Q&A with the FCS playoff committee chair
By CRAIG HALEY
(STATS) - Sweet dreams or nightmare? Deep into the night on Saturday, the NCAA Division I FCS selection committee will decide how numerous football teams should rest heading toward the announcement of this year's playoffs.
The selection committee, consisting of one representative from each of the 10 FCS conferences that have automatic bids, will put the 24-team pairings together at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. The field will be released on an ESPNU selection show Sunday (11 a.m. ET).
Richard Johnson, the Wofford athletic director who represents the Southern Conference, is the chair of the committee, which also consists of Chuck Burch (Gardner-Webb, Big South), Kyle Moats (Missouri State, Missouri Valley), Tim Murray (Marist, Pioneer), Nathan Pine (Holy Cross, Patriot), Marty Scarano (New Hampshire, CAA), Greg Seitz (Jacksonville State, Ohio Valley), Bill Smith (Bryant, Northeast), Brad Teague (Central Arkansas, Southland) and Jeff Tingey (Idaho State, Big Sky).
In a Q&A with STATS on Wednesday, Johnson discussed the selection process, including how the number of candidates for the 14 at-large bids is bigger than usual heading into the final full weekend of regular season games.
Sleep tight? Not really.
STATS: Mr. Johnson, for fans who don't know, can you explain the process with which the pairings will be constructed this weekend?
RJ: Absolutely. All year long, and we just completed our final national ranking, it comes about as a result of voting by each committee member. That vote occurs after we receive the rankings from the four regional advisory committees, and then after we take those rankings and talk about them on a conference call, we then vote. So we take that ranking with us into the room this weekend. We will spend Friday looking at bubble teams - those teams with five losses, those teams that might (finish) 7-4. And we'll be taking in all those things, strength of schedule, to make sure we give everybody a good opportunity to be vetted.
On Saturday, we will put the AQs (automatic qualifiers) in the field - they'll already be in. Then we will start voting on the at-large and we will seed the teams. During the seeding process, if the season ended the way it was last week with our last (rankings) reveal, three members of the committee would have to recuse themselves from the room and the rest of the committee would set the seedings. And that's how we've done it on the calls these past two weeks as well. We come back in, we pick the field of 24. When we do the bracketing, those committee members whose teams are in the field leave the room again and the remainder of the committee and the staff do the bracketing based on the principles in the NCAA manual.
STATS: How does this year's group of playoff contenders compare to where contenders stood leading into some of the recent selection weekends?
RJ: In my opinion, as I look at it - this is my fifth year on the committee and final year - I think this will be by far the most-difficult selection weekend that we'll have because there are just a lot of good teams, there are a lot of teams with good records, and trying to narrow that field to 24. AQs, the automatic qualifiers from various conferences, are guaranteed spots in the field, and some of those teams may not be in the committee's top 25. It really is a challenge to get to the best teams. And then, of course, that's complicated as well because some teams in some conferences are large enough where every team in the league doesn't play every other team. Then there's strength of schedule, there's all kinds of factors that we look at. It's a very complicated process.
STATS: With that in mind, what would you feel is the most difficult aspect of the selection process?
RJ: As you get back to the last four in, last four out, I think that's the hardest part because you're trying to ensure the teams that deserve to be in make it. There's a coat of paint difference between those teams. You can look on one hand and one team may have had a better strength of schedule, another one may have had better losses, another may have had a player who was injured for one of those losses. So there's so many factors that go into it and then there are 10 votes, and every committee member values those individual factors differently. But that's why we have 10 and we get to a consensus. The votes are private, so it's not like there's anybody standing up and lobbying for any one team over another. We're just very data-driven, very factual about it, and then we go to the votes.
STATS: Earlier you mentioned the selection committee's Top 10 rankings that lead up to selection weekend. They're welcomed by FCS fans, but they also stir negative talk. Does the committee expect that?
RJ: Absolutely. I think any committee rankings are always going to be looked at through the colored lens of your own perception. And I can promise you that every one that dropped or wasn't included has what they feel are very legitimate reasons to include them. All of those arguments, I can assure you, have been taken into consideration by the committee and we've looked at it. Before we release these (rankings), we actually had three opportunities. We had the RAC (regional advisory committee) call, we had the national call and then the national vote, and we had a subsequent national call to make sure we had them in the right order and we vetted them again. We are as impartial as you can be.
And the other thing that fans do that's not part of the selection criteria is they look at past history. They look at, well, this team won a national championship last year, this team has won, you know, 15 straight games. That's not part of it, all we're focused on is this year and this year alone. Reputation doesn't matter, it's your reputation through the 10 games this year and on Saturday through the 11-game season.
STATS: Has the Simple Rating System (an RPI-type metrics designed in 2013) ever taken off with the committee?
RJ: Sometimes when you're trying to slice it, we'll look at it, we'll try to get an explanation and use it, but I think all of them are inherently flawed. If you have just a straight strength of schedule and win-loss, some people say that doesn't take into consideration the margin of victory. Some programs aren't built to score a lot of points and yet they win. Should they be penalized for that? And should some teams be penalized for not winning by three touchdowns? It's an individual decision. It's a tool and just a tool. We certainly don't live and die by that tool.
STATS: Which strength of schedule format carries the most weight with the committee?
RJ: We only look at the one, we only look at the SRS. So we don't look at any others. In the room, that's the only one that we look at as an external ranking if you will.
STATS: What new selection policies have been added in the last year or two?
RJ: From a bracketing (standpoint) and in principles, we're allowed now to take it and make it such that all the members of one conference (with four or more bids) would not be loaded up on one side of the bracket. That's a change from two years ago. Two years ago, the committee was criticized for their bracketing, but the bracketing was straight by the book.
Once you get the field and once you've set the seeds, the bracketing is really straightforward because it's a regional and it's on a bid process (host sites involving games of two unseeded teams). You basically have a 400-mile radius (to first match teams) and teams in the same league cannot play one another in the first round if they meet during the regular season. So you'll have exceptions to that - you'll have some conferences where they don't play during the regular season. By our principles, the committee is obligated to put those two teams together in a first-round matchup if they fall within that mileage radius. That part's pretty straightforward. And then at some point in time, you have an outlier and you have to have somebody travel.
STATS: Last year, two Missouri Valley teams, North Dakota State as the (No.) 1 seed and South Dakota State as the 8, and two Big Sky teams, Eastern Washington as the 2 and North Dakota as the 7, were on the same sides of the bracket.
RJ: You're going to have that. There's only the one exception - just not all of the teams (from a conference with four or more bids) will be on the same side of the bracket. I think it was two years ago, the Missouri Valley had five and they were all on the same side of the bracket. There's no guarantee that we're going to move you away from each other because that would violate the integrity of the seeds.
I had someone make a suggestion one time that we just flip 3 and 4. Well, the year they made it (2015), North Dakota State, who eventually was the national champion, instead of hosting a semifinal game (as the 3), if we'd flipped the seeds like this individual suggested to keep the teams on separate brackets, North Dakota State - in the semifinals - instead of hosting they would have had go to (No. 1 seed) Jacksonville State. It impacts the tournament when you do things like that and it impacts it, in my opinion, in a negative way.
STATS: Is a loss to an FBS opponent ever considered a negative?
RJ: Again, each committee member has to value that. I think a single loss, all of us at the FCS level typically play one FBS opponent, and I think for the most part we have not paid any attention to a single loss to an FBS team. We certainly paid attention to a win over an FBS team and to a close game against an FBS team. Just as a general rule, it hasn't negatively impacted anybody in the past by losing to an FBS opponent. Where it would get into negatively impacting someone is if you played three of those games or four because now you have four losses and you make the argument that you got beat by all FBS teams, but you also then didn't have the opportunity to play FCS teams and beat them. That's where it would hurt you, if you played multiple FBS opponents as opposed to just the one.
STATS: What do you enjoy the most about the selection process?
RJ: It's certainly not the lack of sleep. I think what has impressed me the most, because you always have this vision of a smoke-filled room and if you read all the conspiracy theorists, to come into the room at NCAA headquarters and to see the professionalism of the staff ... I've been blessed to be on committees where we've had great committee chairs. To watch them ensure that the process works the way that it's supposed to work, that we stay focused only on (the current season) and not be involved in who did what last year or anything like that ... that tells me that the process works.
Updated November 16, 2017
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