Former coaches on committee offer key -- but not decisive -- voices

— -- The College Football Playoff selection committee has yet to truly sweat it out in the fourth quarter.

There was little dispute last season, and Clemson and Alabama proved to be the top two teams in the country. In 2014, Ohio State made the committee's decision easier with a 59-0 rout of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, then proved the committee right -- at least outside the state of Texas -- by going on to win the national title after sneaking into the top four for the very first time when it mattered most, in the final ranking.

This year could be significantly more difficult.

With Houston off to a 3-0 start and favored by ESPN's Football Power Index to win every remaining game (except against Louisville), it's possible the committee will have to seriously consider a Group of 5 conference champion in its top four -- especially if there is a Power 5 conference champion with two losses.

How the Cougars would fare against a Power 5 schedule is a debate that has carried over from the BCS system, which no Group of 5 program was ever able to crack.

"Where would a Houston, [which] on any given day could beat anybody in the country, if they played in the SEC West, how would they do after playing Texas A&M, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State on consecutive weeks?" Mississippi State's Dan Mullen said before the season.

The dynamic of the committee, which will be charged with answering that question, has changed. Four members' terms have expired and three new members have joined, increasing the total number of former coaches to five, the highest it has been.

Two of the coaches, former Central Michigan coach Herb Deromedi and former Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower, hail from the Group of 5 perspective. Three of them, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, former Notre Dame, Stanford and Washington coach Tyrone Willingham and former Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson, made their living against Power 5 opponents.

How much their experiences shape their opinions could be a factor in this year's debate.

Because the meetings are closed, though, and because committee members aren't allowed to talk to the media -- with the exception of chair Kirby Hocutt -- the chemistry and conversations within the room are a well-kept secret.

"There were times when -- it happened fairly often -- where we'd be talking about a particular issue or a team or something like that, and we would turn to Ty and Barry and Coach [Tom] Osborne and say, 'All right, from a coaches' perspective, what do you think?'" former committee member Mike Gould said. "And they would tell you honestly, 'Here's what I'm thinking.'

"But again, that didn't necessarily carry the day. The non-coaches in the room would take notes, say, 'OK, thank you,' and you still formulated your own ideas on how you were going to vote."

Deromedi, Bower and Alvarez are each recused from voting for their respective affiliations. Willingham is recused from Stanford and Duke. Johnson is not on the recusal list.

Coaches are only one of five categories of individuals who comprise the committee, along with sitting athletic directors, administrators, journalists and athletes.

"I think what they're doing right now -- having variety, having diversity -- is working," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "I would support them continuing doing what they're doing. I think you make your own bed every day. People are going to know the caliber of who you're playing, who you're beating and who you're not beating and they're going to take all of that into consideration. Having some coaches in there is obviously good, but some of those coaches can be biased towards one conference or one region. You have to be careful about that."

There is a coat rack outside of the committee meeting room where the committee members literally "check their hats at the door," a symbol started by committee member and former chairman Jeff Long to help remind them to leave any bias outside. Each committee member has a white hat with his or her name on it, and they hang them up every week.

Not everyone on the outside is as skeptical.

"I think every one of those guys has tremendous integrity, very professional, great honesty in what they do," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "I have total faith, trust and confidence. You can try to do what's right, that doesn't mean you're going to be right all the time, but I know they will try to do it right. I think they got it right last year. I think they got it right the year before."

Arguably nobody on the committee knows the sport better than the Hall of Fame coaches who were paid to master it, but those who have been in the room say their voices don't necessarily carry more weight than the others.

"Sometimes there would be a situation that would come up, and somebody would say, 'Well, let's hear what the coaches say about this,'" said Osborne, a former committee member. "It usually had to do with defensive personnel, pass rush. It wasn't like we, we didn't really dominate the conversation at all. Everybody had their opinion, everybody expressed them, everybody had a vote. No vote counted more than somebody else's vote."

Former committee member Mike Tranghese said the coaches have an edge when it comes to evaluating the teams, but when it comes to evaluating the results, each of the committee members "are on equal footing."

"Results are the results, nothing changes that," he said. "Schedules are the schedules. The games are the games, nobody can change all that. But as part of it all, you want to know about a team. How talented are they? Are they overachieving? Are they underachieving? Why would Team A have trouble with Team B? Coach Osborne was unbelievable at analyzing special teams. He was unbelievable. He has such a handle on everybody's special teams. It's such a big element of the football game, and that would get thrown into the mix as you try to analyze things. In the end, I think everybody is pretty individual.

"You take the coaches' analysis and you factor it in," he said, "but in the end, it's the results that determine who's getting in and who's not getting in."

Would Houston's results be good enough? What if their only loss was to Louisville, which went on to win the ACC title? The rest of the Cougars' r?sum? would feature just one win against a ranked opponent -- Oklahoma -- and that's assuming the Sooners can regroup and be a factor in the Big 12 race. The most likely scenario remains that Houston would have to be undefeated.

Kansas coach David Beaty, who spent three seasons at Texas A&M, has also coached in Conference USA and said there is a difference in the level of competition the committee can't ignore.

"We were in the SEC West and we were pretty good when we were there and we never finished higher than third, which is crazy," he said. "That's how good and talented that SEC West is. I think you have to take into account the level of teams that are in those conferences. I just don't think you can leave that out. There's no doubt in my mind you have to take those things into account.

"Tom Herman is one of my best friends in the world," Beaty said. "He actually led Ohio State to the national championship on a third-string quarterback who was pretty stinkin' good, by the way. But he had a lot to do with that. And he's done an unbelievable job at Houston and I'm happy for him and his family, but the reality of it is, an undefeated Houston team would've had a hard time getting in there [in 2015]. There's a reason why. Because the conference affiliation there might have been a situation that maybe something else would've overtook them as a result, because they weren't in the SEC or Big 12."

Houston has a chance to help change that perception this year.

The Cougars have to do more than go undefeated, though. They have to win over the entire committee -- not just the former coaches.