T.O. Envisions More College Football Debate
Randy York’s N-Sider
Nebraska will play a major role in the inaugural College Football Playoff (CFP) this season because Dr. Tom Osborne, the Hall-of-Fame coach, three-term U.S. Congressman and former director of athletics has a new calling. He’s one of 13 members of the CFP Committee, charged to select the four teams which will participate in a three-game playoff to determine the 2014 national champion. The Committee will select the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl semifinal matchups that will pit the winners in the National Championship Game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. In an interview, Osborne told me he’s enjoying being a member of the committee and at this stage of his life, “it’s probably the right fit for me.”
I could not agree more and acknowledge an anecdotal comment I heard from Rick Neuheisel one summer morning on a satellite sports radio show. In a passionate discussion about how a three-game playoff will be more meaningful than the one-game championship from the BCS era, Neuheisel – the former head football coach at Colorado, Washington and UCLA – interrupted his own live debate and declared there’s one individual in the country who will be able to differentiate the very best teams from others better than anyone else – Tom Osborne. Why? Because, Neuheisel said, Osborne still studies the game, understands what he sees on film and has the character to be the most impartial person in the room. Neuheisel trusts Osborne’s astute analysis and integrity because he wants only what’s best for the game.
I think Neuheisel is a savvy critic who respects Osborne’s ability to separate himself from controversy and conspiracy. Name any other head coach in the history of college football who would attempt a last-second two-point pass play when an almost automatic extra-point kick would have made his 1983 team a national champion. Name any other head coach who wrote a book entitled More Than Winning and actually lives his life based on that premise. Osborne knows how college football debate elevates the game and, based on my interview about the role the new committee will serve, he understands that debate will continue to be what makes college football truly unique in its heightened, ultra-competitive landscape.
Please join our conversation:
Q: The new format for the College Football Playoff (CFP) makes its debut this season, and you’re on the committee that will decide which four teams will kick off this new era on New Year’s Day, 2015. What’s your preseason take on having that responsibility?
A: It is going to be important. Many people are trying to figure out how this is going to work, so there is going to be a lot of scrutiny of the committee, particularly this first year, because it will be a departure from the BCS system. We all understand that any time there is change, there is more scrutiny. I don’t know if I can say that it will be terribly enjoyable, but it is something that will be meaningful. We’ve had five face-to-face meetings, one in Washington D.C., three in Dallas, and one this month in Colorado Springs. We will meet seven straight weeks in Dallas, commencing around the third week in October, and the process will then run through the first week of December.
Q: What’s the No. 1 focus of this committee?
A: So far it is mostly focused on process – how are we going to do this? What is the procedure? We’ve been introduced to the technology and will be able to watch almost every football game that’s played. We also will have access to a huge amount of statistical data that will become relevant about the fourth or fifth game of the season. We will see trends that take shape in terms of who’s playing well on offense, who’s good on defense, field position, the kicking game, turnovers, and those kinds of things. Of course, we will also look at strength of competition, conference championships, and even injuries will be considered.
Q: I know your mission is to select the best teams and rank them for inclusion in the playoff, select other bowl games and then assign the teams to sites. What will be the importance of winning a conference championship?
A: I think that if two teams have identical records and similar schedules and one of them wins the conference championship and one of them doesn’t, then some weight may be given to the conference championship team. There are conferences other than the five large conferences which will have a path into the four-team playoff. Obviously if you win the Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12, ACC or SEC conferences, you are going to be somewhere in the hunt, unless you’re a team that manages to win a conference and still lose two or three games. That will make it more difficult. The teams that are undefeated and win conference championships are certainly going to be under major consideration.
Q: What if a conference champion’s quarterback is injured in the last quarter of a championship game? Will something that major come into play for the committee?
A: A conference champion who loses their starting quarterback in the last game of the season might possibly be downgraded somewhat. You are going to be looking at who are the strongest teams at the moment the decision is made. You’re also looking at which teams are capable of beating every other team that they face.
Q: With conference champions being a priority, what about the power teams that don’t win their league?
A: I think it is certainly possible that you would have two teams from the same conference selected with one of them not being a conference champion. Obviously they would have to be a very powerful team. I hate to speculate in certain areas because you paint yourself into a corner, but at the end of the year, what you are going to try to do is take the best estimation and decide who the four best teams in the country are. There are many ways to get to that, and being a conference champion is certainly one of those. The win/loss record is another. Strength of schedule and head-to-head competition would be important, and injuries, and some statistical data will be examined as well. For example, if two teams are somewhat identical, maybe two teams have lost one game each and are both conference champions. That’s when you might begin to look at statistical data.
Q: You’ve spent your academic and athletic careers analyzing statistical data. Can you expand on what will be most important in your mind?
A: Well, one thing that’s important is the average field position during games and where they took over the ball. That is something that’s kind of obscure. But the average field position a team enjoys probably reflects turnovers and also reflects the kicking game. If you have a good kicking game and if you don’t turn the ball over, you probably, on average, have good field position over a team that doesn’t have as good of a record in the kicking game or turnovers. But there’s lots of data. There are so many parameters, it’s hard to even mention all you might be looking at or considering.
Tom Osborne's legendary name is inscribed on the NAIA National Championship football trophy awarded to smaller schools. The former NAIA student-athlete, College Football Hall of Fame coach and Congressman is now part of the first committee that selects the teams for the inaugural 2015 College Football Playoff.
Q: What do you have at home that helps you break down film?
A: We have iPads and will see coaches’ copies of films. If you’re watching a TV game, you don’t see the whole field. The coaches’ film will show all 22 players and that will be important in evaluating strength in the secondary, some of the wide receivers and how well teams block the perimeter. There will be some possibility of an abbreviated version in some games because the amount of film they will be asking us to look at will be pretty daunting.
Q: Let me back up here. You have an iPad?
A: Yes, I already have it, and I’ll be able to see what I need to see.
Q: How much harder will it be to pick the top four teams in the country than it was to pick the top two?
A: I’m sure the committee will do a good job of it. Picking the top two teams was essentially what the BCS did and that would be much easier. Trying to arrive at four, you’re undoubtedly going to be splitting hairs between who is four, who is five, who is six, and there is going to be a number of teams with legitimate arguments with why they should be in the top four. You may have a clear-cut year with four conference champions that are undefeated and you only take undefeated teams. But most years, you’re going to have some decisions to make and it isn’t going to be that clear-cut.
Q: Are you excited about taking on this responsibility?
A: Well yes. It’s probably a good fit for me at this point. Of course, we’re not only picking those four teams. We’re also choosing several other teams which will be playing in the major bowls.
Q: What kind of money are we talking about here?
A: The payout is several million dollars for major bowls. That’s a big thing for the conference, not just for the team selected because the conference will, in most cases, split the money equally.
Q: Tell me about the playoff committee. Have you developed camaraderie knowing that you’re charged with deciding something inherently controversial?
A: Well, I think there is mutual respect on this committee. A lot of people have had similar experiences. I’ve known Pat Hayden and Barry Alvarez for a long time. I have a lot of respect for both. They’re very knowledgeable. I knew Condoleezza Rice from the days I was back in Washington, so we’ve known each other for some time, and of course, I’ve known Bill Hancock and Steve Wieberg for a long time as well.
Q: Last question. You will be recused when the vote involves Nebraska. Can you expand on that?
A: I will definitely be recused in regard to a vote on Nebraska, even though I am no longer employed here. I still receive some complimentary tickets and I’ve had a close relationship for more than 40 years with Nebraska Athletics. I can still discuss Nebraska with the committee regarding factual information, but I don’t think anyone is going to be doing any lobbying. I think everyone is going to try very hard to arrive at the best four teams.
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