Consensus by Committee: A College Football Playoff is Almost Here

After some apparent hiccups in the college football playoff formulation process last week, it was back on like Donkey Kong today in Chicago.  The BCS commissioners plus Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick* came to a “consensus” that they would recommend to their respective bosses (the university presidents) a 4-team seeded playoff with the “best four teams” to be chosen by a selection committee (using criteria such as conference championships and strength of schedule) and the semifinals to be played among the existing BCS bowls.

(* If anyone doubted that Notre Dame is anything but irrelevant in today’s college football world, note that every news story about the college football playoff today referred to “the BCS commissioners and Notre Dame AD” and Jack Swarbrick was the spokesman for the working group in front of the media.  Plus, Swarbrick got to bat down an Orangebloods report about Notre Dame “likely” moving its non-football sports to the Big 12, but that’s an issue we’ll explore for another day.)

Here are a couple of instant reactions about what finally appears to be the new college football playoff format:

(1) A Committee to Form the Committee – I have long been an opponent to the use of a selection committee for various reasons, such as the concern that only one or two people could end up swaying the fate of a particular team.  The random rogue committee member scares me much more than a handful of idiot sportswriters (cough, Skip Bayless, cough) that might be voting in a larger poll. However, I’ve been coming around to the thought of it where it’s at least palatable in the sense that it’s a way for the conference commissioners to kick the can down the road regarding the selection process.  Some years, it might make sense to have 4 conference champs playing in the playoff.  In other seasons, 4 SEC schools might be the 4 best teams in the country.  Maybe #5 Pac-12 champ Oregon should have gotten into the playoff over #4 Stanford in 2011, but #5 Big Ten champ Wisconsin shouldn’t have gotten into the playoff over #4 Stanford in 2010 (or vice versa).  There’s so much variability from season to season that any prescribed requirements (e.g. conference champs only, 3 conference champs plus 1 wild card, taking the straight top 4 in the BCS rankings, etc.) would have all yielded unsatisfactory results in certain seasons.

This is the dilemma.  We, as college football fans, generally want to have concrete criteria in terms of determining the national champion.  However, most of us also care about the practical outcome, where putting 4 teams into a playoff that the average fan can plainly see are not the best 4 teams in the nation is bothersome, as well.  I’ve long said that what fans really want is an objective computer program that spits out the exact same result as a subjective human poll.  We hate the thought of using the results of a human poll because of the perception that there might be bias, but we generally agree with the results of that same human poll because it reflects what we have seen with our own eyes.  When push comes to shove, the general public (and the powers that be and TV networks) cares more about the output (the outcome of which 4 teams are in playoff) than the inputs (the criteria in choosing such teams).  The use of a selection committee is a further extension of the output-focused approach.

There are few suggestions that I have for the use of a selection committee:

  • Appoint one representative from each FBS conference to the committee along with having a pool of 10 or so “at-large” representatives.  This would make the committee compact enough that there can be in-depth discussions among its members, but large enough to mitigate the vote of a representative that has eaten too many paint chips.
  • Do not allow committee members that have a conflict of interest (e.g. an SEC representative discussing an SEC school) to discuss or vote on the applicable school.
  • Similar what the NCAA Tournament does, allow the mainstream media to participate in an extensive mock session of the selection process so that the public can understand what exactly happens in the war room.
  • Make all data that the selection committee will use in the selection process, such as computer rankings and strength of schedule calculations, available to the public every week throughout the season.

I’m still a little bit skeptical about using a selection committee, but I can wrap my arms around the concept a little bit better today compared to last month.

(2) Where the Rose Bowl Stands – Big Ten and Pac-12 fans had a bit more interest in the actual logistics of where the semifinals would be played because of the potential implications on the Rose Bowl.  While there was initially a plan to slot the semifinal games according to bowl tie-ins (e.g. a #1 Big Ten team would play the #4 team in the Rose Bowl), it appears that flex option is unlikely according to Brett McMurphy of CBS Sports.  Instead, the semifinals would rotate among the BCS bowls on a regular basis.  (Note that no one should be surprised if 1 or 2 other bowls, such as the Cotton and/or Outback, would get elevated and become part of that rotation.)  When I asked Teddy Greenstein about this last month, he indicated that this was also the preferred course of action for the Big Ten athletic directors.

It initially surprised me that the Big Ten didn’t support the flex option, but it makes sense if you think about the downside risk.  Many people have been focused upon the prospect of a top 2 Big Ten or Pac-12 team always getting slotted into a semifinal in the Rose Bowl, which would actually enhance the stature of the game even more than today.  However, there’s the flip side that a non-semifinalist Big Ten or Pac-12 champ could get kicked out of the Rose Bowl.  If USC were to go on a run like it did in the early-2000s, for instance, the Big Ten champ could end up outside of the Rose Bowl for several seasons in a row.  My longstanding general theory about the thinking of university presidents is that they about maximizing their take in the worst case scenario more than shooting the moon in the best case scenario, and this guarantee that the Rose Bowl will be a Big Ten vs. Pac-12 affair (even if they might not be conference champs) fits such thinking.

Personally, I hope that there will at least be a provision that a Big Ten and/or Pac-12 semifinalist will get slotted in the Rose Bowl whenever the semifinal is being hosted there.  The same would go for the Big 12 and SEC with their “Champions” Bowl (which will hopefully be the Sugar Bowl) when it’s a semifinal host.

There will still be further critical details to be hammered out such as the revenue distribution (where it appears, as expected, that the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC will keep the lion’s share of the money by applying plausibly justifiable on-the-field criteria) and where the Big East stands in relation to the power conferences, but it’s nothing short of amazing that a 4-team playoff has gone from a pipe dream 6 months ago to possibly a week away from approval.  Considering that it took over 100 years for college football to institute a #1 vs. #2 national championship game, we’re moving at warp speed.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from Christian Science Monitor)