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Six Key Questions for the Bizarro 2020 College Football Season

How will the playoff work without the Big Ten and Pac-12? What will the bowls do with so many teams not playing this fall? And could this year bring the end of Notre Dame’s status as an independent?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Everything about college football will be amplified in 2020. In general, college football has issues with player safety. In 2020, it is being played during a pandemic while college campuses have turned into hot spots for the spread of the coronavirus. In general, college football is built on an exploitative model of amateurism. In 2020, prominent coaches and athletic directors have openly admitted that they want the unpaid players to keep playing because of the money they generate for the schools. In general, college football is disorganized. In 2020, it has become abundantly clear that nobody is in charge of the sport. In general, college football is deeply weird. In 2020, the sport will have its weirdest season in recent memory—and probably ever.

If I had to pick the strangest aspect of the 2020 college football season, it would probably be that it’s happening at all. When the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced in August that they were postponing their fall sports seasons, joining the MAC and the Mountain West in that decision, I assumed that the other leagues would follow suit within a matter of days. Instead, the rest of college football is forging ahead. The other leagues will play a fall season without some of the sport’s marquee programs, and they’ll follow rules that are being improvised as the season goes along.

A week into September, I’m more confident than ever that the 2020 college football season will be completed. The conferences that are playing seem incredibly determined to push through. While those teams can have a season, however, they can’t have a normal season.

This became evident in the first game of the year: the nationally televised FCS Kickoff Classic between Austin Peay and Central Arkansas. The first unusual thing about this game was that it didn’t kick off the FCS season, because there is no FCS season. Austin Peay has just three scheduled games in 2020. The second unusual thing about this game was that Austin Peay was without all three of the long snappers on its roster:

Things get weird when teams don’t have their long snappers. The Governors briefly tried to punt like normal, but after two bad snaps resulted in losses of 27 and 12 yards, respectively, they simply had their quarterback punt the ball away on fourth downs. A bad snap and a shank by the QB led to two easy Central Arkansas field goals in a game that the Bears went on to win on a last-minute touchdown. I’ve never heard of a team missing three long snappers in a game, let alone in the season opener. Austin Peay’s athletic department declined comment on why all three long snappers were missing; the school issued a press release in which it said that it was “unable to comment on any individual student-athlete’s health.”

Given that COVID-19 spreads through close personal interactions, it seems likely that Austin Peay’s long snappers were absent because at least one of them tested positive for the virus. Teams across the nation have been advised to quarantine players who have been in close contact with those who’ve tested positive, resulting in entire position groups being wiped out of practices and games. When Texas State played Southern Methodist on Saturday, for example, the Bobcats had no available tight ends, and asked their offensive linemen to fill in.

Even if we look beyond the broader, most pressing questions about this season—like whether it’s safe to play football, and whether it’s morally just to ask players to play if it’s not—there are plenty of questions about the football abnormalities of this season. Heading into the first weekend of power-conference games, we’re exploring the answers to six.

Who gets to be champion?

The first AP poll of the 2020 season came out last month, ranking Ohio State at no. 2. The Buckeyes will drop out of the poll rather quickly, though, and not because of a bad loss. It’s because they are not playing football this fall. If they were, they would be national championship contenders. In a pre-pandemic world, 2020’s biggest college football story line was expected to be the seasonlong showdown between Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, two quarterbacks who have been pitted against each other since recruiting analysts couldn’t decide who was the top player in the 2018 class. In December, Lawrence led Clemson past Fields and Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal. This year, the QBs were set to compete for the Heisman Trophy and the national title. Instead, only Lawrence will play.

With the Big Ten and Pac-12 postponing their respective seasons, only three of the sport’s five power conferences are set to play this fall. Still, the College Football Playoff will apparently go forth as planned, even without 40 percent of the teams that the selection committee usually considers as potential entrants. The Big Ten and Pac-12 will reportedly attempt to play spring seasons, and if they do, many fans will dream of a winner-take-all game between the fall and spring champs. But the College Football Playoff has no interest in this. “There has been no discussion of CFP in the spring. Personally, I can’t envision two CFP championships,” Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, recently told ESPN.

As such, the playoff selection committee—which is chaired by University of Iowa athletic director Gary Barta, in spite of the fact that Iowa is not playing this fall—will face some strange decisions. With no major interconference games, how will it determine the pecking order of the leagues? How will it account for the differing lengths of teams’ seasons, with some playing as few as nine games and others as many as 12? With four playoff slots and only three power conferences, will the committee pick a team that’s already lost to one of the other three as an entrant? Or will it choose a team from outside of the power conferences altogether? And what will the committee members do if a team in the playoff hunt loses a game because all three of its long snappers mysteriously become unavailable?

There’s been a lot of talk in other sports about whether the circumstances of this year will taint the eventual champion. It’s the asterisk debate. But if any sport’s champion deserves an asterisk, it’s college football—the sport in which some teams won’t play this season and others will attempt to play by a constantly shifting set of rules.

What will happen with the other bowl games?

Back before there was a College Football Playoff, there were just bowl games—postseason showcases held every December and January that featured teams from different conferences. These originally involved only the best teams in the nation. As it became clear fans would watch games between just about anyone, though, the qualifications changed. Eventually, any team that went .500 became eligible to play in a bowl. There are now 43 bowl games, which would seem to require the existence of at least 86 teams. This fall, only 76 FBS teams are set to play full seasons. Even if every team plays in a bowl, there aren’t enough teams to fill the games.

Nobody has addressed what’s going to happen on this front. After all, there’s no commissioner of the bowls. Many bowl games are independent businesses (legally speaking—hold your laughter—they’re considered nonprofit organizations); others are property of ESPN. Nick Carparelli, executive director of the Football Bowl Association, said he expects all bowl games to be played, but noted that “everything about the bowl experience will be up for discussion between the bowls and the conferences.”

The College Football Playoff has announced its plans to move forward with its six bowl games, but those spotlight the best teams. The RedBox Bowl announced in July that it would cancel its 2020 game due to the pandemic, although that decision may have been made by Levi’s Stadium opting not to renew its lease with the game. Every other bowl—including games like the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, contractually tied to the MAC and Mountain West conferences, which have canceled their seasons—is hypothetically on track to happen.

Who decides which bowl games will be played and which won’t? Will some teams attempt to play in two bowl games? Will the bowl games with tie-ins to conferences that have canceled their fall seasons take place this spring? Will the almost-certain-to-be 0-10 Vanderbilt Commodores play in a bowl?

My guess is that most bowl games are likely to happen as planned. I’ve attended my fair share of bowl games, and they often feature mediocre teams playing in front of empty stadiums. Their primary purpose is to fill television time slots for networks during the holiday season. Even if the idea of fans attending football games and traveling long distances remain widely discouraged by the time bowl season rolls around, I wouldn’t be surprised if these games make their way onto your television screen.

What will cause a game to be postponed?

College football teams normally play 12 regular-season games: eight or nine against conference opponents, and three or four against teams from other leagues. This fall, SEC teams will play 10 games, with all 10 coming against conference opponents. This isn’t because COVID-19 can be transmitted only in nonconference play—it’s because the conference wants to space games out across a longer time period than usual to ensure that it has a contingency plan for games that get postponed and rescheduled. If one team has a COVID-19 outbreak and a matchup gets wiped out, a potential date for a makeup is inherently baked into the schedule.

But only the Big 12 actually has guidelines on what will cause a game to be postponed. The league will call off a game if one team has fewer than 53 players available, borrowing that number from the NFL’s active roster size. A game will also be postponed if a team has fewer than seven offensive linemen or four defensive tackles, or if it lacks an available quarterback. (Tough news for any teams that run out of long snappers.) The rules have already been enacted: TCU’s opener against SMU, Baylor’s opener against Louisiana Tech, and Oklahoma State’s opener against Tulsa have all been postponed.

The 53-man rule is a start, but it seems a bit weak. College football teams typically have 105 players, so a team missing 50 players hypothetically would still be allowed to play. That feels wrong—if an outbreak is that widespread, a team probably shouldn’t be playing. And the 53 number includes walk-ons and true freshmen, players who normally wouldn’t be allowed to see the field under pre-pandemic circumstances. If a team has seven offensive linemen but four are true freshmen and walk-ons, it is going to get demolished. It’s also unclear what happens if a team dips below the threshold midgame due to injuries—if a team is leading by 14 and its only quarterback goes down, is the game abruptly over?

The Big 12’s 53-player rule seems too low to be the threshold for postponement, and yet it’s the only plan that’s even close to fleshed out. As Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic reported, most other leagues are going to play it by ear. In fact, some specifically don’t want to set benchmarks for cancelation. Confusion reigns.

Perhaps in some other sport, teams from across the country would come together in unprecedented circumstances to ensure that everyone has a fair shot at competing. But this is college football, where pettiness trumps all. Florida and LSU are still upset with each other over a 2016 incident in which the schools spent months negotiating where to play a game that was called off at the last minute because of a hurricane. If Florida and LSU couldn’t agree on weather contingencies, we should expect plenty of shenanigans here. If the rules state that a game will be postponed if one team’s roster dips below 53 and Somewhere State has a roster of, say, 56 available guys, Somewhere Tech is absolutely going to demand that their matchup move forward. And if no rules are in place, teams will make things up on the fly, and a strange season will get even stranger. Start to prepare now for the first message-board posts accusing one school of falsely boosting its positive test results because it’s scared to play its rival.

Can Notre Dame win the ACC?

I’m not a fan of Notre Dame’s football program. I wouldn’t say I hate it, but I think it’s haughty and overrated, and I generally laugh when it fails. I don’t think I’ve ever tuned into a big game featuring Notre Dame and thought, “You know what? I’m rooting for the Fighting Irish.” However, I must admit that I am rooting wholeheartedly for Notre Dame to dominate the ACC in 2020. (It’s been a weird year.)

Notre Dame is famously proud of its status as an FBS independent, with its lack of full conference membership allowing it to play annual games against opponents from across the country, like Michigan, USC, Boston College, Stanford, Army, and Navy. But while scheduling 12 football games as the most famous football program in America is easy, scheduling dozens of basketball, hockey, and volleyball games as an independent, for example, is hard. So in 2013 Notre Dame became an “associate member” of the ACC, joining the conference in all sports other than football and agreeing to play a handful of ACC football games each year. It’s a best-of-both-worlds situation for the Irish, who get the ease of conference membership in some sports but the autonomy to manufacture marquee matchups and rake in tons of television money in football, all while some of the school’s fans continue to parrot the talking point that Notre Dame is simply too good for conference membership. (Now that I’ve had a few minutes to think about it: I actually do hate Notre Dame.)

But this year, Notre Dame’s games against Stanford and USC went kaput, as did its matchup with Western Michigan and its one-off games against Navy (in Ireland) and Wisconsin (at Lambeau Field). So for just this one season, Notre Dame will play a full ACC football schedule and be eligible to win the conference championship. And for some reason, I can’t think of anything funnier than Notre Dame coming in and ruling the ACC. It’d ruin things for everybody. It’d ruin things for Clemson, winners of five straight ACC titles. It’d ruin things for the rest of the ACC—you should never let somebody walk out of the league with the title belt, as evidenced by the Montreal Screwjob. And while Notre Dame would be happy, it would have to admit that what’s making it happy is the thing it isn’t supposed to enjoy. Giving Notre Dame an ACC title would be like throwing it a bar mitzvah.

What’s the deal with the FCS mini-season?

North Dakota State won the 2019 FCS championship. The Bison also won the 2018, 2017, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011 FCS championships. As far as college football dynasties go, the Bison make Alabama look like the Cleveland Browns. In 2020, though, North Dakota State will play exactly one game: an October 3 nonconference matchup with Central Arkansas.

As mentioned above, the 2020 FCS season was canceled. Beyond the safety concerns that go along with playing football during a pandemic, this is because the subdivision has fewer financial reasons to head forward with games than the much richer FBS. Its schools don’t generate megamillions in television contracts or ticket sales. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the lowest-earning Power Five program made $32 million on football last year, while the highest-earning FCS team made $11 million.

However, FCS schools can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars by selling their football teams as sacrificial lambs to FBS programs seeking a tune-up game. That’s why some FCS teams have scheduled and will play games in 2020, even if their fall sports seasons are otherwise canceled.

That leads to slates like that of the Houston Baptist Huskies. On Saturday, the Huskies played at North Texas, and received $356,000 for doing so. In Week 2, the Huskies will play at Texas Tech, and receive $400,000 for doing so. After a bye week, the Huskies will play at Louisiana Tech, and receive an undisclosed sum of money for doing so. And in Week 5? For Houston Baptist, there is no Week 5. The Huskies’ schedule consists of three payday games against FBS teams and that’s it. Will the games that Houston Baptist plays be any safer than those that have been postponed would’ve been? No, but the school is getting paid to play them.

Other FCS programs have added games for other reasons. North Dakota State seems to want to play one game primarily to showcase the talents of quarterback Trey Lance, a probable first-round 2021 NFL draft pick who otherwise wouldn’t get to play this season. (Every draft scout in America will be in Fargo on October 3 … or at least watching what’s happening in Fargo remotely.) Central Arkansas, the Bison’s opponent, has scheduled a nine-game schedule that includes four FBS games plus home-and-homes with Missouri State and Eastern Kentucky. The Bears are not playing those games for a championship or cash—I guess they just really want to play.

Will a service academy rule college football once again?

The last time a pandemic messed with a college football season was in 1918, when the Spanish Flu coincided with the end of World War I. In that strange season, there was only one bowl game, and no colleges played in it. A team from the Great Lakes Naval Base finished an undefeated season (with wins over Iowa, Illinois, Purdue, and Rutgers) by beating a team of marines from Mare Island Naval Shipyard.

In 1945, dozens of schools dropped their football programs during World War II. But Army emerged as a national powerhouse. To this day, many feel that the 1945 Army Cadets—who went 9-0, outscored their opponents by a combined 412-46, and beat no. 2 Notre Dame 48-0—are the greatest college football team of all time.

In 2020, dozens of colleges have once again dropped football—but Army is off to a great start. In its first game of the year, it obliterated Middle Tennessee State 42-0, running for 340 yards and going 13-of-15 on third-down conversions. (It also picked up a fourth down.)

During the times in this country’s history when everybody else wondered why colleges needed football teams, America’s service academies have dominated on the gridiron. The schools’ mission is to train military officers, and they believe that athletics help build and maintain the physical sharpness, collaborative teamwork, and leadership skills that are necessary for those officers. (Even enrollees who are not members of varsity teams are generally required to participate in intramural sports.)

And so Army will probably be the only team in America to play a 12-game schedule this fall. Nine of the Black Knights’ 2020 games were canceled (including a long-awaited home matchup against Oklahoma), but Army quickly began calling anybody still playing and cobbled together a schedule that includes eight home games. Navy, a member of the American Athletic Conference, kept most of its schedule intact—and played in the showcase Labor Day prime-time slot against BYU. Meanwhile, Air Force’s season was voided when the Mountain West pushed football back to the spring, but the conference gave the Falcons a special dispensation to play their already-scheduled games against Army and Navy. This arrangement is a sore spot for the coaches at Army and Navy. “They practice for months to get ready for us while we’re getting beat up?” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo complained to The Athletic in August.

I’m generally queasy about college football being played in 2020. But if there’s one thing I can get behind, it’s the idea of the service academies getting a slice of the spotlight they normally aren’t afforded. After all, the superspreading events on most campuses seem to be parties—and those aren’t happening at military schools. If Army goes 12-0, with a win over a well-rested Air Force squad and in the most important season-concluding Army-Navy game since the Roger Staubach era, I’m putting the Black Knights in my College Football Playoff bracket.