Heather DinichESPN Senior Writer
On the final weekend of the 2014 season, the inaugural year of the College Football Playoff, the 12 rookie members of the selection committee met at the Gaylord Texan Resort near Dallas to watch the conference championship games together — and to determine the first four teams in the history of the CFP.
It was an unforgettable, controversial decision that to this day baffles the Big 12.
“We had three teams,” former selection committee member Steve Wieberg said in a February interview with ESPN. “We had TCU, Baylor and Ohio State. It was like the stakes are really real. I had this knot in my stomach that kept growing as the championship games were playing out and this scenario was becoming a reality, and it hitting me that somebody is going to be left out. Two somebodies are going to be left out. This is a big deal.”
It certainly was.
“We all knew the significance of the decision,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said, “but no one had made that kind of decision about football ever before.”
Heading into that final Saturday of the 2014 regular season, the committee had TCU ranked No. 3, Ohio State No. 5 and Baylor No. 6. The Big 12 at that time had no conference championship game, so TCU’s final impression on the committee was a 55-3 drubbing of a 2-10 Iowa State team. Baylor punctuated its résumé with a 38-27 victory over No. 9 Kansas State.
And then there was Ohio State.
The Buckeyes, with their third-string quarterback — a story that seems as improbable today as it was then — hammered No. 13 Wisconsin 59-0 to win the Big Ten title and give the committee members a debate that lasted through the night and well into the morning. Some stayed up until 3 a.m. analyzing it.
“There were a couple of committee members — I won’t identify them — who had that same knot in their stomach,” Weiberg said. “Do we have this right? Is there a different way? How many other ways should we be looking at this?”
What they looked at closely, former committee member and chairman Jeff Long said, was the protocol for determining the top four teams. The committee members are guided by conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition, common opponents and other relevant factors like injuries — none of which are weighted, or have changed since Year 1.
“That’s what really resulted in the committee voting that dramatic change in the last weekend because we fully vetted the criteria and protocols we were given by the management committee,” said Long, now the athletic director at Kansas. “I think there was also a feeling that we didn’t have to act like a poll. We were a group of 12 individuals voting. That gave some latitude to when we looked at all of those criteria, we had the full body of work, we could make a decision that moved someone on the last week.”
It was one heckuva move.
TCU sank from No. 3 to No. 6 in favor of Ohio State, sending an absolute shockwave throughout followers of the sport — and a dagger into the Big 12. (Alabama was No. 1, Oregon No. 2, Florida State third and then Ohio State. Baylor was fifth.)
“If that’s what the 12 individuals felt who voted, then that’s what should rule the day,” Long said. “There were some opinions that were different than that, but I always relied heavily on the fact that this was a 12-person vote that resulted in this. It wasn’t a groupthink. It wasn’t everybody come together and deciding we’re going to move these teams here and there. That’s not what this committee does and that’s not how it works. Twelve people voted that, and that’s how it came out.”
The unprecedented decision that weekend ultimately led to the Big 12 resurrecting its conference championship game solely for the sake of increasing its chances of placing a team in the playoff. Let that sink in. Because TCU and Baylor were both left out in 2014, the Big 12 has a championship game again. That season also helped shape today’s perceptions of the CFP: an ambiguous, subjective and sometimes inconsistent ranking system in which the human element is both commended and criticized.
Love it or hate it, fans — and the selection committee members — learned in Year 1 that the CFP is nothing like the BCS.
“The committee doesn’t just say, ‘Well, here’s where they were the week before, they won so they move up.’ That’s the old poll mentality,” Hancock said. “The committee has a different mentality about it. Ohio State’s résumé improved. Baylor’s résumé improved with a victory over a good K-State team. And TCU had the misfortune of playing a team that would finish 2-10 on the last weekend. It helped people understand it’s a new day.”
Not everyone has figured it out yet.
The Big 12’s snub was further compounded by the fact that Ohio State would play in the national championship game in heart of Big 12 country, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas — where Ohio State and TCU will meet Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC), tied together by a vastly different playoff history.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby will be there, after he flies back from Oklahoma’s game at Iowa State. Bowlsby on Monday said that TCU’s drop in 2014 still “seems hard to explain,” but acknowledged that it didn’t help the league that Baylor and TCU finished the season as co-champions.
“It was discouraging it turned out that way,” he said. “There were those who would say, ‘Well, all you had to do was designate a champion.’ And yet our conference policy didn’t permit that at the time. I wasn’t going to question the integrity of the people who made the decision; I helped put the system in place. We knew that it was a subjective process, but at the right time I asked for some explanation because I wanted to understand.”
TCU coach Gary Patterson is still trying to understand the system.
“I don’t know if I know that,” he said Monday. “The rules seem to have changed. In the beginning, I thought we got into it so we can take the computer part out of it, and now we’re looking at strength of schedules, who we play, championship games and everything else. I thought it was about a committee just looking at tape and seeing the four best teams that are playing the best at the end of the season and choosing them.
“It’s a hard process,” he said. “It’s tough for that committee. Very scrutinized. My hat’s off to them; it’s just a hard decision because there’s a lot of good football teams out there. For me, if that’s the case, if I was on the committee, that’s why I would want six to eight teams and have a playoff and do it that way; you could get everybody in.”
Not everybody — though the winner of Saturday’s game in Arlington will certainly increase its chances.
This season’s debate between Ohio State and TCU will be settled in Week 3 — unless, of course, the committee votes otherwise on Selection Day.