I don’t often find myself in agreement with Derek Dooley, but what can I say? When you’re right, you’re right. If the commissioners and presidents fail to fashion a selection committee (assuming that’s their choice, of course) the public finds credible, the new playoff format will be doomed from the start. By itself, locking a few wise men in a room with instructions not to emerge until they have four names isn’t going to cut it. So what will?
Well, to start with, there are certain essential truths that have to be recognized.
- A four-team playoff doesn’t end controversy over the postseason field. In fact, as Tony Barnhart acknowledges, it’s likely to fan the flames: “It won’t be less controversial. In fact, a four-team playoff will actually be MORE controversial once it is in place. Why? Because last season there was basically only one team (No. 3 Oklahoma State) that had a legitimate argument that it should have been in the top two. When we go to four teams, there will always be at least 3-4 teams that claim they were as good as No. 4. “ Worse, there will be years like 2005, when there was a clear consensus on the two best teams in the country and a four-team playoff will seem essentially superfluous – not that it’ll be cancelled – and thus, so will the fierce debate over which teams fill out the field.
- A selection committee is not going to be perceived as a friend of the little guy. As Andrea Adelson puts it, “… I fear for conferences like the Big East with a selection committee in charge. How do we know that the group of men charged with making the decisions are going to choose the best four teams while turning a blind eye to conference affiliation? Particularly when a league like the Big East has such a weak national perception.” Short answer: we don’t.
- Fans ain’t stupid. We’re really not. As Year2 says, don’t insult our intelligence by insisting that the process will be completely unbiased. It’s not humanly possible to do that. When you’re being successfully mocked by Derek Dooley, that ought to give you a clue there’s a problem.
So, if those are the obstacles to creating a selection process which results are validly perceived, how can college football surmount them? By making sure that no conflicts of interest exist – no coaches or athletic directors need apply, in other words – and that bias is minimized or “balanced”, as Year2 puts it, to the extent that the public can respect the results.
That starts with sunshine. Whatever standards are put in place to judge the field, they need to be both public and relatively easy to understand. For instance, if computers are to stay in the mix, whether as a standard which humans are to rely upon in making their decision or as a direct component in a formula that is used to compile team rankings, no more of this proprietary nonsense. Either commission a stat guru to run numbers based on a formula of college football’s own devising, or use something that has no hidden features.
As for the selection committee itself, what makes me nervous is that it appears to have been the source of compromise for the commissioners in coming up with the new playoff format. In that context, it’s a compromise in the worst sense of the word: Slive, Delany, Scott, et al. no doubt see the possibilities of structuring such an animal in ways which benefit each the most. Sharks don’t compromise out of a sense of the common good. They do it because they perceive an opportunity. How do we avoid giving them that?
Looking at Year2’s suggestions, there’s some good stuff. I like the idea of each voter keeping a public log of games watched, so we know they’re taking their responsibilities seriously. There are also ideas that I doubt college football is ready to adopt, like treating committee membership as a full-time paying job. And while having weekly grillings of committee members would make for good TV, no doubt, do we really want to put that kind of power into the hands of an ESPN? (Not that the WWL would object.) I also wonder if a 10-person group is big enough to balance out bias, especially if each conference names individual representatives to the committee.
I’d suggest a different direction. And if you know GTP, the home of the Mumme Poll, you know what I’m getting ready to suggest. Quite simply, college football ought to embrace approval voting. Instead of a small committee, put together a pool of 124 knowledgeable voters, balanced geographically and with varied backgrounds. After the sixth week of games are in the book, have them start casting weekly public ballots of their top ten teams (not in order!) along with game logs and any commentary about how they arrived at their decisions so that they can be vetted, not by ESPN, but by a bigger world.
I’m not suggesting it’s a perfect solution in and of itself, of course. But a pool that large in an approval vote setting makes it difficult for a single individual to manipulate the results and making the process open allows the press and the general public to watch for evidence of larger scale collusion or for individuals trying to pursue dubious agendas of their own. What I can say from our own experience operating the Mumme Poll for several seasons now is that approval voting is a useful tool in combating bias. And I’m sure there are smarter people than I am who can come up with ways to tweak the process to further strengthen its validity.
College football is unique. There’s no reason for it to follow another sport’s postseason selection process, even if it’s one with which there’s great familiarity by those who will fashion it. Do better than that, folks. We’d appreciate it.