9:30 AM ET
- Heather DinichESPN Senior Writer Close
- College football reporter
- Joined ESPN.com in 2007
- Graduate of Indiana University
The College Football Playoff is determined in large part by its ambiguous protocol, an inexact science that alternately values head-to-head victories, conference titles and more. (Sorry, Penn State.) It's determined by improbable plays, such as a fourth-and-25 conversion (Arkansas vs. Ole Miss in 2015), coming up a yard short on fourth down (Louisville vs. Clemson in 2016) or a controversial fourth-and-1 conversion that can leave you "bitterly disappointed" (Ohio State vs. Michigan, 2016).
What it all boils down to, though, is the human element — those who call the plays and execute them and the 13 people who judge it all.
Here are the people who will have the greatest impact on how the 2017 College Football Playoff unfolds:
1. The three new committee members
The selection committee ultimately determines the top four teams in the country, so nobody will have a greater influence than the three new faces in the room: Robert Morris University President Chris Howard, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer. Smith will be recused from any votes or discussions about Ohio State, which was at the center of debate last fall, when the Buckeyes were awarded the No. 3 spot despite not winning their division. While Beamer brings another veteran coach's voice to the room, Smith is a former player who can draw from his experience on the men's basketball committee, and Howard is a former player and Rhodes scholar who has made far greater decisions as an Air Force Reserve Lt. Colonel. How they blend into the group and how their voices influence the process could differ from their predecessors.
2. Clemson's quarterback
Replacing Deshaun Watson will continue to be one of the biggest storylines of the offseason and perhaps into the season. Junior Kelly Bryant was named the Tigers' starter for the spring, but there have been no promises beyond that. The defending national champs also have top recruit Hunter Johnson, an ESPN 300 player who enrolled in January, redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper, redshirt sophomore Tucker Israel and freshman Chase Brice, who will join them this summer.
3. First-year blue blood offensive coordinators
Alabama OC Brian Daboll, LSU OC Matt Canada and Ohio State OC Kevin Wilson have to produce results immediately. No pressure, guys. Daboll is Nick Saban's third OC in as many months. Canada is expected to modernize an offense that has underperformed in spite of its talent. And Wilson is a former head coach hired to help Ohio State forget that embarrassing 31-0 loss to Clemson and return to a CFP semifinal.
4. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts
Alabama's freshman quarterback was inconsistent last year, looking like a Heisman hopeful early, then fizzling when it mattered most. He was held to fewer than 200 yards passing in four of his final five games, including just 57 yards in the semifinal win over Washington. He also completed just 13 of 31 pass attempts against Clemson in the national title game. Hurts' progression under a new OC will be critical to the Tide's return to the CFP.
5. Southern California QB Sam Darnold
He put the Trojans back on the national radar last fall, so much so that some debated whether the three-loss team deserved playoff consideration. Darnold was the catalyst behind the transformation, rattling off nine consecutive wins — including against Colorado, Washington and Penn State — to end the season after losing his first start at Utah. If USC can pick up where it left off, the Trojans should again be in the playoff conversation.
6. Florida State S Derwin James
He could be the Seminoles' most talented player. His absence in the secondary was glaring last season, after he suffered a season-ending left knee injury in Week 2. The Noles struggled defensively against some of the ACC's top quarterbacks, such as Louisville's Lamar Jackson and North Carolina's Mitchell Trubisky. Having such a defensive difference-maker as James in the lineup will be a huge boost for FSU, especially with Bama looming in the season opener.
7. Penn State's playmakers
The duo of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley was a major reason the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten, and it's why they have a chance to be CFP contenders again. McSorley led the league in pass efficiency, while throwing for 29 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Barkley, the Big Ten's offensive player of the year, averaged 5.3 yards per carry and scored 19 touchdowns. The Nittany Lions will need more spectacular performances from them in a grueling schedule stretch against Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State in three straight weeks.
8. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield
He has finished in the top five of the Heisman voting in each of the past two seasons, and he broke the FBS record for season passing efficiency last year; but he also made a huge mistake this offseason, when he was arrested in February for several misdemeanors. Mayfield has since issued what seemed like a heartfelt apology, but the Sooners will need his leadership to make a CFP run. Even if Mayfield is suspended for the season opener — Sept. 2 against UTEP — Oklahoma can't afford to travel to Ohio State the following week without him.
9. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy
The mullet, the mug, the singlet — the offseason of Mike Gundy. He has captured our attention and made us laugh with his sense of humor, but can his Cowboys win the Big 12? It's the first step in getting the committee to take Oklahoma State more seriously, along with plowing through its nonconference schedule. While Tulsa is coming off a respectable 10-3 season, there's still not much room for error with a lineup that also includes South Alabama. A road win at Pitt would impress the committee and could erase last season's Central Michigan craziness.
10. Florida coach Jim McElwain
He has won back-to-back SEC East titles, but can he find a quarterback? The position has been the program's Achilles' heel since Tim Tebow left after 2009. (The program has had 10 starters since then, and none has thrown for more than 12 touchdowns in a season.) Choosing the right player could be the difference in finally unseating the winner of the stronger SEC West.