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No one knows what the next few months will bring for the 13 members of the College Football Playoff selection committee.
They'll likely sacrifice sleep to devour film and analyze statistics. They'll talk to coaches and administrators around the game to expose themselves to a variety of opinions. Then they'll sit down to make what might be the most difficult decision in sports: choosing the four teams that will participate in the playoff.
They are scheduled to meet in person Mondays and Tuesdays for seven consecutive weeks beginning in late October to formulate the rankings. The final rankings and playoff matchups will be set Dec. 7.
The only folks who have any idea what this process is like are those who go through a similar one for basketball. Even they acknowledge they don't envy the football selection committee; choosing team No. 68 for the NCAA tournament is a whole lot different than telling the fifth-best football team in the country it can't compete for a national championship.
Even so, members of the Division I men's basketball committee can help illustrate the process of selecting and seeding -- and what those 13 College Football Playoff committee members are about to go through.
"It's something where I'm relying on the guy next to me to do his homework and he's relying on me," said Conference USA associate commissioner Judy MacLeod, a member of the men's basketball committee. "We know we're not curing cancer or doing something really important, but we also realize the responsibility to all these kids and coaches who have put in so much time, and administrators and fans, how important it is to them.
"It's a process -- I don't know if there's anything like it."
USA TODAY Sports spoke with six administrators who served on the NCAA Division I men's basketball committee last year to get their thoughts on the process, existing biases, the strength-of-schedule debate and advice they'd give College Football Playoff committee members.
They are: Scott Barnes, Utah State athletics director and 2014-15 committee chairman; Ron Wellman, Wake Forest athletics director and 2013-14 chairman; Michigan State athletics director Mark Hollis; MacLeod; Creighton athletics director Bruce Rasmussen; and Northeastern athletics director Peter Roby.
What's the best piece of advice you were given before you accepted your role on the committee?
Scott Barnes, Utah State: "There are a lot of hours. This is a low-paying job. Free ice cream and per diem. You've got to do it for the love of the sport and the love of college athletics. It is a lot of time. One former committee member spent some time trying to calculate the amount of time he'd spent in a five-year term -- the term of a committee member -- and said that he'd spent one year of his life dealing with all that we deal with. Really, the advice is: Lace 'em up tight and be ready to watch a lot of basketball. Be committed to serve. This is a daunting task."
Peter Roby, Northeastern: "Be prepared to have one of the best professional experiences of your life. You'll never have a better one. It's going to be awesome. They were getting me excited about what was to come, but they also said to prepare yourself and get a lot of rest going into it. Don't go into selection week fatigued, because it's a grind. ... You want to do justice to all the teams considered, and you want to be fresh, mentally as well as physically."
Judy MacLeod, Conference USA: "A former committee member told me, 'Don't be afraid to reach out to people across the country to get other people's views.' ... In the end, I have to be really comfortable with how I'm voting and I need to have seen a team. But I think it's good to reach out to people in all different parts of the country to see what they see and get different opinions."
Mark Hollis, Michigan State: "No matter what advice you're given, it's really a learn-as-you-go process, especially when you get to those most critical points of the process. ... I think the biggest difference between basketball and football is basketball you're picking 68 vs. 69. In football, you're picking four vs. five. The other side of it is you kind of have a gut check at 68-69 that it can be a career-changer, where four-five maybe isn't. Four and five are both very, very good teams. The unfortunate part of this business is that there are decisions made based on inclusion in the tournament, and that carries a lot of weight on individuals that serve on the committee."
Each individual on the committee approaches evaluating teams differently. How much do you personally rely on the eye test vs. the numbers/stats/advanced stats, or vice versa?
Barnes: "There's subjectivity right in what we do. We've got 10 committee members with 10 different perspectives. We all have access to the same toolbox, but we come at it a little differently. I'm a former college basketball player, and I played in the tournament. I think, probably, the eye test for me becomes a little more important or is more of an emphasis because I've played in the game. I bring that perspective. Not that it's better or worse; it's just different."
Ron Wellman, Wake Forest: "It is a balancing act. I'm probably a bit more on the quantitative side, looking at numbers to determine the best teams based upon their performance through the year, who they played, where they played and did they win or lose. If we look at just the qualitative and the eyeball test, you can catch them on a good or bad night. That can over-influence you. We still watch an awful lot of games, but in terms of what I emphasize and rely on, it's more the numbers than anything else."
MacLeod: "The data's really good, and you can get pretty much any type of data and analyze it any way. I try to use that as my baseline. But it's really important for me to see teams and see them more than once. One time makes it a little tough. With the number of games on TV, online, everything, you can go through and watch parts of games. For me to be really comfortable with my opinions, it's very important for me to see these teams."
Bruce Rasmussen, Creighton: "There are all kinds of statistics out there, but if you only went by statistics, then we don't need a committee -- just plug the information in and spit out the bracket. I think it's very important to watch games. You might see a game that ends up being a 20-point game that, with three minutes left, was a one-possession game. ... I just think it's important to watch as many games as you can and identify the key points in the game and see what happened at those times. I go by the eye test. Certainly you look at the statistics and metrics, but the metrics can be deceptive."
The committee has made a point to emphasize strength of schedule in recent years, particularly in regards to non-conference scheduling. You guys have punished teams for not scheduling tough and rewarded teams who challenged themselves. How important is strength of schedule to the selection/seeding process?
Rasmussen: "I call it 'intentional scheduling.' It's scheduling that you weren't forced to do but did intentionally. Obviously, in your conference, you play people and you don't have a choice. ... However, if you take the non-conference, you can see how serious people were about illustrating that they deserved to be considered for an at-large (bid) or that they deserved to be considered for a certain seed line by the way they intentionally scheduled. What did you do that you didn't have to do? Who did you play and what message are you sending to the committee?"
Roby: "If it's about purely how many games you won and you don't factor in where you played them and who you beat, it's not as fair as it needs to be. That's where I think strength of schedule is helpful. You want to see people went on the road and challenged themselves. That's something they can control. They can't control their conference schedule. Now, in many cases, conference schedules are getting even more difficult to sift through because they're unbalanced."
Wellman: "If you are talking about total strength of schedule, that's very important. Non-conference strength of schedule is a glimpse at fewer games, and that's important as well. I think we have to be very careful about overemphasizing that part of the schedule, because at the most it's 50% of the schedule -- at the very most. This year, the committee did a very good job of not only looking at the numerical ranking of the non-conference strength of schedule but also what they were attempting to do. There were a number of schools that attempted to schedule strong non-conference schedules but for whatever reason some of those opponents did not play as well and did not have as good a year as they anticipated."
There are built-in checks and balances, like the recusal policy, but everyone does join the committee with existing biases/relationships with coaches and institutions. How do you guys prevent or maybe cancel out those existing biases and make sure you're selecting/seeding the best field possible?
Barnes: "Yes, human nature -- there would be certain biases because of your background and your perspective. But the integrity, the open dialogue, the trust that the committee members have with each other I think mitigates that completely. Certainly, if you're a commissioner of Conference X and we're talking about your teams, you leave the room. If you're athletic director of University Y, you leave the room. There are functional sorts of checks and balances, but it starts with the character and the professionalism of the people in the room."
Wellman: "We're continually reminded that we're not representing a school or conference. That's a point of conversation regularly in the conference room. We're asked individually to check our allegiance at the door. If someone gets a little off track, they're quickly put back on track by another committee member."
How do you handle the reaction/criticism/backlash to your selection and seeding? Do you ever hear from the fan bases that feel snubbed?
Barnes: "We'll get random letters from across the country that are sometimes e-mailed or written to all committee members. (Laughs.) Some of them are very graphic. Very graphic."
MacLeod: "The weirdest thing was, this year, when we were done I was able to get a flight out that night. I get to the airport, and the (selection) show is on. And I walk into the restaurant where it's on, and I'm listening to all the comments. The people don't know you serve on the committee, and you aren't going to tell them."
In many ways, this is apples to oranges, but what advice would you give a member of the inaugural College Football Playoff selection committee before the season starts?
Hollis: "Doing one to four is difficult enough, but how are you going to tell that fifth team that it's not as good as the fourth team? They're going to have to come up with eyeball and quantifiable measurements that are going to be able to distinguish that and keep the confidence of the institutions and conferences in play. ... Knowing how tough 68 to 69 is, I know four to five is going to be a really tough decision."
Barnes: "Put the work in. Obviously with the playoff there are fewer teams in the field and fewer teams to watch. It is a different circumstance, and the metrics are different because of that. But at the end of the day, you're trying to make the most informed decision you can. To do that, you've got to watch games and study and look at the metrics to help make decisions. The more time you put into those efforts, the better the results."
Wellman: "Stay up with the work throughout the season. Don't think you can catch up at the end of the season or the last few weeks. From the opening game to the end of the conference championships, stay abreast of everything that's happening. The selection process will be much more comfortable, because those committee members will be much more knowledgeable."
Roby: "You can't let the outside influences impact the decisions that you make -- the teams, the players and the coaches and their fans have put too much time and effort into this. They deserve as open-minded and unbiased a decision-making process as possible. Know that it's never going to be perfect. People are never going to be satisfied, because the fifth team that doesn't make it is always going to be wishing it had. That's the nature of it. Be open-minded to feedback if it's in the best interest of the game of football and the process."
College Football Playoff Selection Committee
Chairman: Jeff Long, Arkansas athletics director
USAF Lt. Gen. Michael Gould