Zemek: It's all about the committee

Posted Jun 21, 2012

The new playoff idea is all about the committee and its focus

Now that the power brokers of college football have formally moved the sport one step closer to a "best-four-teams" playoff, it's time to focus on the selection committee that will likely be used to choose the pigskin version of a final four.

Simply stated, a selection committee – a good idea in theory, one that's been supported in this space over the years – now needs to be given some teeth. A committee won't mean much if it isn't given adequate resources and powers. Let's briefly explain:

Yes, it's true that on a certain level, this playoff merely shifts the goalposts to an extent: The debate that will consume the college football world will not be "two or three?" but "four or five?" The NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee focuses on "68 or 69?" on the second Sunday of March.
It's quite obvious that: A) picking a top four maintains a focus on top-tier teams, whereas the selection of teams 65 through 68 in basketball involves sifting through decidedly mediocre resumes; B) the money and prestige involved in football, the cash cow of collegiate athletics, ought to create a system that is formed correctly, especially to the extent that it comes equipped with the components that will enable a selection committee to be genuinely useful. If the sport doesn't get serious about substantial holistic reforms, the selection committee will merely become a collection of warm bodies who will take the sport through a hollow process bereft of appreciable integrity, transparency and value.

There are two absolutely (non-negotiable) essential requirements for any selection committee in college football: 1) The committee must be empowered to make specific requests of various teams; 2) when the committee makes said requests of teams, the nature of scheduling in the sport needs to give those teams the ability to fulfill the committee's wishes. These two ideas are not that hard to explain or understand.

The selection committee must make (and be encouraged to make) specific requests of various teams. The NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee doesn't always select the right teams (it usually whiffs on one or two each season, but out of 68, that's not bad), but it has gotten a lot better in recent years in terms of telling teams what they need to do. The message has been clear that college basketball teams need to play quality opponents, especially in road-neutral games, in the non-conference portion of the season (November and December). Selections of bubble teams have gradually been aligned with this request, making it very hard for schools (and coaches) to claim that they weren't given a roadmap to inclusion in the NCAA tournament.

It should be no different for football. There's really no reason to not give any team a roadmap to the final four on the gridiron.

We can debate exactly where the bar should be set, but a team like Boise State (or any team outside the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and ACC when 2014 arrives) should be told before each season: "You must play three top-25 teams in your out-of-conference schedule if you want to be seriously considered for inclusion." A power-conference team should be told that it must play two top-20 teams in its non-conference schedule, one at home and one on the road. Without explicit criteria and objective standards, a selection committee won't be able to make clear choices between or among teams who have tested themselves against a wide range of quality opponents. If teams aren't forced to schedule tough foes, this whole exercise will be almost entirely pointless, the only positive element being that teams must win their way into a national title game.

And then there's the weighty and influential matter of scheduling. College football's power brokers and plenty of its thoughtful mainstream writers do not yet grasp the need to create regular-season schedules that make the playoff selection process agreeable for all parties. In college football's current climate, it's true that teams need to schedule tough opponents, but there are always two impediments to a high strength-of-schedule rating even when schools make a good-faith effort: 1) Teams that are expected to win 11 games (Florida State and Notre Dame) win only seven regular-season games instead. 2) Within conferences, teams can avoid tough opponents in schedule rotations – see Georgia and South Carolina last year in the SEC, and recall that Ohio State and Iowa never played each other in the 2002 Big Ten season.

College football has to confront these limitations, and the only real way to effectively deal with them is to introduce flex-scheduled non-conference games played in November. Just a little bit of thought will lead you to this inescapable conclusion.

Boise State thought it was scheduling a strong opponent when it placed Oregon State on its 2010 slate. Oregon State was one win from the Rose Bowl in 2008 but lost to Oregon in the regular-season finale. At any rate, Boise State thought it was playing a high-grade opponent when it scheduled that game, but Oregon State stumbled in 2010, missing a bowl game. Boise State's schedule received the typical avalanche of criticism from the public, but it actually stuck its neck out at the time the schedule was made. College football can deal with this kind of problem by making teams play all their conference games in the first nine to ten weeks of the season and then setting aside the final two weeks for TV-friendly (you know that FOX and other networks would be willing to pay top dollar for these games, of course…) non-conference clashes involving proven schools.

In September, you don't know what you're getting; in November, you don't ALWAYS know what you're getting, but you usually do. If teams do not have to commit to certain opponents and can then wait until November to choose from (let's say) five or six opponents of comparable credentials and quality, college football will enable its non-conference regular-season schedule to do the work of separating pretenders from contenders. That's what every college football fan should want, right? The upholding of "the sanctity of the regular season" above everything else. You get there with flexed scheduling, so that teams don't beat opponents that look good on paper but then drag down a strength-of-schedule rating when they spectacularly underperform. You also get there with November dates for these flexed games, because proven teams are known at that point in time (not in September).

So it is that a selection committee will quite likely become a part of the new world of college football. That's nice. It won't mean anything, though, unless and until regular-season non-conference scheduling is given the attention – and the reformation – it desperately needs.