The good news for hardcore college football fans is that the Big Ten and Pac-12 are back after conference officials gave the go-ahead to play a late-fall schedule. The bad news for those same fans is that the development has the potential to make the College Football Playoff less legitimate rather than more.
The pandemic caused drastic changes
Decisions over the summer by the Big Ten and Pac-12 to not play football this fall in light of the COVID-19 pandemic were expected to bring down all of FBS football for 2020. The rest of the Power 5 conferences, however, didn’t follow suit. The ACC, SEC, and Big 12 moved forward with plans to play and then proceed to the College Football Playoff in January.
Those conference executives and ADs had dollar signs in their eyes. With the Big Ten and the somewhat irrelevant Pac-12 on the sidelines, the ACC, SEC, and Big 12 all looked to reap a financial bonanza as each envisioned the possibility of two berths in the CFP semifinals.
Given that everyone took a hit from the basketball season when the NCAA Tournament was canceled in March, the extra money would help. The key would be simply getting to the season’s finish line by enforcing preventative measures and conducting regular COVID-19 testing.
To get there, the remaining members of the Power 5 canceled non-conference games and rebuilt schedules. The ACC planned on an 11-game season, and the others booked 10 contests apiece.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 pull a 180-degree reversal
The NBA has been able to pull off a conclusion to its season by building a bubble environment at Disney World in Florida. Major League Baseball couldn’t arrange similar logistics and has had a bumpy road with positive virus tests. Still, it looks as though MLB will make it to the playoffs and the World series, salvaging most of its network TV money.
Meanwhile, reality set in with Big Ten and Pac-12 administrators. With no football money coming in, Pac-12 officials had been preparing to negotiate a $1 billion loan, according to Sportico.com. The allocations would help the 12 athletic departments get through the fall without having to make more cuts. But even that would pose problems; schools would feel ongoing pain repaying the loan over 10 years, especially if another crisis hit during that time.
The Big Ten was the first to relent, announcing on Sept. 23 that it would begin an eight-game schedule on Oct. 24. The Pac-12 followed suit a day later with plans for a seven-game schedule commencing Nov. 6. Each will play a conference championship game just before the College Football Playoff selection committee meets on Dec. 20.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 could make a farce of the CFP
The late decision to play a fall season leaves the Big Ten and Pac-12 with no way of making up games if positive COVID-19 tests force schools to cancel games. It’s not out of the question that one of their champions could be limited to five or six regular-season contests plus the conference championship game.
In announcing that the Pac-12 would play this fall, commissioner Larry Scott said that seven games are enough for the College Football Playoff committee to evaluate the champion. As the Dallas Morning News pointed out, Baylor and Texas Christian lost points in the eyes of the selection committee in 2014 because the Big 12 didn’t play a championship game, which would have been their 14th contest of the season.
So, a 13-game schedule wasn’t enough then, but seven games are sufficient now?
The solution, of course, might be to expand the College Football Playoff from four teams to eight. That would all but guarantee a berth for each of the Power 5 champions. But given that Pac-12 teams have struggled to earn their way into the CFP in past seasons, would their 6-1 or 7-1 champ really deserve consideration over a 9-1 or 8-2 team that finishes second in one of the SEC divisions?
Truth be told, officials of the Pac-12 and Big Ten might not even care about getting to the CFP. Collecting their network TV money for conducting a “full” season is almost certainly the actual goal.
If that’s the case, they should admit as much and leave the chase for the championship to the conferences that took the risks, committed to an actual full schedule, and did all the hard work mapping out logistics.