GRAPEVINE, Texas — On Halloween, a dozen of the most important people in college football will make their weekly trek to the sprawling Gaylord Texan Resort.
They'll walk past the indoor fountain, miniature train set and giant cowboy boots to a set of meeting rooms that are easy to miss. This is where the College Football Playoff selection committee will pick the four teams with a shot at coming to Tampa for the Jan. 9 national championship game.
Playoff organizers opened their doors to me and 11 other reporters last week for a mock selection. We opened the committee's CFP-branded laptops, sat in their chairs, studied their data and followed their protocols to come up with our own final four.
Although we used teams and information from the 2010 season, the principles and lessons apply to this year's field and which teams might appear at Raymond James Stadium.
Here's what I learned:
The process is complex: We used a series of votes to trim that year's teams from 120 to 38 to six. We ranked our top three then voted on another trio to add to those three leftovers. We ranked teams 4-5-6 and repeated the process until we had our top 25. We voted to rerank certain sections but let others slide with little discussion. Our process lasted about five hours and took at least 15 rounds of votes; the real committee takes a day and a half, every week.
This is a serious job: As the stand-in for committee member and Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, I couldn't vote for the Ducks. The staff even logged me out of my computer so I couldn't rank teams that would affect whom Oregon (our No. 2 team, behind Auburn) might face in the playoff. The work extends beyond the weekly meetings. Chair Kirby Hocutt, Texas Tech's athletic director, said he watches 15-18 games per week to prepare. The committee also has unlimited access to mounds of statistics and advanced metrics to peruse on their own.
Conference affiliation isn't as important as you think: We never really discussed the SEC or which league (or leagues) to leave out of the final four. Instead, we judged each team on its own merits. It sounds cliche, but it's true. When you're looking at a screen full of data, you focus on each team's opponents, performances and metrics, not its conference. The voting process helps minimize leagues, too, because each round spotlights only a small slice of teams, so it's hard to think about the big picture.
Scheduling matters: The top criteria (aside from a conference championship) was whom a team played and whom it beat. Wins over teams with winning records were pivotal. We also looked at relative statistics to see how a team's performances compared to every team its opponents faced.
Head-to-head wins matter … except when they don't: Our toughest call was which of the one-loss Big Ten tri-champions to rank highest: Michigan State, Wisconsin or Ohio State. Even though the Spartans beat Wisconsin, they didn't have a strong enough resume to crack our top six. Ohio State and Wisconsin, however, did. We put the Badgers third, in front of the Buckeyes because of a head-to-head win.
Houston probably can't sneak in: The 2010 equivalents of the Cougars were TCU (which finished 12-0 with two mediocre Power Five wins) and Boise State (which finished 11-1 and beat ACC champ Virginia Tech). The Horned Frogs made the playoff as our No. 4 seed; Boise State did not. Despite throttling their competition and earning one big win, the Broncos just didn't have the resume to compare to one-loss teams from major conferences. Given a schedule ranked No. 86 nationally, a one-loss Cougars team likely will suffer the same fate this season.
Louisville IS still alive: The 2010 versions were Ohio State and Stanford — one-loss teams that we considered No. 2 in their conferences. They finished fifth and sixth overall, respectively, and only TCU's perfect record kept one from the playoff. But the Buckeyes and Cardinal got some help, too. The ACC (Virginia Tech) and Big 12 (Oklahoma) had 11-2 conference champions that weren't worthy of final four consideration. Louisville might need similar chaos from other leagues this season to contend for the playoff — and a trip to Tampa.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.