There’s been a maddening pivot as the college football season has safely gotten underway. Many have shifted from saying it can’t be done to trying to undercut its legitimacy. Some have argued this on the grounds that some games could be swayed by who is held out due to COVID-19 infections or contact-tracing protocol. Others have argued that some Power 5 teams not participating makes crowning a true champion impossible.
The former is an easy argument to tackle. Championships are heavily influenced by injuries (see 2009 Alabama beating Texas sans Colt McCoy), and players are held out due to various rules (see Deon Cain’s suspension in 2015) all the time. The latter argument, missing 26 Power 5 teams, is tougher. Fortunately, this argument was blown up when the Big Ten reversed course and decided a fall football season could safely be played after all:
The Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors (COP/C) adopted significant medical protocols and has voted unanimously to resume the football season starting the weekend of October 23-24, 2020: https://t.co/b5yHShGb1D— Big Ten Conference (@bigten) September 16, 2020
For football fans, this is obviously great news. More football is better than less football. This has serious, practical implications beyond that too. We’ve already seen cuts to non-revenue sports, putting coaches out of jobs and student athletes out of their dreams. Iowa announced they are discontinuing men’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, and men’s tennis. More recently, Minnesota announced plans to cut three men’s sports. Despite the return of Big Ten football, this remains the plan in part because the season will be shorter.
The shortened season brings us to one of the most interesting points of the Big Ten’s plan. They will attempt to play nine games in nine weeks ending on December 19th (the same date the SEC and likely the ACC conclude). It’ll be an eight-game regular season followed by a championship week that includes all 14 teams squaring off:
“A very unique champions week where the teams from the East and West will match up and play one another. 2 versus 2; 3 versus 3; 4 versus 4, etc.” – Barry Alvarez
This would get each team to their usual nine conference games. The championship weekend idea is particularly innovative and deserves applause, but will nine games in nine weekends work? Given the strict guidelines around cancelling games, it could be challenging:
If the proportion of positive tests to total tests administered on a team exceeds 5%, the Big Ten is requiring teams to “stop regular practice and competition for a minimum of 7 days.”
Additionally, players that test positive must miss three weeks:
“If somebody is positive for COVID-19 via a point-of-contact daily test, they’ll take a polymerase chain reaction test to confirm the result. Provided that returns a positive result as well, the player would be forced to sit out games for at least 21 days following the test. Jim Borchers, Ohio State’s team physician, says the three weeks off of games are due to the desire to have players acclimate back to their teams for a week after spending 14 days away from them.”
This looms large over Ohio State’s possible inclusion in a college football playoff. While a 9-0 Big Ten Champion Ohio State would likely get in the playoff over a 10-1 conference runner-up from the SEC (e.g., Georgia, Florida), what if Ohio State manages to play only seven or eight games? Those are the tough questions that the committee may face.
From the perspective of a Clemson fan, I’m thrilled to have them back. With Ohio State - and to a lesser extent Penn State - in the fold, all the legitimate National Championship contenders are playing. While the Pac-12 remains out, few would argue that their participation in the season impacts Clemson or the National Championship race. Clemson hasn’t played a Pac-12 team since the 1991 season (Cal in the 1992 Citrus Bowl; they played Colorado in the 2005 Champs Sports bowl, but they were in the Big 12 then). The Pac-12 hasn’t earned a National Title since USC did it in 2003.
Clemson is seeking their third National Championship in the Dabo era, and now they’ll potentially have the full slate of blue bloods to fight through to get it! Big Ten teams may even see some of their previously opted out players opt back in. Penn State TE Pat Freiermuth and Ohio State OL Wyatt Davis have already opted back in for the Fall season. Ohio State CB Shaun Wade as well as Purdue WR Rondale Moore are still TBD.
There will likely be strange twists and turns as the season gets underway, but right now I am happy for the players and coaches in the Big Ten that so badly wanted to play. I’m happy for more of the sport we love, and I’m happy Clemson’s potential championship will have no clouds hanging over it.