The new College Football Playoff selection committee released its first poll ever on Tuesday night.
If the season ended today, Mississippi State (ranked No. 1), Florida State (No. 2), Auburn (No. 3), and Ole Miss (No.4) would be in the playoff.
Unfortunately for those teams (and fortunately for everyone else), the season does not end today. By the time the final poll is announced, the four playoff teams might be completely different.
This is the first year of the playoff, meaning there will be arguments, misunderstandings, and a wide variety of future precedents set.
Here’s how the new College Football Playoff works, in the simplest terms possible.
There will be four teams. The No. 1 team (MSU, right now) will play the No. 4 team (Ole Miss) in one semifinal. The No. 2 team (FSU) will play the No. 3 (Auburn) team in the other semifinal.
The four teams will be picked by a 12-person selection committee. The committee is made up of current and former college football people, many of whom are athletic directors (the full list of members is below). It was originally supposed to be 13 people but Archie Manning dropped out due to health issues.
The selection committee will meet once a week, and start releasing a weekly top-25 ranking on October 28th (now!). The 12-person committee will meet, discuss, and rank the teams from one to 25. The top-four teams in the final ranking will make the playoff. The rankings will be announced on a weekly Tuesday night ESPN show.
This season the two semifinals will be held at the Rose Bowl (Pasadena, California) and the Sugar Bowl (New Orleans, Louisiana) on January 1. The committee will put the higher-seeded team in the more convenient location with respect to geography and potential homefield advantage. So if Mississippi State finishes No. 1, they will get to play in New Orleans rather than Pasadena. If Oregon finishes No. 1, they will get to play in Pasadena rather than New Orleans.
The winners of those two games will play the championship game on January 12 at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. Where the Cowboys play.
Members of the selection committee will recuse themselves from the discussion if a school they are associated with is involved. The members are as follows: Jeff Long (Arkansas athletic director), Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin athletic director), Mike Gould (former superintendent of the Air Force Academy), Pat Haden (USC athletic director), Tom Jernstedt (ex-NCAA VP), Oliver Luck (West Virginia athletic director), Tom Osborne (former Nebraska coach), Dan Radakovich (Clemson athletic director), Condoleezza Rica (former secretary of state), Mike Tranghese (ex-Big East commissioner), Steve Wieberg (former USA Today college football reporter), and Tyrone Willingham (former college football coach).
The committee has a rough list of criteria for how to decide which team is “best.” The selection committee lists the following factors as things they will consider when picking teams: winning conference championships, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition, comparative outcomes of common opponents, and injuries.
Here’s how the voting process works within the selection committee (check out the full protocol here):
- Each committee member will create a list of the 25 teams he or she believes to be the best in the country, in no particular order. Teams listed by three or more members will remain under consideration.
- Each member will list the best six teams, in no particular order. The six teams receiving the most votes will comprise the pool for the first seeding ballot.
- In the first seeding ballot, each member will rank those six teams, one through six, with one being the best. The three teams receiving the fewest points will become the top three seeds. The three teams that were not seeded will be held over for the next seeding ballot.
- Each member will list the six best remaining teams, in no particular order. The three teams receiving the most votes will be added to the three teams held over to comprise the next seeding ballot.
- Steps No. 3 and 4 will be repeated until 25 teams have been seeded.
There’s still a bunch we don’t know.
While we know the selection committee’s procedures and criteria, we don’t know how different factors will be weighted. Will a team be heavily penalised if it doesn’t win its conference title? Will a team with one loss but a weak schedule get leap-frogged by a team with two losses but a strong schedule? Will a team be taken out of playoff consideration because a star player gets hurt in the last game of the year? Is there a distinction between picking the “best team” and picking the “most deserving team?” And on what side of that distinction does the committee sit?
Based on the initial poll, it looks like strength of schedule really matters. Auburn is ranked No. 3 because they beat Kansas State and LSU and only lost to Mississippi State. Alabama (which is ranked No. 3 in the traditional AP poll) hasn’t really beaten anyone yet, so they’re ranked No. 6. Other highly-ranked teams that have played soft schedules (Ohio State, Notre Dame) are also lower in the playoff committee poll than they are in the AP poll.
Since this is year Year One, the way the committee chooses to weight different variables will set a precedent going forward. If it looks like teams that play tough non-conference schedules have a big advantage, teams will start playing tougher schedules. This is a process of discovery, and each week will teach us more about how this is going to work.
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