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How the College Football Playoff committee works, with recusals actually mattering this time

What did we learn from the first time, what's different this time and how will two of this year's top teams force certain members to step out of the room?

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The College Football Playoff committee will return to our lives Tuesday night around 7 p.m. ET to reset the table for national championship contenders. It's been 330 days since a new set of committee rankings came out, so let's go over the stuff you've had no reason to remember!

1. Just like last season, a committee of 12 instead of 13 will determine the Playoff four.

USC athletic director Pat Haden stepped down last week due to health concerns. As when Archie Manning left last year, the committee won't replace Haden.

The committee is made up of:

  • Four current athletic directors: Arkansas' Jeff Long (the chairman), Clemson's Dan Radakovich, Texas Tech's Kirby Hocutt and Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez, also a former head coach.
  • Three former head coaches: Bobby Johnson, Tyrone Willingham and Tom Osborne, also a former athletic director.
  • Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Mike Gould, also a former player and coach.
  • Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese.
  • And three people with no coaching, playing or A.D. experience: Tom Jernstedt, a former NCAA employee who helped oversee March Madness; Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State; and Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today.

2. The polls aren't supposed to matter, but it looks like they provided a starting point in 2014.

As part of the public relations mission to win over fans angry at the old BCS, the Playoff has been adamant that no human poll or computer metric will influence the committee. While that might the intent, teams at or near the top of the AP and Coaches polls performed well in the committee's initial numbers.

Here's a look at the Playoff Committee's first ballot from Oct. 28 of last year, along with each team's ranking in the AP and Coaches polls that same week:

  1. Mississippi State (1,1)
  2. Florida State (2,2)
  3. Ole Miss (7, 9)
  4. Auburn (4,4)
  5. Oregon (6, 5)
  6. Alabama (3,3)
  7. TCU (10, 10)
  8. Michigan State (8, 5)
  9. Kansas State (11, 11)
  10. Notre Dame (7, 6)

Three of the committee's top four teams were identical to both polls', and only one top-10 team in the polls, Georgia, was left out in favor of Kansas State, 11th in both polls.

3. Last year taught us that head-to-head matters ... sometimes.

The biggest difference between the selection committee and the two major polls was one-loss Ole Miss, which the committee seemed to reward for its win over Alabama. The Rebels lost 10-7 at LSU three days before these rankings debuted, which tells us that, when faced with comparing one-loss teams, the committee chose to put more weight into the Rebels' Oct. 4 win over the Tide than their fresh loss.

The move signaled that each week the committee would review entire bodies of work, not just what happened the previous Saturday.

What about TCU and Baylor? The Bears beat the Horned Frogs in Waco last October, but TCU led Baylor in every committee ranking until the last one, when both were left out of the Playoff four.

Long said in one of his brief weekly comments on ESPN that Baylor's head-to-head win over TCU had yet to "kick in" because the two had yet to play a comparable schedule. Baylor beating Kansas State the day before the final rankings was what it took for the committee to move the Bears up.

4. The committee isn't afraid to put a one-loss team over an undefeated.

This week's big talking point is the number of undefeated teams now (11) vs. this time last year (two).

2014 undefeateds Mississippi State and Florida State started Nos. 1 and 2, but the Seminoles were jumped by a 9-1 Oregon in the third set of rankings. The Ducks' 51-27 win over Utah was their third road win over a ranked team that year. At that point FSU's strongest wins were a pair of four-point home wins over Notre Dame and Clemson. The following week, one-loss Alabama jumped both after beating Mississippi State.

5. Two Playoff hopefuls could cause recusals for the first time, and one school could shrink the committee to 10 votes.

There are eight programs that can cause at least one member of the committee to step away from deliberation and voting on that school. Six -- Air Force (Gould), Arkansas (Long), Wisconsin (Alvarez), Nebraska (Osborne), Duke (Willingham) and Texas Tech (Hocutt) -- are likely out of the 2015 race, but Clemson and Stanford could make things interesting.

(Manning stepped down before his connections with Ole Miss could cause a recusal.)

Clemson athletic director Radakovich will have to excuse himself from discussing the 8-0 Tigers -- potentially the committee's top pick -- and the Cardinal have two conflicts. Both Willingham and Rice have connections to 7-1 Stanford, with Willingham's son working for the school and Rice employed as a professor.

It's important to note that just being an alumnus or former employee doesn't matter. If Willingham's son weren't currently employed by the Cardinal, he could vote on Stanford regardless of having coached there. Johnson is a former Clemson player and assistant coach, but will be allowed to deliberate on the Tigers because he has no current employment or family ties.


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6. How voting and recusals actually work.

The CFP's official language wants you to know it's really serious about preventing lobbying:

A recused member shall not participate in any votes involving the team from which the individual is recused. A recused member is permitted to answer only factual questions about the institution from which the member is recused, but shall not be present during any deliberations regarding that team’s selection or seeding. Recused members shall not participate in discussions regarding the placement of the recused team into a bowl game.

This is how the committee votes:

  1. Each member makes a list of the 30 best teams. Teams listed by three or more are up for discussion.
  2. Each member picks the six best from that group in no order.
  3. Everyone shares their top sixes, and the most popular shared teams become a list of six.
  4. Each member ranks that list of six, and the three teams with the highest cumulative ranking go up as Nos. 1 through 3, while the bottom three go back in the pool.
  5. Then the process repeats itself, each time adding three teams until the top 25 is complete.

When contacted to provide additional clarity on the recusal process, CFP Chairman Bill Hancock said, "The recused member simply does not participate in any vote in which his or her team is involved. That’s really all there is to it."

So if you're Radakovich, you can neither lobby other members to vote for Clemson nor vote on where the Tigers rank. If you're Rice, and Stanford makes the first list of six, you have to recuse yourself from voting during that round until Stanford goes up on the board without your input.

If Clemson and Stanford keep winning, or if one of those schools is in consideration for the fourth seed in the final week, recusals could become this year's controversy.

7. Nothing really matters yet. With so many undefeated power-conference teams still alive and so many major games left to be played (Michigan State vs. Ohio State, LSU vs. Alabama, Florida State vs. Clemson), any combination of four teams delivered on Tuesday will look incomplete. Where one-loss teams like Alabama, Stanford, Florida, Florida State and Notre Dame rank, and how many unbeatens the committee considers them to already be better than, will end up being more impactful in the coming weeks.

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