When Cody Kellner watches the first release of the College Football Playoff rankings later this season, he’ll do so with a whole new level of appreciation for the people on the other end.
Kellner, a longtime Waco resident who has compiled and published his own set of college football computer rankings since 2002, received the unique chance to participate in a mock CFP selection committee last Thursday. Kellner and 12 media members experienced a behind-the-scenes look at what the committee goes through in coming up with their rankings.
Check that — more like a sneak peek. Whereas the mock committee spent more than four hours hammering out their fantasy CFP rankings — “And I was plenty beat after that,” Kellner said — the actual committee members generally will spend around 20 hours in deliberation over a given weekend.
“It’s a very systematic process,” Kellner said. “As a numbers guy, I was most fascinated with the large amount of information and data the committee is given. They have everything they need. It takes a long time to pore through all of it, and we spent only about 20 percent of the time as the actual committee. It’s definitely an extensive process.”
Kellner, 36, has been intrigued by numbers — and college football — for a couple of decades now. He first started tinkering around and crafting a formula for his own ranking system as a high school student in the late 1990s. By 2002, he began publishing the rankings online, with a goal of one day hooking up with the BCS to become part of the process of determining the national championship finalists.
That never happened, which is no big deal, since the BCS went the way of the 8-track tape, the VCR and the McRib. But Kellner started making inroads to numbers-crunching legitimacy anyway. We at the Waco Tribune-Herald began publishing Kellner’s weekly ratings in 2009, and still do to this day.
For the past few years, the USA Today has used Kellner’s strength-of-schedule formula in its own ratings, and he also works with The Athletic, a national online sports news service. His rankings have opened the door to all manner of opportunities, from a gig tracking statistics for all college football games played at AT&T Stadium to an invitation to vote on the Biletnikoff Award.
So, when the opportunity arose this summer for Kellner to essentially step into the flight simulator of a College Football Playoff committee member, he wasn’t about to turn it down.
Perhaps like a juror participating in a courtroom setting for the first time, Kellner found the process enlightening and fascinating. The mock committee went through a briefing with CFP executive director Bill Hancock the night before the selection meeting. Each person was assigned the role of a real-life committee member. Kellner was told that he would be Jeff Bower, former head coach of Southern Miss.
Conspiracy theorists will never buy it, but the committee places a heavy emphasis on remaining objective. Thus, committee members are required to recuse themselves from certain arguments, should they have a connection with a certain school.
Kellner said he wasn’t too worried about ever having to duck out of a discussion. The mock committee was given the task of breaking down teams from the 2012 season. Since Southern Miss went 0-12 that year, Kellner was able to dodge the recusal bullet.
Each member of the mock committee entered the meeting with their own personal list of the 30 teams they thought should be considered. From there, they cast individual votes for the top six, which turned out to be (in no particular order) Notre Dame, Oregon, Alabama, Florida, Stanford and Georgia.
Then the committee participated in five different rounds of voting, along the way adding teams to the mix and engaging in some lively hair-splitting discussions.
“It was interesting how it all went down,” Kellner said. “Each committee member has their own preferences. Obviously head-to-head is a big factor, but some people looked at game control, winning streaks, quality wins.”
Kellner is a numbers guy, but he has his own way of looking at and evaluating the data. He especially argued for the less clear-cut cases of Stanford, which had two losses in the 2012 regular season, and Florida, which produced 11 wins like fellow SEC mate Georgia but had lost to the Bulldogs, 17-9, in Jacksonville, Fla. The Bulldogs won the SEC East over the Gators, then lost 32-28 to Alabama in the SEC title game.
“The biggest discussion I can remember is Florida-Georgia for that last playoff spot,” Kellner said. “We spent at least 20 minutes talking about those two. I made the point that while Georgia won the head-to-head meeting, Florida had committed six turnovers and only lost by eight. I felt like Georgia should have won by more. … Florida had some quality wins that I felt really strengthened its resume.”
Here’s how the paring-down process works: Committee members examine teams in clusters of five or six at a time. Any more than that would get a little cumbersome, Kellner said. They have a wealth of data and video at their disposal, however. So team-to-team comparisons can be made with the simple push of a button.
Kellner said that the most challenging task, as a faux committee member, was picking the No. 4-6 teams in the rankings. The top three, at least in 2012, appeared to be a little more clear cut, but the race for the final spot was a dogfight.
Ultimately, his personal top four were Notre Dame, Alabama, Stanford and Florida. After all the voting was tabulated, that was exactly how it came out. Georgia and Oregon finished fifth and sixth, respectively, just out of the running for the semifinal games.
It may not have necessarily played out that way because of Kellner’s arguments, but that doesn’t diminish the cool factor when “your guy” wins. It’s hard not to think, “Yeah, these people get it.”
Me, I haven’t pored over the 2012 data recently, but I tend to think all things being equal, the head-to-head outcome should carry more weight. I would have gone with Georgia at No. 4 … unless convinced otherwise.
But I had other far more pressing committee secrets I wanted Kellner to spill. So I asked him, point-blank.
“Did they have snacks?”
“Snacks?” he answered. “Uh … there was Pepsi, and cookies. We stayed at the Gaylord Texan. They took good care of us.”
Kellner has no intentions of bringing an end to his computer rankings (which, in addition to the Trib, can be found at kellnerratings.com) anytime soon. Yes, he has a day job. He works at the Department of Veteran Affairs, in addition to pursuing his PhD at the University of North Texas.
On Saturdays, he watches the games. Then, later, he crunches the numbers. Kellner knows the playoff committee will be picking apart all that data, too, more thoroughly than he could have ever imagined.
“It’s a tricky, challenging process,” he said. “You’ve really got to respect what the committee is trying to do.”