You’re part film critic, part deep analytical expert and part fan.
Being on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee is a combination of all those things — and more.
So says Steve Wieberg, who served on the 15-person committee during its first four years, 2014-17. Wieberg, a former writer at USA Today, was the “media” representative on the group that includes former coaches, sitting and former athletic directors and others from more eclectic backgrounds, such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a big fan but one who never played the game.
Neither did Wieberg, for that matter. But it didn’t keep his voice from being heard in the room.
“First, they give you an incredible amount of information — more than any one person could ever possibly use,” Wieberg said. “But each person is allowed to use that information however he or she sees fit and to make your opinion known.”
That diversity, Wieberg added, is what really makes things work.
“You wouldn’t want 15 coaches or 15 commissioners or 15 ADs or even 15 sportswriters,” he said. “But it’s all of those viewpoints coming together that is the real strength of the committee.”
In some ways, being on the committee — or even being an ex-committee member — is a little like Fight Club.
Wieberg said that members are asked not to talk about the dynamics and other inner workings of the committee, at least not critically, even after their terms have expired.
He is following that request, adding that things may have changed in the two years since he rotated off in favor of Paula Boivin, formerly of the Arizona Republic in Phoenix and now a journalism professor at Arizona State.
But Wieberg will say that each year he came out of the room with a deepened respect for the work of the committee and the CFP staff that provides the data.
“You latch on to what is important to you,” he said. “And you may or may not agree with the final four teams or some other piece of the ranking (in addition to picking the playoff participants, the committee’s rankings determine the SEC team in the Sugar Bowl if it’s not the league champion, the Group of Five New Year’s Six bowl representative and the other at-large New Year’s Six teams).
“But the voting process is so through. I think after all the years of tweaking in the BCS, they wanted to get this right from the start.”
Still, because the rankings from start to finish are presented without any empirical supporting numbers or even with the rankings showing how close one school may have been to the other, there is often controversy.
That leaves it up to the committee chairman, this year Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, to explain subjective reasoning with a phrase like “game management,” when trying to compare teams with similar records.
To CBS Sports analyst Jerry Palm, that can present a problem.
“They don’t provide the data to the public to back up their opinions,” said Palm, who first gained notoriety by cracking the code of the NCAA basketball committee’s RPI figures. “Even if were a little hard to understand, it would provide transparency where there is none now.”
Even which elements the committee deems important or how they have evolved isn’t known. So if there’s been tweaking, it hasn't been made public.
It is interesting to note, though, that the first release of the first year of the rankings in 2014 had three schools — Mississippi State, Auburn and Ole Miss — in the top four that didn’t make it to the final four.
For the next three years, it was a 50/50 split, and last year only one of the top four — LSU at No. 3 — wasn’t in the CFP.
“I don’t know if the committee isn’t getting smarter or it’s just the way things worked out,” Palm said. “The committee is not supposed to be looking ahead to who they think if going to win the next week’s game or whatever.
“And another thing to remember is that the committee has turnover every year, so the viewpoints are going to change.”
Palm does estimate that Ohio State will top this week’s standings, although LSU, with its strong strength of schedule and dynamic offense, could get the nod.
Then it’s Alabama and probably Clemson, though Palm added that the weakness of the Atlantic Coast Conference could make Texas A&M the strongest team the reigning national champions face, giving the Tigers from South Carolina no margin for error.
It’s issues like that — and the stakes involved — that make Wieberg, now in the public-affairs office of the Kansas City Public Library, say he wasn’t sad to see his term end, though he was proud to have been chosen to participate.
“I’d done bracketology for USA Today,” he said. “But there wasn’t really a lot of pressure with that.
“Every year on the committee, I’d go into our final meeting with a knot in my stomach. But I came out knowing we’d done exhaustive work and that the whole process was one of high integrity.”