Sports JRN student sees CFP process first-hand – it’s harder than it looks!

By Joey Ellis

MSU Sports JRN student

When the time comes for the College Football Playoff Selection Committee to search for their new members, it’s reasonably safe to assume I will not be on the short list of candidates to fill the role.

I am certain I don’t have the patience required to be a part of the selection committee. Ranking the top four teams were excruciating enough and tested every little bit of patience I have, but picking 5-25 was another animal in of itself.

When the first playoff rankings are revealed Oct. 31, it’s easy as a fan of your respective teams to be all up in arms and upset that the selection committee once again, seemed to unfairly wrong your team, and that if you were a member of the committee, you’d be able to effectively throw your biases aside, and put the teams where you truly feel they should fall. After sitting firsthand in the official selection committee room at the Gaylord Texan Hotel, I can tell you it is no walk in the park.

Before arriving in Grapevine, Texas, I had some questions about how the ranking and selection process works. I think most of the public would also share those same uncertainties. Bill Hancock, the CFP’s Executive Director, said the key is to vote for teams in smaller simpler blocks rather than ranking teams 1-25 in one fell swoop. Hancock believes this strategy makes the task less daunting, and provides for more in-depth discussion with each block of teams being discussed. Once the committee is able to create a top 25, they have the opportunity to hear any objections to the rankings list and see if anyone on the committee would like to revisit a certain team’s ranking.

After a morning breakfast with six of the CFP staff, including Hancock and CEO Michael Kelly, I was joined in the official selection room by 14 other sports journalism students from various universities as we comprised the mock panel for the two days. The process was very official – we sat around a large table in the official selection room with the official CFP computers and technology with six CFP staffers and each of us assumed one of the 13 selection committee roles throughout the day – with Hancock at the helm of the table.

We used the the final standings from the 2012 season for our mock selection. This was one of the more bizarre seasons, Hancock said, being that Ohio State and Penn State both were barred from the postseason, stemming from self-imposed bans. Ohio State went a 12-0 season and looked like surefire to win the national championship – if they were eligible. This was the year undefeated Notre Dame stormed into the national title game, and was throttled by Alabama. We were told to not think about what happened in that postseason and to only focus on the conference championships, the finishes to the regular season, and stats for each team.

We were pretty easily able to mutually agree on a top four: Alabama was naturally first, , Notre Dame was two, Stanford third, and Oregon, who only had one loss, but lost to Stanford, rounded out the top four. We had a very long and heated discussion about Wisconsin, who we had ranked No. 23, as an 8-5 team after winning the Big Ten Championship game. Remember when I mentioned Penn State and Ohio State both being banned from the postseason? Wisconsin finished third in their divison, but due to the OSU/PSU postseason bans, played in the Big Ten championship game. The Badgers walloped Nebraska – a team they lost to earlier in the season and a team we ultimately ranked No. 16 in our top 25. Our committee chair (played by IUPUI grad student Jon Sauber) was adamant that Wisconsin be ranked above Nebraska. He felt winning a conference championship despite the circumstances, should rank higher than Nebraska, despite having the Badgers having five losses. The rest of us weren’t buying it, and after what seemed like an hour of debating and referencing loads of stats, we ended up keeping Wisconsin right where we had them.

One interesting thing that struck me was the method our committee used in deciding where to rank various teams. I’m a firm believer in the eye test, but just as much as I believe in that, I also believe that stats and numbers ultimately don’t lie. Hancock referenced USC this past College Football Playoff. Despite many people viewing them as the best team in the nation, especially towards the latter part of the season, USC still had three losses before Oct. 1. All the advanced stats the committee receives proved USC to be on the outside looking in.

When asked about how committee members can keep close tabs on all the teams around the country, Hancock said it’s up to each individual committee member. Each committee member receives a CFP-issued iPad loaded with condensed games, cutting down the games to just 45 minutes, making access quick and efficient. Hancock said some committee members will sometimes watch anywhere between 15-25 condensed games on a given day.

While the CFP certainly is all the rage in college football, having been named Sports Event of the Year by Sports Business Journal in its first year, Hancock and the committee members like operating under the radar and in absolute anonymity. Hancock says that’s a huge reason why the CFP chose the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine, Texas as the location to host their monthly meetings. It’s a hotbed for daily meetings and conventions, so when the committee meets secretly in the Bluebonnet Room, they’re just another group at the hotel.

The purpose of this selection exercise was to give journalists and outsiders insight into how the normally-private selection process works. I have gained a deeper appreciation and understanding for how the committee goes about deciding their rankings, despite receiving intense scrutiny from the public (and myself) who has no experience whatsoever in the process of picking the playoff teams in a given year. After witnessing the process, I’ll look at this year’s playoff with a different perspective.

Thank you to the CFB, Bill Hancock, Gina Lehe and everybody who was part of our mock process. Was great to represent MSU Sports Journalism at this exclusive event!


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