College fans rejoiced en masse as BCS Commissioner Bill Hancock made it clear that the status quo will not be the way to go for the future of college football. It seems a plus-one or four-team playoff is going to be the next great step for college football.
The issue now is how to handle the process. Yesterday, we discussed sites; the pros and cons of neutral site games. Today, with the idea of a selection committee being tossed about, we'll look at how a selection committee should work to decide who plays in the college football postseason.
If the sport is going to pit four teams against one another, the biggest decision has to be how those four teams are decided upon. One of the methods that has been bandied about is the use of a selection committee to pick the participants. From Mike Slive, the commissioner of the SEC (via ESPN):
"I think (a committee) is worth looking at," Slive said. "I think in the final analysis, we need to look at the entire process. That's a matter that applies to any format."
A selection committee, as in the way the NCAA basketball tournament, handles its selection and seeding of the 68-team field. It is a novel idea, especially since it has worked fairly well for basketball over the years. Certainly people quibble over teams left out or fuss over seeding, but in the end, the committee gets the best teams in and they play for a shot at the championship.
The problem here is a simple; football is not basketball. The selection committee will not be arguing over who is the first team to get left out; they will be deciding between the fourth and fifth team in regards to who gets a chance to take the field for a title shot.
To make that more real for fans; we're talking about a committee deciding between a one-loss Stanford team and a two-loss Oregon team that beat Stanford for that final spot. That's not an easy choice to make, and situations like that will put the committee in an unenviable position.
That said, college football should not fret over the pressure of the job; rather the issue that comes to mind is the difficulty of the actual task itself. Deciding which four or five teams are the final at-large squads into the tournament really is not that big of a deal. Chances are none of those teams are going to win more than a game or two, most likely they'll be on a plane home after their first tournament game. With football, you're splitting hairs between teams that are all extremely good.
College football, at season's end, is not a sport that lends itself to purely using raw data, such as RPI, to determine which teams are the best of the best. There are not as many inter-conference matchups to draw reliable conclusions. There is a lot more to determining a team's quality than statistical matrices.
In 2009 a selection committee would have been looking at TCU, Florida and Cincinnati to determine which of those three deserved to fill the last two spots. TCU and Cincinnati were statistically superior, but Florida proved that Cincinnati was not in its league in the Sugar Bowl.
2008 would have been a problem for the committee as well with two undefeated teams and seven one-loss teams. The Texas-Oklahoma-Texas Tech situation, by itself, would make for a serious problem. Asking a group of guys to get together at the end of the season to pull the trigger on these decisions is a monumental task.
However, the selection committee, if done right, is not a bad idea. Football does require observation, in addition to the data, in order to answer the question of which team is better, even if that "better" is by mere marginal increments. Final scores, box scores, strength of schedule and conference strength do nothing to actually tell you how good a football team is on their own. They can give you an idea, but film and observation are the only toosl that lend themselves to legitimate evaluation of a team.
With that in mind, there is a way that a selection committee can work for college football and the four-team playoff. To begin, the committee has to be made up of "football guys." Men who understand the nuance of the game, who understand film evaluation and who know what they are looking at as they watch film of teams. When you get football guys together, they can arrive at a consensus as to why they will go with Oregon over Stanford, and not just because the Ducks beat the Cardinals during the season.
Another major tenant required for this system to be successful is the extension of the committee meetings. They need more discussion, more time to evaluate film and more of an opportunity to determine where teams fit in the college football world. This extension is not about more time at the end of the season.
The extension in the committee's time is about in-season evaluation. College football is a fluid monster; teams get better and teams get worse. Players emerge and players disappear. Offenses grow, defenses shrink away. The committee needs the season to actively rank teams on a week-by-week basis based upon on the field results.
The committee will work best if the members are actively working throughout the season to slot teams, see their growth and evaluate whether a team is a one-trick pony or a well-constructed football machine.
Another must for the system's sake, in addition to this extended ranking and re-ranking teams, would be a modicum of transparency. Whether the weekly results were revealed as a press release or a teleconference; coaches, players, athletic directors and fans would know where they stood. No shock at the end of the season when a team is left out, regardless of their spot in the AP or other publicized poll.
The committee is a big undertaking, a job that would be far more scrutinized than the NCAA basketball tournament selection committee's task. They would not be squabbling over which middle-tier team gets to lose their first-round game; they would be battling over the best of the best.
For this plan to work, there must be football-savvy members conducting constant reconfiguration and constant evaluation system with transparency. Without those measures the selection committee will soon become the bad guy, much in the same way the BCS rankings earned the moniker.