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Getting inside the college football playoff system

Getting inside the college football playoff system
USC Athletic Director Pat Haden will skip the College Football Playoff meeting in Indianapolis because of the new Indiana law that has been called anti-gay. USC football Coach Steve Sarkisian and players support Haden's decision. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

All I can say after spending a day in Texas portraying USC Athletic Director Pat Haden is: "Fight on! We [retroactively] did it!"

Exhuming positive USC news from 2008 was not in the plan upon being granted a one-day membership on the College Football Playoff selection committee.

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The folks running the playoff recently invited selected media members to participate in a mock selection for the new four-team playoff. The real committee convenes early next week near Dallas in advance of the first top-25 release Oct. 28. It will then put out rankings on five subsequent Tuesdays before a final rendering Dec. 7.

The panel will choose four teams for a playoff that will end with a title game Jan. 12 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The semifinals this season are the Rose and Sugar Bowls. The committee will also select the teams to play in the four other major bowls.

I now know exactly how they will blow it … I mean do it.

The mock committee members were lodged in the same Gaylord Texan Hotel that will be used by the real committee. We drank from the same open bar and elbowed at the scrumptious buffet from which the real Tom Osborne can spoon-to-plate chicken fajitas and bread pudding. (Mock Pat Haden enjoyed seconds.)

We occupied the same boardroom committee members will use to make this season's most important college football decisions. We received a three-ringed binder for this three-ring circus, which was stuffed with procedures, protocols and more statistical information than some of us wanted.

Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long, chairman of the playoff committee, flew in from Fayetteville to monitor the mock selection, which began at 8:15 a.m. Oct. 9 with an invocation from Executive Director Bill Hancock: "You are now an official committee member."

We each took on the identity of a member of the 13-person panel — since reduced to 12 after Archie Manning's withdrawal because of a health issue.

Like Olivier as Hamlet, I was destined to play Haden and was seated to the left of Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, played by Jerry Palm of CBS Sports. Across the table to my left sat Condoleezza Rice, played by ESPN's Heather Dinich.

I lobbied for Haden's name plate after hearing we were mocking 2008, the season USC finished fifth behind Alabama in the final Bowl Championship Series standings.

Choosing No. 4 is going to be the flash point in the new system, and the reflection of 2008 included Pac-12 champion USC losing out to an Alabama team that lost to Florida in the Southeastern Conference title game.

As Haden, I was ready to proclaim to Trojans Nation: "We got robbed again, just like we did like by that last [NCAA Infractions] committee."

Protocol prohibited me from being in the room while USC was being discussed. The rule was loosened, though, so I could at least see how the Trojans were going to get worked over by this East Coast cartel.

I was astonished when my colleagues, some with Southern accents, picked USC over Alabama. This wasn't a mock selection, it was a Pac-12 fantasy league. (In hindsight, it was impossible for us to ignore what actually happened in 2008, when USC soundly defeated Penn State in the Rose Bowl and Utah shocked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.)

Our final four was Florida, Oklahoma, Texas and USC. Penn State was fifth, followed by Alabama. (Note: Florida defeated Oklahoma for the BCS title that year.)

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Using college football's new model we slotted No.1 Florida and No. 4 USC in the Sugar Bowl semifinal and No. 2 Oklahoma against No. 3 Texas in the Rose Bowl semifinal.

We were told the real committee also generated a different final four when it used 2008 in a trial exercise. They wouldn't tell us how it turned out, but my sense was that USC did not make that cut,

Hancock said we impersonators had a far better recollection of that season. "You guys got after each other a lot more than the committee did," he said

The selection process is fascinating, thorough and complex. It started with each of us submitting 25 teams — other than our own — to create a starting-point pool of 34.

It was frustrating, as Haden, not being able to present USC's side of the 2008 season, which was derailed only by an early Thursday night loss at Oregon State.

The 2008 season was picked because it was so interesting. There were eight major teams with one loss and a three-way tie in the Big 12 South Division that was decided by which team was ranked highest in the final BCS standings. (Oklahoma had received the nod even though it lost to Texas.)

There was the Alabama-or-USC choice for No. 4 and three teams — Utah, Boise State and Texas Christian — from non-automatic-qualifier conferences — in the top 11 of the final BCS standings.

The first top six came out randomly: Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, Penn State, USC and Texas.

Mock Haden worked a crossword puzzle and wondered what LenDale White was up to as the committee selected a top three: Florida, Oklahoma and Texas, with USC, Alabama and Penn State moving to a "holdover" pool.

This "scrubbing" procedure is designed to put emphasis on the critical No. 4 decision.

I learned while sipping coffee from a Tommy Trojan mug that any three members (except me) could at any time call for a revote.

There was a long discussion about Utah, which finished undefeated and No. 6 in the final BCS standings, getting left out. With a computer click, we could access statistical analysis on every team under consideration.

The committee was then asked to pick three more teams to join holdovers USC, Alabama and Penn State. Joining the list were Boise State, Texas Tech and Utah.

When those teams were put in order, USC topped the list and essentially became the fourth and final playoff team.

During a break, it was decided each member should describe what should matter most in picking the best teams, and "Pat Haden" was ready to chime in.

In the official College Football Playoff protocol, members are told they should heavily weigh conference championships in a process that "distinguishes among otherwise comparable teams."

Knowing USC won its conference in 2008 and Alabama did not, mock Haden took his best lobbying shot: "If you're going to write into mission statements that conference championships are important, you have to consider that."

The committee voted three times, and USC held No. 4 each time. The only change was Big Ten champion Penn State taking the fifth spot away from Alabama.

Once the first four was decided, we ranked the rest of the top 25 in order to fill the other bowl spots.

Haden was allowed to rejoin the process once USC's case was closed.

The remaining teams from our original 34 were "scrubbed" in small groups. We considered six at a time and then voted for a top three. After the top 10, we ranked eight to pick four until we reached 25.

There was intense discussion about having a credible top 25 so as to not undermine our playoff choices. We spoke as media members who knew the real committee would be attacked — by us — if there were glaring anomalies.

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If you can't trust the bottom, we said, how can you trust the top? At one point, we called for a "sanity check" of our top 25 and decided we had No. 22 California ranked too far below No. 17 Oregon and No. 20 Michigan State, teams the Bears defeated that season.

We were fine with Oregon over Cal because the Ducks had a better record (9-3 vs. 8-4) and finished higher in the Pac-12 standings. But we wanted to move Cal closer to Oregon and ahead of Michigan State.

Committee chairman Long allowed us to revote and reorganize, so we put Cal at No. 20, followed by Michigan State and Mississippi.

We were fine with our top 25 being different than the final 2008 BCS standings. We guessed we could do another ranking that day and have a different result. We cared only that it was credible.

After the top 25, we booked the bowl games. It probably should have taken more than 10 minutes, but it didn't.

Utah, then a member of the Mountain West, got the automatic bid awarded now to the top remaining "Group of Five" conference champion.

Our lineup:

Rose Bowl: Texas vs. Oklahoma; Sugar: Florida vs. USC; Cotton: Texas Tech vs. Texas Christian; Orange: Virginia Tech vs. Alabama; Fiesta: Ohio State vs. Boise State; Peach: Penn State vs. Utah.

We were locked in on a few of the picks. We preferred Alabama in the Peach but were told the Orange had first dibs because it gets the Atlantic Coast Conference champion — Virginia Tech that year — against the highest-ranked non-champion. That was Alabama.

Also, we placed three "Group of Five" teams in major bowls knowing that would never happen in the new system. Utah has since moved to the Pac-12 and TCU is in the Big 12, but all three were worthy choices in 2008.

I left Texas with a greater appreciation for the task facing the real selection committee. I left as Pat Haden thinking, should USC crawl back into this season's race, I would wait outside and ply my comrades with cookies during bathroom breaks.

I left Texas thinking both sides were used. The media wanted to know how the system worked and the system wanted to know how the media worked.

Were we lab rats? Chairman Long scribbled notes all day as he observed our behavior.

"It's 13 individuals with different perspectives, with different weights on different things," Long said of the process. "That's the human element, whether you like it or not."

Anything is better than the BCS. Right?

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