Since the largely money-driven epiphany of the college presidents and power brokers of the Bowl Championship Series finally gave us the promise of a four-team playoff beginning with the 2014 season, one of my many questions has been "Why do we have to wait until 2014?"
I think I know the answer -- sponsor commitments, logistics, a bunch of nebulous bullshit, and the necessary cushion to deal with the inevitable hiccups and incompetence of the weakest links in the functional chain of entities that are tasked with getting this thing off the ground. I get it.
The broadcast rights for the championship game and six access bowls were just secured by ESPN for around $600 million per year, or roughly three times the annual amount for the current BCS bowls and title game. I hoped that kind of cash might get people moving on making this a reality in 2013.
However, after reading SI.com's fascinating mock selection committee session for the 2012 season this week, I'm kind of glad this playoff is marinating for another year after this one.
I'll explain why, but first let me give you a synopsis of the exercise that was captured and summarized fantastically by SI.com college football writers Stewart Mandel and Pete Thamel.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the new playoff model (other than greater access, four teams instead of the current two team single game) is that the teams will be selected by an appointed committee in much the same fashion as the NCAA basketball tournament chooses and slots its field. It is yet to be determined the specific individuals that will comprise this group, only that the committee will be made up of college administrators, so count on a roster made up largely of conference commissioners and athletics directors.
Last week, on a conference call that lasted 138 minutes, eleven different athletics directors representing eleven different conferences gathered along with Greg Shaheen acting as lead facilitator (as he's done many times for the actual NCAA basektball selection committee) with the purpose of conducting a mock selection session for what would be the playoffs for the 2012 season. In other words, they wanted to try and determine what this season would look like in the new playoff model, and more importantly, what are the potential pitfalls of this selection methodology.
The article outlines the process in great detail, and right here is where I highly recommend giving it a read. If you're into the politics of college football and an enthusiast of this new playoff system, it's that interesting.
In short, after assuming that Alabama would beat Georgia and that Stanford would beat UCLA this weekend (merely for the sake of being able to run a true mock selection, no biases here, they just took the favorites), the group whittled down what they thought was a reasonable, arguable roster of about a dozen teams to the following four team playoff:
4 Oregon vs 1 Notre Dame 3 Florida vs 2 Alabama
You can agree or disagree with whether those would be your four teams, this year it really doesn't matter. Notre Dame is going to play the SEC Champion for all the marbles on January 7. But the process these folks went through did shed some light on what the future may hold and what might need to be fixed before 2014 arrives:
1. The playoff is going to expand to eight teams sooner rather than later. All you need to read to know that this thing is veering toward eight teams and quickly is this paragraph from the story:
In one of the committee's preparation calls last week, there was a moment when it became clear this would be more than just a fun way to pick four teams for a playoff. It came when Shaheen uttered the words: "Lives are going to change." His point: Having seen first-hand the impact of picking the 37th at large-team for the NCAA basketball tournament, he could imagine what will hang in the balance for the fourth football playoff participant.
Filling out and educatedly selecting 37 at-large teams for a college basketball tournament is one thing. A handful of jilted mid majors and mediocre big conference teams squabbling over omission from a moderate six figure pay day is noise that dies down in about 48 hours, at most. But can you imagine the furor from teams five, six, seven, etc. being left out of this bonanza? There's the millions of dollars they'd be missing out on, not to mention the millions more in merchandise, the increased number of applications, and the silent intangible "free" millions in marketing exposure for the school. There are the hundreds of thousands in bonuses for coaches tied to this as well.
In short, if the potential to drive this thing to a billion dollar annual event isn't enough to expand the playoff to eight teams, the sheer discomfort and scorn that will go with being part of the committee will. The question is what's the appropriate number of teams to where at-large teams left out have no quibble, but the regular season doesn't become minimized like college basketball? I still say Dan Wetzel's model of sixteen teams with all FBS conferences represented (ten, by the time 2014 rolls around, R.I.P. WAC) and six at-large teams is the perfect system.
2. The rankings won't directly decide who plays, but they still matter. First, notice how the group decided which teams would be part of the discussion:
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.
They used the top 12 of the BCS rankings. I don't want to make too much of this because the truth is they did go all the way to number 12 (and add Kent State) to make their list, which is probably more than enough teams to consider. My point is that anyone who thought that the rankings -- AP, Coaches poll, whatever -- would just shrivel up and not matter is mistaken. Those polls will still exist, and they will be impossible for committee members to ignore and prevent from bleeding into their thought process at elast to some small level. Hell, I'd even be willing to bet someone will still compile what would have been the "BCS rankings" (perhaps sans Harris poll, which I hope does die) each week just for shits and giggles.
So the polls won't directly decide who goes where, but my guess is committee members will still pay attention to them. Basically, polls are going to wind up being like that high level executive in a company who takes a big severance package from his job, and stays around as a consultant. Make sense?
3. The committee will have to be made up of people who watch games intensely. Not to dwell on the differences between this new football playoff format and the current basketball selection format, but I think it illustrates the challenges the football committee will face. When you're picking 37 at-large teams and slotting 68 teams in a huge bracket, teams that will have played upwards of 35 games by the time they're being evaluated, it's impossible to have watched all the teams and it's statistically fairly sound to work off of paper result and power rankings.
But with only four teams who will have played, at most, thirteen games, the sample space is so small, and the stakes of inclusion are so huge that the (dreaded) "eyeball test" HAS to come into play. When you're trying to parse out why four is better than five, six, and seven, it could come down to something as small as a play here, a play there, a quirk in the schedule that had to be navigated, or a team missing a crucial player for a game or games.
Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips said committee members will need to be intricately familiar with teams and will therefore need to block out large chunks of time each week to watch games.
You got that right.
4. College administrators running this thing has "slippery slope" potential. They pointed out in the article that, of the 11 athletics directors involved in the process, three of them wound up being directly involved in the recent wave of realignment over the last week or so (Louisville, East Carolina, and Middle Tennessee State). I don't know if that swings an AD's opinion on a team one way or the other, but it underscores the "dog eat dog" world that is college athletics. How can conference commissioners and AD's not bring some biases into the room? The question is "If not them, then who?" Media members and ESPN are just as agenda driven as college sports power brokers are. Are there people outside the game -- former coaches, respected players -- who could handle this? I think the scary thing about this is the realization that college administrators, the same people who took forever to allow this system and who are responsible for the current conference map looking like it was drawn up by a kindergartener, may actually be the best solution in staffing the selection committee.
5. Do you really need to schedule tougher out of conference games? I have one specific nit to pick with the end result of the group of four this committee came up with. We've heard all along that the committee will take into account strength of schedule and willingness to select quality out of conference opponents when they make their picks. We've been conditioned to think that this will lead to some excellent early season matchups and more schools willing to at least ACT like they're willing to take on all comers.
So why in the blue hell did they take Oregon over Stanford? Consider that:
1. Stanford beat Oregon head to head, late in the season, AT OREGON.
2. In this model, Stanford will have been named Pac-12 champion. Now, being a conference champion isn't supposed to be a hard and fast determiner in the new system, but is supposed to be considered.
3. Stanford's three out of conference games were all bowl eligible, FBS schools. Oregon's three out of conference games were all non-BCS schools, including FCS Tennessee Tech.
4. Both teams had one Pac-12 loss. The only difference in the loss column is Stanford lost in overtime on the road to the number one team in the country, Notre Dame.
So basically, if Stanford had scheduled Tennessee Tech and thumped them instead of scheduling Notre Dame and losing a thriller, they'd have probably been the fourth team. The argument for Oregon is (a) they have a slightly better record than Stanford, and therefore are ranked ahead of them in the polls (despite losing to them late in the season) and (b) Oregon has pretty much left their opponents in the dust in all of their wins. Oregon wins pretty and wins big.
So if we are using the selection of Oregon over Stanford as an example, just know the following about this mock committee:
1. Oregon's being ahead of Stanford in the rankings had to have bled into their decision making.
2. Stanford's strength of schedule and willingness to schedule up outside of the Pac-12 was largely ignored.
3. The way in which Oregon won games (big scores, steam rolling teams) was rewarded. The way Stanford lost to the best team in the country was ignored.
4. The Pac-12 conference championship game was rendered moot.
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And those bullet points are why I'm off my soap box about getting the playoff here as soon as possible. Clearly, the committee, whoever it winds up being, needs one more year to mock select this thing.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.