Four critical questions that will determine the 2014 CFB Playoff

In his debut, Stewart Mandel outlines the four key questions the college football playoff committee will wrestle with during their first crack at the new system.

It's a new era in college football, and with it comes a slew of new questions.

Athlon, Lindy’s, Phil Steele and other magazines have already hit newsstands with their preseason Top 25s. The AP and USA Today polls will follow next month.

But in 2014, for the first time ever, the only rankings that truly matter will be those of the 13 men and women serving on the inaugural College Football Playoff selection committee.

The committee will meet in person every Monday and Tuesday beginning the last week of October to compile their own Top 25 rankings. Come the last weekend of the season, they’ll use those rankings to determine the participants in the Jan. 1 semifinal matchups at the Rose and Sugar bowls as well as the Orange, Fiesta, Cotton and Peach bowl pairings.

The committee’s official charge is to “select and seed the best four teams for the playoff,” which Arkansas AD and committee chairman Jeff Long reinforced in response to a reporter’s question at last April’s playoff meetings in Dallas. “Our focus is the best,” he said, “not the most deserving.”

That quote elicited groans from an already skeptical public, much of which was hoping the new system might be less subjective than the frequently maddening BCS. If anything it’s the opposite, now that there’s no computer component to the official standings.

But the committee has established a set of guidelines that do include several defined criteria. “Among the many factors the committee will consider are win-loss record, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, comparison of results against common opponents and conference championships,” says the CFP’s official website.

I recently interviewed several committee members for my upcoming book The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff about some of the key questions they’ll face in their unprecedented task. They are as follows:

How do you determine strength of schedule?

They’ve yet to actually begin their work, but the committee is already having an impact on scheduling across the country. Teams like Wisconsin, which opens this season against LSU, have amped up their non-conference opponents in anticipation of the new system’s emphasis on schedule strength. The ACC and SEC have decreed that members must face at least one power-conference foe annually.

The committee won’t employ an overriding metric, like the RPI in basketball, to measure this component. It’s up to each individual member how to interpret a team’s schedule.

For example, Ohio State took considerable flak for its 2013 schedule, which included 1-11 Cal. Well, the schools scheduled that game way back in 2002, when the Bears were a rising team under then-coach Jeff Tedford. The Buckeyes also took a hit when Vanderbilt, which wound up 9-4 last season, canceled its scheduled visit less than a year in advance. Will the six current or former ADs on the committee – who know well the perils of advance scheduling – take those circumstances into consideration?

“I think a lot of it is your intent to play a strong schedule in your non-conference,” said Wisconsin AD and committee member Barry Alvarez. “… It’s pretty easy for me to take a look at a schedule and see what the intent of the schedule is.”

That’s one approach. Some of his colleagues may have another.

“We just have to say, ‘Listen, it doesn’t matter how they got on your schedule -- it’s on the schedule,’” said committee member Oliver Luck, West Virginia’s AD. “It is what it is. We have to take ‘em as they come. …

“The other thing that gets a little overlooked: some teams are playing six home games, others are playing eight. That’s something we have to factor in.”

Conference schedules aren’t necessarily clear-cut, either. The advent of 14-team leagues like the ACC, SEC and, beginning this season, the Big Ten, creates imbalances even within the same league.

Case in point: In 2013, Alabama’s two crossover opponents from the SEC East were that division’s sixth- and seventh-place teams -- 5-7 Tennessee and 2-10 Kentucky. It missed ranked teams Missouri, South Carolina and Georgia. Conversely, the Vols faced all of those foes plus SEC West co-leaders Auburn and Alabama, No. 2 and 3, respectively, in the final BCS standings.

Committee member and longtime former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese faced much the same issue while serving on the NCAA basketball committee.

“Someone can say this conference is the second-toughest conference in the country. That doesn’t mean anything to me,” said Tranghese. “It’s who you played.”

How much emphasis do you place on conference championships?

Back in 2012, as the conference commissioners haggled over details of the then nascent playoff, a few, like the Pac-12’s Larry Scott, believed the field should be limited to teams that won their conference. The SEC’s Mike Slive, whose league had just placed two teams, LSU and Alabama, in the BCS title game, led the charge against it. Their compromise was to place no restrictions on the participants but instruct the committee to use conference championships as a de facto tiebreaker between two similar teams.

Still, there figure to be instances where one conference boasts two or more of the four “best” teams. There may even be circumstances where a particular league’s champion isn’t considered the best team in its own conference.

“I firmly believe winning your conference is important,” said Luck. “I can’t tell you where that factors into the greater characteristics. But you can have a great team that’s not a conference champion. Oregon could be unbeaten but lose to a 7-5 Arizona State team in a driving rainstorm [in the conference championship game], but that’s a really good 12-1 team that probably should be in there.”

Conference championships could be another factor that varies in importance from one member to another.

“Winning the conference championship is an important criteria, but there’s going to be lots of other nuances,” said USC AD and committee member Pat Haden. “Sometimes conferences have a boatload of very competent teams, like the Big Ten last year with [12-1] Ohio State and [12-1] Michigan State.”

The 11-1 Spartans beat the 12-0 Buckeyes in their conference title game, providing an easy tiebreaker. But clearly one possible departure from BCS is the possibility that a team could lose its conference title game and still play for the national title.

What analytics will you employ?

Besides won-loss record and scores of games, fans and media have traditionally looked at stats like total offense and total defense to evaluate teams. Today, however, advanced statisticians generally agree that most traditional box score numbers are outdated.

The committee is aware of that, too.

CFP organizers enlisted the company SportSource Analytics to make available to members a cloud-based database of more than 100 opponent-adjusted statistical rankings as well as various comparative analysis tools. “It’s above arithmetic but below calculus,” SportSource co-founder Stephen Prather said of the platform. “It’s ridiculous the amount of information they’ll have.”    

Multiple committee members mentioned a study the company performed for them last spring. It ran the numbers for every BCS top four team since 2005 across more than 40 categories and identified those in which the playoff-caliber teams most frequently finished in the Top 10. Prather said efficiency stats like points per possession proved to have strong correlation; turnover margin, among others, did not.  

“What I’m going to focus on is those categories that historically have proven to be a common thread of championship teams,” said Luck.

How much weight should the ‘eye test’ carry?

Lest you think the committee will solely hole up in a conference room and pore over data, the members are expected to watch the actual games. To help them do so, CFP organizers outfitted each member with an iPad. Within hours of a game ending they’ll have access to both the archived TV broadcast as well as coaches’ film cutups provided by scouting service DragonFly.

“My Sundays are going to be entirely devoted to this process,” said Haden.

Many fans get understandably skittish about such inherently subjective evaluations, but the committee has no shortage of former coaches -- like Alvarez, Tom Osborne and Tyrone Willingham -- who once scouted teams for a living.  

“Having broken down film, I think I know a little bit about football and what constitutes a good team,” said four-time Rose Bowl coach Alvarez. “… I really look forward to studying other conferences and teams. I know the Big Ten well. I look forward to studying others.”

Along those lines, while committee members are prohibited from votes involving their current employer, they’re free to share input about other teams from their respective conferences.

“I think it makes a lot of sense to ask Barry Alvarez, ‘Hey, you guys played Michigan last week, tell us what you think. Tell us what your coaches said,’” said Luck. “I think it’s an asset to listen to Pat Haden talk about a Pac-12 team.”

All that being said, we won’t get a true window into the committee’s process until they release their first rankings Oct. 28. And no matter how thorough their analysis, there still may not be a clear-cut answer most years as to which one-loss team should be fourth and which should be sixth.

“The stakes are really high,” said Tranghese. “We’ll go through the first year and evaluate week to week. We can make a mistake at the beginning, but we can’t make it at the end.”

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for Before joining FOX Sports, he covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” will be released in August. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel.

Send feedback on our
new story page