It’s no secret that the last few days haven’t been, umm, inspiring around the college football world. From the Ivy League postponing fall sports, to the Big Ten and Pac-12 going conference only and none other than Greg Sankey putting a wet blanket on the start of the season, things aren’t exactly moving in the right direction right now.
To use a tired and over-used cliché, the only certainty these days, is uncertainty.
Yet if we’re to look at things through a relatively glass is half of full prism and assume we get football in some form the next few months (whether it’s the fall, or even the spring) it leads to so many fascinating questions. And since I’m a glass is half full guy and do believe we’ll get football (I actually think it will be in the fall, even in a limited schedule) let’s take a look at some of them.
We’ll go ahead and skip the super obvious ones (Will there be a season? Will all conferences go league only?) and get to some of the more interesting ones. Some you might have thought about already. Many you probably haven’t.
But sports are supposed to be fun, or at the very least interesting. And there is nothing more interesting than trying to figure out the following questions over the next few months.
Are we headed for home-and-homes in college football?
Let’s start with something simple and something fun. And in sports world that is defined by getting home-and-homes (Red Sox-Yankees, Celtics-Lakers, Duke-North Carolina) college football is the one sport where the concept doesn’t really exist. Well, at least until possibly this season anyway. That’s because if we do go to league-only schedules across the sport, what happens to those poor, pesky, little independents?
Now look, we all know Notre Dame is an independent and will be just fine no matter what (we’ll get to the Irish in a moment). But what many people fail to realize (or maybe more aptly put “don’t really care about”) is that there are five other FBS schools that classify themselves as independents in college football: Army, BYU, Liberty, UMass and, for the first time this year, my alma mater UConn. The Huskies join the independent ranks after all other sports (most notably basketball) returned to the Big East.
So the question now is, what happens to those schools? Just as an example, UConn has already had two games cancelled (Indiana, at Illinois) with trips to three more Power 5’s – North Carolina, Virginia and Ole Miss – on the schedule as well. What happens if the ACC, Big 12 and SEC go to league only games? Could they fill out the schedule by playing the other independents already on their schedule a second time?
That’s right, could we be talking about a…
UCONN-UMASS REVENGE GAME?!?! EAT YOUR HEARTS OUT ALABAMA-LSU!!!!!
In all seriousness it feels like it could trend that way, even if all these conferences don’t go league only. BYU for example, has already had four games (three against Pac-12 schools, one against a Big Ten opponent) cancelled. And they’ll need to fill out whatever they can on the schedule however they can.
Beyond that, the home-and-home concept could, in theory, happen at the the Power 5 level as well. For example, if every league ends up going to a truncated 10-game schedule (not saying it will happen, but it could) what happens to the Big 12, which only has nine opponents for teams to play in conference? Could we see say Oklahoma play Texas, Oklahoma State or Iowa State a second time, or heck, even a third time, if conference title games are played?
I told you this list would get weird in a hurry. And it doesn’t get much weirder than UConn-UMass revenge games, or Oklahoma-Texas times three.
What about Notre Dame? If they get absorbed into the ACC, would that make them eligible to be “ACC champ?”
As soon as the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced they would go to a league only format, one of the first questions that popped up was “What will happen to Notre Dame.” Well, like always, the Irish were given a golden parachute by the ACC, who said they will help the Irish fill out their schedule. Notre Dame already has six ACC schools on their schedule (including a visit from Clemson in November) and it appears the league will help them add more games if need be.
So with that said, here was something that popped into my head today though: Let’s assume that everyone plays league only games in 2020. And let’s say Notre Dame goes 9-1 against a schedule made up entirely of ACC opponents. Does that mean they’d qualify for the ACC title game? In theory it would depend on what division they were placed in, or if divisions were eliminated all together. But it’s worth noting.
So much random stuff to think about when it comes to college football, depending on the form we get it. Example: Say Notre Dame goes 9-1 against an all-ACC schedule. Do they play the ACC title game? If theyre on the fringe of a playoff berth, would they want to if not eligible?
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) July 14, 2020
There is obviously an argument to be made that they should be (it would certainly help the ACC out ratings-wise), but let me flip the script another way: Let’s say they weren’t allowed to be part of the title game? Would they want to be?
Imagine a scenario where they were that 9-1 team, but not expected to play in the ACC title game. Well, in that case they’d likely be playing Clemson, and realistically, wouldn’t Notre Dame want to play in the ACC title game, as it could help their playoff resume? On the flip side, would that be the only scenario where the ACC wouldn’t want the Irish in the ACC title game, if it meant they could potentially knock Clemson out of the playoff picture?
On the other hand, let’s say Notre Dame pulls off an upset against Clemson during the regular season. At that point, wouldn’t both the Irish and the ACC want them to sit out the game? And wouldn’t Clemson need them to play it?
Again, just some wild, fascinating stuff to think about.
For the “expand the playoff” crowd, is this the year we finally get it?
While nothing would really qualify as a “positive” as it relates to a global pandemic, one of the unique things that has seemed to emerge from it is that sports have finally changed some things that have needed changing for years. For years, we’ve been clamoring for a shortened NFL preseason – and this year we’ll get it. Same for the universal DH in baseball. It’s coming in 2020, people!
Well, if there was ever a year to experiment with an expanded College Football Playoff, doesn’t this feel like the season?
Understand that one of the biggest issues with college football is that – even under normal circumstances – there is no uniform scheduling. Some conferences schedule FCS teams, some don’t. Some play nine league games, others only eight. Well this year could be like that, only on steroids. We could be looking at a scenario where some conferences play 12 games, some maybe as few as seven or eight (depending on when the season starts, outbreaks etc.). Some may play a full out of conference schedule, some will play none.
Therefore, how will we really be able to compare conferences? Is there any real way to know if an undefeated Pac-12 team is better than a two-loss SEC team? To take it a step further, is there any way to compare an SEC team that could potentially play 12 regular season games, but only eight in conference, with a Big Ten team that plays 10 games in conference only?
If there is ever a year to go make the playoff eight or 12 teams, this feels like the one.
On the flip side, is this the end of “meaningless bowl games” as we know them?
To be abundantly clear, I’m a proud member of the “There Can Never Be Too Many Bowl Games” crowd. We all complain about how “meaningless” they are, but they rate well on TV, and frankly give us something to do during the quiet weeks around Christmas and New Year. You’re off of work, and it’s 11:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, December 28th. Did you really have anything better to do than watch Purdue vs. Boise State in the Kraft Mac and Cheese Bowl in Tacoma?
Don’t lie, you didn’t.
Ultimately though, as much as I love all bowl games, they really only serve two real purposes: They give TV networks something to put on, again, at a slow time in the sports calendar. And coaches love them because you get extra practices in. Yet the bottom line remains that for schools themselves, they are largely money losers.
Therefore, in a circumstance where we have shortened the season and limited travel for fear of the spread of a virus, do any of us really see these schools sending their 6-4 team to play a 5-5 team, when it would require extensive travel and potential exposure to the virus? Especially when they are set to lose money on the game, in a year where they’ve already lost millions of dollars in their athletic department?
It doesn’t seem likely.
And this may mark the end of the “meaningless bowl” era. Even as much as I love it.
If the season gets pushed to the spring, would early enrollee freshmen be eligible to play?
While I still believe pushing the season to the spring is on the extreme back-burner, one thing you can assume is that if we do go to a spring season, there will be roster attrition before it even starts. The elite players wouldn’t play (more on that coming), and many fifth-year guys who were set to graduate in December would probably walk away if they knew they didn’t have an NFL future. After all, if your degree is in hand, and you’re no longer passionate about the sport, why put your body through an extra season?
It also leads to a fascinating question: Would mid-year enrollees have eligibility for a spring season?
For those not familiar, mid-year enrollees are high school players who graduate in December then show up to college in January. Players do it to get a full spring practice in, and in theory, a jump on their freshman counterparts.
So yeah, would mid-year enrollees get immediate eligibility?
And if they did, there are so many more fascinating questions that would come with it.
If they were eligible, would many choose to sit out, knowing they’d burn a year of eligibility? On the flip side, would the NCAA give them a fifth year of eligibility for that same reason? Furthermore, if we’re assuming there is no fall college football, it’s probably fair to assume that at least in some places there would be no high school football. Would the guys who didn’t play high school be at a physical disadvantage having not played competitive football in over a year? On the other hand, would the guys who actually did play high school football be at a physical disadvantage because their bodies were so beat up?
Which leads me to this: If we got an announcement here soon that college football was going to the spring, would we see high school players opt out of their senior years of high school, knowing they can play college football in January? Basically would the Zion Williamson “shut it down” philosophy come to a high school near you?
Speaking of which…
Could the Zion Williamson “shut it down” conversation be coming to college football?
So one of the many reasons why college administrators are against spring football is the reality that the best players simply wouldn’t play. Guys like Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields would have too much to lose in a case like that. There are obvious injury concerns, but also the reality of playing a full college season and immediately jumping into NFL minicamps with a full NFL season to follow.
I keep hearing that if the NFL moved it’s draft back that could help, but would it? Unless the NFL is planning on moving back the entire 2021 season, it would put way too much of a physical toll on players to try to play both back-to-back.
But while so much of the focus is on guys like Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, what about guys that are closer to the fringe? Furthermore, could we see players play a week or two, ball out, improve their draft stock and decide to “shut it down?” In other words, are we going to see the Zion Williamson conversation from a few years ago come to college football?
I honestly believe it’s inevitable anyway (at some point, there is going to be a Top 10 pick on a 4-4 team that realizes with two or three games left in the season that he has nothing to play for). But again, this would be like that on steroids.
Again, imagine you’re a star quarterback but fringe NFL Draft prospect. Let’s say you put up monster numbers through four weeks of the season. By that point it’s mid-March and you’re getting buzz as a legit first round talent. Is it really worth the risk of playing the final part of the season? Again, not just in the case that you suffer a severe injury. But just in the idea of putting your body through the wear and tear of playing a college season, followed by an NFL season just a few months later?
Trust me, if we play spring ball, this will be a hot topic and week-to-week conversation.
Does a spring season actually create more national title and playoff contenders?
Just about my only beef with college football, is that over the last few years it feels like even among the top tier programs and conferences, a super elite has emerged. Clemson has made the playoff five straight seasons. Alabama had made it five straight prior to this season. Oklahoma has made it three straight, and four of the last five. Ohio State and Oklahoma are always in the mix. We’ll find out if LSU fits into this group in the coming seasons.
Which weirdly brings up a fascinating point: Would a spring season actually create more playoff contenders?
In that scenario again, the best teams would be decimated by stars departing. Think about it. Alabama has five players of the Top 32 players in Todd McShay’s first 2021 NFL Draft big board. Even as well as Nick Saban has recruited, you think he could lose all five and not miss a beat? If Trevor Lawrence doesn’t play, Clemson is still good. But are they “national title” good with Lawrence’s back-up playing in his place? Especially when that back-up is likely true freshman DJ Uuiagalelei?
If that happened, wouldn’t it also level the playing field for those teams who are good, but can’t quite get over the hump of those elite teams with all that NFL talent? Would it mean that this is finally the year Penn State gets past Ohio State and into the playoff? Or Georgia knocks off Alabama in the SEC? Or that Oklahoma could actually beat an Alabama, Clemson once they get to the playoff?
To quote Dumb & Dumber: “So you’re saying there’s a chance.” Yes, Penn State fans. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
Finally, the biggest question: What if some teams go full speed ahead, and some can’t play at all?
If you listen to my podcast or follow on Instagram, I have spent a good chunk of the last week railing against leadership at the NCAA level. In March, we saw the Ivy League cancel its conference tournament, and everybody eventually follow suit. Now it seems like we’re basically seeing the same in football, all while Mark Emmert twiddles his thumbs in Indianapolis.
It has shown how truly fractured college athletics is. And how every league is really only looking out for itself.
Which leads to the ultimate hypothetical: What if one league presses on with something of a normal schedule, all while other conferences have to cancel or postpone all their seasons together? Can you imagine the headaches it would cause?
Let me give you an example.
On Monday, California re-closed gyms across the state, calling into question whether college football teams are even allowed to work out on campus (I actually talked to one DI basketball program whose players were set to return to campus later this week – and postponed it after yesterday’s news). Let’s say, God forbid, nothing ever gets better, and USC, UCLA, Cal and Stanford can’t even get into the gym and train and can’t play a college football season.
It would suck. But at this point it’s feasible.
Now, let’s say Greg Sankey says “We don’t really care about what’s going on in California, we have a football season to play” and decided to move on as planned. Whether it’s a regular 12-game season, league only doesn’t really matter. But can you imagine if one conference played a season and others didn’t, the headaches it would cause?
At that point, would the NCAA give extra eligibility to seniors that couldn’t play in the Pac-12? If they didn’t, it would cause crazy uproar, and if they did, wouldn’t they have to give them to the SEC teams as well? It doesn’t seem fair that USC could essentially have two full senior classes on campus next fall, while everyone in the SEC only had one. What about underclassmen? Would everyone get an extra year of eligibility? What would it mean for scholarship counts and recruiting classes? Could some programs be allowed to keep more players on scholarship than others?
Talk about a mess. And it’s one that the folks in Indianapolis somehow don’t see coming.
One thing that’s for certain: Those who actually are in charge – the conference commissioners – have a lot of decisions to make.
And not a lot of time to make them.