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College Football Will Change Everything Except the Ohio State Playoff Debate

The 2020 season has been unlike any in the sport’s history. What does it say that it’s culminating with the same controversy that has defined the entire College Football Playoff era?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

The 2020 season has proved that nothing about college football is unmovable. In March 2019, Clemson and Oklahoma scheduled a home-and-home series for 2035 and 2036. Planning that far out makes it seem like the sport is firmly fastened into place, and that teams need to be thinking about setting games for when toddlers will be college students. But last Thursday, undefeated BYU scheduled a matchup against undefeated Coastal Carolina for the following Saturday. The Chanticleers beat the Cougars in what may have been the game of the year.

Historically, college football teams exist on college campuses. In 2020, the New Mexico football team is living out of a Las Vegas hotel and playing its whole schedule on the road. That’s because the state of New Mexico has banned mass gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, and because the team’s total hotel bill costs less than the $3.7 million the school gets from the Mountain West Conference for playing this season. Many other things that always seemed essential to the structure of the sport have also changed: the number of teams playing, the number of games being played, the number of fans in the stands, and the philosophies that dictate how games are scheduled. About 19 percent of this season’s games have been canceled due to COVID-19, many on game day itself. Some conferences installed rules establishing a 53-player minimum for rosters on game day; some teams opted to play games even when they couldn’t hit that number. There’s no rule or tradition that can’t be broken. Fans have long been led to believe that college football is a house with sturdy foundations, but this year we’ve seen that it’s more like a circus tent. Everything can be moved as the winds and dollars flow.

To a certain extent, college football has always worked this way. Until 2013, the sport’s national championship was decided by the Bowl Championship Series, and BCS executive chairman Bill Hancock spent years saying that a college football playoff would devalue the season and bring doom to the sport. “College football has the best regular season of any sport, and the lack of a playoff is a big reason why,” Hancock wrote for USA Today in 2010. Chief Playoff-Hater Hancock is now the executive chairman of the College Football Playoff. He changed his tune overnight. Hancock suddenly thinks the playoff is good because he gets paid to think the playoff is good.

Hancock controls the playoff. Nobody controls the sport at large. You might think that the NCAA—which is famous for policing recruits’ ability to eat bagels with cream cheese and players’ means of getting tattoos—would take control when college football needed guidance on how to navigate a global pandemic. You’d be wrong. The association’s stance has been Ah, that sounds tough, hope you all figure it out! Everyone in the sport has been left to fend for themselves. Predictably, everyone in the sport has acted in their own self-interest.

The Big Ten wants praise for being flexible this season, which I guess is one way of describing how the league has buckled every time it’s sprinted face-first into a problem of its own making. In August, the league became the first major conference to postpone its football season as a precaution amid COVID-19. It did so with the apparent expectation that the other major conferences would follow suit. While the Pac-12 did, the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 did not. And when these other leagues prioritized money above all else, the Big Ten scrambled to bring football back in late October just as COVID-19 cases soared in the states where the Big Ten plays football. On the day the Big Ten canceled its season, there were 958 new COVID-19 cases in Ohio, according to The New York Times; on the Friday before Ohio State played its season opener, the count was up to 2,858.

The Big Ten reversed course because it wanted to complete its season in time to send a team to the College Football Playoff. The playoff pays each power conference $66 million per year, plus an additional $6 million if the league gets a member school into the four-team field. And the date of the playoff semifinals won’t be moved, because people like watching college football on January 1. So the league crammed its eight-game schedule into a span of eight weeks, facilitating a championship game on December 19 and a potential playoff appearance on New Year’s Day. The league also installed a policy that eliminated any team with at least three canceled games from being able to compete in the Big Ten championship.

This last rule was designed to ensure that the league’s best teams would have an optimal chance of making the playoff; for instance, a 2-0 Rutgers team would not make the Big Ten title game over 5-1 Ohio State by virtue of winning percentage alone. Yet the rule turned into a problem, as it began to work against Ohio State, the league’s back-to-back-to-back champions and its only member school to ever win a College Football Playoff game. The unbeaten Buckeyes had games against Illinois and Maryland canceled in November. That meant they needed to play their regular-season finale against rival Michigan this Saturday to qualify for the league’s title game.

But Michigan is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak.The Wolverines are down 45 players from their 110-man roster, and on Tuesday, The Game was officially canceled. Other leagues moved their important rivalry games to earlier in the season so that they could be rescheduled if needed; the Extremely Flexible Big Ten kept its rivalries at the end of the year so they could get wiped out by the post-Thanksgiving coronavirus spikes.

From a playoff perspective, this cancelation probably won’t matter. For one, the Big Ten will let the Buckeyes into its conference title game anyway. The league just voted to eliminate the six-game eligibility requirement for the title game, meaning that Ohio State will take on Northwestern in the Big Ten championship. And why should the Big Ten remain locked into the rules it arbitrarily came up with three months ago? It’s less ridiculous than un-postponing a season. Plus, the Big Ten isn’t alone in changing its rules. Earlier this month, the ACC canceled Clemson and Notre Dame’s final regular-season games in hopes of ensuring an ACC championship tilt between the two teams as a way to possibly get both into the national title game. This took place only because proud FBS independent Notre Dame decided to join the ACC for one year only, another sweeping change to the sport’s historical landscape that just kind of happened after we’d always been told it couldn’t.

And while College Football Playoff selection committee chair Gary Barta has noted that there is concern over “the number of games” Ohio State has played—“Trying to evaluate a team that has four games in versus a team that has seven, eight, nine games is definitely a problem,” Barta said last week while explaining how the Buckeyes were close to falling out of the fourth and final playoff spot in the rankings—he is also one of the people who had the power to alter the Big Ten title game’s eligibility requirements. In addition to being on the committee, Barta serves as Iowa’s athletic director, as it is mandated that five of the 13 members of the committee are acting ADs at Power Five conference schools. (Barta recused himself from the Big Ten’s vote.)

The Ohio State playoff situation encapsulates the chaos that defines this season. What matters in a year when nothing is normal? And how are decisions being made when no one is in charge? Yet the answer to those questions reveals that college football does have one true constant. Even when it seems like everything’s up for grabs, power isn’t.

One of the College Football Playoff’s biggest initial selling points was that unlike in the BCS system, any team could compete for a title. (Enjoy this 2014 ESPN commercial, prominently featuring a BYU fan asking, “Why can’t we be in it at the end?”) Now in its seventh season of existence, the playoff has made clear that this simply isn’t the case. Every year, we just argue over whether Ohio State should be in the field. This isn’t an exaggeration. The Buckeyes have been at the center of a playoff controversy in four of the last six years, and are headed toward making it five out of seven. A system advertised as a means of evenly distributing power throughout the sport has worked to consolidate power at the top. Four schools (Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama, and Oklahoma) have filled 17 of the 24 playoff spots to date. If the current rankings hold, there will be no first-time playoff entrants this season, and that group will have claimed 20 of the 28 all-time slots.

As it turns out, some of Hancock’s concerns about how a playoff would change college football were true, even if he’s no longer paid to say them. This system has become the only thing that matters, at the expense of all else. Last week, ESPN commentator Kirk Herbstreit criticized the event that has been a massive windfall for his employer. “I’m worried about the focus on the playoff, that if you’re not one of the playoff teams, why does it even matter, who cares?” Herbstreit said. “That’s what college football is turning into with this playoff. If you’re in the playoff, it’s March Madness, and if you’re not in the playoff, even if you’re 9-2, it’s good riddance.”

This is a tough reality for the dozens of schools seemingly eliminated from playoff contention before a season even starts. These schools are willing to do anything to garner playoff consideration. Take the BYU–Coastal Carolina game. The undefeated Chanticleers had been scheduled to play Liberty on December 5, but when Liberty experienced a COVID-19 outbreak and had to cancel, Coastal set up a matchup with undefeated BYU as a way to help both teams catch the committee’s attention. BYU’s equipment truck raced across the United States, making it from Utah to Myrtle Beach with only a few hours to spare. Fans printed up MULLETS VS. MORMONS shirts, and the two teams fought during the game. It apparently doesn’t take 100 years to create a rivalry—you can brew one up in about about 72 hours if there’s enough on the line. The game came down to the final play, with a horde of Coastal defenders converging on the final yard of the teal turf to stop a BYU receiver from scoring a game-winning touchdown.

Saturday wasn’t the first time two undefeated teams from different parts of the country spontaneously scheduled a December matchup against each other—we call those “bowl games,” and they used to be the highlight of the college season. The BYU-Coastal game was a triumph that showed what this sport can look like when nothing is sacred. For the playoff selection committee, though, this game was meaningless. Coastal rose to no. 13 in the rankings after improving to 10-0 by knocking off one of the top teams in the country. Ohio State, of course, stayed ranked at no. 4.

In most years, there are a slew of nonconference games that establish the relative pecking order of each league. But in 2020, most power conferences canceled their nonconference slates. Except the Big 12, that is, which fared horribly. Its teams went 0-3 against Sun Belt competition, and in September the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns defeated Iowa State 31-14. Louisiana is now 9-1, with its only loss coming against still-undefeated Coastal Carolina. In the committee’s latest rankings, 8-2 Iowa State is somehow at no. 7, six spots ahead of Coastal and 12 spots ahead of Louisiana. If it weren’t for the teams involved being named the Ragin’ Cajuns and Chanticleers, how would that make sense? We already knew a committee composed largely of power-conference ADs had a tendency to overvalue power-conference teams. This is the ultimate sign that prestige overrides results.

This season has proved that virtually everything about college football can be changed at a moment’s notice. Some changes are made for financial reasons, others for competitive ones. The teams outside of the existing college football power structure are making changes to access a system that has always excluded them. But the teams and leagues that control the sport are inventing rules and trudging through a disaster season to preserve the status quo. To the Big Ten and the like, this will all be worth it if the same teams reap the benefits of playing on the sport’s biggest stage. Nothing about college football is unmovable, but if the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that the powers that be will move heaven and earth to make sure things stay the same in the end.