Picking the Playoff Field

  • By John Antonik
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  • December 02, 2012 09:36 AM
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West Virginia University’s Oliver Luck was one of 11 athletic directors from across the country asked by Sports Illustrated to take part in a mock selection committee to pick a four-team college football playoff field for this year.

The exercise took place last week and the conference call, facilitated by longtime NCAA men’s basketball tournament executive Greg Shaheen, lasted about two and a half hours and gave everyone involved a unique perspective of the issues that the actual committee will be facing.

“Sports Illustrated, I thought, had a clever idea and they said let’s pretend that the new playoff system is in place this year and how would it work out?” said Luck. “What are the issues that this new system will face? Obviously, they focused on the selection (process).”

According to Luck, there are many, many issues that the actual committee will have to deal with and the solutions to them will not be simple.

“With football there are fewer data points,” Luck explained. “You only play 12 games and in basketball you have 30 or 35 games now, so there are fewer pieces of evidence that you can look at in football.”

The committee discussed such things as does a victory in November mean more than in September or October? Did team X suffer a key injury early in the season and that player has since returned? The group looked at strength of schedule, home and road victories, comparative scores and so forth.

“One of the dangerous things, because there are so few data points, is you almost automatically look at margin of victory or defeat, which can lead to lots of unintended consequences,” said Luck. “You’ve got one team that thinks they have to run it up on another team, but you tend to look at, OK, Oregon lost to Stanford, 17-14 - tight game in Eugene, a home game. Was it raining? Was it sloppy? And then Kansas State goes down to Baylor and loses by a bunch.

“As with human nature, you start to look at the comparative system. Where was your loss? Was it at home or on the road? At what point of the year was it? Were there any mitigating circumstances? How bad was the loss? How good was the loss? Even though there might be a big point differential, we looked at how that loss took place. A guy can throw a pick-six and that could mean a 14-point swing.”

Because there has been a lot of criticism in the past with the current BCS system relying so heavily on computers, Lucks believes there will be more reliance on the human element when the football committee is eventually created.

“I think people thought there was too little human involvement in the previous BCS system and they thought it would be worthwhile to bring back the human element. And I think with this committee, we will be begin to see that, but there will still be a balance (between humans and computer data),” Luck said.

As for the actual process of determining the top four for a playoff, Luck said the first objective of the group was to determine the top two teams. From there, they went down the list to evaluate the rest of the potential field.

“The question wasn’t: who is our top four? The question is: who is our top two? Is there any argument about the top two? Let’s talk about the top two. Everybody agreed that Notre Dame was unbeaten and deserved to be No. 1 and then we go to the next two. After that, you go to five and six and have a debate about four versus No. 5 and No. 6. Those are the lessons they’ve learned over the many years of the selection process in basketball, and I think it’s helpful (to this process).”

Intuitively, one would think that picking just four teams is a much easier process than selecting a 68-team NCAA basketball tournament field, but Luck said the opposite actually occurred. That’s because teams five, six and beyond could legitimately win a national football championship. Teams 69, 70 and so forth in a basketball tournament have almost no chance of winning the tournament.

“You get a team like Stanford who might be playing the best football of anybody right now and they happen to lose a heartbreaker to Notre Dame that could have gone either way, and they also lost to (Washington),” Luck reasoned. “But they are playing great right now, they’ve changed quarterbacks, and if Stanford was five they may have a good argument because they could probably win the championship if they got into the thing. At the end of the day, we all recognize that the stakes are pretty high with this.”

Luck agreed to sign up for this exercise so he could get a better idea how the process will eventually work in football, but also how the process currently works in other sports as well.

“Talking to (Ohio State athletic director) Gene Smith, who has chaired the NCAA men’s basketball committee, I got some great insight into how the conversations take place, how the process works and that will certainly help me as I look at our program as we get years three, four and five into the Big 12,” Luck said. “What should we be doing scheduling wise? What is going to matter to the committee like this? Hopefully, we are in a situation where we are being discussed.”

Luck also came out of the exercise impressed with the objectivity from the individual committee members.

“Nobody was lobbying for their particular school or a school from their conference,” Luck said. “Everybody was pretty straight forward and pretty upfront and honest. That was very positive and very professional. They all recognized in a very objective way the strengths and the weaknesses of their respective schools in their conference.”

Luck said all 11 participants were in agreement of one thing – whoever is on the committee is going to have a very, very difficult task ahead of them.

“Whoever five is, or six or seven, they are going to be upset and I’m not sure anyone who was on the call really wants to be on the committee because there is an enormous amount of pressure,” said Luck. “It’s one thing to have No. 69 and No. 70 mad at you, but what are the chances of No. 69 or No. 70 winning the tournament? Number five or six could win a college football playoff.”

Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.


Oliver Luck, West Virginia University Mountaineers, WVU, NCAA football

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