Tens of millions of viewers across the country will watch college football’s conference championship games this weekend. But the 13 viewers whose opinions matter most will be gathered around TVs in a set of meeting rooms at a Grapevine, Texas, resort.
They are the members of the College Football Playoff selection committee, whose task of choosing the four teams for the playoff will be simplified or complicated by what happens in four conference championship games Saturday.
They’ll watch the Big 12 game between Oklahoma and TCU beginning at 12:30 p.m. and the SEC game between Auburn and Georgia at 4 p.m. Then they’ll divide their attention between the Clemson-Miami ACC game and the Wisconsin-Ohio State Big Ten game, both beginning at 8 p.m.
“We look forward to some great matchups this week, like everybody else,” said Kirby Hocutt, the selection committee’s chairman. “This is a special weekend because it’s the one time a year that the selection committee watches games together in person.”
After the games are done, the committee members will discuss and debate how to rank the teams, probably deep into Saturday night.
SEC Championship: What you need to know about Saturday’s game
They’ll reconvene early Sunday morning to finalize their rankings, which will be unveiled on ESPN during a show that starts at noon.
The top four teams in Sunday’s rankings will reach the playoff, which will begin with semifinals on New Year’s Day in the Rose and Sugar bowls and culminate with the national championship game Jan. 8 at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Entering the weekend, the selection committee has Clemson ranked No. 1, Auburn No. 2, Oklahoma No. 3 and Wisconsin No. 4. If all four win their conference championship games, then the committee’s work this weekend will be easy. But in what already has been an unpredictable season – three different No. 1 teams in the past four weeks – the committee probably is braced for some complications.
The ACC and SEC championship games appear to be playoff play-ins for the winners – whether Clemson or No. 7 Miami in the ACC, Auburn or No. 6 Georgia in the SEC. But the implications of the Big 12 and Big Ten title games are more convoluted.
If Oklahoma loses to No. 11 TCU, that likely will shut out the Big 12 from the playoff and open a spot for Alabama, ranked No. 5 this week. If Oklahoma wins and Wisconsin loses, that could leave the committee with a difficult choice between Alabama and Ohio State, currently ranked No. 8, for a playoff berth. And if both Oklahoma and Wisconsin lose, that could make playoff spots available for both Alabama and Ohio State.
“One of the beautiful things about the CFP is that there are no strings attached,” said Bill Hancock, the playoff’s executive director. “The committee is instructed to come up with the four best teams, period.”
When choosing among comparable teams, the committee is supposed to consider four criteria, one of which is conference championships. The others are strength of schedule, head-to-head results and outcomes against common opponents.
Only one of the 12 teams that reached the playoff the past three seasons – Ohio State last year – did so without winning its conference title.
“When we’re comparing like teams, that conference-championship designation is very important,” Hocutt said. “To what degree, how that will be weighted, is subjective with each individual in that selection committee room.”
So the most important factor at this point is simply what the committee members -- five former coaches, four current athletic directors, one former athletic director, one current university president, one former NCAA executive and one former sports writer -- see Saturday on TV at the Gaylord Texan Resort.
On to the rest of our weekly update of college football’s road to Atlanta …
After lining up the playoff semifinals, the same selection committee also will determine the matchups for three other bowl games, including Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Peach Bowl officials will have no input in selecting its teams, so Gary Stokan, the bowl’s president and CEO, can only guess what the committee might do.
He thinks it “probably” will select the winner of the American Athletic Conference championship game between No. 14 Central Florida (11-0) and No. 20 Memphis (10-1) as one of the Peach’s teams. He believes the opponent likely will come from the SEC (the loser of the Georgia-Auburn game) or the Big Ten (Penn State, Ohio State or Wisconsin).
The local host committee for the national championship game is selling hospitality packages that include four game tickets in prime seats, four passes to an exclusive pregame party and eight invitations to a party with “A-list talent” at the Tabernacle on the Sunday night before the game.
The package costs $14,000 ($3,500 per person). Proceeds will benefit the Atlanta Football Host Committee’s efforts. For more information, call 404-551-3234 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
ASKED AND ANSWERED
Q: How would the selection committee weigh a choice between Alabama and Ohio State for a playoff berth (provided Ohio State beats Wisconsin)?
A: “Alabama’s only loss is to the No. 2 team right now, while Ohio State has two losses, including one awful loss to a 7-5 Iowa team that I don’t think Alabama would lose to,” said Stokan, who follows the playoff selection process closely. “But on the other hand, Ohio State would have a conference championship and two wins over top-10 teams if it beats Wisconsin, the other being Penn State, whereas Alabama’s best wins would be over Mississippi State and LSU. And then the eye test would come in. In the end, I think the committee would take Alabama.”