Committee approach the way to go when selecting four-team playoff
A selection committee is the best way to determine a potential four-team playoff
For objectivity and transparency, the committee should not include head coaches
Instead, using athletic directors and commissioners would be the fairest approach
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. -- A mover-shaker type asked me an excellent playoff question at the ACC spring meetings this week.
How do you avoid a Stanford-Oregon situation?
As conference leaders across the country hammer out their playoff preferences during the next few weeks, that question will dominate the conversation. It seems clear leaders know what they want (a four-team playoff) and where they want the semifinals played (in bowls), but they can't seem to agree on who should make the field and how that group should be selected.
ACC and Big Ten leaders threw their support behind a model that gives preference to conference champions. The Big Ten would like to see conference champions within the top six in the playoff. Those leagues will face staunch opposition from the SEC, which will sensibly argue that the four best teams regardless of affiliation should make the tournament. But no matter how that debate ends, the next step should be the creation of a blue-ribbon selection committee to pick the teams.
Sure, fans would spin any number of conspiracy theories as to why committee members left out one team or included another, but a committee made up of smart, informed people with something to lose (athletic directors and conference commissioners) will make the fairest possible decisions. This would only work if the committee is willing to be transparent. After announcing the matchups, the chair will have to go on television and explain exactly why the last teams in made it and the first teams out didn't. He or she will have to be specific, and committee members must not be afraid to hurt the feelings of coaches or athletic directors they know when they offer critiques of the teams that didn't make the cut. For inspiration, look to the NCAA men's basketball selection committee, which at the prodding of recently ousted tournament director Greg Shaheen became much more transparent in recent years. The reveal of the "true seeds" this year was a stroke of genius that should be carried into football. But a football committee would have to take that concept a step further. It would need to reveal the true seeds of the first four or so teams that didn't make the field as well.
The committee would eliminate several of the major problems posed by the polls and computer rankings. First, the committee wouldn't begin deliberation until the entire body of work was submitted. This would keep preseason poll bias from creeping into the selection process. It doesn't matter what I or anyone else thought Alabama would do in August. All that matters is what the Crimson Tide did from September through the first weekend in December. Second, committee members would be intelligent enough to avoid the trap of, as Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott calls it, tracking one loss.
To understand leaders' greatest fear, simply look back at last season's final BCS standings. No. 4 Stanford would have made a playoff. No. 5 Oregon, the Pac-12 champ, would have just missed the playoff. Why is that a big deal? Because anyone who actually watched the games last season knows the 2011 Stanford team making a playoff over the 2011 Oregon team would have been an absolute travesty.
Stanford finished the regular season 11-1. Oregon finished the regular season 11-2. A staggering majority of voters looked at those records and carelessly slotted the Ducks below the Cardinal. They ignored the facts. On Nov. 12, Oregon played Stanford at Stanford Stadium. The Ducks annihilated the Cardinal, 53-30. Stanford couldn't even hang with Oregon on its own field. That was Stanford's only loss. Oregon lost its season opener against LSU in Dallas. LSU finished the regular season 13-0. Oregon later lost to USC in Eugene. That USC team finished 10-2. One of those losses was in triple overtime to Stanford. In other words, the Cardinal came within a gnat's eyelash of losing to USC as well.
Take all that into consideration, and we can draw only one conclusion from the final poll: The voters punished Oregon for scheduling LSU. That can't happen. The playoff cannot reward a team for playing a softer schedule.
Colleague Stewart Mandel insists voters would have acted differently had a playoff berth been at stake in that case, and I hope that's true, but I'm not so sure. That's why the playoff needs a selection committee. Whether schools choose to make the playoff open to the top four regardless of conference title or whether they place some stipulations on non-conference champions, they shouldn't leave the selection of the teams to the following three groups:
Coaches whose jobs prevent them from watching enough games to make informed choices and who usually pass off the voting to a sports information director or operations director.
Harris Interactive Poll voters who can't find the games on their televisions.
Computer programmers who refuse to reveal the formulas that determine their rankings. Wes Colley is the only one of the creators of the six rankings currently in use in the BCS
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who has not voted in the coaches poll before, was brutally honest Tuesday. "Most of the head coaches, if they have a vote, the SID is probably more involved just because we just don't see them all," Swinney said. "That's a little bit of an issue from time to time. I wouldn't be very comfortable outside of my region with some of these teams because I just don't see them, don't study them enough."
Committee members would be forced to study teams because their reputations would rely on their selections. Choose athletic directors, conference commissioners and other assorted muckety-mucks to populate the committee and use the same conflict-of-interest rules that govern basketball selection, and it limits the possibility for chicanery. Yes, an AD or commissioner might have an incentive -- financial or otherwise -- to choose a certain program, but the negative financial incentive of being fired from a prestigious, high-paying job if caught should eliminate most temptation.
Besides being the fairest option, a committee that operates with transparency would produce a rather pleasant side effect: Better regular-season games. Because committee members wouldn't track one loss and would evaluate the entire body of work, schools will be more apt to schedule quality out-of-conference opponents. If I'm Oregon coach Chip Kelly, I don't authorize my athletic director to schedule another out-of-conference power for fear of getting jobbed by the current system. But if I knew the selection committee would reward the teams that played more challenging schedules, I'd tell my AD to load up. When that happens, the viewers win.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who knows how these things work after a term on the men's hoops committee, joked to reporters in Chicago on Tuesday that committee members would need bodyguards after making their selections. That may be true. The more zealous members of certain fan bases will not look kindly on their teams being left out of college football's Final Four, but those people will get mad no matter who picks the teams. The most sensible choices will result in the fewest angry fans, and the committee would give the sport its best chance at sensible choices.
We're five or six weeks away from a final decision on the What and the Where of college football's playoff. Chances are, the Who will be decided by that point as well. The next important question will be the How. Hopefully, that question will be answered by committee.