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Playoff precedent will be set

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, one of 12 members of the inaugural College Football Playoff selection committee, said she was in grade school when she first realized that college football didn't have a playoff or a national championship "in the way that every other sport did."

It was November 1966, and No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State finished their historic showdown locked in a 10-10 tie.

"My dad was just appalled that somehow you didn't have a way to play that off," she said.

That changes Tuesday with an unprecedented moment in the history of the sport.

After decades of fan frustration, an embattled BCS, co-champions and titles in question, college football can officially embrace a playoff. At 7:30 p.m. ET, the selection committee -- a group comprised of 11 men and one woman with varying backgrounds -- will set a new precedent when chairman Jeff Long announces the group's first top 25 ranking of the season. For the first time, a committee will select a four-team playoff that will pair No. 1 against No. 4 and No. 2 against No. 3 in a round of semifinal games.

There are no computers. No convoluted formulas. And only one poll -- the committee's.

"I think every college football fan has wanted to have a true playoff and a championship game," Rice said. "... To be a part of this advance in college football, to try to put the best four teams on the field, against one another, play it off, and then have a national champion come out of that, where you have something that has been very valuable on the basketball side -- human beings who are experienced, sit in the room and debate who the best teams are -- I think this is a real advance for college football and fans."

For nine weeks, Rice and her colleagues have silently watched this season unfold on their TVs and iPads. They've seen Oregon beat Michigan State and lose at home to Arizona. They've seen the state of Mississippi rise, and watched Ole Miss fall. They've seen Ohio State lose at home to Virginia Tech, but will they forgive it?

Until now, none of them have uttered a word about their top four.

Long, who is also Arkansas' athletic director, will be the lone spokesperson for the group. What he says on Tuesday will set a precedent for years to come. This is a season we will continue to reference, as it will be the first insight fans and media have into what factors are most important to the committee.

Conference championships, head-to-head results, common opponents, injuries to key players and strength of schedule are all valued, but the weight of each factor depends on the committee member. It's a subjective process, one tailored to each individual, which makes it impossible to measure. If Alabama is ranked ahead of Ole Miss, though, the committee will send a message that head-to-head results can be overcome. If Oregon is ranked among the top four, the committee clearly considers injuries, as the offensive line injuries were a factor in the Ducks' home loss to Arizona.

New committee members will rotate in, and as the faces change, so will the philosophies. While the protocol is completely ambiguous, there's no limit to how many teams from one conference can participate in the playoff, and not even a conference championship guarantees a spot.

"When you look at what the criteria are -- wins, championships, strength of schedule, etc. -- it's a factor," Clemson athletic director and committee member Dan Radakovich said of a league title, "but it was made clear to this selection committee in 2014 that that's not the only factor."

Each committee member was assigned a conference to cover, but their job is to watch every team every weekend. They've kept an eye on The Associated Press Top 25 and the USA Today Coaches Poll, in an effort to stay informed yet not taint their own opinions.

While comparisons have been drawn to the selection committee for college basketball, what's happening in college football is unique. There are only four teams, the smallest of any bracket, and this committee -- unlike any other -- will meet every Monday and Tuesday to debate and vote before Long announces its top 25 teams on ESPN. Instead of waiting until the end of the season to release one final verdict, this group has chosen to open itself up to inevitable criticism from the public for seven straight weeks in an effort to be transparent.

Committee member and former NCAA executive vice president Tom Jernstedt worked for the NCAA for 38 years, and one of his primary roles was supervising the men's basketball committee. He said there has been some carryover from his experiences there.

"I remember one committee member saying years ago, 'Our No. 1 priority is to be sure that we do our very best to get the very best teams in the tournament,'" said Jernstedt. "Student-athletes have been the ones paying the price, and we owe it to them to do our very best job. That was always a constant theme and I think that same principle holds and carries over to the selection committee for the College Football Playoff.

"Basketball is basketball and football is football, but in terms of the preparation, the thoroughness, and committee responsibilities, there are some commonalities. You've got commissioners, whether it's Mike Slive, Jim Delany, a number of others who have been leaders on the football side that also served as chair of the NCAA basketball committee. There are elements that are important from preparation, thoroughness, study, and the kind of people who have committed themselves to doing what's best for college football involved. It's very exciting and I couldn't be more pleased to be involved."

Tuesday's ranking is not the final verdict. That will come on Dec. 7, and time will tell how fluid the committee's top 25 is. No matter what the committee decides, there is sure to be debate. That's one element of the postseason that won't ever change.

The means of getting there, though, is now dramatically different.

"To be a part of that is very exciting," Rice said. "It's worth it to me to put in the time."

After all, it's been a long time coming.