We have reached the No Wiggle Room portion of the college football season. And if you thought navigating a pandemic was difficult before, well, November and December are here to up the ante.
Now, the College Football Playoff selections could be materially impacted as the sport runs out of rescheduling real estate. As long as the status quo holds, with a four-team playoff and semifinals set on New Year’s Day, the sport is crunching itself to reach a messy conclusion.
The complications of postponed and canceled games are coming home to roost. The situation is especially acute in the Big Ten, which had no open dates to begin with, but it’s getting harder in the Southeastern Conference as well. That league accounts for four of the eight (for now) postponed or canceled FBS games this week: Alabama at LSU; Texas A&M at Tennessee; Georgia at Missouri; and Auburn at Mississippi State. The other Power 5 cancellation is Ohio State at Maryland, which cannot be made up at a later date. Those games involve five ranked teams, including three in the AP top five.
The math is going to be interesting for the selection committee.
Ohio State (3–0) will play a maximum of eight games; four more in the regular season and one in the conference’s East-West jamboree—quite likely the Big Ten championship game. Right now, the Buckeyes’ strength of schedule—past and future—is terrible. The combined record of the three teams it has beaten is 1–7. The record of its remaining regular-season opponents is 5–7. The one and only team on the slate that currently is above .500 is 3–0 Indiana.
That can all shift over time. But for now, believe it or not, losing the game Saturday against the surprisingly 2–1 Terrapins might actually hurt.
It stands to reason that a 7–0 East Division champion Ohio State would draw a quality opponent from the West in the league title game. Maybe 6–0 Wisconsin, or 7–0 Purdue, or 8–0 Northwestern. But if that division beats itself up over the next four weeks, the Buckeyes could be presenting an 8–0 résumé built on not much other than name brand and dominance.
The pitch to the selection committee would be: Trust us, we’re good. And it would be true. But how would the actual résumé stack up with the rest of the sport’s elite?
For that matter, what if Wisconsin (1–0) wins the Big Ten, having played a total of seven games? Is there a price to be paid for a smaller sample size of victories?
If you’re comparing a 7–0 Wisconsin with, say, an 11–0 Cincinnati, how much do the four additional victories matter? We assume that the American Athletic Conference is weaker than the Big Ten because it always has been—but do we know that for sure this year, with the dearth of nonconference games?
Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese was on some of the early CFP selection committees. He told me in September that this year’s group is up against it. “The nonconference games were such a big factor,” Tranghese said. “I don’t know how you deal with this and the discrepancies in number of games.”
The compare/contrast challenges could be all over the place: Would 7–0 Oregon or USC be better than 10–0 BYU? Would a second Atlantic Coast Conference team with one loss (Clemson or Notre Dame) be more deserving than the Bearcats or Cougars, if they run the table?
In the SEC, the games postponed this week might all be played at a later date—although rescheduling Alabama-LSU would require moving around some other games as well. But Georgia-Missouri, for instance, might be stashed on Dec. 19, the same day as the SEC championship game, provided neither team is playing in it. (Florida is the heavy East Division favorite.) Other SEC games might land on that date as well.
All those games would provide is TV inventory—and don’t underestimate the importance of that when it comes to conferences raking in all the cash they can. The games won’t decide who wins the conference. They won’t decide bowl eligibility, since bowls can basically invite anyone they want regardless of record. Many of them will be played in bad weather, during or after final exams, and at a time when most teams traditionally are giving their players a chance to heal and exhale before bowl preparations—or a longer exhale for those who aren’t going bowling.
From a playoff perspective, the one option that would alleviate the time crunch and the dilemma of choosing four teams from disparate data is to expand the playoff to six or eight teams and increase the margin for error of leaving out a potential national champion.
To do that, the CFP would have to move off its sacrosanct semifinal dates on New Year’s Day. That’s a big ask, given the TV cache of playing on a national holiday that a large slice of America traditionally reserves for things like watching the Rose Bowl.
But a quarterfinal round—or two first-round games, in a six-team playoff—could also be played on that date. The Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl semis could be shifted back another week (less complicated than usual, without the Rose Parade and other accoutrements of bowl hoopla). And then the championship game after that.
It won’t happen, of course. For one, getting the most rigid of sports to further adjust itself on the fly and add another layer to the playoff in a matter of weeks is a turn-the-battleship-in-the-bathtub task. For another, ESPN isn’t moving its Rose Bowl bonanza back a week into the teeth of the NFL playoffs. And a third, more humane reason, is that asking more of the unpaid labor force—no time off in December, more games in January—would be poorly received.
Nope, not happening. What we will have is a highly imperfect season followed by a highly imperfect postseason. But that’s basically what we signed up for in 2020.
When all is said and done, the two lamest words from any complaining fan base will be, “No fair.” Nothing about life in a pandemic is fair, including how college football will crown a champion.