GRAPEVINE, Texas — The sights and sounds trapped inside the 4.5-acre atrium at the Gaylord Texan Resort make this scene look like a miniature Disney World.
Instead of movie characters and fantasy rides, a scaled-down version of the Alamo and San Antonio’s Riverwalk help produce a world within a world where, night and day, suits walk among the passageways as if it was a Monday morning on Wall Street.
On the fourth floor of this 1,800-room metropolis, an unassuming balcony overlooks the hotel’s most prized views. Inside, the smells of bacon, a freezer full of ice cream treats and a custom-made rack with 13 white hats draped from it serve as the backdrop for years worth of stories. There, a set of double doors lead to a meeting room that, for the past four years, has been home to the College Football Playoff selection committee, a group of 13 members whose task is to select a four-team playoff.
Like Disney, there’s an underground world of tunnels (seriously). Thankfully, the committee hasn’t needed them, even for former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. That’s the symbolism here: some of college football’s most powerful faces meet here with the fate of the postseason in their hands
“We can be anonymous here,” says Bill Hancock, the CFP’s executive director.
On this day, the anonymity is removed for about 24 hours. Thirteen national media members are invited to participate in a mock selection exercise, a way to better understand the inner-workings of how the rankings are compiled.
An art, not a science
The committee has used this exercise for years as a means to bridge the gap between the fans and what happens behind the closed doors of the 720-square-foot Bluebonnet boardroom. The CFP’s staff will conduct six mock selections meetings this year alone.
For our session, we are ranking the 2013 season. I play the role of Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith.
The CFP is viewed as a ranking, a distinct difference from the poll era. Fifteen bullet points exist in the “federalist papers" — protocols and procedures adopted in 2012. Four main criteria are used: conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incentivizing margin of victory).
The system is an art, not a science. Hancock notes how the men who ran the computer polls for the Bowl Championship Series, the previous system used to determine the national title game, didn’t want to give up their formulas. The CFP aims for more transparency.
After seeing how much thought went into a four-hour mock session, imagine what the real thing is like. Committee members are given iPads with condensed game versions that enable them to cruise through a game in 40 minutes. They can watch 8 to 10 games in a weekend.
On the final weekend of the season, the three rooms outside the Bluebonnet boardroom turn into a sports fans dream, with as many as nine TVs showing games.
Inside the boardroom, a large projector screen is sprawled out across one of the four walls. Nine large monitors are placed in the center for additional viewing. Two monitors on each side of the room provide the updated Top 25. Each member has a laptop used to rank teams. Committee members sit in a U-shape with Hancock and Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, who was appointed as the CFP’s chair in 2018, leading the charge.
The screens are used to compare teams — as many as four at once — along with key statistics. There are literally hundreds of categories (ever heard of relative total offense?). The goal is to figure out which is the most correlative. There is a significant focus on relative stats.
“Our job is to make sure the committee has all the info to make judgments,” Hancock says.
Debate is welcomed, numbers are crunched
As for our job, we were instructed to come with our top 30 teams, in no particular order, from the 2013 season. This is how the process starts.
It takes some a while to master the system.
“If this was a timed SAT test, Bobby (Johnson), Joe (Castiglione) and Todd (Stansbury) wouldn’t get into college,” one media member blurts out.
The room erupts in laughter.
This is a stark contrast for when the actual committee votes. Ice is broken between debates — laughter included — but Hancock says the voting process is “like church.” The total votes are archived but individual votes aren’t kept, hence the anonymity.
There are 36 teams on our initial list, which is around the same number the actual committee starts with. This is where things can get confusing. There are two steps per round — listing and ranking.
Each member lists six teams. This makes up the first pool. We are then asked to rank them. The top three become the first three in the playoff. The next three remain in the pool. This process of listing and ranking continues until 25 teams are ranked. (At times, media member simply forgot about teams in the pool when it came to rank them. It takes getting used to.)
Anyway, Florida State is the unanimous No. 1 choice. That was relatively stress-free. Now comes the hard part — figuring out the final teams.
Auburn is No. 2. Alabama ends up third in our ranking over Michigan State. The Spartans are sent to the pool. Immediately, it is noted how Michigan State won a conference championship. Alabama didn’t even play for one.
It takes four people for a re-vote, and Hancock points out this situation would almost always trigger a second look.
Each committee member decides which tiebreaker they value most — some place a higher priority on conference championships; others value strength of schedule. That’s the beauty of the system.
It should be noted at this point Smith, Mullens, Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione and former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer would be recused from the discussions due to their respective ties to Ohio State, Oregon and Oklahoma (Beamer's son, Shane, is on staff at Oklahoma) — earlier, Hancock jokes how committee member may occupy their time during reclusion by watching Oprah and eating bacon in an adjacent room.
As a whole, we probably spend too much time focused on strength of schedule numbers. In reality, Hancock says the specific figures don’t play a huge role. If it’s within 15 points, they are deemed even.
A tedious process
We continue to comb over notes, and Michigan State flips spots with Alabama at No. 3. The margin is razor thin, meaning separated by a few votes.
Changes occur often, Hancock says. Sometimes, it comes the next morning when members sleep on their decisions.
In real life, the committee may come under scrutiny for voting Alabama at No. 4. The room discusses how rankings are determined by the best team; not the most deserving. The committee doesn’t think about the brand.
This is, by far, the most time-consuming part of the process. It takes us about three hours to pick the Top 10.
For perspective, the committee’s final rankings start around 11:30 p.m. on Championship Saturday. The inaugural ranking lasted until 2:30 a.m. The committee then resumes discussions around 8 to finalize the Top 25 by 10:30 a.m. — a hard deadline comes at 10:45 a.m. when the top four are sent to ESPN for the unveiling.
You’d think it’s the opposite, but the rankings become harder as we move down the board. Resumes look far too similar. Mullens informs us we aren’t alone. He can argue teams 14 through 25 are just as difficult as 1-4.
Once the Top 25 is wrapped up, the real-life committee would then revisit the rankings “at great lengths,” likely with re-votes. Depending on the discussions, a half dozen topics may be reviewed.
Hours later as we eventually shuffle out, hotel staff prep for the next mock session that night.
Four weeks from now, the committee will gather for its first of six rankings. The CFP’s hope is the public has a better understanding of the process. We do, at least — we got to see where and how the sausage is made.
Media mock CFP rankings vs. 2013 BCS
|2013 BCS Rankings||Media Mock CFP Rankings|
|1.||Florida State||Florida State|
|13.||Oklahoma State||Arizona State|
|14.||Arizona State||Oklahoma State|
|20.||Fresno State||Texas A&M|
|21.||Texas A&M||Notre Dame|
|23.||Northern Illinois||Fresno State|