Vahe Gregorian

July 5, 2014

College Football Playoff’s secret sauce will be ‘common sense’

The college football season that begins in a few weeks will culminate with a four-team playoff. So much will be new, including national semifinals at the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl that will funnel into the championship game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. And it will be under enormous immediate scrutiny.

Sixteen years ago, major-college football morphed from a confounding setup that seldom matched its best two teams at season’s end into the arcane BCS system that, in fact, advanced the game immeasurably.

You could quibble about computer polls creating confusion and sometimes disagree with the teams chosen to play for the national title and argue that it all enabled a cartel running college football.

But the BCS corralled No. 1 vs. 2 together in ways that were inconceivable before, and it was a vital gateway to this monumental change:

The season that begins in a few weeks will culminate with a four-team playoff.

So much will be new, including national semifinals at the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl that will funnel into the championship game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

And it will be under enormous immediate scrutiny.

“This has to be born full-grown,” College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock said Thursday. “It can’t be like the basketball tournament that started out in 1939 at Northwestern. …

“There’s no fledgling (time). It has to fledge in immediately.”

No element of this will be more intriguing than the way the final four is determined: by a 13-person committee shepherded by Prairie Village’s Hancock, who also was executive director of the BCS.

While Hancock says “I wouldn’t, I won’t, I can’t” disparage the BCS, he knows that a crucial order of business will be to clarify the process early in a way that the BCS never lent itself to no matter how it was tweaked or explained.

“We had to eliminate the mystery of the BCS,” he said. “None of us liked the perceived mystery. The BCS wasn’t as complicated as the critics made it out to be, but it was easy to attack from a standpoint of (seeming) too complicated.”

So computers have no direct role in this, and per College Football Playoff’s policies, the committee is asked even to discount “polls wherein initial rankings are established before competition has occurred.”

And there will be no metrics such as college basketball’s Ratings Percentage Index, better known as RPI, that many believe has too much sway in the work of those committees.

“Been there, done that; if we wanted a computer formula, we would have stayed with the computer formula,” said Hancock, who said an RPI model he studied was “irrelevant. “It just didn’t line up with what you intuitively knew the best teams were because there’s not enough games.”

Besides, in a circular correction from the move to the BCS, the idea was that that these are decisions better made exclusively by human beings.

Ranking football teams, the College Football Playoff’s own protocols denote, is “an art, not a science.”

So if there’s any secret sauce this time around, Hancock said, it’s “common sense.”

That means logical criteria such as strength of schedule, conference championships won, comparisons of head-to-head competition, comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incentivizing margin of victory).

Also to be considered are factors such as injuries that may have affected a team during the season or are likely to affect it postseason.

The geographically balanced group will assemble in Dallas every Monday and Tuesday from Oct. 27 through Dec. 2, quite a time and financial commitment with teleconferencing or Skype available.

But there’s an important reason for that.

“They’ve all been a part of so many committees that they know you get more done when you’re sitting across the table from somebody looking the person in the eye,” he said.

They’ll need to be able to do that. Hancock anticipates vigorous discussion. So much so that he’ll be surprised if the format doesn’t lead to much more fluctuation from week to week than before, from the first College Football Playoff poll announcement on Oct. 28 to the last in early December.

That’s because traditionally voters are prone to getting stuck in a continuum, in part because it’s more natural to try to stay with a course of thinking than to start fresh each week.

Instead of each member simply turning in a top 25 each week and having those averaged, they’ll come in with their top 25 in alphabetical order just to set the table for seven rounds of secret balloting.

That includes whittling the top six vote-getters down to three.

“So it’s all a process of analyzing a small number of teams against each other. Never been done in football,” Hancock said. “There will be tremendous debate.”

The commitment to transparency stops short of allowing that sausage-making to be in public view.

“People have to be able to speak completely candidly, and you can’t have anybody posturing with what they say about a team (thinking about) ‘How is this going to be reported?’” Hancock said.

In making the announcements every Tuesday, though, committee chairman Jeff Long is expected to provide detail on the group’s thinking, including what separated No. 4 from No. 5 in any given week.

“He’ll tell it all,” Hancock said.

Long leads a fascinating and diverse group.

It includes former Stanford provost and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, former Mississippi and NFL quarterback Archie Manning and Lawson’s own Steve Wieberg, who became one of the most respected college writers in the nation at USA Today and now is a writer/editor in the public affairs department of the Kansas City Public Library.

The primary stipulation for the group was, simply, a reputation for integrity, and the group was culled from more than 100 nominees furnished by the conference commissioners.

It’s made up of five fundamental categories: experience as a coach, student-athlete, administrator or journalist as well as sitting athletic director. All are subject to a recusal policy in instances of potential conflicts of interest.

Rice’s appointment has created the biggest stir.

She has said in the past that her dream job was to be NFL commissioner, and that apparently was part of what led several commissioners to nominate her.

The athletic department reported to her at Stanford, and Hancock says she loves the game, is knowledgeable about it and “fits right in.”

Besides, maybe she brings something else that will be needed in the room.

“We talk about the scrutiny and the pressure, which will be tremendous,” Hancock said, laughing and adding, “But from her perspective … not. And thank goodness what she’s done is more important than what we’re getting ready to do.”

Even if what they’re getting ready to do remains an ambitious, even audacious, move toward common sense.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to Follow him on Twitter @vgregorian.

Selection committee

Jeff Long (chairman), Arkansas vice chancellor and athletic director

Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin athletic director

Lieutenant General Mike Gould, former superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy

Pat Haden, Southern California athletic director

Tom Jernstedt, former NCAA executive vice president

Oliver Luck, West Virginia athletic director

Archie Manning, former Mississippi and NFL quarterback

Tom Osborne, former Nebraska football coach and athletic director

Dan Radakovich, Clemson athletic director

Condoleezza Rice, Stanford professor, former Stanford provost and former Secretary of State

Mike Tranghese, former Big East commissioner

Steve Wieberg, former USA Today college football reporter

Tyrone Willingham, former Notre Dame, Washington and Stanford football coach

Selection committee philosophy

“We believe that a committee of experts properly instructed (based on beliefs that the regular season is unique and must be preserved; and that championships won on the field and strength of schedule are important values that must be incorporated into the selection process) has very strong support throughout the college football community.

“Under the current construct, polls (although well-intended) have not expressed these values; particularly at the margins where teams that have won head-to-head competition and championships are sometimes ranked behind non-champions and teams that have lost in head-to-head competition. Nuanced mathematical formulas ignore some teams who “deserve” to be selected. …

“Some of the guidelines and protocols expected to be established to guide the committee would include, but not be limited to, the following:

“While it is understood that committee members will take into consideration all kinds of data including polls, committee members will be required to discredit polls wherein initial rankings are established before competition has occurred;

“Any polls that are taken into consideration by the selection committee must be completely open and transparent to the public;

“Strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and championships won must be specifically applied as tie-breakers between teams that look similar;

“Committee members associated with any team under consideration during the selection process will be required to recuse themselves from any deliberations associated with that team.”

The playoff group also has retained SportSource Analytics “to provide the data platform for the committee’s use. This platform will allow the committee members to compare and contrast teams on every level possible.”

Moreover, no conferences have automatic bids in the playoffs, but there also is no limit on the number of teams from a conference that can participate.

Committee voting process

1. Each committee member will create a list of the 25 teams he or she believes to be the best in the country, in (alphabetical) order. Teams listed by three or more members will remain under consideration.

2. Each member (then) will list the best six teams, in no particular order. The six teams receiving the most votes will comprise the pool for the first seeding ballot.

3. In the first seeding ballot, each member will rank those six teams, one through six, with one being the best. The three teams receiving the fewest points will become the top three seeds. The three teams that were not seeded will be held over for the next seeding ballot.

4. Each member will list the six best remaining teams, in no particular order. The three teams receiving the most votes will be added to the three teams held over to comprise the next seeding.

5. Steps No. 3 and 4 will be repeated until 25 teams have been seeded.

A. Any “recused” member can participate in Step No. 1, but cannot list the team for which he or she is recused. “Recused” teams (i.e., teams for whom a member has been recused) receiving at least three votes in Step No. 1 will remain under consideration.

B. A recused member can participate in Step No. 2, but cannot list the recused team. If a recused team is within one vote of advancing to the pool, that team will be pooled with the team (or teams) receiving the fewest votes. A “tie-breaker” ranking vote will be conducted among those teams to identify the team or teams that would be added to the pool.

C. A recused member cannot participate in Step No. 3 if the recused team is in the pool.

D. Between each step, the committee members will conduct a thorough evaluation of the teams before conducting the vote.

E. After the rankings are completed, any group of three or more teams can be reconsidered if more than three members vote to do so. Step No. 3 would be repeated to determine if adjustments should be made.

F. After the first nine teams are seeded, the number of teams for Steps No. 2, 3 and 4 will be increased to eight and four, respectively.

G. At any time in the process, the number of teams to be included in a pool may be increased or decreased with approval of more than eight members of the committee.

H. All votes will be by secret ballot.

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