GRAPEVINE, Texas -- The moment No. 8 Ohio State punctuated its résumé with a win over No. 4 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, the debate began. Would the Buckeyes or No. 5 Alabama claim the fourth and final spot in the College Football Playoff?
The only discussion that really mattered happened inside a conference room at the Gaylord Texan Resort, named Selection Central for the occasion. That's where the 13 members of the selection committee began their final deliberations over what would end up being the most difficult -- and controversial -- decisions in the CFP era.
That night's dinner of hot dogs, hamburgers, shrimp salad and ice cream -- the last part a tradition brought over by CFP executive director Bill Hancock from his days on the NCAA men's basketball committee -- had already been served, and the voting process was set to begin in an adjacent meeting room. There was "strong support and widespread agreement," according to committee chair Kirby Hocutt, that No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Georgia were the top three teams in the country.
The debate between one-loss Alabama and two-loss Ohio State for No. 4 went on until about 1:15 a.m. CT.
"We walked into that meeting room, I think, knowing that we had a big task in front of us," Hocutt said.
The teams involved were two of the most recognizable and polarizing brand names in the country, presenting a no-win situation for the committee in the court of public opinion. Their respective coaches, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, were unabashedly politicking on ESPN for a top-four spot.
"I don't know if it had an impact on the committee," Saban said, "but I wanted to put my case out there."
The committee didn't need Saban's help, nor was it influenced by his comments, Hancock said.
"It was never discussed," Hancock said, "and I don't think anybody felt like they were lobbied."
With committee members Frank Beamer (his son, Shane, coaches tight ends and special teams at Georgia), Dan Radakovich (Clemson AD) and Gene Smith (Ohio State AD) recused from discussions and voting for the top eight teams, the remaining 10 members dissected the pros and cons of Alabama and Ohio State without them.
"Before I looked up," Hocutt said, "Bill had nudged me and said, 'We've been talking about this for over an hour already.'"
And it still wasn't enough.
When the committee members went to bed in the wee hours of Sunday morning, Alabama was No. 4. The question was whether it would stay there.
"Some thought, 'Let's sleep on it,'" Hancock said. "There were people who thought, 'This is probably over,' and others who thought, 'I need to really look at it again, I'm not really sure.'"
Hancock said he went to bed around 2 a.m. CT, and the group reconvened again at 7:30 a.m. CT on Sunday.
"I encouraged them at the start of it to make sure they said everything that was on their mind," Hancock said. "People made the case one way and then somebody else made the case the other way and then somebody responded. All very civil and respectful, but pointed."
By Hancock's estimate, the recused members missed anywhere between 90 minutes to two hours total over the two days. When they returned, Hocutt, according to Hancock, addressed the room, saying: "Welcome back, gentlemen, here's what happened." With the entire top 25 finally in place, and Alabama at No. 4, Hocutt gave the committee one final chance to voice any objections. Nobody responded.
"That's it," he said. "It's done."
Hancock said it was as if the entire room exhaled at once.
"There's always a palpable sense of 'we got it right again,'" Hancock said, "and that happened this year, just like the last three years."
The people with the most important decision to make in college football meet in relative obscurity at the Gaylord Texan resort, blending in among the flocks of families with squirmy toddlers in strollers who have come to see Santa, the 54-foot-tall Christmas tree, a 25-foot-tall Nutcracker and a Texas-sized display of 2 million twinkling lights.
"It's crazy how it stays a secret," said Heidi Staddon, Gaylord's manager of celebrity services.
Shammah Saidi is a front desk agent and an Oklahoma fan from Arlington, Texas (though his name tag on Sunday claims his hometown is the North Pole). Saidi said he was checking a guest in this week who was wearing an NCAA football shirt and noticed there was a College Football Playoff tag on his reservation.
"I'm like, 'Wait, does anyone know how big this is?'" Saidi said. "He was like, 'I hope not.'"
The CFP committee takes every precaution to maintain privacy in its meeting room, keeping information in and visitors out. A security guard sits outside the door with a sheet of paper that has every committee member's picture on it so he knows who is allowed in.
"Willingham," said Tyrone Willingham as he walked into Friday's 4 p.m. meeting before watching the Pac-12 championship game.
There is also a security guard who shadows Hocutt as he makes his way from the meetings to the room where the ESPN cameras are set up for his interviews.
"I'm probably the perfect one for this because I care more about baseball," the guard said with a shoulder shrug.
This is Texas, though. On Saturday, there are Dallas Cowboys jerseys everywhere and a smattering of OU T-shirts, as this is the day of the Big 12 championship game. One person is wearing a Longhorns Santa hat.
On Sunday, hotel guest Eric Thompson of Tampa, Florida, walked off the same elevator the committee members use wearing a red shirt with a Georgia logo on it.
"See you guys in Pasadena!" another man said to him as he got into the elevator.
Thompson was in town for business and knew the committee was there, too, but had no idea he was so close to them. The Georgia State alumnus said he's a lifelong Georgia fan and watches the rankings every Tuesday. As soon as his plane landed, he said he checked his phone to see where the Bulldogs ranked.
"You wouldn't think it'd be where the selection committee is meeting," he said. "I wouldn't recognize them."
Most don't. While the rest of the hotel guests were enjoying the over-the-top Christmas festivities, the committee was adhering to its mission statement: choosing the four best teams, not the four most deserving.
"It's so simple and pure," Hancock said. "Just pick the four best teams. That's all they have to worry about. No politics."