GRAPEVINE, Texas – If there had been a four-team College Football Playoff in 2008, the participants would have been Florida, Oklahoma, Texas and USC.
Big Ten champion Penn State would have been the first team out. Alabama, which was undefeated in the regular season before losing to Florida in an epic Southeastern Conference title game, and was fourth in the BCS standings, would have been the second team out.
Let us all pause for a moment for the retroactive outrage from the calm and understated Crimson Tide fan base to reverberate.
Please tell Harvey Updyke that I lobbied for the Crimson Tide to be fourth. But just in case, I will post a guard by the magnolia in my front yard.
That Final Four – Gators vs. Trojans in the Sugar Bowl, Sooners vs. Longhorns in the Rose Bowl – was handed down on stone tablets by myself and 16 journalist colleagues acting as the College Football Playoff selection committee Thursday during a mock exercise here. (I was Tyrone Willingham. And, yes, there were golfing jokes at my expense.) We were given access to the real committee's meeting room, computers and data, then turned loose to see what life will be like for the 13 men and women who will hold the fate of the 2014 season in the palms of their hands.
It was fun. It was difficult. It was at times contentious.
We took it as seriously as you can take 6-year-old information from a season where you already know the outcome of every bowl game. We pored over resumes, looking for quality wins and quality losses. We appraised overall schedule strength like jewelers inspecting diamonds for flaws. We examined analytics that provided greater depth to the usual sets of offensive and defensive numbers.
We debated (rather vigorously) the importance of head-to-head outcomes within a body of work. We wrestled with the merits of the subjective eye test vs. objective data. We stewed over non-conference scheduling, the weight accorded to conference champions and whether we were trying to predict who would win or simply rank based on what had happened.
It was part art and part science, with a heavy reliance on the methodology employed by the NCAA men's basketball selection committee in selecting the field of 68. This was less dense and complex, because we were ranking 25 teams and seeding only the top four, plus matching up the four other "New Year's Six" bowl games. (Orange: Virginia Tech-Alabama; Cotton: Texas Tech-TCU; Fiesta: Ohio State-Boise State; Peach: Penn State-Utah.) But just because it was easier than basketball didn't make it easy.
One of the most interesting exercises of the day came when ESPN analyst Rod Gilmore suggested we go around the room and have each person say what they considered the most important element of the job. There were some common themes, but no identical viewpoints – which real-life committee chairman Jeff Long, the Arkansas athletic director, said is reflective of the real committee's dynamics to date.
"It's 13 individuals with different perspectives and different weight on different things," said Long, who was gracious enough to sit in on our six-hour exercise. "That's the human element here. …Everyone brings something different to the committee."
In the process of making the sausage, we changed our minds a bit. Some of our original beliefs were altered and swayed, the more we examined numbers and listened to arguments. Some teams rose in the rankings, some fell. (The biggest differences from the final BCS rankings of 2008: We did not rank BYU, which was No. 16 in the BCS; we ranked Oregon State No. 18, while the Beavers were unranked by the BCS; we ranked Virginia Tech six spots higher than the BCS, at No. 13.)
One thing we were solid on: the top four. We voted on that three separate times, and each time the result was the same, in the same order: Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, USC.
When the real committee did its mock exercise using the same season, Long said it produced a different Final Four, and in a different order. We asked him what the differences were between theirs and ours. He thought about answering, then got a pre-emptive shake of the head from College Football Playoff CFO Reid Sigmon and declined to divulge.
Yes, even mock committee results from bygone seasons are confidential. So transparency clearly is a relative term.
The real committee will meet and rank its top 25 for the first time on the last week of October. When it does so, the work will be done over parts of two days in the Bluebonnet Room at the Gaylord Texan – yes, there is some serendipity to the playoff committee meeting in a room that bears the name of a defunct bowl game.
In preparation, committee members have been watching games in bulk. Long estimated he's seen parts of more than 100 games, including teams from every conference. All committee members have been given iPads that can download coaching tape and cut-ups, which provide views of all 22 players on the field from sideline and end-zone angles. Thanks to the available technology, Long said entire games can be viewed in about an hour.
At the first meeting, the committee will be charged with doing what we did: Every member will come with his/her own top 25 and input it into the computer system. All ranked teams will then be put into a selection pool – ours numbered 34 teams – and listed in alphabetical order.
From there, the committee will use the voting software to go through seven rounds of selecting and ranking. The first three rounds will select and rank three teams each, or the top nine. The next four rounds will select and rank four teams each, filling out the rest of the Top 25.
Our first three were Florida, Oklahoma and Texas, with plenty of debate about the Sooners and Longhorns. If you recall, the Big 12 South was both the best and most controversial division in college football that year, with Texas beating Oklahoma head-to-head but later losing to Texas Tech and losing the Big 12 divisional tiebreaker. I voted Texas ahead of Oklahoma. I was in the minority.
Ranking the next three was perhaps the most-debated part of the process, given the importance of that fourth spot. Cases were stated for each of the three: USC, Penn State and Alabama. I made the case for the Crimson Tide to be No. 4 and was the only person to rank 'Bama that high. USC ended up being ahead of Penn State by a wide margin for fourth.
Of significance during that debate and voting: Committee member and USC athletic director Pat Haden was recused. Given the current 2014 rankings, the most likely committee member to have to sit out a significant part of this year's real proceedings is Mississippi alum Archie Manning.
There are other potential conflicts that are not subject to recusals this year. For instance, Willingham was fired by Notre Dame after only three seasons. If the currently undefeated Fighting Irish remain in the playoff mix, Willingham will have a vote on where they rank despite his history with the school.
The committee can expect some scrutiny of its recusals (and lack of recusals) as those scenarios play out.
The next three we added were undefeated Utah, Texas Tech and Ohio State. Then we included mid-major powers TCU, Boise State and Cincinnati, plus Virginia Tech. The fifth round added Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Georgia and Oregon. The sixth brought in Oregon State, Missouri, California and Michigan State. And the final round added Mississippi, Boston College, North Carolina and Pittsburgh.
We got buyer's remorse on BYU, including the Cougars in the selection pool in the fourth round but then not ranking them at all. Utah also was a first-round consideration that wound up on the board until round three. Apologies to the Beehive State, but we cooled on your teams as deliberations progressed.
The last duty was assigning the bowl matchups, which we likely did much more cavalierly than the real committee will. Then it was time to prep our committee chair (in this exercise, Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated) for the media grilling that will accompany the revealing of the brackets and pairings.
If we learned one thing from our exercise Thursday, it's this: If a 2008 pretend bracket can generate heat, the real thing will be a blast furnace. Prepare yourselves accordingly, real committee members.
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