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New playoffs concern SEC football coaches

Nick Saban

Nick Saban

DESTIN, Fla. — As college football heads into its playoff era, some coaches acknowledge that they struggle to understand how the selection committee will choose the four teams to compete for the national championship.

“I don’t have any idea what criteria they’re going to use,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

“I’m not even sure the committee knows 100 percent,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “It’ll probably be a work in progress to a certain degree.”

The SEC attempted to demystify the process this week by having College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock attend the league’s annual spring meetings and answer questions from coaches and reporters.

After 16 years of the BCS, college football has rid itself of the controversial mathematical formula that determined the two teams to play for the national championship. In its place, beginning with the 2014 season, a 13-person committee will select and seed a four-team playoff field.

The advent of the playoff and the accompanying shift from a rigid formula to a committee’s subjective judgment are, by most accounts, a welcomed change for college football. Still, change is unsettling for those with much at stake.

“Coaches all over are interested in the criteria, and I don’t blame them. I would be, too,” Hancock said.

“The core criteria are very much common sense. What about your strength of schedule? What about head-to-head (results)? What about common opponents?”

The coaches, though, wonder how such information will be digested and prioritized. And according to the playoff organization’s website, “committee members will have flexibility to examine whatever data they believe is relevant to inform their decisions. They will also review a significant amount of game video.”

Conference championships will be considered in choosing the four playoff teams, but are not prerequisites or guarantees. There is no maximum, nor minimum, number of teams that can qualify from any single conference.

“In the BCS we had a metric, and it was all decided by the metric,” said Hancock, who previously served as BCS executive director. “Here, we have 13 folks studying teams and making subjective judgments and putting those judgments together.

“I think coaches are just trying to figure it out. They figured out the BCS and understood it for the most part. This is new, and of course people are nervous about it. I get the same kind of questions from coaches’ groups all over the country: ‘Tell us how this is going to work.’”

Hancock said the committee will convene each Monday in Dallas, starting Oct. 27, and come up with a Top 25 ranking that will be unveiled Tuesday nights on ESPN. The committee will arrive at each week’s rankings through a series of votes that evaluate six to eight teams at a time, he said.

The committee considered not ranking teams until the end of the regular season. But imagine the outcry if, at that point, it came out of nowhere with a ranking that differed from the season-long Associated Press and coaches’ polls.

“We decided it wouldn’t be fair to the public,” Hancock said. “We are so rankings-oriented in college football that we wanted there to be a real ranking that mattered during the season.”

The last of the committee’s weekly rankings, scheduled to be released Dec. 7, will establish the four playoff teams, as well as an additional eight teams that will be placed in four other major bowls.

The SEC has seized on the committee’s strength-of-schedule component. Last month, the league adopted a requirement that, effective in 2016, each member must have at least one non-conference game against an opponent from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12. This week, Florida coach Will Muschamp said the Gators will attempt to stop scheduling FCS opponents.

Hancock said the selection committee hasn’t taken a position on FCS opponents, but will evaluate the overall strength of 12-game schedules.

“There is a lot of focus on nonconference schedule,” SEC commissioner Mike Slive said, “but the reality is that the test is 12 games, and two-thirds of those are conference games. I want to make sure when we think about strength of schedule that we think about strength of conference as a significant part of that.”

In the end, uneasy as they might be, coaches will have to trust the committee.

“I have a lot of faith, trust and confidence that there’s a lot of good people in college football that will do everything they can to get it right,” Saban said. “Will it be perfect? Probably not.”

Said Richt: “I have to think they’ll find the best four, at least to the best of their ability. Obviously, whoever is fifth or sixth is probably going to get mad, no matter what you do.”