Writers Roundtable: The Status of College Football

A candid conversation between SportsPac12 on how COVID-19 could affect the 2020 season



By Dane Miller, Nick Bartlett, and Mik Dietlin, SportsPac12


 

Dane Miller: The unknown factor of COVID-19 has cast doubt on the upcoming college football season. Fortunately, progress is being made on multiple fronts, which should allow for games to be held, possibly with limited fan attendance. On the other hand, scheduling may end up being altered, and games could be canceled.

But even if we wind up with a condensed season, there will be plenty of unfolding storylines and drama.

Will Oregon make the College Football Playoff? Will Washington return to relevancy? Will USC finally meet expectations? On top of such obvious themes, there are several programs with new head coaches, and a few headmen that may end up on the hot seat at the end of the year.

With all the moving pieces, it would be a shame if we didn’t get some form of college football in the fall. Optimistically, things will become clearer over the next two months and a sense of normalcy will return. Until then, there is no shortage of time to discuss the status of college football.

What are your thoughts, Nick? In particular, if we do end up with a condensed season, is it valid to question the legitimacy of whoever wins the National Championship?

Nick Bartlett: I don’t think it’s fair to question the National Champion in any way, shape, or form. Whoever ends up holding the trophy at the end of the year started amid the same circumstances, as every other program in the country.

What could be particularly interesting is to see how, and if, the absence of spring ball levels the playing field. Even though it may be easy to forget at times, these are still young adults in their late teens and early twenties, and they may not have the discipline to establish productive routines on their own behalf. If they were already on campus, weight trainings, film sessions, and hungry upperclassmen likely would’ve dictated their actions in a productive manner.

This lack of stability could allow smaller-conference teams with more disciplined players the opportunity to knock off the blue bloods, who’s athletes may partake in a couple extra glitter-foam parties during the off-season.

One thing’s for sure, sports fans throughout the country are fervently hoping that college football returns regardless of what configuration it takes. But from an ethical standpoint, if non-student-athletes aren’t allowed on campus, then what message are we sending to our youth? This would be a clear indication that athletes hold more power than your everyday college student. Are institutions of learning about the safety of their students, or is it about their bottom-line profits? Mik what do you think?

Mik Dietlin: The quick answer to your last question, Nick, is both. I would never accuse college officials of negligence regarding the health and safety of their students and student-athletes. But it’s naive to imagine the priority isn’t the entertainment/profit model as established by professional sports. That’s the engine revving up the sports machine. It’s simply a moot point to advocate that non-student-athletes ought to be treated with some idea of fairness.

I don’t recall mass-protesting when professionals were allowed to compete in the Olympics. All we cared about was beating the crap out of the Soviets. A similar nonchalant reaction will occur if student-athletes are granted access to school facilities ahead of non-student-athletes. You could see slight outrage from people prone to exhibit outrage, but little more.

Nature will ultimately determine the shape and scope of collegiate sports scheduling. Or at least it should. While I see plenty of reasons for a cautious approach to the immediate future of college sports, it’s necessary to test the waters to see how far out we can go.

We still have to consider the possibility of COVID-19 returning later this year, on a serious level. Are we prepared to turn back the clock? My biggest worry, and I’d like to hear your views on this, Dane, is how prepared or willing are we to reinstate social perimeters, returning to life without sports, if reopening proves to be a mistake?

Dane: We are more prepared than we were in March. The willingness to return to lockdowns with no sports, however, is a different story.

Still, even if the virus were to return, it seems more plausible that we would have sports, just without fans in attendance. The knowledge gained in the various professional leagues that have come back, particular the UFC and NASCAR, will create the playbook for how to keep a league going without fans. It involves widespread and consistent testing along with strict social distancing and team-member limitation.

In football, you could see it take a form where each team is limited to a certain number of players at the stadium, with their bench extended into the stands to allow for social distancing. There wouldn’t be any fans and the broadcasts would be limited to essential personnel only. Of coarse, each player would be tested weekly and steps would be taken to ensure they isolate as much as possible between games.

But that is assuming the virus does return, which if you are an optimist like myself, is not likely. News articles can claim a “second wave” is coming, but the reality is nobody knows.

Turning back to my theme of questioning the legitimacy of this year’s National Champion in the event of a condensed or modified season: I think it’s fair to put an asterisk on this year. For example, if Ohio State squeaks by Oregon at the beginning of the year in front of no fans, and Oregon then runs the table but doesn’t receive an invitation because of that loss, it seems valid to question the legitimacy of the teams invited to the Playoff. Especially if we get an SEC or Big 12 team whose marquee nonconference game was canceled.

Nick, are you saying there aren’t any envisioned scenarios where Oregon could get snubbed again because of scheduling modifications, and specifically, if the Ducks lose in Eugene to the Buckeyes in front of no fans?

Nick: There is always the opportunity of a team getting snubbed, even in a “normal” college football season. But I don’t think Oregon is comparable to Ohio State. The Ducks were a two-loss team with a first-round NFL Draft pick at quarterback, and nothing leads me to believe they’ll be better this year. The Pac-12 is hands down my favorite conference, but we’re not elite at football… not even close. I don’t think Oregon could beat Brutus even with Ducky fans in attendance.

Last season, UO had its chance to claim a spot in the College Football Playoff, but couldn’t beat Arizona State. If Oregon can’t beat a team like the Sun Devils, they shouldn’t be considered in the same class as the Buckeyes. In 2019, OSU destroyed the first 10 opponents on their schedule, and finished their season knocking off three ranked opponents by ten points or more. Aside from the loss in the National Semifinals, they were untouchable. In comparison, UO struggled against Cal, Stanford, and Oregon State.

If the Ducks lose at Autzen to the Buckeyes, then that’s their fault. They are still playing on their striped home turf, waking up in their own frilly beds, and staying within the confines of their everyday routines. Ohio State is the group that’s taking a cross-country flight into enemy territory, whether the fans are in attendance or not.

As Pac-12 analysts, we tend to believe our best teams are disrespected, when in reality they’re just not that good. In fact, I’d argue that if a condensed schedule does take place, that it would benefit our conference more than harm it.

Whoever wins this year’s National Championship should receive the exact same respect as any other champion. Change is a natural part of life, and the ability to adapt is usually paramount in achieving success. If a Pac-12 school doesn’t win the natty, it’s not because they got snubbed, it’s because they weren’t good enough.

But what do you think Mik? Do you think a condensed schedule would help or hurt the conference’s bid for a national champion? Do I just hate the Pac-12, or does Oregon really have a chance at making a title run?

Mik: I don’t see how asterisking the national championship winner because of schedule-tightening due to a pandemic, provided we’re all playing by the same rules, helps anything. Qualifying championship runs are normally reserved for abnormalities like the 1919 Chicago White Sox, the 2017/18 Houston Astros, and the 2000-2020 New England Patriots. The Pats will never have an asterisk next to their name because, as every man, woman, and child alive knows, Bill Belichek is a genius.

If you’re going to reduce the games in college football, schedule within your conference and eliminate nonconference match-ups, the selection committee will have much less comparative data at their disposal. But so what? They’ll have to rely on the eye test more to determine the playoff, if it remains part of the equation.

A condensed schedule only hurts the Pac-12, if one believes in that dark and nefarious monster called East Coast Bias. The unshakable belief by a majority of the selection committee that the Pac-12 is an inferior conference will translate to its teams having a more difficult road to the National Championship game. I just don’t think that prejudice exists within the committee.

All the top Pac-12 teams have to do is start winning more of these big nonconference games than they lose. Oregon has had the most success over the past decade doing this, and they get as much respect from the East Coast media as they deserve. Washington, Stanford, USC, and Utah remain locked in Rodney Dangerfield-mode.

But the Pac-12 isn’t as far behind as people think. The Big Ten is widely considered the second-best conference, if not the best. Beside Ohio State, who really strikes fear around the country? Minnesota? Michigan? Sorry. Maybe they’re the most balanced conference, but every-team-minus-one is beatable.

Yet, Oregon can win it all, condensed scheduling or not. But whoever emerges from the Pac-12 season as the elite teams must close the frickin’ deal at the end and win the games they need to get the opportunity.

Dane, if we do have an abbreviated season with just conference games, do you construct the postseason differently? How would you do it?

Dane: A season with conference games only would be an unmitigated disaster for Playoff Selection purposes. It would be nearly impossible to pick four teams.

Predictably, the Committee may even end up giving the nod to two SEC schools due to the perception of that league.

Putting that aside, I don’t think there is a way to modify the postseason. The bowl games are contractually obligated and the Committee can’t expand the Playoffs. Realistically, the bowls could get cancelled and the AP voters would have to name the National Champion.

But if it were up to me, the Playoff would be expanded to at least eight teams, and preferably 16, with a cap on the number of programs from each conference. Such an expanded system would be the most equitable way to determine a true National Champion, if the pivotal non-conference matchups were canceled.

Fortunately, I don’t think we get to that point. Nobody can predict what will happen in June or July, but clarity is just over the horizon. In the end, normalcy will return.

But what do you think Nick? How would the Committee pick four teams if the nonconference season was cancelled?

Nick: I think that they would pick the same as they always do, based off of whatever magical formula the committee holds in their tight-lipped circle.

The nonconference schedule may eliminate some of the matchups that fans are excited about, but ultimately conference play should be the deciding factor as to whether a team qualifies for the College Football Playoff or not.

It is usually an unexpected slip-up late in the year that eliminates a team from playoff contention—not preseason action.

However, I cannot put aside the notion that the SEC doesn’t regularly deserve two, if not three teams in the final four. In the 2020 NFL Draft they had 15 players selected in the First Round; the Pac-12 had three. The SEC has earned its reputation as the NCAA’s premier conference, and if that lands them an extra spot in the tourney, good for them.

In my opinion, the committee usually does an excellent job, and I’d expect the same out of them this year.

But circling back to you, Mik. How important do you think nonconference play is in determining a playoff bid? Any other thoughts or concerns?

Mik: Aside from conference championships, nonconference play is the most important criteria used to determine a team’s worth, especially if a non-conference win was against a Top 25 opponent on the road. I’m not certain if the selection committee views it that way, but I do. That’s why a Buckeye win against Oregon is so vital to their chances of reaching the final four.

But losing the opportunity to build a resume by playing big nonconference games early in the season doesn’t hurt a team, it only helps them if they get a “W.” In a shortened season with only nonconference games, 9-0 (an arbitrary number) looks pretty good no matter what conference you’re in.

Strength of schedule is always a factor for the selection committee, but in a conference-games-only format it’s less of one, though still a strong measuring tool to separate teams that otherwise are pretty equal.

This will be a season maligned with logistical issues. We’ve got to accept that traditional methods will have to take alternative courses this year, and—who knows?—maybe into the foreseeable future. For example, with a nine or 10 game schedule, we can’t realistically think we’ll have enough six-win teams to fill all the bowl games, so we’ll have to reduce the number to five. Oh, boy.

Maybe we’ll have a full schedule after all. It’d be nice. We would be spared the idiotic banter from some die-hards defending their team in the manner of, “Well, if they had played 12 games no doubt they would have been in the conference championship!”

The answers will come, step by step.

Dane: Alright guys, this was a good first roundtable, with plenty of different perspectives and interesting takes. I’m glad we were able to come together for this story on the status of college football as it pertains to the Pac-12. The season is just over the horizon!

 





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