NEW YORK, N.Y.- A white cleat flew through the Saturday evening fog in Gainesville, Florida. A seemingly harmless act on the surface could have ripple effects that travel 450 miles north and affect the entire college football landscape moving forward. Is it possible that the monumental upset that LSU pulled off over then No. 6 Florida last Saturday night in the Swamp, aided by the most memorable shoe toss college football fans will ever see, could set a precedent to allow a two-loss team to make the College Football Playoff for the first time in its existence?
Before we go any further, some clarification is necessary. This isn’t a Florida puff piece, opining for the Gators to still make the Playoff. This is actually an argument as to why the Clemson Tigers, ranked third in the poll, should still make the final four even if they lose to Notre Dame for a second time this weekend. This would have never been a thought I considered at any point in the last 16 weeks of this season or in the seven years that the Playoff has been in existence, but things changed a few days ago. There are two reasons why I believe that if the Tigers lose close to Notre Dame, they still would make the Playoff over No. 5 Texas A&M.
The first reason has to do with the College Football Playoff committee. They set the precedent just days ago that losses aren’t the end of the world. Really, in their mind, losses are almost irrelevant. Look at what happened last week as Florida, ranked sixth, lost at home to a talent depleted, opt out filled LSU team. This was their second loss of the season and should have ended any hopes of making the Playoff. But instead, the committee agreed to only slide the Gators down one whole spot, from sixth to seventh as we enter championship weekend. If Florida essentially goes unpunished for losing a game that it had no business losing, how can the committee justify dropping the third ranked Tigers more than one spot after losing to an elite Notre Dame team? It’s why despite having two losses, Clemson would still remain in the top four.
If the committee’s precedent isn’t enough to convince you, how about a straight up resume comparison between the two teams in question. When it comes to strength of schedule, ESPN’s FPI ranking has the Tigers with the third hardest schedule in the country while the Aggies hold the 10th most difficult slate. A&M can boast a better win, as they defeated No. 7 Florida while Clemson’s best win is over a Miami team that just got their doors blown off by North Carolina.
While the Aggies hold a more impressive win, who has a worse loss? Both of the Tigers’ losses would be to the Irish, both times coming when Notre Dame was ranked in the top four. A note has to be made that the first loss came in double overtime while Trevor Lawrence and a few other key defensive leaders were out. The SEC West contender would have one less loss than Clemson, but their loss was about as competitive as a race between a cheetah and an elephant. The Aggies were beatdown by Alabama, losing by four touchdowns in their showdown. So, while Clemson would have twice as many losses as A&M, I would give the Tigers the edge because they were actually competitive in those games.
The last two metrics are courtesy of The Athletic and are two measures used by the committee to determine a team’s dominance week in and week out. Clemson is sixth in the country in yards per play differential (how many yards are you outgaining your opponent by on a per play basis) while Texas A&M is 29th. When it comes to points per game differential, the Tigers are fourth while the Aggies are 32nd. The numbers don’t lie. Clemson has been significantly more dominant on a weekly basis than Texas A&M.
Whether it’s the committee’s indifference towards losing or the straight up statistics that outline Clemson’s dominance compared to Texas A&M’s this season, Saturday’s ACC Championship Game can almost be considered meaningless. Both teams should feel confident that win or lose, they still will have a chance to compete for the ultimate prize. A cleat toss setting the stage for a two-loss team to make history is very fitting. It is 2020 after all. And this is college football.
NEW YORK, N.Y.- It’s not often that we say the phrase “Thank You” in 2020. It’s been a year from hell to put it lightly. With regards to sports, this year has been anything but normal, from stoppages of seasons to delayed starts to no fans in the stands. But something happened this past weekend that had me and many other college football fans uttering those two words.
Last Saturday’s slate featured many timeless rivalries that run deep in the blood of college football. Alabama-LSU. Florida-Tennessee. Ohio State-Michigan State. But the game that caused the most excitement and held the most anticipation was a game that wasn’t on anyone’s radar two weeks ago. Heck, it wasn’t even officially on the schedule until 48 hours before kickoff. But BYU-Coastal Carolina not only turned out to be the game of the weekend, it hopefully broke an age-old stigma that will make the sport better going forward.
In case you missed the backstory, the Chanticleers, ranked 18th in the College Football Playoff poll, were originally scheduled to host Liberty with College Gameday on hand for that matchup. Instead, because of COVID issues with Liberty, the game had to be canceled. Coastal acted quick and helped out not only themselves, but college football fans in the process. BYU, in a bye week, was also looking to add a game to counter the argument from the CFP committee that cited a weak schedule in justifying their No. 13 ranking. The Cougars were available and took the game, agreeing to fly across the country on the drop of a hat and play a game in which both teams had a grand total of two days to get ready for.
This set the stage for one of the most thrilling games to have been played this season. The Cinderella story that is Coastal Carolina continued, as despite being smaller, slower and weaker than the Cougars, their spread option offense gave BYU enough fits and their mullet inspired defense got a stop at the two-yard line to win the game.
Spinning this forward, college football needs more of what Coastal Carolina and BYU did. Not intimidated to play another good team or complain about the hurdles their team has to clear in order to play a game on short notice. This brings me to voice one of my biggest frustrations that commonly occurs in the sport: Scheduling non-conference games 10 years in advance.
Some games are scheduled so far in advance that the players who would play in that game aren’t even born yet. As we sit here in 2020, there is a game between Kansas State and Rutgers scheduled for 2031!!! Seniors on that team are just wrapping up their first year on this earth. Notre Dame and Alabama will play a home & home series starting in 2028. Other incredible future matchups include LSU-Oklahoma, Michigan-Texas, Oklahoma-Michigan and Notre Dame-Texas A&M. All of these intriguing and different games are at least four years away. So, the question is: Why? If BYU and Coastal can schedule a game 48-hours away from kickoff, why are these big-time programs scheduling games that feel like they are 48 years away?
Whether the excuse was it’s never been done before or it’s too difficult to do, this crummy year has proven that those excuses aren’t valid. Fans want to see big games between great teams, and they want to see them now. On paper, Michigan-Texas or Alabama-Notre Dame sound like tremendous matchups if they were played next year, but who knows down the road if any of these teams are even good by the time they actually play. There’s no guarantee that Nick Saban will still be leading the Crimson Tide when they head to South Bend in 2028, as he’ll be 77 years old. If the program takes a step back once Saban retires, that sexy matchup now is less intriguing.
It’s extremely rare and frankly unprecedented that football powers like Alabama and Texas would take the lead from a small school like Coastal Carolina, but it’s been a year for the unthinkable. So, thank you to both Coastal Carolina and BYU, who put on an incredible show and gave college football fans a lasting memory. We’ll see if other schools notice this and change their scheduling habits in the future. Even if nothing else comes out of this, these two schools proved that in a year that has given everybody lemons, you can still make lemonade.
NEW YORK, N.Y.- Can’t. It’s been the operative word used by all of us in 2020 more than we could have ever wanted. “Sorry we can’t come visit this weekend.” “We can’t be inside for too long.” “We can’t do this, and we can’t do that.” The word can’t has long been associated with negativity. But how about we use “can’t” in a positive way? As in when looking at the landscape of the NFC, which team can’t make a run to the Super Bowl?
Through the 12-week mark in the NFL, we have a pretty good idea of who the contenders and pretenders are. In the AFC, the Chiefs and Steelers have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack, while in the NFC, it feels as if each team is only closing the gap on the other. Excluding the winner of the NFC East (for obvious reasons), the other six current playoff teams have a reason why I think they can represent the conference in the Super Bowl and also have a reason why I have pause in hitching my wagons to their postseason success. So let’s dive into each team and layout one reason why they can head to the Super Bowl and one reason why could be watching the big game on their couch.
No. 1 Seed: New Orleans Saints (9-2)
Reason To Believe: Balance.Few teams in the NFL, let alone in the NFC, are this strong on both sides of the ball. While Drew Brees, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara get most of the headlines on offense, this defensive unit can make the case that they are the strength in New Orleans. Through 11 games, the Saints are first in total defense, fifth in pass defense, second in rush defense and are allowing just 20.5 points per game, good enough for fifth in the league. This defense is good enough to slow any offense in the NFC down, which is key when looking at teams like the Seahawks, Packers and Cardinals, who can score on anyone.
Reason(s) To Be Concerned: Drew Brees. This concern is actually two-pronged. Let’s start with his health. Brees suffered 11 rib fractures and a punctured lung stemming from first a hit he sustained back in Week 9 against the Buccaneers before getting crushed again in Week 10 against the 49ers that forced the 20-year veteran to go on injured reserve. He’s eligible to return in Week 14, but there’s been zero updates suggesting that he will indeed play then. At 41-years-old, it’s a waiting game to see when Brees can return and how effective he’ll be.
Assuming he’s healthy and can return in midseason form by the playoffs, there is also some real concern whether the Super Bowl champion can be the reason why the Saints win in the playoffs. The last two postseason runs especially have me concerned that Brees can’t elevate this team in order to get them to the Super Bowl. In the last two years the Saints made the playoffs (three games), Brees has averaged 252.6 passing yards per game, a 93.9 quarterback rating and a 1.6 touchdown/interception ratio. Comparing those recent postseason numbers to his regular season stats in those two seasons, Brees averaged 268 yards per game, a 113.1 quarterback rating and a 6.5 touchdown/interception ratio. The 13-time Pro Bowler has had his own postseason struggles the past few seasons when he’s been healthy. What happens when he’s not 100 percent?
No. 2 Seed: Seattle Seahawks (8-3)
Reason To Believe: The Potential League MVP. The Seahawks will go as far as Russell Wilson will take them, and for most of this season, that’s pretty far. The one-time Super Bowl champion is top 10 in every important statistical category, from touchdown passes (2nd), total passing yards (3rd), QBR (7th) and completion percentage (2nd). The only issue with Wilson’s play has been his sudden propensity to turning the ball over, which peaked in a four-game midseason stretch in which Russ committed 10 total turnovers as Seattle lost three of those games. The good news is that Wilson has been turnover free the last two games, both of which resulted in wins. The connection Wilson has developed with D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett has been deadly. The case can be made that Seattle is in the driver’s seat in the NFC with Wilson leading the way.
Reason To Be Concerned: Secondary. The biggest weakness on this team is pass defense. Heading into Week 13, Seattle has allowed the most passing yards per game in the league, surrendering 328.8 passing yards per game. The good news is that the tide is turning since the addition of Carlos Dunlap. The pass rusher from Cincinnati has given this unit a much-needed lift in rushing the passer, which in turn has helped out the secondary.
Since Dunlap’s acquisition, Seattle has allowed only 276.5 passing yards per game. In that same time, the NFC West leaders have recorded 20 sacks compared to just nine in the first six games of the season. Dunlap has given some energy to this defense, which in turn has aided the beleaguered secondary. While it’s trending in the right direction, the offensive firepower that the Saints, Packers, Cardinals and Buccaneers possess can rip this improving unit to shreds.
No. 3 Seed: Green Bay Packers (8-3)
Reason To Believe: The Other Potential League MVP. It’s been well documented how little the Packers did this past offseason to address their biggest need on offense: wide receiver depth. They signed Devin Funchess only for him to opt out of this season while not using any of their nine draft picks to nab a pass catcher. But despite the lack of additions, this Green Bay offense is more explosive and dangerous than the 2019 version that went to the NFC Championship Game. Why? Because Aaron Rodgers is playing his best football in years. After throwing just 26 touchdown passes last season while the team sat at 18th in total offense, Rodgers this season is leading the league with 33 touchdown passes and Green Bay is fourth in total offense. The 16-year veteran signal caller has single-handedly made this team extremely dangerous in the postseason. There is much more potency to this offense in 2020, something defenses will find out the hard way in the playoffs.
Reason To Be Concerned: Same Issue As Last Season. After getting chewed up by the San Francisco 49ers to the like of 285 rushing yards in the NFC Championship game last year, the run defense has still been the Achilles Heel for this team. In their three losses this season, Green Bay has allowed an average of 157 rushing yards per game. While the Packers are average in run defense (14th in rushing yards allowed per game), it’s their inability in key moments to slow down the likes of Dalvin Cook and Jonathan Taylor that have come back to bite them. While most of the contenders in the NFC rely on their passing game, the Cheesehead faithful can’t be too thrilled that their weakness last year, while improved this season, has still cost them games.
No. 5 Seed: Los Angeles Rams (7-4)
Reason To Believe: Elite Defense. This side of the ball for Los Angeles has been flat out dominant. Stopping the run? Check. Slowing down the aerial attack? Check. Holding teams out of the end zone? Check. They are second in total defense, third in pass defense, fourth in rush defense and have allowed the fourth fewest points per game. Only once in 11 games has a team scored more than 30 points. This defense can limit any team they face in the playoffs.
Reason To Be Concerned: Inconsistency. Through 12 weeks, the Rams have been consistently inconsistent. The last three weeks perfectly encapsulate this claim. Los Angeles slowed down the Seahawks, holding them to 16 points in a 23-16 win. They followed that up with an impressive 27-24 win on Monday Night Football over the Buccaneers. Then this past week, the Rams lost to a Nick Mullens-led 49ers team at home. Every time this team takes two steps forward, they take one step back. Can Jared Goff and this team play well enough in three consecutive games to be the NFC representative? So far, we haven’t seen anything to believe that answer is yes.
No. 6 Seed: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5)
Reason To Believe: Potential. Despite the offensive struggles, this team has the talent to go all the way. Pairing Tom Brady with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Leonard Fournette and Rob Gronkowski is too much skill to not have success. While the offense is a work in progress, this defense is good enough to keep them in any game. They are the best run defense in the league and while they struggle in pass defense, they were able to hold the high-flying Chiefs offense to just 27 points. If the offense can figure it out, this team will be the hardest out in the playoffs.
Reason To Be Concerned: Continuity. All year long I’ve compared the Buccaneers to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Bucs, similar to the Clippers, are using the regular season as a testing ground to see what works with the ultimate goal of playing their best football in January. With just four games remaining until then, Tampa Bay hasn’t provided much to feel confident about. As we saw with the Clippers, having the most talent doesn’t ensure victory. If Bruce Arians and Brady don’t figure out how to get on the same page, the Bucs will be watching someone else enter their house and play for the Lombardi Trophy.
No. 7 Seed: Arizona Cardinals (6-5)
Reason To Believe: Murray Magic. Kyler Murray is one of the most exciting players in 2020 and has taken this offense to a new dimension with the addition of All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins. When things are cooking in the desert, Murray is slicing and dicing defenses with both his arm and legs. Murray has thrown for 19 touchdowns while rushing for 650 yards and 10 touchdowns. This team at their peak can score on any defense and can do so in a variety of ways.
Reason To Be Concerned: Inexperience. When looking at the landscape of the NFC, what do you notice? Playoff experience. From players like Rodgers, Brady and Wilson to head coaches like Pete Carroll, Sean Payton and Sean McVay, there is loads of experienced professionals who know what it takes to win in the playoffs. The postseason is a different game, where every weakness is magnified, and every tendency is realized. With this being both Kliff Kingsbury and Murray’s first trip to the dance, I worry that their lack of big game seasoning will be the difference as to why they are home like us watching another NFC team battle for the coveted Super Bowl crown.
The final quarter of the season will be as exciting as ever as teams jockey for positioning in a wide-open conference. While my pick is still the Seahawks to represent the NFC in Tampa, there’s a case to be made as to why any of these other five teams can make their own run at history.
NEW YORK, N.Y.- The definition of the word leadership is a simple one. CEO Kevin Kruse laid out a great explanation of the word, stating: “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” The “leadership” in college athletics has managed to achieve the complete opposite of this since the pandemic started and now the sudden crash of the college football season is a compilation of the incompetence that has been building for years.
College football has always been the wild west of the sports world. Schools jumping from conference to conference looking for the biggest payday. Coaches committing to their team one day and leaving the next. The amount of conference games vary from league to league. I won’t even get started with the playoff format. All of this division within the sport has largely been harmless in the grand scheme of things. But this looking out for oneself and one’s conference mentality that has become prevalent during a pandemic situation is coming back to bite the sport. The lack of a unifying voice has led to a mad scramble to try and save the sport this fall, with mixed messages getting sent out all over the place. Chaos has ensued and, in the end, the one’s hurt by the lack of leadership the most are the players and fans.
Let’s be realistic before we go any further: staging a college football season amidst a pandemic was a massive undertaking and potentially an impossible act. The complications that go into this choice are numerous, but that’s not an excuse for poor leadership. At this point, with the Big Ten and Pac-12 axing their seasons while the ACC, SEC and Big 12 try to push through, there’s already enough frustration from players, coaches and fans alike about how we ultimately got here, which was due mostly to a lack of preparedness, communication and unity.
When the pandemic first struck college sports and canceled March Madness as well as the entirety of the spring sports calendar, conference commissioners and athletic directors were on conference calls daily. This was designed to ensure every school and conference was on the same page moving forward in the hope that their golden goose could be saved. After months of these daily discussions, the first sign of dysfunction came to light from the Big Ten back in early July. Without telling anyone else, the wealthiest conference announced they were moving to a conference-only schedule this fall, catching the other four major leagues off guard. From there, it’s been every conference for themselves, with the ultimate example of lack of communication coming from the two southern conferences.
The ACC, still hoping to preserve their in-state SEC rivalry games like Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Clemson-South Carolina, announced their teams would be allowed to play one non-conference game. Just hours later, the SEC announced they were playing conference games only, eliminating the hope of rivalry games the ACC specifically made room for. It makes you think after having daily discussions for months, what was actually being talked about? Was there any planning at these meetings? Because the actions of the individual leagues themselves suggest that no real dialogues of substance took place at all.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith exacerbated these concerns with his comments Tuesday afternoon when discussing the news of the Big Ten officially canceling their fall football season.
When talking to the Big Ten Network, Smith said, “The science came to us so fast,” when trying to explain why the conference switched gears so quickly within the last week. This is an interesting statement to make because within this last week that Smith claims science provided such overwhelming evidence that a football season wasn’t feasible, the conference made two moves that indicated the opposite.
Last Wednesday, the conference announced their football schedule for all 14 teams, with the first game set for September 3rd between Ohio State and Illinois. While their wording in the schedule release was cautiously optimistic, their actions displayed a confidence that the season would begin on time. The second action that disputes Smith’s claim was that practices started for all teams in preparation for their season opener in less than a month. Teams like Ohio State and Penn State were in helmets and practice jerseys, ramping up for the start of the season that they thought was a definite.
It begs the asking of these questions then: Why did conferences release their schedules? Why were teams allowed to practice if the season was anything but guaranteed? Smith’s statement also raises another question, which is that what happened in the last six days coronavirus wise that gave the league enough concern to cancel the season? While the pandemic hasn’t improved much throughout the country, it certainly didn’t get any worse to make football impossible. It makes you wonder if college football’s leaders weren’t taking the virus seriously until recently.
There’s one final concern that comes with the decision to cancel the fall season and that’s the question of what happens next. We have gotten zero collective answers or clarity on essentially anything so far and that is unacceptable. The players’ hearts and feelings have been toyed with throughout this entire process and they rightfully deserve answers about their future. Some of those questions without any answers include:
What will a spring season look like?
When will a spring season kick off?
Will an extra year of eligibility be granted for every player?
Will the scholarship limit increase to accommodate for both returning players and incoming freshmen?
So far, the answer to every single one of these questions has been the same: “I don’t know.” It’s far from assuring that two of the five Power 5 conferences have already pulled the plug without a road map for what the next step is.
In a sport played by so-called amateurs, it would have been nice for the adults in the room to step up and lead the way. Even if a season ultimately proves to be impossible, the every man for themselves strategy that ensued over the last five months has been a direct indictment on the entire leadership structure in college football. As Kruse mentions, the practical implementation of leadership is maximizing the efforts of others to achieve a common goal. Can any president or conference commissioner look themselves in the mirror and say they lived up to this definition? Unlike every other question posed so far, we already know the answer to that one.
NEW YORK, N.Y.- Time is ticking. Hope is fading. For those associated with or fans of college football, the sport we love is on life support when it comes to having a season this fall. Last week, the Ivy League made the first major move in canceling all sports for the upcoming semester, only for the Big Ten and Pac-12 to send shockwaves when they announced their conference-only scheduling for this season. While this Hail Mary attempt needs a miracle to get pulled off, this is the best option for completing a season and just might be crazy enough to work.
The decision for both Power Five conferences to only schedule league games had nothing to do with lessening travel but instead was implemented with equal testing protocols in mind. College football, unlike professional sports, is without a commissioner and instead, it’s the teams and conferences that call the shots. This means there is no uniform testing policy that all 130 FBS teams are required to meet, which only causes ambiguity in a time that certainty is necessary. It’s dangerous enough to try to play a contact sport in the middle of a pandemic. Therefore, to have games between teams with different testing rules is a recipe for disaster. It’s an express train to shutdown city.
Scheduling games only within a respective conference allows each league to devise testing protocols that fit every team under their watch to ensure that when these teams take the field on Saturdays, there isn’t a question of whose sick or if the other team’s testing is up to snuff. Looking at the landscape of the country, it appears that most of the Power Five conferences will require strict testing, as spikes in positive tests have soared in many college football hotbeds. It would behoove the other three conferences yet to make a decision on their schedule (ACC, Big 12, SEC) to follow suit in terms of scheduling only conference opponents so that way, proper testing is ensured.
The cost of testing is also a massive factor here as well. While the major conferences can afford to have regular testing, a lot of the Group of Five and FCS programs can’t. This is important because plenty of Power Five teams still have games scheduled against lesser opponents with smaller budgets and fewer resources to keep players safe. Canceling these games allows big time programs to avoid playing glorified scrimmages against teams who can’t afford to test as frequently and accurately as major college football programs can. The more games against teams with similar testing requirements helps to provide the players with the safest environment to play the game.
Conference-only scheduling also means there won’t be a normal 12-game regular season, which is another added benefit. Condensing the schedule to only play eight, nine or 10 games provides necessary flexibility to maneuver around the inevitability of postponed games. Fewer games allows conferences to buy more time, which is the biggest need in order to put a season on. The most vocal athletic director during this time has been Ohio State’s Gene Smith, who believes the conference-only schedule is a necessity for this season.
“We can hit the pause button and provide a window of opportunity for our student-athletes not to be put at risk. We can move games. … There’s a flexibility, I can’t say that enough, that’s significant.”
A normal season had each team slated for one bye week, which would make the cancelation and rescheduling of games almost impossible. Playing games between teams in the same conference allows for added bye weeks and the ability to reschedule games more frequently, which increases the likelihood of a respectable season getting played while also bringing in more money for these schools to make. Even the idea of pushing conference title games back a few weeks has been floated, meaning teams could try to fit in an 8-10 game season in the span of 15 or 16 weeks.
The shorter season also allows for a delayed start to the season. Currently, the season is still slated to kick off on Labor Day weekend, which is a little less than two months away. The NCAA approved a six-week training camp that’s scheduled to start on July 24th. With so many states reversing their opening policy and closing down, a shorter season allows for a delay in the start of training camp to increase the ability for schools to keep their players safe and allow the recent spikes to quell. The season could theoretically kick off on October 3rd while still having enough time to fit in an entire season.
While hope is fleeting, the biggest ally to hope right now is time. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already bought themselves some more time. The other FBS conferences will inevitably follow down the same path as well. While in reality a football season could be just a pipe dream at this point, we have seen miracles in college football happen before. And while conference-only scheduling is the last prayer at a fall season, we have seen a Hail Mary or two completed before.