We gathered at a hotel just outside of Dallas to get an inside look at how the College Football Playoff committee selects its top 25 each week, seeds each team and slots the four-team playoff and New Year’s Six Bowls. We sat in the same meeting room the committee uses each fall, complete with individual laptops and banks of monitors and big screens for the copious amount of data and statistics used to assist with the detailed process.
On our way into the room shortly before 8 a.m., we passed a hat rack at the entrance with 13 plain white ball caps. As the real committee members enter the room, each of them places a hat on the rack, a symbolic tradition that reminds them to leave any allegiance out of what happens inside.
With only thirteen available spots — and nine of those taken by media members – it was special to represent IUPUI and its Sports Capital Journalism Program as one of just four universities with a student on the committee.
For our exercise a period of several days was squeezed into five intense hours. We were told it was the end of the 2019 season, when LSU surprised many and stormed through the season undefeated behind quarterback Joe Burrow. The night before, at the end of our orientation dinner, executive director Bill Hancock gave us our homework assignment, the selection of the top 30 teams in no particular order. As we entered them into our laptops in the room, we were off.
The binders we received were filled with data points on every Football Bowl Subdivision team. There were nine statistics for offense, nine for defense and nine for special-teams efficiency. There were 11 statistics indicating schedule strength. Any point of emphasis – data or the so-called eye test, was up to each voter.
The compilation of each of our top 30 teams had created an initial pool. Guided by Hancock and committee chair Gary Barta, the athletic director at the University of Iowa, we listed the six best teams in no particular order. “The job of the committee is not to select the most deserving team,” Barta said. “It’s the best four teams in America.”
The initial voting determined which teams are in the top six, with the top three voted into the rankings. Then the process continued, with each vote breaking teams into smaller groups: three groups of three teams, four groups of four teams, step by step. This process continued until a top 25 was selected. It was surprising to discover that the rankings of teams near the bottom of the 25 are deliberated as seriously as those near the top. Each spot can be revisited, right to the end of the process.
Our semifinal matchups were No. 1 Louisiana State against No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Clemson, the same result the real committee reached. But the debate was not over.
The longest and most heated discussion came after we were told that the semifinal games would be played in the Cotton and Orange Bowls, the scheduled sites at the end of the 2021 season. The issue was whether LSU should have to play Oklahoma at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex., where the Sooners had just won the Big 12 championship game. After much discussion, our committee opted to place LSU-Oklahoma in Miami and Ohio State-Clemson in Dallas by a 7-5 vote. A similar debate has never occurred among the committee members during its first seven seasons, Hancock said.
Matching wits with other mock committee members, including Robert Griffin III of ESPN, was fascinating. We ended the five-hour session with an understanding of the system of checks and balances that leaves no detail overlooked before the rankings are finalized. It was an amazing peek behind the curtain of an intensely-debated part of college football that only a fortunate few get to see and experience.
By Bryan Carter | @sgtbcarter