Forde-Yard Dash: The Big Ten and ACC Are Playing Favorites

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“Mormons vs. Mullets” T-shirts sold separately wherever fine Christmas gifts can be found): 

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FIRST QUARTER: THE PROBLEM WITH PLAYING FAVORITES

The Atlantic Coast Conference has already done the deed. Last week the league gamed its own system to alleviate stress on its best football programs, declaring the regular season over on Saturday for Notre Dame (1) and Clemson (2). The phrase used in the release announcing the decision said the league’s athletic directors voted “to preserve the integrity of the ACC football championship game.” (The league did refrain from calling it what it likely is: The Dabo Directive.)

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That kept the front runners from having to risk either a loss or injuries on Dec. 12, and gave them an open date heading into the ACC title game. Meanwhile, the rest of the league was told to slog onward, churning out TV inventory, because those teams don’t matter as much.

The plan—like all other ACC plans in 2020—worked to the conference’s advantage. The Fighting Irish routed last-place Syracuse and avoided a trip to play a pretty good Wake Forest team. The Tigers routed Virginia Tech and got to tell potential Dec. 12 opponent Florida State to pound sand after the acrimonious postponement of their original game. And thus not only is the ACC championship matchup set, but the league’s ultimate goal is preserved:

Both Notre Dame and Clemson have very real chances to make the College Football Playoff.

Now we’ll see whether the Big Ten is ready to pull its own legislative switcharoo to enhance the playoff chances of its big dog, Ohio State (3). The undefeated Buckeyes have played just five games, and the Saturday matchup with hated rival Michigan (4) is in doubt as the Wolverines grapple with COVID-19 issues. If they don’t play and another Big Ten team does not materialize as a fill-in opponent, Ohio State won’t have played enough games to qualify for the Big Ten East championship and a spot in the conference title game. The CFP Committee selection criteria does include conference champions as a factor, and chairman Gary Barta has said number of games played has been a major discussion point.

Which leads us to the Big Ten’s potential gaming of its system. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who chaired the league’s return-to-play committee and swings a big stick in the conference, said “that’s something we’ve got to revisit,” regarding Ohio State’s tenuous status and the six-game minimum rule to win a division. Stadium’s Brett McMurphy tweeted Saturday that the league “will likely change … title game requirements to allow 5–0 Ohio State in title game if it can’t play a sixth game.”

That should go over like a lead balloon at Indiana (5), where the Hoosiers are 6–1 and having their best season in more than half a century. Yes, Ohio State beat Indiana head-to-head by a touchdown—but Indiana has avoided any COVID problems, answered the bell every week, played every game as scheduled. There is (or should be) something to say for that, in a pandemic-altered season. Changing the rules to benefit the Buckeyes, and in the process taking a possible Big Ten title away from a school that last won one in 1967, would be the apex of blueblood privilege.

So we have two Power 5 conferences playing favorites, in plain English.

How should their conference peers feel about the integrity of the championship games themselves? Worried. Because if league leadership is willing to play favorites in terms of scheduling and rules, who’s to say they stop there? If you want to take it a dark step farther, we should watch the officiating closely in those title games. This isn't to say the games will be fixed—no reasonable people believe the league office would ask for such a thing, or that the officials would comply if asked—but playing favorites does breed cynicism.

In the ACC, the desired result is Clemson avenging its loss to Notre Dame. That would leave both teams with a single defeat and probably get both in the playoff. In the Big Ten, the desired result would be Ohio State beating West champion Northwestern (6).

If either game is close, could a borderline offensive holding flag, or a defensive pass interference, or a personal foul call that favored the desired winner come into play? You’d hate to think so. But any conference willing to change its rules at this point is inviting a new level of cynicism. If a Northwestern defender so much as breathes heavily on Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields (7) in a possible Big Ten title matchup, keep an eye out for a torrent of yellow flags.

For fans who have always suspected that the conference office protected the best teams, this year you’re actually right. They’re not hiding it.

What this 2020 season has done, more than anything else, is expose the ruthlessly utilitarian outlook of the power brokers. As we have seen over and over, the lack of centralized leadership in the sport has empowered conferences to take care of themselves—and screw the competition in the process, if need be. There is less collegiality in college sports than ever—between the leagues, and even within the leagues.

Surprisingly, given its mercenary track record, the Southeastern Conference isn’t joining the scheduling flimflammery. The league has three CFP contenders, and it is making all three play this Saturday.

Alabama (8) is at 3–6 Arkansas. Florida (9) hosts 3–5 LSU. And Texas A&M (10) hosts 4–4 Mississippi. All three are heavy favorites. Winning those games is unlikely to help any of them bolster their playoff résumés. (Alabama’s résumé needs no help, which the other two currently are on the outside of the four-team bracket, looking in.)

If anything, these games are simply another layer of jeopardy—a chance to be upset, or to suffer a key injury. But the SEC has stayed the course on trying to play all its scheduled games instead of providing a Dec. 12 opt-out feature to the top contenders. That was the agreement, and the agreement is being upheld.

Now, did the SEC massage things for the teams that looked best on paper when it remade the schedule back in the summer? You could make that assertion. When the Crimson Tide’s additional 2020 opponents were Kentucky and Missouri, and Georgia’s new opponents were Arkansas and Mississippi State, there was howling across the South. But once the schedules were set, the SEC has allowed the season to play out sans overt manipulation to the advantage of the teams playing best.

Will gaming the system yield the desired results for the ACC and, maybe, the Big Ten? We’ll find out in two weeks. But there is no doubt that one of those Power 5 conferences is playing favorites with its playoff contenders, and it might well be two.

MORE DASH: Carousel Update | First-Year Coaches | The Unbeatens