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Forde-Yard Dash: The Big Ten Ruckus Just Won't Quit

The Big Ten community isn't giving up the fight for football, and politicians can sense the opportunities. Meanwhile, can a Group of Five team crash the playoff this year?

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (shredder for preseason practice plans sold separately in Annapolis):

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Because a day is not allowed to pass without some public lobbying campaign in Big Ten country (11), the politicians are back. Blessed with the ability to sniff out grandstanding opportunities like bloodhounds, here they came Tuesday—10 elected officials signed a letter sent to commissioner Kevin Warren asking for football to be played. They would like that to happen as soon as possible, and the upcoming elections in less than two months have absolutely nothing to do with the letter being publicly aired.

This follows the drumbeat of tweets from Donald Trump (12) advocating for Big Ten football, which was really just him blowing air kisses to football-loving voters in key Midwest swing states. There is little risk in standing on this particular soap box, as New York Times national political correspondent Jonathan Martin told The Dash last week: “There’s definitely more upside than downside for Trump.” The same would be true for other politicians in the region.

This follows a weekend in which Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh (13) participated with some of his players in a campus march organized by another squadron of helicopter parents. Harbaugh said he hasn’t heard recently from school president Mark Schlissel on the subject of fall football, perhaps because the head of a nationally renowned academic institution with a $12.4 billion endowment has other things on his plate. One of those things is a proposed strike by the Graduate Employees Organization, which represents 2,000 grad student instructors and staff assistants. But feel free to keep marching, Harbs.

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And that followed the misinformation campaign last week that took on comical urgency in Columbus and Lincoln: Some slapstick media outlets reported that a presidential vote was taking place Friday, and the tide magically had turned to reverse the conference’s 11–3 vote for the cancellation of fall sports, and football’s return was imminent. Unless maybe the vote was going to be Saturday, when it didn’t happen Friday. And, uh, oops, then there was no vote at all. That particularly sad vigil continues.

The Big Ten’s best course of action could remain what it has been for weeks—continuing toward an indoor, January–February season in concert with the Pac-12 (14), which announced a promising testing breakthrough last week. Maybe the Quibi testing could accelerate a season start to around Thanksgiving, as has been discussed, although that changes nothing from a College Football Playoff standpoint.

The leagues could still come out of this 2020–21 morass with the best seasons of anyone—fewer interruptions, more fans, eager TV partners. We have seen a number of September games postponed in recent days, with more on the way. There’s no guarantee anyone will see a fall season through to completion, although the SEC (15) might have best positioned itself by holding off on competition until Sept. 26, giving the back-to-school virus spikes a chance to subside.

What the Big Ten can do this week to quiet the lobbying movement that will not end: finalize a new plan and a new schedule, and announce it. All the better if the Pac-12 has a joint announcement, and the season concludes in a Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge:

Champions meet in the Rose Bowl. Runners-up meet in Indianapolis. Third-place teams in Las Vegas. Fourth-place teams in Minneapolis. Fifth place in San Diego. Sixth place in Detroit. Seventh place in the Bay Area. Eighth place in Milwaukee. Ninth place in Tempe. Tenth place in St. Louis. Eleventh place in Tucson. Twelfth place in the Fargo Dome. Whatever.

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Unless things change drastically in the next few weeks (which is not out of the question in these drastic times), the College Football Playoff’s math problem will be eliminated by attrition. With five power conferences and only four seats at the CFP table, at least one league champion from the top tier of the sport was always being left out—and crying a river of bitter tears about it. This year, the Power 5 is now the Power 3, which leaves a fresh opportunity to crash the playoff.

Fewer leagues means greater chances for a Group of Five conference winner making the playoff for the first time. However, the disappearance of nonconference statement games against Power-5 opponents counterbalances that opportunity.

If you go back to the undefeated Central Florida (16) teams of 2017 and ’18, the hurdle the Knights couldn’t overcome was a lack of marquee wins outside the AAC: the ’17 team’s only Power 5 victory in the regular season was over a 4–8 Maryland team; the ’18 team’s lone Power 5 win was over a Pittsburgh team that finished 7–7.

A quick look at how the Group of Five leagues could get someone in position for playoff consideration:

AAC (17). Going unbeaten in this conference would stamp a team as very good, but you never know whether the CFP selection committee would see it that way. Thus the Sept. 19 slate is shaping up as a big one for the league: South Florida at Notre Dame; UCF at Georgia Tech; Tulsa at Oklahoma State. A victory or two on that day would add credibility to the conference.

The best team on paper looks like Cincinnati, and a Sept. 26 game against Army could help the Bearcats—but not as much as beating a team that beats a P5 opponent. Defending champion Memphis doesn’t do much for itself outside the league, playing Arkansas State and UTSA. UCF gets its opportunity against the Yellow Jackets. The Bearcats, Tigers and Knights all play each other, so it will take some work to go undefeated.

Conference USA (18). Huge game for the league—and perhaps its best team—on Thursday. That’s when UAB travels to Miami. If the Blazers get that one, they could be heavily favored the rest of the way. There are a few other important C-USA games this week: Western Kentucky at Louisville; Louisiana Tech at Baylor; Charlotte at Appalachian State.

Sun Belt (19). Appalachian State starts the season with more built-in credibility than anyone in the league, perhaps anyone in league history. That’s what going 24–3 the past two seasons will do for you, in addition to bringing back a senior quarterback of considerable ability. A Sept. 19 game at Marshall—which looked good in its opener—could offer the Mountaineers some cache. But they also need to be rooting hard for Louisiana Saturday at Iowa State. The Ragin’ Cajuns could propel themselves forward by upsetting the Cyclones.

The BYU independent gambit (20). The Cougars’ schedule is an abject disaster, a patchwork reclamation job put together when nearly every original opponent canceled fall ball or had to drop non-conference games. As it stands, BYU is playing eight games, and the last one of those against an FBS opponent is on Oct. 31. The Cougars looked awesome in destroying Navy on Monday night, but there isn’t much meat left on the scheduling bone. If BYU beats Army on Sept. 19, the program can lay claim to the Commander in Chief’s Trophy, but even at 8–0 it wouldn’t merit much CFP consideration. 

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