Mock selection committee: How a four-team playoff would look now
SI's committee featured 11 ADs tasked with selecting this year's playoff teams
Conclusion: The new process may be more complicated, controversial than BCS
Challenges include member conflicts, tightly bunched teams, margin of victory
|SI's Mock Selection Committee|
|* -- Former chairman of the NCAA men's basketball selection committee.|
Note: The WAC was not included because it will not be an FBS conference in 2014.
During his 32 years in college athletics, Jim Livengood has hired and fired coaches, endured an NCAA investigation and served as chairman of the NCAA men's basketball selection committee. On Nov. 26, Sports Illustrated gathered Livengood, now UNLV's athletic director, and 10 of his colleagues to simulate the process that will select participants for the first four-team college football playoff following the 2014 season. Using this season's results, the committee selected a mock playoff field for the 2012 postseason.
By the end of the 138-minute conference call, Livengood and the other athletic directors realized the myriad challenges that the selection process will present; many concluded that it will be more difficult than selecting 37 at-large teams in basketball. Among the biggest challenges: a finite number of teams that are difficult to compare; multi-million dollar stakes; lack of relative data; and potential conflicts of interest. "Wow, is this committee going to have pressure," Livengood said. "The thing that jumps out at me is that there are just four teams, it's not enough of a sample. I was not a proponent of going larger than four, and this changed my mind totally."
SI's mock selection committee exercise produced a simple conclusion: While the move to a four-team playoff has been largely praised, the resulting process may be more complicated and controversial than the current system.
Last summer, the conference commissioners who oversee college football's postseason reached a landmark agreement to do away with the contentious, 14-year-old BCS. They replaced it with a four-team playoff comprised of semifinals played at existing January bowl games and a standalone national championship game played at least a week later.
Just as notably, they also agreed to move away from the polls and computer ratings currently used to determine the nation's No. 1 and 2 teams in favor of a basketball-style selection committee comprised of college administrators. That committee will decide the fate of teams' national championship hopes as well as their share of an annual $610 million ESPN contract announced last week. "It will be one of the most prestigious assignments in sports, and one of the most scrutinized," Bill Hancock, executive director of the new postseason system, said this summer. "And the members will need to understand what they're getting into."
For a glimpse into the vexing challenges the committee will face, SI enlisted 11 athletic directors representing each FBS conference and the independents. (The lineup originally included four conference commissioners or executives, much like the basketball committee, but following a Nov. 12 BCS meeting in which our project was discussed, all reluctantly pulled out.) Former NCAA executive Greg Shaheen, who for the past 12 years served as the lead facilitator for the men's basketball selection committee, spearheaded the exercise for SI. He compiled detailed fact sheets on each team, established voting protocol and nimbly moderated the selection process.
While we entered the process curious to find out which teams would be selected, a fascinating psychological study unfolded. We saw how interpersonal dynamics affected the process and how committee members dealt with the unavoidable conflicts of interest that come with their jobs. Take realignment, for example. Remarkably, within 48 hours of our call, three of the 11 athletic directors -- Tom Jurich of Louisville, Chris Massaro of Middle Tennessee State and Terry Holland of East Carolina -- were part of a conference membership change. It underscored how intertwined the college sports world is and how many potential conflicts -- real or perceived -- could arise.
"You have to deal with what's in front of you, you have to deal with the facts," said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, a mock committee member. "You can't let your emotions get in the way of the decision-making process because one team left your conference and went to another. It takes a strength of fortitude to do that."
The four-team field our committee selected will undoubtedly please SEC and Pac-12 fans and leave one Big 12 program particularly miffed, while the process offered a window into how college football could look in the future: more teams running up the score to impress the committee, more teams scheduling tougher games to improve their résumés and another layer of scrutiny added to a sport that's already under a microscope.
"It hits you in the face when you start looking at the last couple of spots and how many teams can make legitimate claims for consideration for the last two spots," said Mississippi State AD Scott Stricklin. "It's going to be a daunting task when the real committee gets together."
Here's how SI's mock committee went about selecting four teams for a hypothetical playoff to cap this season.
On a pair of Nov. 19 preparation calls, the group agreed to consider all teams in the BCS top 12, plus any remaining one-loss teams in the top 20. By Nov. 26, that list consisted of: 12-0 Notre Dame, 11-1 Alabama, 11-1 Georgia, 11-1 Florida, 11-1 Oregon, 10-1 Kansas State, 10-2 LSU, 10-2 Stanford, 10-2 Texas A&M, 10-2 South Carolina, 9-2 Oklahoma, 10-2 Nebraska and 11-1 Kent State. For the purposes of this exercise, the group was told to assume that the higher-ranked team would win this weekend's conference championship games. (Most notably, that meant assuming Alabama will hand Georgia a second loss.)
Committee members were given materials on each team several days in advance. To begin the call, Shaheen asked each member to submit his top four teams (in no order), which would become the first four discussed. The teams they chose -- Notre Dame, Alabama, Georgia and Florida -- mirrored the current BCS top four. Oregon, LSU and Kansas State also received votes.
Shaheen then opened the floor for discussion and the result was ... silence. No one dared to speak first. "That's typical," said Shaheen, who observed 12 NCAA tourney selections. "That's a very human thing. It's not like all of us went to the party and were immediately the life of the party."
Per committee policy, Stricklin (SEC) and Navy's Chet Gladchuk (independents) were prohibited from discussing their conference's teams, while Smith, a Notre Dame alum and former assistant coach, recused himself. Finally, Holland spoke up on behalf of a candidate from the SEC -- though interestingly, not one of the teams playing at the Georgia Dome this Saturday.
"I like Florida," Holland said. "They had four wins -- until Florida State moved down to No. 13 [last weekend] -- against the field that was under consideration, and their one loss was to a very good Georgia team, 17-9. They're very good defensively, obviously. I kind of like them even ahead of Alabama."
"Terry, I agree," said Livengood, "but it's really hard when each team had [one] loss and they did meet head-to-head, even though it was such a close game."
"I do understand that," replied Holland, "but again they [the Gators] did play a large number of teams in that field, and they were successful except in the game against Georgia. ... It's so close."
For the group's first ballot, the two teams that received the most votes would become the top two seeds in the bracket, while the other two would be held back for further consideration. "We only put two teams in at a time," said Shaheen, "because you have to have absolute confidence you're getting them as close to each other as possible."
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