how many teams from each conference were in the field of 68 until we were done — but it was missing one major element of reality.
We met in a large conference room at NCAA headquarters and not the downtown Indianapolis hotel where the committee worked (now they meet in New York).
For the CFP exercise, we were in the actual rooms where the CFP committee will start meeting later this month to produce the weekly rankings that culminate with the semifinal parings and final top 25 that will be released Sunday, Dec. 2.
The U-shaped conference table, chairs, monitors and projection screens were the same as the committee will use, right down to the hat rack at the door bearing monogrammed caps for the committee members who are encouraged to check their hats of personal bias before entering.
My seat was the one occupied by Robert Morris University president Chris Howard, a Rhodes scholar, former Air Force pilot, bronze star recipient and an MBA graduate from Harvard. CFP executive director Bill Hancock told me Howard is the smartest person in the room when they meet. Properly intimidated, I settled down to business.
We used not current season data but the results from the 2013 regular season, the last of the BCS era before the CFP took over in 2014. Real committee members are asked to keep tabs on different teams and conferences during the season and we were asked to look over the data and come armed with our own top 30 teams to consider.
I thought I’d done a decent job of that until I saw the reams of data the CFP committee uses to consider teams. We each got a notebook with data on each FBS team including detailed info on their records, offensive and defensive stats. Want to know North Carolina State’s opponents opponents’ record? It’s in there. Staffers can also call up a box score from a game on video screens at a moment’s notice, then a moment later put up side-by-side comparisons of two to four teams at a time.
The committee works its way through the top 25 layer by layer. Teams that get at least three votes each go onto the first ballot (we had 36 teams, a typical number we were told) and from there we picked the top six teams. Of those six, the top three would go onto the top three lines of the top 25. The process is repeated to decide teams 4-6 and 7-9. Similar selection processes then decide batches of four teams at a time for Nos. 10-13, 14-17, 18-21 and 22-25.
“People say they didn’t realize how deliberate the committee is” after doing the exercise, Hancock said. “Some didn’t realize there are seven rounds of voting. There are people who think it’s like the coaches’ poll or the sportswriters’ poll where you would email in your vote.”
Our semifinals were No. 1 Florida State (13-0) versus No. 4 Alabama (11-1) and No. 2 Auburn (12-1) versus No. 3 Michigan State (12-1). Florida State and Auburn met in the BCS final that year at the Rose Bowl.
After some discussion involving 2013 LSU’s key wins and losses — that LSU team beat Auburn 35-21, lost a 44-41 shootout at Georgia and wound up 10-3 – the Tigers were slotted in at No. 16. Why does the CFP committee even bother with teams beyond the four semifinalists?
Aside from placing the teams in the two semifinal bowls — this year, those are the Cotton and Orange on Dec. 29 — it also determines or helps decide which teams go in the other four bowls that make up the CFP rotation: the Sugar, Rose, Fiesta and Peach. And it can be a huge feather in a the cap of many a coach and program to finish in the CFP top 25 — plus there are some coaches’ bonuses tied to the rankings out there as well.
“I applaud them as a committee for doing this for a variety of groups,” said NBC broadcaster Mike Tirico, who took part in the exercise, “because it helps us understand this is not smoke and mirrors. There is not a dirty backroom conspiracy trying to put this team here and that team there. They really go through the objective material to make a subjective decision very well.
“What happens on the field ends up mattering the most. The brands of schools, the conference affiliations, which are often the default frustrations of folks at times — that’s not to me what stands out. To me, it’s what is your body of work, and how do we compare it?”
I agreed with Mike. I also want to know how much it would cost to put a geyser in my backyard.