SEC 360: What I learned about the College Football Playoff selection process should give SEC fans comfort
Last week I did something really cool.
I flew to Dallas to attend a Mock Selection Committee exercise for the College Football Playoff. Along with 12 other journalists from across the country, I sat in on a simulation of the selection committee process, which culminates in early December with the 4 best teams filling lines of a bracket that will ultimately determine a national champion. That 13 members of a committee have to cast a vote seems like a ridiculous way to determine a champion, but college football has always been in the business of tweaking the imperfect.
My first impressions of the event were shaped by the grandeur of the Gaylord Texan, the resort in Grapevine (about 30 minutes northwest of downtown Dallas) where the selection exercise was held. The Gaylord was like Tex-Mex on steroids, boasting a huge interior atrium with bell towers and bridges. At any moment, I thought John Wayne might strut out with pistol on hip.
The first night, my colleagues and I were welcomed by CFP staff at a dinner and reception that was held in the actual room in which the real selection committee picks the 4 best teams. Reporters from Arizona, Ohio, Nebraska, Texas and South Carolina were there. And little ol’ me.
Conducting the proceedings were the 1-2 punch of Bill Hancock, Executive Director of the College Football Playoff, and Rob Mullens, the selection committee chair and Athletic Director at Oregon. After Bill and Rob gave us an introduction to the process and fielded several questions from the inquisitive cluster of intelligentsia present, myself included, we chose which current committee member we would be representing. I happily selected NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. So I got to be Ronnie Lott for the day — not bad. Then we retired to our rooms.
The “Mock” — that’s CFP lingo — was set for the next morning at 7:30 a.m. That night, I felt the same feeling I felt before I took the ACT, many years ago. There was a big test ahead, and I wanted to pass.
Early that next day, I got up bright and early — 4:30 — and downed several cups of coffee before I went to the meeting at 7 a.m. The first to arrive, I was eager to snap a few photos and get my bearings before the proceedings began.
I took my place at Mr. Lott’s chair and poured another cup of coffee as others began filing in. Eventually Mr. Hancock rounded all of us up and began the mock exercise.
Before we arrived, Mr. Hancock had given us a homework assignment. Since our mock selection would be based on the 2014 college football season, we were asked to bring a list of Top 30 teams to the exercise. Obviously, there were some preconceived notions that, knowing what we know now, could threaten to shape how we voted. For instance, we knew that Ohio State — a team that probably eked in — ended up winning national championship that year, and that a 13-0 Florida State team got straight up mauled by Oregon and Marcus Mariota in Playoff semifinal. For our purposes, those were cold hard facts that were hard to get around.
Nevertheless, we brought our list of 30 teams and plugged them into the computer. That’s how we got started. I could go on and on about “listing steps” and “ranking steps,” but I will spare you the grief and agony of describing the whole selection process by giving you a few bullet points that were my takeaways from the meeting and my observations of the selection dynamic as a whole.
It is very difficult to not hold a regional bias
Just outside the selection committee room, there is a hat rack with several white hats hanging on it. This symbolizes objectivity and neutrality. The phrase “check your hat at the door” means that if you have allegiances to a particular school or hold any sort of bias, don’t bring it in this room. The selection space should remain untainted.
I thought about that a lot as I was sitting in Ronnie Lott’s chair. There was one particular exchange in which we had to choose between Arizona (10-3) and Georgia Tech (10-3), and I could not prevent my bias toward Southern football from creeping into my mind. Then Joel Klatt, former quarterback at Colorado turned commentator for Fox Sports, reminded us how difficult it would have been to march into Eugene, Oregon, that year and steal a win — which Arizona did — in a raucous environment. That comment made a bit of an impact on me and I realized that good football can be played outside the South.
But it did not sway me to change my vote.
It was difficult for me — a resident of SEC country and conference believer — not to assume that the best football is played south of the Mason-Dixon. I needed to get out of that suit of bias and think objectively. And folks, let me tell you, it was hard.
Non-Power 5 teams have virtually no chance
Boise gets no love. Cincinnati gets no love. SMU gets no love. Memphis gets no love.
I mention these teams because they are all ranked in the Top 25 and none of these teams have a snowball’s chance in Hades of getting into the 4 Playoff slots at season’s end.
No one seems to have much sympathy for them, either. Fans adore Cinderella in college basketball; in college football, not so much (which is an interesting dynamic to me).
What can we deduce from this? That schedule matters more in college football than it does in college basketball? Perhaps. People simply do not pity a weak schedule. Said another way, college football’s Playoff exclusivity provides no toleration for a schedule that’s weak as well water.
Notre Dame, technically, does not belong to a Power 5 conference in football. But Notre Dame is Notre Dame and has been able to make a case for being in the Playoff because of its strength of schedule. Boise and the ilk have a hard time making that same case anymore.
Pac-12 and Big 12 teams have a much harder time getting in
Let me begin by saying that this is my opinion, based on the aforementioned premise that Southern football is king. Is it fair to say that the SEC, Big Ten and ACC, in the minds of Americans, are the top 3 conferences in all the land? Until I’m convinced otherwise, I hold a preconceived notion that the Pac-12 and the Big 12 simply do not match up with the other 3 conferences in terms of talent level and commitment to defense. Don’t believe that? On Sept. 21 of this year, UCLA beat Washington State 67-63 and it was not basketball and the game did not go into overtime.
That said, herein lies the problem, and it’s one that has existed since the format was created: There are 5 major conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) and 4 slots. My math has at least 1 of those conferences being left out. Does that seem fair? A team can win its conference and not get into the Playoff. And I believe that Pac-12, Big 12 and sometimes Big Ten teams have a much harder time convincing voters they deserve to be in.
Since the onset of the College Football Playoff in 2014, a Pac-12 team has made the Playoff only twice: Oregon (2014) and Washington (2016). Which means that in 3 of the 5 years, there has been no West Coast representative. In 2 of the years, a team from the Big 12 has been left out, and Oklahoma is the only team from that conference to make an appearance. The ACC has placed a team in the Final Four every year, with Clemson representing the conference in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and Florida State taking a slot in 2014. Although the Big Ten has been left out twice, the conference has at least demonstrated it can send another team (Michigan State) other than its bell cow (Ohio State). I’m talking to you, Texas.
Other prominent teams that have not made it to the Playoff include USC, LSU, Florida, Oklahoma State and Michigan. Alabama, on the other hand, has made the field every year and probably should have its own slot (I say that jokingly).
What does all this mean?
For 5 consecutive years, the committee has spoken, and it’s important that we listen. Barring something insane happening (like a 3-loss conference champion), a team from the SEC is going to get in, the ACC champion is going to get in, the Big Ten champion might get in, the Big 12 champion might get in, and the Pac-12 champion needs help to get in.
Do I think there’s some sort of conspiracy going on? Absolutely not. Has the committee, for the most part, gotten it right? Probably.
But if I were a Pac-12 fan, I would be pretty ticked that my conference is getting very little respect.
Previous years and tradition probably do matter
During the mock exercise, we had a lengthy discussion about Florida State. If you’ll remember, FSU was 13-0 after squeezing by Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship. That was FSU’s 4th consecutive victory by 6 points or fewer — and 7th that season. Committee members were told (and this makes complete sense) not to factor in the previous year — or years — in the current discussion. But, folks, that’s hard.
Were we really going to leave out the Seminoles, the defending national champion and winner of 29 consecutive games? I wasn’t. Some in the room were.
Did I really believe a 1-loss TCU or 1-loss Baylor — teams that did not play in a conference championship that year — deserved to be ranked ahead of FSU? No, I did not. But this is not to say I would not sing a different tune if the circumstances were different.
Let me explain. Had Auburn beaten FSU in the 2013 National Championship Game, I might have placed a 1-loss Baylor in the field of 4 instead of Florida State. But that didn’t happen, and in my mind there was no way I could explain leaving undefeated, defending national champion FSU out to an angry Seminole fan living in Graceville, Florida, who eats, sleeps, and drinks garnet and gold.
So, this is how we ultimately ranked them:
- Ohio State
- Florida State
(The 2014 committee ranked them like this: 1. Alabama, 2. Oregon, 3. Florida State, 4 Ohio State).
During a break, I was thinking about how much weight Alabama carried in the room. As an Alabama fan, I don’t mind that at all; I am a happy beneficiary of that national respect and admiration. When the Final Four shook out, Alabama, the SEC champion with a 12-1 record, was ranked No. 1.
Now, why is that? Why were we so quick to place Alabama in the top slot?
I should tell you that they have all kinds of snacks available to the committee. Bowls of peanuts, chips, cookies, muffins, and bacon. Lots and lots of bacon. During that particular break, I was snacking on bacon and I posed a question to a colleague:
“Let’s say that instead of 12-1 Alabama, it was Ole Miss. In other words, if Ole Miss was 12-1 that year and had won the SEC, do you think that it would still garner the top spot?”
My colleague did. I’m not so certain it would.
Alabama is the only team that has gotten into the Playoff without winning its conference. It proved in 2017 that you don’t even have to be champion of your division to win the national championship. What this says to me is that Alabama has not only earned its respect, but if the committee is arguing between a 1-loss Alabama and an undefeated USC, don’t be surprised if it chooses the Crimson Tide.
Sportswriters get a bad reputation
I’ve said many times that the real richness of life occurs through relationships, and the best thing about being in Texas last week was the people I met. I have a lot of respect for the writers who were in that room. They were intelligent, capable and they cared about college football. I admired their passion and enthusiasm for the game and for the integrity of the selection process.
Sometimes I think the general public holds an incorrect view of sportswriters. Coaches do, too. Not all are midnight slobs who know very little about the game. Not all are Dick Tracys who just want to get all the sexy details and be the first to break stories.
The individuals I met were sharp, articulate and funny. I could see any of them making an argument in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. They’ve just chosen sports as their vocation.
I love Nick Saban, but honestly I don’t really like the way he treats the press at times. Sure, it’s funny to see him rail on the buffoonish media (you know, those simpletons firing at him stupid question after stupid question that he conveniently swats away), but frankly there are times when he’s a real jerk. I get it, though. That’s his schtick. Besides, if the press is intimidated by him, it is less likely to ask the questions he doesn’t want asked. It’s a touch of brilliance on his part, but that doesn’t make him any less jerky.
You wouldn’t believe the stories I’ve heard about how coaches treat the press. Some treat reporters like they are a lower life form, almost like pond scum. Do I think that there are reporters with bad intentions? One hundred percent. But only a very small percentage have bad intentions.
As a former college basketball coach and college athlete, I see things from both sides. I understand how coaches can be annoyed and skeptical of reporters who are simply trying to gather dirt. Those types of people have tarnished the profession, which has ultimately led to the skepticism in the first place. But I also see things as a journalist, and I wish coaches would look at sports reporters eyeball to eyeball, as professionals just trying to do their job.
I fully believe the committee is trying to get it right
Dallas convinced me that when it’s all said and done, the CFP committee is doing its best to put the 4 best teams on the field. If I can take a Mock Selection exercise as seriously as I took it, I know that the committee members take their jobs very seriously. We were in discussion for 5 hours and the debate was robust. Not once was I bored or wanting to go home. I would have stayed all night if I had to.
I remember the TCU-Baylor-FSU discussions to be particularly healthy and enjoyable. If you recall, TCU was No. 3 in the Playoff rankings heading into the final weekend. FSU was No. 4, Ohio State No. 5 and Baylor No. 6. All 4 teams won that weekend, and the committee bumped FSU to No. 3, Ohio State to No. 4, Baylor to No. 5 and dropped TCU to No. 6.
In our discussion, my contention was that all things being pretty much equal between TCU and Baylor, and Baylor won on the field. In my mind, I could not justify putting TCU ahead of a team it had lost to — with the same record and virtually identical body of work. At some point, you have to value head-to-head matchups or you cannot maintain your integrity as a selection institution.
However, one of the things I struggled with internally was that I did not always hold the same standard or philosophy from round to round. Committee members retain the freedom to shape their own standards of selection and do not have to justify their consistency or lack thereof.
Further, voices in that room matter; you can be swayed by another person’s opinion if it is compelling enough, and that is why I think oftentimes you see these tectonic shifts in order from one week to another.
Case in point was Ohio State’s 59-0 pasting of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship in 2014, a landslide that, in my opinion, put OSU in the field and ultimately doused Alabama’s championship hopes for that season.
There is no doubt in my mind that the committee is thorough and wants to get it right. One of the things that you’ll hear Hancock echo over and over is that committee members must be people of integrity first. I feel better knowing that character is at the cornerstone of this process. I believe that when the committee members check their hats at the door, they mean it.
But I believe that if the process continues the way it is right now, someone is always going to have the right to complain. This year, the SEC may have more than 1 fan base feeling bluesy from being left out of the pleasantries because yes, another showdown of Top 10 SEC teams awaits this Saturday when LSU collides with Florida in Baton Rouge, and there are more games to come with similar Playoff implications.
You can bet the committee will be watching to see how the dominoes fall over the next several weeks.
The truth is, until college football can devise a way to have a Playoff similar to the NFL or even FCS, someone is always going to be left out.
And until that happens, we will continue to tweak the imperfect.