Mock playoff selection provides lessons

GRAPEVINE, Texas -- Imagine this: It's 2008, and the College Football Playoff exists.

That was the scenario Thursday in the Gaylord Texan resort, where 17 media members participated in a mock selection to better understand the voting process of the College Football Playoff's real 13-member selection committee.

It was fun. It was a spirited debate. It was very, very difficult.

A quick refresher: The 2008 season had seven one-loss teams and two undefeated teams (Utah and Boise State) ranked in the top nine of the BCS standings heading into bowl season. Oklahoma, Florida, Texas and Alabama were the top four teams that season.

Not Thursday.

The media's top four, in order, was: Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, USC.

The debatable No. 5 was Penn State.

The mock committee gave USC credit for its stingy defense and conference championship, and USC dominated Ohio State -- a team the Nittany Lions struggled with. We voted three times, and every time, the top four remained the same. The only change came on the third vote, when Penn State jumped Alabama for the No. 5 spot. Most of the committee members agreed that entering the meeting, they thought Alabama would be a top-four team. One of the biggest surprises was that the Tide didn't even make the final top five. Penn State was rewarded for its conference title and an impressive 45-14 win over Oregon State -- which beat USC.

The real selection committee also used 2008 for its mock in August and came up with the same top four -- in a different order.

In less than six hours Thursday, the mock committee had to determine what it will take the real committee two days to figure out. We used the same computers, had the same statistical data available both in a playbook-sized binder and on five large, flat-screen computers and we met in the same meeting room the committee will use. The only thing missing was our memories. Even with plenty of national college football reporters in the room who had covered the 2008 season, not having seen those teams in six years made the eye test difficult, but Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long -- the only committee member in attendance -- said we remembered much more about that season than the actual committee members did during their mock.

Each media member was assigned a real committee member to portray (some had to double up), and the recusal policy was in full effect, eliminating USC's Pat Haden from much of the conversation. I was playing the role of Condoleezza Rice, and when I logged in as "Crice" and went to input my initial pool of 25 teams to the computer, Stanford was shaded out, so I couldn't vote for the Cardinal.

Long and executive director Bill Hancock helped guide the process along. Overall, it was the seventh time the system had been tested. The playoff staff has done it four times, and the real selection committee has gone through it twice.

"We're still learning about it," Hancock said. "We're confident, but we're still learning about it."

It was an eye-opening exercise. With click after click of the mouse, we selected our teams through seven rounds of voting. There were a few ties and several re-votes (three committee members have to call for a re-vote in order for it to happen).

By early afternoon, we were confident we picked the best four teams in the country -- though not everyone might have agreed on the order.

Here's a look at five lessons learned from Thursday's media mock selection:

  1. Everyone wants an answer as to what the most important metric is, but there is no answer -- it's an individual preference. How much weight will strength of schedule be given? How important is winning a conference championship? Don't head-to-head results mean anything? It depends on which committee member you ask. All 17 of the mock committee members spoke briefly about what they thought the most important factors were, and there were varying opinions. Some thought margin of victory mattered, while others didn't. Some valued a conference championship more than others. The varying opinions were a positive, because everyone brought up points that made others pause, think and, sometimes, reconsider.

  2. It was a big loss for the little guys. The biggest difference between the media's mock selection and the BCS standings was the absence of BYU and Ball State in the final ranking. Their lack of strength of schedule kept them out. Ball State never even made it into the pool of teams to be debated.

  3. Conference championships matter. There were several teams that were difficult to separate, even when lined up side by side on the computer screens. At one point, ESPN reporter Holly Rowe referenced the selection committee's protocol, which clearly states that "the selection committee will select the teams using a process that distinguishes among otherwise comparable teams by considering conference championships won," along with the other criteria. It was a big reason Penn State earned the nod ahead of Alabama.

  4. The committee members have more than enough information to make an informed decision. Any and every statistic is available. Each of the committee members was given an iPad before the season to watch games and download coaches cut-ups. They have access to every game and every statistic they could possibly want. If college football fans have faith in nothing else about this system, they should rest assured the committee members have been put in a position to succeed.

  5. Defense still matters. While spread offenses have stolen the spotlight in recent years and high-scoring games have become the norm, relative defense was an important statistic in evaluating the teams. Florida's defense and USC's defense were major plusses on their résumés.