College football is no stranger to controversy when it comes to crowning a national champion, but this season could be unlike any other.
In an unprecedented year, with the Big Ten and Pac-12 postponing their seasons, coaches from those leagues question whether there can actually be a real champ.
“If everybody’s not involved,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said, “how is there a true champion?”
“At the very least for me, there should be an asterisk,” Stanford coach David Shaw said.
College Football Playoff leadership seems to disagree.
From the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the CFP has maintained its plan to recognize a winner on Jan. 11 at the national championship game at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. It has announced the dates of its six rankings, which begin on Nov. 17 and end on Dec. 20, Selection Day. It has announced the annual recusals for the 13 committee members who are tasked with ranking the top four teams in the country and slotting the prestigious New Year’s Six bowls. It has planned for the committee to meet in person to determine its weekly top-25 rankings and has conducted virtual training this summer for the new committee members.
Unless COVID-19 further derails the SEC, ACC and Big 12 from playing in the fall (which is still possible), this appears to be it.
“There has been no discussion about CFP in the spring,” executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN, “but, personally, I can’t envision two CFP championships.”
Neither can Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, whose conference is one of the three Power 5 leagues, along with the SEC and ACC, still hoping to kick off their seasons later this month.
“I guess anything’s possible,” Bowlsby said, “but the idea of running two different national championship series seems a little odd to me.”
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott declined to comment about their position on this season’s national championship.
Shaw isn’t asking for an entirely separate playoff, but he would like the selection committee to consider a Pac-12 or Big Ten team as a possible co-champion or “winter champion,” he said.
“It has to be factored in that these two conferences in particular are major conferences and always deserve an opportunity to win a national championship when they play,” Shaw said. “We’ve all bought into the CFP. If by the end of the winter, if there’s someone who has merit, they deserve recognition.”
“If we’re going to ask these student-athletes to play this great and wonderful and difficult game, there needs to be a purpose,” he said. “All of our young people, they want championships. They want to play for conference championships and a shot at a national championship. If we’re going to play, these young men deserve to be rewarded if they play well.”
USC coach Clay Helton is more concerned with when the Pac-12 will able to play again than who wins the national title this season and how.
“The reality of the situation is we don’t know what the future holds, for not only the conferences that are playing, but the conferences that aren’t playing,” he said. “We’ve got our fingers crossed we can do something come winter or spring, but things are going to have to trend in the right direction for that to happen. For us, I’m just looking forward to having the next opportunity to compete, and allow the kids to get on the field, whether that’s winter or spring or fall of ’21 — that’s my main concern. I’ll let the powers that be decide how we end up deciding a national champion.”
Ohio State coach Ryan Day told reporters on Aug. 12 he wasn’t giving up on the possibility of playing for a national title. Day said he would much rather have a playoff than “split a title.”
“Playing for the Big Ten championship would be the first goal, and then based on how everything shakes out with the other conferences — if they push forward, they push forward — if they decide at some point to push it back to the spring, that would make it exciting, to be able to have a CFP,” he said. “I still think we can do that. I’m certainly not giving up hope on that.”
Hancock isn’t ruling out the possibility that plans change because of the pandemic, but he has stayed away from addressing hypothetical situations throughout it.
“You know, despite the uncertainty we are dealing with, the CFP is moving forward and planning our three games just as we always would,” Hancock said. “If things change, we will deal with it, but until then our job is to put on the semis and the championship game and that’s what we will do.”
The validity of this season’s winner is arguably the biggest postseason question facing the sport as its chance of putting together a season becomes more real this weekend, with six televised games Saturday and BYU at Navy on Monday.
What does this mean for the Rose Bowl?
The Rose Bowl, which is part of the New Year’s Six bowls, is in a unique situation this season because it is hosting a CFP semifinal game on Jan. 1, but its two contractual partners — the Big Ten and Pac-12 — won’t be possibilities.
“We know that we’re going to be very patient as we move through the fall season in hoping that it is completed as planned with the three Power 5 conferences that are planning to play,” said David Eads, the Tournament of Roses’ executive director. “That is really our focus and where all of our efforts are right now, in putting that game together.”
Eads cautioned that it’s too early to speculate about a second Rose Bowl game that would look to host its traditional champions from the Big Ten and Pac-12 at a later date and said there haven’t been any discussions about it yet, but didn’t rule it out.
“We have been a dual host in that past, during the BCS model, so it’s something we have done and something we have experience in,” he said, referencing when it hosted the Rose Bowl and the BCS National Championship in 2010 and 2014, “but at this point in time it’s really premature to even speculate on a Rose Bowl game in the spring.”
If the Rose Bowl were to host a second game in the spring, the decision would have to be made by each participating conference, in conjunction with the NCAA, according to a Rose Bowl spokesperson.
For that to happen, the Big Ten and Pac-12 schedules would have to be similar, and that’s not a guarantee. The Big Ten coaches and athletic directors would like to play as soon as possible, including late November, but that might not be feasible for the Pac-12. Whittingham said he thinks “it’s unlikely” his league winds up playing at the same time.
“It’s such a fluid situation, and things change daily almost,” he said. “We’ve had so many different changes as far what we can do, what we can’t do — in the weight rooms, the meeting rooms — a constant flux is what we’re in right now.”
In mid-July, the 2021 Rose Parade was canceled because of the pandemic, marking the first time there will be no parade since World War II. Eads said that hosting a football game is more logistically feasible than the parade.
“We have about a million people who line up to see our parade every year,” he said. “We have thousands of volunteers who are in very close proximity putting flowers on the float the last three days before the parade. None of that would’ve been possible. The game is a little bit different. These teams are basically in a bubble. They would travel to Pasadena in that bubble. All of the plans we’re putting forward for a semifinal game keep those teams and their coaches and staffs in that bubble. There’s very little interaction with outside entities to keep them as safe as possible.”
Eads said whether there can be fans in the stands will be a decision made at that time by the state of California, but he still believes they will be able to host the semifinal game.
“Whatever we do, we will follow the guidelines that are in place for the state of California, through public health and through Los Angeles County as well as the city of Pasadena,” he said. “We’ll be compliant with all of the public safety ordinances.”
Speaking of bowl games …
The math doesn’t add up.
There are 82 bowl berths and 76 teams competing — not enough to fill the 41 bowl games. There’s no guarantee every team that finishes this season will want to — or be allowed by the pandemic to — play in a bowl game. One solution being considered to help fill the bowls is tossing the concept of bowl eligibility “out the window,” said Nick Carparelli, executive director of the Football Bowl Association.
Carparelli said the idea is to “make this year more of a celebration of the sport and a reward for everybody just getting through these difficult times.”
“There’s such complexities to this year,” he said, “especially with the conference-only schedules, and an uneven amount of games. Right now the conferences that are playing in the fall really want that bowl experience at the end, and the bowl games want to stage their games. That seems to be a solution that we’re pushing right now.”
The FBA is also considering starting the bowl season before conference championship games. Typically, the bowl games begin after conferences determine their winners, but the vast majority of teams wouldn’t be playing in conference title games and would be available for an earlier bowl game.
“Making it an extension of the regular season and playing games the following week seems to make a lot of sense,” he said. “We’re all challenged to throw conventional thinking out the window a little bit.”
Carparelli said a spring bowl season for the other FBS leagues is “very possible,” but also said it’s hard to predict.
“I think there are a lot of challenges to spring football,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re going to be able to pull that off or not, or whether it will be a real season, or just an abbreviated set of games. We’re following the lead of the College Football Playoff, and they’ve stated recently their intention to move forward with traditional time frames, so we’re going to try to follow that lead.”
Does this mean a Group of 5 team could finally make the playoff?
The American Athletic Conference, Conference USA and Sun Belt are also moving forward with fall football, but the AAC has positioned itself as the top Group of 5 contender in the playoff era. Without the Pac-12 and Big Ten competing, it would mathematically seem the AAC’s odds of placing a team in a semifinal for the first time would increase, but it doesn’t work that way.
One of the league’s top contenders — currently No. 20 Cincinnati and No. 21 UCF — would probably still have to go undefeated and win with style, while hoping the other leagues cannibalize themselves with their conference-heavy schedules. And of course, every league will have to overcome disruptions from the virus to further complicate uneven résumés.
“Let the season begin and as we always do,” Hancock said, “the committee will rank the teams based on the play on the field.”
The AAC will still have a few nonconference games that might impress the selection committee members — if its teams have the opportunity to play them. It starts on Monday with Navy hosting BYU, but the biggest might be South Florida against Notre Dame. UCF is also at Georgia Tech, Tulsa at Oklahoma State, and SMU plays TCU.
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said the bigger picture is that “nobody wanted this pandemic.”
“We may have a better opportunity, but I wish we didn’t in that sense,” he said. “Any advantage we have, we didn’t want. I think it’s really important to state, because I’ve hardly even thought about it through all of this. It’s all been about health and safety, it’s all been about the protocols. It’s all about hoping we can play a season. We wish the Big Ten and Pac-12 were playing. We like to match up against the best. It’s unfortunate that they’re not. Whether we have any kind of advantage we wouldn’t have had hasn’t really been on my radar.”
What about the Heisman Trophy?
The official Heisman Trophy website has a countdown clock ticking until college football’s most prestigious trophy is awarded to the best player in the sport.
The Dec. 12 announcement ceremony is the current date listed, but it doesn’t account for the fact that some of the nation’s best players might not have taken a snap by then.
“Decisions will be made by the Heisman trustees,” a spokesperson told ESPN. “At this point in time, no decisions have been made.”