With the Big Ten announcing last week that they would reverse course and play a limited football schedule for 2020, talk can now legitimately turn to the College Football Playoff. Only the Pac-12 among the Power Five remains on the sidelines for now, and with every passing day, it appears the conference will abandon the season. Even with the other four conferences in action, will it be possible to establish the top four teams for the playoff fairly?
For the duration of the season, there will be no games pitting teams from different Power 5 conferences, as the SEC and Big Ten, opted for conference-only schedules, while the Big 12 and ACC placed restrictions on what non-league games could be scheduled. Without direct competition, what criteria will the playoff committee use to determine the relative strength of conferences and the teams within them? Is it even possible or desirous to make an effort?
What Are The Alternatives?
With Notre Dame, the most prominent FBS independent, now playing a full ACC schedule, one of the wild cards in the playoff system has been eliminated. For the first several seasons of the four-team playoff format, there were five conferences and the independents (most frequently Notre Dame) fighting for four spots. Without the Pac-12 in the mix and with Notre Dame playing a conference schedule, why not only take the champions of the four major conferences?
The ACC and SEC may try to argue their 10-game conference schedule, as opposed to the Big 12’s nine and the Big Ten’s eight, give their members a larger body of work, and justifies considering two teams from one of those conferences for inclusion at the expense of one of the other conferences. That argument may have some merit, but there would be no outside, objective way of determining, for instance, that a one-loss Ohio State team is less deserving than a two-loss Auburn team.
Since each conference has been left to their own devices while returning to play, there is significant merit in each major conference getting a participant in the playoff. Things can return to normal, or whatever that turns out to be, in the 2021 season, and we still get a good representative of teams in the playoff for 2020.
The SEC and ACC could easily have retained the non-conference games between the two leagues, notably Florida-Florida State, Auburn-Clemson, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Kentucky-Louisville, and South Carolina-Clemson. The rest of the Power 5 could have found an opponent, and instead of Virginia Tech playing Liberty, we might have been treated to the Hokies taking on Tennessee. Or how about Nebraska taking a trip down memory lane for a thriller with Oklahoma?
More Hurdles to Overcome
If last week’s postponement of Virginia Tech’s game with Virginia due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the football program is any indication, even the planned schedules will likely be disrupted at some point. The ACC still hasn’t finalized their conference championship game date, keeping Dec. 12 and 19 open to accommodate unforeseen changes. Problems in a single program could affect the schedules of multiple schools or even necessitate the cancellation of one or more teams’ seasons.
Among the 2020 “Power Four” conferences, only the ACC has already begun conference play. The SEC doesn’t start to play until next week. The Big 12 teams have only played non-conference games to date, with almost catastrophic results as Kansas State and Iowa State suffered losses to Sun Belt teams Arkansas State and Lousiana.
There is still a long way to go before a College Football Playoff could become a reality, and if we’ve learned anything from the events of 2020, it’s that we really don’t know much.