The members and general outline of the College Football Playoff committee were announced Wednesday.
The mere presence of a playoff is a vast improvement over the old BCS system of determining a national champion, but where did the designers get it right? Where did they go wrong?
Good idea: The committee picks all the New Year's bowls
Six bowl games -- the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Fiesta, and Chick-fil-A (maybe Peach) -- make up the Playoff system. Two bowl games will host the semifinals in any given year, while the other four games will play out on December 31 and January 1. Wednesday's announcement officially confirmed the previously reported news that the Playoff committee will be responsible for choosing the participants in all six games, rather than picking just the four Playoff participants.
Meddling bowl executives more interested in the travel habits of fan bases than the best teams, and arcane selection rules created to stop them from just taking Notre Dame every year, have led to at-large choices contrary to the final standings. In 2006, Wisconsin and Auburn were passed over for Notre Dame because each would have been the third team from its respective conference in the BCS. In 2007, the Orange Bowl's executives and the Rose Bowl's required Big Ten tie-in led to No. 8 Kansas and No. 13 Illinois getting into the BCS over No. 6 Missouri, which had defeated both of them in the regular season.
Selections became especially bizarre in recent years. In 2011, No. 11 Virginia Tech played No. 13 Michigan in the Sugar Bowl while Arkansas, Boise State, Kansas State, and South Caroina -- all ranked in the top 10 -- watched on television. Northern Illinois' selection for last year's Orange Bowl, mandated by a rule meant to allow mid-major champions into the process but applied here to the detriment of four SEC teams in the final top 10, made the Huskies the lowest-ranked BCS at-large team ever.
The committee's plan for determining which teams play in the best games has not yet been completely disclosed, but if it leads to a common-sense determination of teams based on merit, rather than an application of cryptic and unforgiving rules made solely to prevent unscrupulous bowl executives from turning every big bowl game into Notre Dame against someone vaguely local, it's a massive improvement in the process.
Good idea: Maintaining BCS bowl tie-ins -- to a point
The Rose Bowl has generally been, and should generally continue to be, a Big Ten-Pac-12 game. The same goes for the Sugar and Orange Bowls, which have longstanding conference tie-ins. So long as conference champions are available to play in those games, they should receive those positions. College football is a game of traditions, and confrence tie-ins to the top bowls are worth maintaining.
There is a limit to that, of course. When a conference champion that would normally have a bowl tie-in is selected for the Playoff -- say, the SEC champion that would normally play in the Sugar Bowl -- and no other team from that conference is in the top 12, going outside that group to select a team from the proper conference is how we ended up with Illinois getting massacred by USC in the 2008 Rose Bowl. Similarly, an unranked major conference champion should not be able to leapfrog more deserving teams, as Wisconsin did last season and Connecticut did three seasons ago. January 1 should be a showcase of the sport, not a bloodbath.
The new system took care of one of those two issues. Conference champions, no matter how mediocre they might be, will still get their automatic berths into the top bowls. There is no accounting for the trickle-down effect to second- or third-place teams should that champion make the Playoff, though.
Bad idea: Building bracket creep into the process
Those worried about bracket creep, i.e. the inevitable push to expand the tournament from four to eight to 16 to 32 teams, should see danger in the decision to allow the selection committee to fill out the top 12 teams.
As Bill Connelly wrote earlier this week, virtually every past season includes two teams that would be mortal locks for the four-team Playoff. Most seasons include a third. The fight will be over the fourth position in the bracket. The moment that a No. 4 seed loses by three touchdowns to the top team just hours after No. 5 dominated a BCS bowl appearance, the push will begin to expand the tournament to eight teams. And with six bowls under the BCS selection committee's umbrella already and the committee arranging up to 12 teams each year as it is, it won't take long for the bowls to become quarterfinals and semifinals in an eight-team playoff. From there, it's only a matter of time.
Perhaps an eight-team (or 16-team, or 32-team) tournament will be a better event, but for those who want to preserve the importance of the regular season and not turn college football into the three months of bubble-watching that college basketball has largely become, the built-in mechanism for tournament expansion is disheartening.
Good idea: Releasing a consensus poll
The black box nature of the March Madness committee is always a source of trouble. Nearly every year, the committee chooses 68 teams for the basketball tournament in secrecy, without any indication of their thinking or public input into the process until after the deed is done. That leads to hours of Dick Vitale yelling at a camera. Nobody wants hours of Dick Vitale yelling at a camera.
Releasing a poll every few weeks during the second half of the season not only opens up the process, but allows for discussion and debate, which could fix discrepancies. The members of this committee aren't wallflowers; they will pay attention to the discussion, and argument is a good thing in this kind of process.
Bad idea: Not releasing individual ballots
Bill Hancock is the executive director of the College Football Playoff. He took this job after spending years staunchly opposing a playoff in college football while acting as executive director of the BCS, using increasingly absurd arguments to defend his ideological (and financial) position. Bill Hancock presiding over the College Football Playoff is a bit like Bud Selig becoming president of the MLB players' union.
So when Bill Hancock says he wants a transparent selection process, it's hard to believe. When he follows that statement by saying a consensus poll will be disclosed, but that individual ballots will remain confidential, it looks less like "a transparent selection process" and more like "the Coaches Poll again." There is no legitimate reason for not allowing individual ballots to be revealed. And with a committee made up of athletic directors, former coaches, and administrators, a transparent process would expose any inherent bias. Withholding individual ballots prevents that.
Bad idea: Making the poll a top 25
Why would the selection committee need to produce a top 25 poll when it is choosing, at most, 12 teams?
There is no historical need for a top 25 poll. The AP poll went from a top 20 to 25 in 1989. The UPI poll followed suit in 1990. As recently as 1967, the polls ranked only the top 10.
There is no procedural need for a top 25 poll. Hancock has stated that the voters will start from scratch for each poll, ignoring their past selections in order to avoid the heavy emphasis on preseason expectations in ranking teams after games have actually been played, so nothing about any edition of the Playoff selection committee top 25 should have an effect on later results.
The problem, then, is that the number of teams in the new poll are in excess of the committee's mission, and the requirement that the committee rank so many teams is almost certain to exacerbate the very problem Hancock claims will not occur. If the committee ranks the top 15, and a top-15 team loses, the committee will have to reassess teams not included in the last poll to determine a replacement. A top 25 leaves 10 teams-in-waiting that can be conveniently moved into the top 15 without much thought. The phrase "without much thought" should not be any part of this selection process.
Good idea: Placing top seeds at advantageous sites
The problem with a neutral-site semifinal has always been attendance. Fans of teams in the Playoff will likely expect a national championship trip in the second week of January and have little incentive to travel for the undercard game the week before. This is doubly true of the top seed, which will likely be facing a one- or two-loss opponent. If you thought a sparsely- ttended ACC Championship Game was bad for business, wait until a sparsely attended semifinal game hits the airwaves. Allowing top seeds to play close to home will alleviate that effect.
Bad idea: Not allowing for flexibility in semifinal site
Here's the problem with that strategy: We have six potential sites for a semifinal game. Three sites -- Miami, Atlanta, and New Orleans -- are in the heart of SEC country. One -- Dallas -- is in an amalgam of Big 12 and SEC territory. The remaining two -- Glendale and Pasadena -- are Pac-12 sites, to the point that one is played in UCLA's home stadium.
Presumably, the Playoff committee is going to split the sites between the Southeast and Southwest. In the inaugural Playoff, semifinals will take place in Pasadena and New Orleans. Miami will pair with Glendale or Dallas in an upcoming year, with Atlanta taking the remaining partner, presumably.
So long as the SEC and Pac-12 are producing the top two teams in the Playoff, the plan to put the top seed in an advantageous position works. But what if a Big Ten team earns a top seed? What if a Pac-12 North team -- Oregon or Stanford, just for sake of argument -- "hosts" a Big 12 team in Dallas?
On the other hand, what happens when a Texas team is either a No. 2 or 3 seed in a year where the Cotton Bowl is hosting a semifinal, or a southern California program is in the middle when the Rose Bowl is in play? Will the selection committee really be so insulated from the conference commissioners who chose them for this position that they won't give those teams a de facto home game and provide the system with a huge payday?
Good idea: Handing the reins to Jeff Long
Long, the athletic director at Arkansas, has enough ties to the college athletics world at large -- before going to Arkansas in 2008, he served in the athletics departments at Pitt, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Michigan, and Rice -- that any question of bias should be met with skepticism. His handling of the Bobby Petrino incident last year was about as good as can be expected, and his reputation is solid. Allowing him onto a committee with Barry Alvarez, who was his new football coach's former boss at Wisconsin, could be interesting, but otherwise Long looks to be as neutral a chairman as we could possibly hope for.
Bad idea: Letting the conference commissioners choose the committee
For 20 years, the conference commissioners have prevented a tournament because they wanted control of the football postseason and the money it generates. For 20 years, the conference commissioners sent out Bill Hancock to dismiss all talk of a playoff, spinning increasingly bizarre rationales for why it would not work, again as a way of protecting their fiefdom.
Suddenly, one morning, the commissioners wake up and decide that a playoff isn't a bad idea. Not only that, but they are going to appoint an independent committee to govern the thing that they themselves administered with an iron fist for decades before. They are going to allow a bunch of athletic directors, former players, and a past Secretary of State to determine how much money they make on this project. They blew up the cash cow to end all cash cows, only to hand over the new cash cow to their underlings.
I don't buy it, and you probably shouldn't either.
Good idea: Including Condoleeza Rice
Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has been the most controversial choice for the Selection Committee, but Rice is precisely what the committee needs.
For one, she is an avid football fan whose father was a football coach in Alabama. She helped Stanford pick Dennis Green to replace Jack Elway in 1988 and later oversaw the football program as provost. She spent seven years on the Board of Directors at Notre Dame, where football is an inescapable part of the job. She has a background in analysis to counteract the "I know what I see on the field" members of the committee; if there is anyone on this panel who is going to introduce advanced metrics to the conversation, it's Condi Rice.
She is a fan of the game. She is a student of the game. She is unquestionably intelligent. Those things are more than enough to counteract what little additional knowledge comes from actually having a hand in dirt. Given what we see from former players on television every week, not playing the game might be an avantage.
Bad idea: Including Barry Alvarez
Big Ten fans know what the rest of the world is about to find out: Barry Alvarez can't keep his mouth shut. Barry talks more than all other committee members combined. The man has never met a camera or a reporter that he didn't want to serenade with whatever inside info he has. When compared to Alvarez, Ohio State president Gordon Gee looks like a monk who has taken a vow of silence. Barry's going to talk, and half of what he says is true.
Barry's presence on the panel almost guarantees that we will know which panelists are voting with bias, which conference bigwigs are meddling in the process, and -- most importantly -- which teams are truly being considered for the Playoff. It also means that we will be tasked with separating the wheat from the chaff of his pronouncements, generally half-truth and half-embellishment for his own gain. Barry Alvarez's presence is a good thing for transparency. It's not so good for cohesion among the committee members.