On paper, it looks as easy as 1, 2, 3 … 4.
Florida State. Auburn. Alabama. Michigan State.
Were the College Football Playoff selection committee actually deliberating this season, though, it's hard to imagine the top four teams would align as easily as they did in this year's final BCS standings. There was no drama, no controversy, no undefeated team locked out of the sport's biggest game. As Auburn wrapped up its SEC title and Florida State finished the season as the only undefeated team remaining in the BCS, college football had its answer for a national championship game before it was officially revealed.
Expect a little more debate next year.
The computers have their formulas. The 13 committee members have their opinions. With subjectivity added to the equation, trying to pinpoint the top four teams in the country would have added far more intrigue to this year's selection process. Fans stuck in the mindset of the current system -- one filled with objective weightings and data -- are going to be disappointed, because that's not the committee's approach. Whether or not Auburn is better than Alabama will come down to a vote. While the No. 1 team in the country might not have been a question this year, there are now three more spots to argue about.
It was only a week ago that nobody could agree on No. 2.
If you think Auburn's improbable run to the national title was more luck than it was leverage against lesser opponents -- a deflected Hail Mary pass to beat Georgia and a 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama -- odds are at least one person on the committee might think so, too. Don't think a two-loss Stanford team has an argument over a one-loss Big Ten champ? Think again. Go ahead and throw Baylor and Ohio State into the mix, too.
Head-to-head results matter, sure, and so does strength of schedule and conference championships, but as of right now, none of those factors are weighted any heavier than the other. There is no greater emphasis on conference champions or strength of schedule. While they're all factors, it's up to the committee to sort through them. Don't think the Buckeyes played a tough enough schedule? It might not matter more than their ability to run the ball and score in the red zone.
The committee hasn't met since its first meeting in Washington D.C. in mid-November. They'll convene again in January, April and in the summer. There have been no new developments as far as criteria for the selection process.
"It won't be easy, no matter what," said Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff. "It will not be easy for the committee. Several teams will be under consideration and they're going to look alike in many, many ways. The committee will know everything about the teams. They'll know when the center had a banged-up ankle but played anyway and he wasn't as impressive in that game as they were the next week when he was 100 percent healthy.
"Everyone needs to know this will not be easy, and also that the committee has more work to do in developing the protocol and finalizing the data they would use," he said. "Any kind of projection is just that -- an amateur's projection. There's no way to make it approach what the committee might do."
That's because most of the committee members don't want to touch this topic right now.
There will be enough scrutiny on them next season -- more than the teams in contention will face. According to ESPN's Stats & Info, if the playoff were in place right now, the four most deserving teams based on résumé alone are Stanford, Florida State, Auburn and Michigan State.
That's right. Stanford.
Assuming the committee would favor Alabama the way much of the rest of the country does right now, how it might distinguish between Michigan State and Stanford would probably be one of its biggest challenges this year. The Spartans got a boost at the end from an upset of what was then the No. 2 team in the country, but Stanford beat No. 3 Oregon -- and six other ranked opponents. Michigan State also lost to Notre Dame -- a team that Stanford beat 27-20.
"We'll throw everything out there, strength of schedule, players injured early in season, late in the season, conferences, conference champions," said committee member Archie Manning, who also said he purposely didn't try and rank the top four teams this year because he knew he'd be doing it next season. ""We know No. 5 and No. 6 [teams in the rankings] are going to be mad."
They're not doing their jobs if somebody isn't.
Like, say, Auburn.
Is Auburn really the No. 2 team in the country because it beat Alabama on a jaw-dropping 109-yard field goal return? Or is Alabama, the two-time defending national champs, the better team in spite of the head-to-head result against the SEC champs?
"Yes, there would be debate, absolutely," said one person involved in the playoff who declined to be named. "You bet there'd be debate."
Maybe it's not as easy as 1, 2, 3 … 4.