GRAPEVINE, Texas -- This was unprecedented -- and to many college football fans and coaches, probably not as "clear-cut" as it was to the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Alabama, Oregon and Florida State made 3/4 of the equation very simple for the committee.
As the 12 members debated and deliberated until about 1 a.m. on Sunday, the bulk of their conversations centered around who would be Nos. 4, 5 and 6 among Ohio State, TCU and Baylor. Somebody -- in this case some conference -- was going to be left out of the semifinals and left seething.
"I can't properly put into words really how stressful for all of the committee members getting 4, 5 and 6 right -- ranking those teams -- that was very challenging for us," committee chairman Jeff Long said on Sunday. "There was a bit of relief once we finished that."
Relief for the committee, angst for many others.
Fair or unfair, agree or disagree with the final four -- No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Florida State and No. 4 Ohio State -- the committee had an unprecedented way of getting there, and it's going to take college football fans and coaches more than one season to even begin to understand it. It certainly doesn't help when a team such as TCU -- deemed the No. 3 team in the country just one week ago -- wins by 52 points and falls three spots. Or when Mississippi State jumps Michigan State -- after neither team played.
The problem, though, is not the committee's ambiguous ways or subjective manner. With 12 humans tasked with selecting the four best teams in the country, there's bound to be controversy and confusion. What made the committee's weekly rankings and the final top 25 so tricky to predict, understand and explain, was an inherent difficulty in stepping out of the shadows of the only polls we ever knew.
It's as uncomfortable as writing with your left hand if you're right-handed. Long, though, stated for seven straight weeks: It's a clean slate, every week.
Fans and coaches aren't used to weekly snapshots of the season. They're used to the more traditional Associated Press poll and USA Today coaches' poll, which historically reward teams for staying undefeated, drop teams when they lose and promote them when they win. It's a simple, logical, easy-to-understand method of ranking teams.
Now it's outdated.
Instead, an undefeated team such as Florida State is no longer No. 1 because anyone who has watched the Seminoles this season can see they are flawed, even though their record is not. Thanks to the playoff, though, FSU will have a chance to prove its critics wrong and finish the season at the top -- again.
Although the Big 12 can and will disagree with the top four, the committee can at least defend it.
TCU ahead of Baylor, considering the head-to-head, would have been indefensible -- but only after Baylor beat K-State, making their résumés so comparable that the head-to-head result had to be used as a tiebreaker.
Here's what needed better explaining:
Only one week ago, the committee thought TCU was better than Florida State, which struggled again in the ACC championship. Both teams won, but Long said Nos. 1, 2 and 3 were "clear-cut." How was it that obvious when just a week ago TCU was deemed a better team than FSU? The committee took a tiebreaker, the Big 12 head-to-head, and applied it in a one-game scenario that eliminated TCU from a three-way discussion.
In the end, TCU fell out of the playoff because it lost to the No. 5 team in the country.
About that "whole body of work "
The committee should consider not only explaining but showing the metrics it uses on a weekly basis.
The only insight we gleaned from the weekly rankings was that the committee refuses to look ahead. It doesn't project, nor should it. The Tuesday rankings were irrelevant in the end but important nonetheless because of that very message.
Each week was fluid and should have been, but the message was mangled, leaving the committee open to questions that its final decision didn't. Had nobody seen the last Tuesday ranking, how many would truly question Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State as the top four teams in the country at the end of Saturday night?
Last week's snapshot, though, could be explained.
TCU went on the road and embarrassed Texas on the Longhorns' home turf, while Baylor was fortunate to beat Texas Tech. At that point, Baylor's nonconference schedule, plus a loss to West Virginia, had it not only behind TCU but behind Ohio State, as well.
Repeat: Baylor was behind Ohio State. For three weeks. There was some consistency.
"Their record against teams with winning records is 7-0," Long said of the Buckeyes. "Importantly, committee members placed emphasis on the fact that Ohio State's nonconference schedule was stronger than Baylor's."
Only after the win against K-State did the committee consider TCU and Baylor co-champs, therefore recognizing the head-to-head win -- but the Buckeyes, meanwhile, didn't lose.
In Hollywood fashion, Urban Meyer coached his third-string quarterback to an epic win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship. It was Cardale Jones' first career start, and he not only made a seamless transition into the lineup but did it on the biggest stage when it mattered most. Had J.T. Barrett done the same, the result would have been the same. As improbable as the quarterback story was, Ohio State was rewarded for being a deep and well-coached team with a league title.
This is where the personalities on the committee come into play. There are former coaches -- Ty Willingham, Barry Alvarez, Tom Osborne -- who would know firsthand how difficult it was to do what Meyer did and would try to convince the rest of the committee of its value.
"We've seen an Ohio State team impressively overcome two quarterback injuries," Long said. "They had to replace their quarterback twice. And then they went out and dominated a conference rival in Wisconsin in the championship game. We feel that spoke volumes about the strength of the team. Football is a team game, and the coaches in the room remind us that. It spoke volumes to us about Ohio State's strength as a team."
For the committee to truly be doing its job each week, there should be some surprises. Of course there will be some controversies. The rankings should be debated. But they should also be explained better.
In regard to Mississippi State jumping Michigan State, Long said this:
"We went back and looked at Mississippi State and Michigan State and really, when we started that clean sheet of paper, the fact that Mississippi State had two top-25 wins really caused us to look at those rankings and rank them differently. When Mississippi State has four top-25 victories, along with four other victories against winning programs or bowl-eligible teams and Michigan State had zero, and they have four against .500 or better teams. So that's really what swayed us to make that change."
There was too much of that this season.
The process needs more clarity, especially when fans are used to judging teams by only two categories: scores and win-loss records. The committee's job was to dig deeper, which automatically calls for a deeper explanation beyond "body of work."
"I think we looked back on our work very quickly and feel like we got it right and we did the best given all the parameters and circumstances we have to deal with," Long said. "We're proud of our work. We stand behind it."
It's going to take some time and revisions before fans and coaches are ready to do the same.