A peek at how NCAA playoff selections are made

In two months’ time, a fourth-floor conference room in the mammoth Gaylord Texan Resort hotel outside of Dallas will host the weightiest discussion in college football. Namely, the 12 members of the College Football Playoff committee will sit at four long tables arranged in a rectangle and decide which teams will make the four-team playoff and play for the national championship.

This past Thursday, this chamber was home to an exercise at once similar but entirely different. The CFP staff invited 12 media members to go through a mock selection to get a better understanding of how the committee does its work. The group included respected writers and broadcasters from around the country, and also me.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature. I don’t believe, for example, that Charles Woodson won the 1997 Heisman Trophy over Peyton Manning because ESPN pushed for it (full disclosure: I went to Michigan, and also, my wife Robyn loves Manning’s commercials). I tend to doubt Ray Lewis’ theory that the NFL staged the Super Bowl blackout in 2013.

I also find merit in the way that the playoff field is decided, by a 12-person committee made up largely of former coaches and college athletics administrators. But distrust and dissent are as much a part of college football as tailgating and mascots. That was the primary reason why the CFP invited media to take part in the mock selection exercise, plying us with a Tex-Mex dinner (which, admittedly, was really good) and challenging us to “check our hats at the door,” the committee’s reminder to one another to surrender biases and affiliations. To reinforce this notion, there is actually a hat rack at the door, with each member having his or her own personalized baseball cap.

What I found was better understanding of how the committee does its work and why the rankings work as they do. For instance, in 2014, the playoff’s first year, Florida State dropped from No. 2 to No. 4 during the regular season despite the fact that the defending national champions were the only undefeated FBS team.

At least in part, it was probably due to the fact that the line of thinking that “they’re the champs until proven otherwise” doesn’t hold here. There is no carryover from the previous season, or even the previous week.

CFP executive director Bill Hancock shared his recollections of how former committee chair Jeff Long halted dialogue when committee members brought up a game from a previous season or even mentioned an upcoming game.

“Every year is a new year,” said Kirby Hocutt, Texas Tech’s athletic director and the committee chair, who sat in on our panel.

Further, teams (like Florida State) can move up and down week to week because the CFP rankings are not static in the way that the polls often are. The rankings start over fresh each week. The way it works is that the committee first selects a pool of teams to consider for the top three spots, then discusses the teams and then ranks them, by secret ballot. If there’s enough support to re-consider the rankings, they debate more. Then they move on to 4-6, 7-9, 10-13 and on.

They are guided by principles for distinguishing similar teams beyond the “eyeball test” — strength of schedule, head-to-head competition, comparative outcomes against common opponents and other factors such as injuries.

We re-considered spots 3-7 even after we finished our top 25, causing Nos. 6 and 7 teams (Stanford and Boise State) to swap. It’s in this setting that Florida State could drop in 2014, as the eyeball test, schedule strength and other factors could lead committee members to conclude that other teams, namely Oregon and TCU, were better.

Interestingly, FSU was twice at the center of particular consideration. Once, the Seminoles tied with South Carolina to stay in consideration for one slice of the rankings. Without being able to rely on having seen both teams (a major difference in our exercise), we pulled up both teams’ statistics side-by-side on a platform furnished by Atlanta-based SportSource Analytics. It turned out the two teams, both 9-4 and conference runners-up, had played Clemson and Florida within a two-week span. I voted for the Gamecocks based on their winning more convincingly against both teams, and they ultimately carried the vote. (You may recall FSU ultimately beat South Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, a result we weren’t allowed to consider.)

In the other, as we reviewed our top 25, CFP executive director Bill Hancock noticed that we had FSU three spots ahead of N.C. State despite the fact that the Wolfpack had beaten the Seminoles. As head-to-head competition is a primary principle for comparing teams, we discussed and re-voted 21-25, which ended up moving FSU up to 21 and N.C. State to 22.

My takeaway was that evaluating teams in smaller pools led to rankings that were fairer and more thorough. Also, in this scrutiny, it would be difficult and maybe impossible to carry an agenda for a team or conference (or network) through weeks of rankings. Given that 21 vs. 22 can get as much debate as 1 vs. 2, it would be difficult for biases to not be exposed or go far in a room of invested and informed individuals.

Peach Bowl CEO Gary Stokan went through the same exercise on Tuesday with conference and bowl officials.

“It was very comprehensive, very inclusive and very fair,” he said.

I’d have to agree. On the other hand, those hats at the door were provided by Nike …