The College Football Playoff held its latest mock selection meeting this week, and in attending for the second time — my first since 2014, the initial year of the CFP — the process has certainly changed.
That first meeting was held before the actual CFP Selection Committee had ever met live for its first set of rankings. It was interesting to see the process, but there was not much data available to analyze the teams. Notably absent was a strength of schedule measurement. That was highly subjective.
This time around, there’s a lot of data available for committee members. Not only is there strength of schedule, but there are numerous offensive and defensive statistics provided to help measure team performance not only in raw numbers but in relation to the strength of their opponents.
Strength of schedule is also measured in aggregate with each team given a raw rating and ranking from 1-130. Also, each opponent on a team’s schedule is listed with a relative strength ranking that is color-coded with green being stronger and red weaker. It is easy to spot right away a schedule with a lot of red or green as weak or strong.
An opponent’s place in the most recent CFP Rankings is also listed, if applicable. Each team’s record against the top 25 is based on that CFP ranking.
The task set in front of us for this mock meeting was to compile the final CFP Rankings for the 2019 season. That was the season that ended with Joe Burrow leading LSU to the national championship as the No. 1 seed in the playoff.
There was plenty of debate back then whether the Tigers or Big Ten champion Ohio State deserved that top seed. The 13 members of our mock committee debated that at length as well. We were not given as much time as the real committee, which gets two days to complete its task, but it was easily the most debated ranking of the day for us.
LSU ended up winning out by a 7-6 vote and was our No. 1 seed, just as the Tigers were in 2019. Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma rounded out the top four. There was little debate about the order of those teams once we settled on LSU as the top seed.
The voting process is relatively simple. Each committee member enters a list of thirty teams that should be considered. Those teams that receive enough votes become the pool from which the top 25 is selected.
Teams are then broken up into smaller groups to vote into the rankings.
First, a pool of six teams that committee members think are best get debated. The top three are voted into the rankings. Three more are added from the larger pool. Those six are then discussed with three more voted in.
After the top nine teams are set in the rankings, the pool size switches to eight, and four get voted into the rankings at a time. There’s a total of seven rounds of voting to create the top 25.
There were several moments of disagreement among the group. We spent a lot of time debating Georgia and Pac-12 champion Oregon for the fifth and sixth spots.
We were also divided over what to do with 9-3 Auburn and 10-2 Alabama, which lost to the Tigers in the regular-season finale. Eventually, we decided the quality of Auburn’s schedule and wins, as well as the head-to-head result, was reason enough to vote it ahead of Alabama.
The mock committee had Notre Dame and Michigan, in order, right behind Bama despite the Wolverines trouncing the Fighting Irish during the season.
After the top 25 was complete, we went back and revisited some of our decisions, as the real committee does. Rethinks included whether No. 5 Georgia should be rated ahead of No. 6 Oregon. That decision was reaffirmed.
We also revisited whether Notre Dame should be ranked ahead of Auburn and Alabama. Eventually, we moved the Irish up past the Tide but not the Tigers. Then, we reexamined Michigan relative to Notre Dame and Alabama, moving UM past both of them but not Auburn.
Auburn’s spot was important because, at No. 11, got the last place in the New Year’s Six bowl games. Memphis was the highest ranked of our Group of Five champions and therefore an automatic qualifier. However, those Tigers finished outside the top 12, so the No. 12 Wolverines were left out.
The only team that made the New Year’s Six back in 2019 but did not in our vote was Utah, which was 11th in 2019 but voted 17th by the mock committee.
With the rankings complete, the next task was placing teams into bowl games. We used the 2021 bowl game structure for this exercise, meaning that the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl were the semifinal games.
There was an extensive debate over which was better for LSU: playing Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl — a stadium familiar to the Sooners and won they just visited for the Big 12 Championship Game — or the Orange Bowl, even though it would be a longer trip for both teams. We decided by a 7-5 vote to put LSU-Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and Ohio State-Clemson in the Cotton Bowl.
It was suggested that the committee ask teams in advance of the season which semifinal site they would prefer if selected as the No. 1 seed, like the basketball committee does. The CFP representatives in attendance seemed skeptical that would be well received.
Because we took part in a highly abbreviated version of this process, we were not able to explore some of the details the committee knows about, such as player availability, weather conditions, etc. Each conference has two committee members assigned to gather that kind of circumstantial information for the committee. No amount of circumstance wipes a loss off the board, though. A loss is still a loss.
The committee does not spend time concerning themselves with whether a team is from the Power Five or Group of Five. It’s not necessary anyway as it shows up when reviewing the quality of that team’s schedule. The only time that distinction matters is for the automatic qualifier spot for the highest-rated Group of Five champion.
That chosen Group of Five team also gets rotated among the non-contract bowls. The Cotton Bowl, Peach Bowl and Fiesta Bowl take turns hosting that team. This season, it’s the Fiesta Bowl’s turn. The only thing that would keep a Group of Five team out of that game is it making the playoff.
We also heard again that the AP Top 25 and Coaches Poll have no bearing on this process. They make it a specific point to ignore any poll that begins with a preseason ranking. The only poll discussed was the CFP Rankings from the week prior.
Something we’ve heard the committee chairman mention on TV the last few years is the concept of “game control” as a positive quality for a team. That’s a nebulous term, and when I asked about that, I was greeted with blank stares.
When I mentioned that it had been said during the CFP selection show a few times, I was assured that it is something that they do not measure or ever discuss. The use of the term on the show was deemed a “slip of the tongue.”
The structure of the process and many of the data concepts are similar to what the NCAA basketball selection committee uses, but there are a couple of differences.
For example, the CFP committee will sometimes consider how a team is playing at the end of the season. That does not mean that early games are ignored, just that recent play can be a tiebreaker. The basketball committee specifically forbids such considerations.
As the process concluded, the mock committee ended up with the same top seven and bottom seven as the real committee, and we got pretty good education on how this process works along the way.