GRAPEVINE, Texas -- Security guards took shifts on Saturday in the small entryway outside of the College Football Playoff's sprawling meeting space on the fourth floor of the Gaylord Texan Resort. Behind the closed doors, the 13 committee members lounged on leather chairs throughout the four adjoining rooms stocked with TVs, snacks and four kinds of chicken wings as the conference championship games unfolded from start to finish.
While their private, sequestered approach to picking the four best teams hasn't changed over the past six seasons, their biggest debate of the year was no secret -- it's been going on all season.
"They spent as much time on this 1 and 2 as on anything I can remember in the past," CFP executive director Bill Hancock said.
It was a microcosm of what the group had been wrestling with for six straight meetings -- LSU or Ohio State at No. 1? Undefeated Clemson, which had the talent but not the résumé, was a lock for No. 3. As the only one-loss Power 5 champion, Oklahoma was an obvious No. 4.
The top four, Hancock said, was "clear-cut."
Determining the best team in the country was anything but -- not just for those in the room, but for fans and analysts across the country who had been as equally divided on the topic. The committee's six rankings were evidence of a split decision, as Ohio State and LSU were each No. 1 three times, but the Tigers had the last word thanks in large part to their convincing win over Georgia in the SEC title game.
"I think these are two teams that have been really close the entire time, and as we've explained, every weekend one of them has done something to move above the other," selection committee chair Rob Mullens said on Sunday. "I think [Saturday] in watching the championship game, LSU's performance against a No. 4-ranked Georgia propelled the committee to put them just ahead of Ohio State in 1 versus 2. Did last night's games play a role? Sure they did. Every game plays a role, and I think it was more about LSU's strong, dominant performance over a No. 4-ranked team that elevated them to No. 1."
After Utah's Friday night loss and Oklahoma's early win, it seemed like the committee could take the rest of the night off. But the seemingly straightforward process was nearly thrown into chaos when No. 1 Ohio State fell behind 21-7 at the half against Wisconsin. All of a sudden, just about anything was in play.
Had Wisconsin pulled off the upset -- the Buckeyes restored order in the second half en route to a 34-21 win -- the Badgers would have likely been in the conversation as a two-loss Big Ten champion, sparking a debate with one-loss Oklahoma. Although the Badgers had a bad loss against Illinois, along with the regular-season loss to Ohio State, they also would have had the best win in the country -- against the committee's No. 1 team at the time -- along with wins against ranked opponents Michigan and Minnesota.
Oklahoma's best wins were against Baylor (twice) and Oklahoma State, and during the month of November, OU won by an average of 6.5 points. There was a possibility the Sooners could have been snubbed for two Big Ten teams, with both Wisconsin and Ohio State making the playoff. Instead, everything fell neatly into place for both OU and the committee. Oklahoma earned its spot with its Big 12 title -- but it also got much-needed help along the way.
The last weekend is the only time all season the group watches the games together, and there's no question the conference titles played an integral role in determining the final ranking. Utah's loss on Friday night to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game opened the door for Oklahoma, which took advantage of the opportunity with its overtime win against Baylor in the Big 12 title game.
"That's the value of yesterday and Friday night, to be able to watch the games together, talk about the games as they're going on, the various situations which occur, how the game itself evolves, just have a clearer understanding of what the path was to the ultimate outcome of the game itself," Oklahoma athletic director and selection committee member Joe Castiglione said.
Following the Big Ten championship game, the politicking began.
"I think we deserve to be No. 1," Ohio State coach Ryan Day said from the podium.
The Big Ten champs certainly had a case, but earlier in the day, LSU had crushed Georgia, immediately prompting speculation that it was enough to leap the Buckeyes. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who threw four touchdown passes and no interceptions against one of the nation's best defenses, impressed the committee, as did a stifling defensive performance.
Once at the table, two committee members were each assigned to "present the résumé" for Ohio State and LSU, Mullens said. The Tigers had four wins against teams ranked in the committee's final top 13 (Georgia, Florida, Auburn and Alabama), while Ohio State's top-25 wins were against Wisconsin (twice), Penn State, Michigan and Cincinnati.
Eventually, the committee voted and LSU was No. 1, and the members voted again -- and the Tigers were still in the top spot, followed by Ohio State and Clemson. They moved on to the rest of the ranking, and around 1 a.m. the group called it a night and went back to their hotel rooms, all on the same floor.
Hancock said he fell asleep with a football book on his chest, and Castiglione said he went to bed around 2 and woke up on his own around 4:20 a.m., still thinking about the top 25.
"Just to be candid," he said, "we want to get it right, and so all I kept thinking about was what we were going to discuss this morning and look at -- not about the team I'm associated with, but the rest of the teams -- had we really talked through the placement, were there any concerns, questions about it, and if so, get it on the board. ... just making sure we looked at every possible thing we could. Every other committee member was doing the same thing, I'm sure."
Mullens couldn't remember what time he eventually fell asleep, but said he drifted off with the meeting papers in his hand.
"Well, I went back and again looked at the sheet, looked at the results, thought in my mind, as the chair, what are the things that we need to make sure that we put on the table to make sure that we've been thorough," he said, "and when we came back, everybody agreed that we should spend considerable time on 1 through 3 again, and then we wanted to visit the Group of 5 again because of what that meant."
When the committee members reconvened at 8 a.m. CT on Sunday, during the most important discussion of the weekend, Castiglione and former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer were recused from the room. Beamer's son, Shane, is an assistant coach on Oklahoma's staff. In addition to being removed from any discussions and voting about Oklahoma, Beamer and Castiglione were also out of room when voting took place for the top three teams so that they wouldn't have any influence on whom the Sooners might play if they did earn the fourth spot.
Castiglione said he was two rooms away from where the committee was deliberating so he couldn't hear the other members, and said he didn't want to watch TV because he "didn't want to get involved with what was being said."
"There wouldn't be any time that we would be in the room when they were talking about any discussion that we would take any part in that has a connection to who Oklahoma might play," Castiglione said. "My interpretation is if we were involved in the voting, that could potentially influence somebody's judgment of who we might rank somewhere. It's integrity first. The protocol is very clear, spelling everything out. There's always extra care, extra effort made to make sure the process is beyond reproach."
When Castiglione heard the click of the door open, he knew it was time for Beamer and him to return to the voting room, and Castiglione took his seat between Beamer and Ken Hatfield. The top four teams were on the large screen at the front of the room: No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Clemson, No. 4 Oklahoma. The committee moved on to the next vote.
"I held it in pretty well until our work was done," Castiglione said, "and then everybody said congratulations. We had work to do. There was a lot to get done last night, and obviously the games had to be finalized before we could do anything."
Castiglione couldn't tell OU coach Lincoln Riley his team was in until it was officially announced on ESPN on Sunday at 12:15 p.m. ET.
"That was tough," he said, "because I wanted to tell him, but our protocol is very clear and our instructions are abundantly clear as well that we cannot say anything to anybody, and one of the great hallmarks of this committee since its inception is that there haven't been any leaks. We all understand that. No one has broken the code."
Even if this year, the only drama was at the top.