LANSING, Mich. — Determining a champion in big-time college football has involved more polls, metrics, bowls and playoffs than all other sports combined over the years.
Controversy, it seems, is rooted in every system. The end appears nowhere in sight.
Six years into the current College Football Playoff system a four-team selection criteria has proven vague and inconsistent, leaving questions and controversy brewing. Concerns are pointed at a 13-member panel that includes sitting athletic directors and a cloaked voting process.
Indeed, former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer said there’s a reason he believed cold, hard numbers should be more heavily relied upon than human opinions in determining national championship playoff qualifiers.
It’s why he designed the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) the way he did leading into its application prior to the 1998 season.
“We were concerned with regionalism and the emotion,” Kramer said, explaining why the BCS relied on a pre-determined formula of computer rankings and polls rather than the veiled committee approach used by the current College Football Playoff.
“It’s very difficult to totally separate yourself.”
Kramer’s BCS history lesson
Kramer was arguably the most innovative and influential college football figure of the last century. He expanded the SEC into divisions in 1992 and forged a league championship game that has since been duplicated in every Power 5 conference.
Perhaps Kramer’s greatest feat, however, was unifying the college football championship with the BCS, the system employed from 1998 through 2014 that matched the top two teams in the rankings.
Kramer who convinced the Big Ten and Pac-12 to modify the tradition-laden Rose Bowl match of their respective conference champions for the greater good of college football.
Most feel the BCS sparked tremendous conversation and growth in college football. Fans flocked to the human polls and computer rankings each week, while programs scrambled to improve slates for the sake of the all-important schedule strength component.
The current College Football Playoff system in place, despite an expansion to four teams, has left room for skepticism and controversy with its lack of transparency and fluid variables.
ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit and SEC Network television show host Paul Finebaum were openly critical of the process last season, to the extent of asserting there were external factors affecting the judgement of committee members.
“You know what I’m loyal to? College football,” said Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback. “I want to see the four best teams get their chance because that’s what’s right and what’s fair.
“Politics, for the first time in five years, got the best of the committee”
SEC legends weigh in
Former Florida and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said he’s not a proponent of the current system.
“I certainly don’t like committees determining the champs,” Spurrier told DawgNation in an exclusive interview in July. “We’re the only sport in the world that still does that. (Saying) that will probably not get me on the committee ever, but that’s OK.”
CFP executive director Bill Hancock points to a recusal policy that prevents athletics directors from being in the room when their teams are discussed.
But those same athletic directors are part of discussions involving other teams that their programs may be competing directly with for a spot in the playoffs or on the recruiting trail.
Georgia found itself relying on athletic directors from rivals Florida and Georgia Tech as its playoff credentials were discussed last season.
Further, athletic directors from playoff contending schools Oklahoma and Ohio State were being counted on to make a case for Georgia — even though that would have been to the detriment of their very own programs.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said he had no questions about the athletic directors’ ability to check their hats at the door.
“We trust people to carry their responsibilities into a room,” Sankey told DawgNation at the SEC Spring Meetings in May. “I’m confident that the athletics directors on the playoff selection committee are fully capable and have done that very well.”
Former Auburn coach and athletic director Pat Dye isn’t so sure.
“Let’s be realistic, if you’ve got an Auburn guy on the board, he doesn’t want Alabama to win at anything, and he might say he’ll be fair and objective, but that’s stretching it,” said Dye, who coached Auburn football from 1981-1992 and served as athletic director from 1981 through 1991.
“Georgia Tech didn’t want Georgia in the playoffs, Florida didn’t want Georgia in the playoffs. I guarantee you, that’s their number one competitor.”
Kirby makes his case
Hancock said in a presentation at the SEC Media Days last month the current system has pleased everyone and no modifications are necessary.
“I want to emphasize that the conference commissioners and university presidents, who are my bosses, are pleased with the CFP,” Hancock said. “It works, and it works well.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart did not agree after the Bulldogs were left out after losing to then-No. 1 ranked Alabama, 35-28 loss.
Smart had lobbied after the game: “Do you want the four best teams in or not? (Alabama) sat at home last year and got to go in the playoffs … ”
Indeed, the 2017 Crimson Tide didn’t play in the SEC Championship Game, yet it was awarded a playoff spot.
The committee decided that year that winning the conference was not necessary to be deemed one of the “four best.”
Last season, however, Oklahoma won the Big 12 Championship Game and was deemed more deserving than Georgia as a matter of “protocol.”
“The committee did not believe that any one team was unequivocally better than the next,” CFP chairman Rob Mullens said. “That meant we went to our protocol.”
Smart pointed out the inconsistency.
“Every year it’s going to be different,” Smart said of the criteria the committee applies behind closed doors, the votes kept private. “Do I have clarity? I don’t think I have clarity.”
The CFP Committee made the case that it didn’t have clarity either, so it went with the conference champion.
“What we decided was amongst the group of three, Oklahoma, Georgia, Ohio State, the committee voted that no one was unequivocally better than the other,” chairman Rob Mullens said. “So then we leaned on the protocol. So we went with the one-loss conference champion.”
Being a conference champion didn’t matter in 2017.
Being a conference champion did matter in 2018.
The BCS, while somewhat more complicated, relied on public rankings and formulas that were based on wins, losses, strength of schedule and victory margins (to a point of diminishing returns).
Everyone knew the rules up front, subjectivity was at a minimum, and that’s the way Kramer wanted it.
“We were concerned to try to keep as much personality types of things out of it as we could,” Kramer explained. “Not looking at this team, or this school, because it has been good for 20 years, therefor they’ve got to be better than this team. That type of thing, so we tried to do it on a numerical formula.
“It was difficult to understand, and I understand the media had their concerns because of that, and so it was controversial,” Kramer said. “ But having said that, the committee is controversial as well, because somebody is going to get left out, and anytime you leave someone out, there’s controversy.”
Kramer praised the job the current committee has done, and he explained how he’s very aware of the difficulty and challenge of their selection process.
“I was the chairman of the (NCAA Tournament) basketball committee one year (1992), and we picked 64 teams,” Kramer recalled. “I never got so many bad phone calls, I think it was New Mexico State, because they were the 65th team.
“So you can imagine you’re going to have controversy when you’re just going with four.”
Many in college football believe the four-team playoff will soon be expanded to eight.
Scheduling models at several Power 5 programs have changed, with stronger non-conference opponents being added in anticipation of schedule strength playing a bigger role.
Both Spurrier and Dye are proponents of an eight-team playoff.
“Eight teams give you four more chances to be right,” Dye said. “With four teams, as strong as the SEC has been, someone needs to be able to get excited besides Alabama and Clemson.”
Kramer, who was inducted into what was at least his 12th hall of fame in Lansing in July, hopes the playoff field doesn’t grow.
“I hope we don’t expand it, because the heart of college football is the regular season, and I don’t want to see college football become like basketball where it all centers in March, and the rest of the season doesn’t really matter,” Kramer said.
“It’s tremendously important that the Michigan-Michigan State game still is a great spectacle, or the Auburn-Alabama game, or the Texas-Oklahoma game. That’s what the heart of college football is all about, and I don’t want to see us lose that by trying to placate by having more teams in the playoff.”