Ramifications 101: setting up Week 15

9 Comments

After 14 weeks in the 2014 regular season, it all comes down to the final week of the year.

At stake?  Conference championships, bowl slotting and, most importantly, setting up the field for the first-ever four-team College Football Playoff.

What’s known on the latter front is that, if they both win, Alabama and Oregon will fill two of those four slots.  Outside of that, and without even mentioning the (very real) possibility of one or both of those two teams being upset in their league title games?  Everything and anything else is decidedly up for grabs.

So many possibilities, myriad scenarios, with nothing certain except for disappointment for those who think things are indubitable.  Now, for but a few of those possibilities and scenarios, and mindful that this was written before the Pac-12 championship game Friday night…

F(REAKING)S(HUNNING)U(S)
What to make of the College Football Playoff committee dropping still-unbeaten Florida State from No. 2 after Week 9 to No. 3 after Week 11 to No. 4 after Week 14?  The only thing that can rationally be made of it is that, even if FSU beats Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game, the team and fans alike could — and maybe should — be nervous until the playoff matchups are announced Sunday night as nothing is assured.

Weeks ago I would’ve wagered a sizable chunk of money that there was no way an unbeaten FSU would be left out of the playoffs; now, there’s no way I’m touching that bet.  While it still doesn’t seem possible, it’s more of a possibility than most thought it would be even a month ago.  The only thing the Seminoles can control is (soundly) beating up on the Yellow Jackets.  Another struggle in a close win could prove to be the postseason death knell for the ‘Noles, especially if the other teams nipping at their heels impress.  And if the committee continues on its current ranking tack.

TEXAS TWO-STEPPIN’ TO THE PLAYOFFS… OR NOT AT ALL?
There might not be a conference with more to gain or more to lose in Week 15 than the Big 12.

TCU is currently sitting at what most observers deem a comfortable No. 3, with Baylor lurk

ing a couple of spots back at No. 6.  If TCU easily handles Iowa State as expected… and if Baylor is impressive in taking care of No. 9 Kansas State… and if both Florida State and Ohio State lose in their respective conference championship games, the lone Power Five conference without a league title game would (likely) find itself with two of the four teams in the playoff field, opening up the potential for an All-Big 12 national championship game.

Conversely, there’s certainly a scenario in which both teams could be shutout of a playoff berth altogether.  All that has to happen for that Big 12 doomsday scenario to transpire would be for Ohio State and Florida State to take No. 13 Wisconsin and No. 11 Georgia Tech, respectively, to the proverbial woodshed while TCU loses to Iowa State — or possibly even “wins ugly” — and Baylor either outright trips up against or just eases past K-State.  Such a series of events, as unlikely as they may be, would leave that Power Five conference on the outside of the playoff window looking in.

Of course, Baylor, which beat TCU head-to-head earlier this year, could end up leapfrogging TCU and land in the playoff field as the lone Big 12 rep.  Or TCU can continue to impress the committee and hold serve.  Again, so many possibilities, and just for this one conference.

One more thing: if the seemingly impossible happens and the Big 12 whiffs completely on a spot in the playoffs, look for the conference to quickly ditch its “One True Champion” mantra and petition the NCAA for a waiver that would allow it to contest a league championship game with less than 12 teams and two divisions.  And, yes, I’m only slightly kidding.

TEST CASE
Despite the season-ending injury sustained by star quarterback J.T. Barrett, and thanks to Mississippi State’s loss, Ohio State actually climbed to the cusp of the CFP Top Four to No. 5.  Whether they can move any higher with a backup quarterback, when the committee’s own protocol calls for “key injuries that… likely will affect its postseason performance” to be taken into consideration, will prove to be a significant and high-profile test case for the 12-person group that’ll select the four playoff teams.

If OSU squeaks past Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, would that be enough to move them past any of the four teams currently ahead of them, or even keep them ahead of Baylor?  Would Barrett’s replacement, Cardale Jones, need to “impress,” whatever that means, in his first start to force the committee’s hand into doing something they may have done if the season-long starter had been in the game?  Or, will the committee penalize a Barrett-free Buckeyes regardless?  Again, these are unanswerable at the moment, but all of the factors surrounding OSU’s playoff résumé will make for one hell of a discussion for the CFP committee Sunday… and for its protocols in general moving forward.

PLAYOFF PARTY CRASHERS?
Don’t sleep on either Arizona or Georgia Tech — both 10-2 — as teams that could potentially show up banging on the playoff door at two in the morning, a six-pack-turned-three-pack of Natty Light Tall Boys tucked under one arm and a woman of questionable morals under the other, screaming “WHO WANTS TO PARTY!?!?

Is it likely?  No.  But it’s certainly possible.  If Tech beats Florida State, it will have a six-game winning streak heading into Sunday’s D-Day, with the last three — No. 4 FSU, No. 14 Georgia, No. 18 Clemson — coming against teams ranked in the CFP Top 20.  Arizona, with a win in the Pac-12 title game, would have a similar résumé, carrying three straight wins against No. 2 Oregon, No. 17 Arizona State and No. 23 Utah as part of a five-game winning streak heading into Selection Sunday.

If the committee can drop an unbeaten team behind three one-loss teams, and keep one 10-1 team ranked ahead of another 10-1 team that already beat it on the field, surely their logic could find room for a two-loss team, right?

APOCALYPSE WOW
You want an apocalyptic scenario?  Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor all lose, sending the committee members scrambling and likely breaking the Internet.  It’s not probable, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.  Missouri’s defensive line has given good teams fits all season long, as the Tide will find out… and Arizona has already beaten the Ducks in Autzen this season… and the Buckeyes struggle against the run and Wisconsin is kind of good at that part of the offensive game… and the Seminoles have taken on the role of Houdini in maintaining its 28-game winning streak while Georgia Tech is a team that comes in supremely confident… and Kansas State is a very good defensive football team (held high-octane Auburn to 20 points and 359 yards) that’s very much capable of shutting down the Bears’ high-powered offense.  So, you add all of that up and toss in a pinch of “any given Saturday,” and it’s certainly feasible that one… or two… or three… or four… or five of those scenarios come to fruition.

Or none of them.  You make the call.

FLYIN’ LIKE A G5
Not only will four of the Power Five conferences decide champions Saturday — three with title games — so will two of the Group of Five leagues: the Mountain West and Conference USA.  And, actually, both will have an impact on the matchups in the note that appears right below this one.

Marshall plays Louisiana Tech in the latter game, while Boise State squares off with Fresno State in the former.  The highest-ranked team from the non-Power Five leagues that wins its conference earns an automatic bid to a marquee bowl; Boise State at No. 22 is currently the only G5 team ranked in the CFP Top 25, and a win by the Broncos would all but assure the MWC school of a marquee berth.  A BSU loss and a win by 11-1 Marshall could give the Herd the G5 spot, or that spot could go 10-2 MAC champ Northern Illinois.  A loss by both the Broncos and the Herd?  That would shove the door wide open for NIU, or maybe even for the AAC’s Memphis and UCF (9-3 co-champions).  With a win Saturday, Cincinnati could also join Memphis and UCF as co-champs and potentially be in the mix for the G5 slot as well.

MARQUEE MATCHUP PRIMER
Not only will Saturday’s action go a long way in deciding the playoff field for the two semifinal games (the Rose and Sugar bowls), it will also go a long way in determining which teams will play in the New Year’s Eve/Day marquee “rotation” games that, this year, will consist of the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange and Peach bowls.

The Orange Bowl will feature the ACC No. 2 (or the ACC champ if it doesn’t qualify for the playoff) vs. the No. 2 team from either the Big Ten or the SEC (by contract, the champs from those two conferences are not permitted to play in the Orange Bowl).  This year, the Cotton, Fiesta and Peach bowls — the three access bowls — will feature two at-large teams each selected by the committee or, in the case of one of those bowls, one at-large team vs. a Group of Five team.

Unlike the three contract bowls (Orange, Rose and Sugar), the playoff committee will slot the teams for the three access bowls based on the final CFP rankings.  The CFP’s own criteria allows for matchups, against based on rankings, that take into consideration geography; competitiveness of the matchups; and what’s described as an “[a]ttempt to avoid rematches of regular-season games and repeat appearances.” With that in mind, here’s what the six marquee bowl matchups could look like based on the CFP rankings entering Week 15:

Rose Bowl: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 TCU
Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Florida State
Orange Bowl: No. 11 Georgia Tech (ACC No. 2) vs. No. 8 Michigan State (Big Ten No. 2)

The following teams would then take up the final six spots in the other three bowls: No. 5 Ohio State, No. 6 Baylor, No. 7 Arizona, No. 9 Kansas State, No. 10 Mississippi State and No. 22 Boise State. Based on the factors listed above that would be utilized by the committee, here’s my best guesstimate as to how they’d be placed:

Cotton Bowl: No. 6 Baylor vs. No. 22 Boise State
Fiesta Bowl: No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 7 Arizona
Peach Bowl: No. 10 Mississippi State vs. No. 9 Kansas State

So, in other words, if you’re a fan of a team somewhere in the Nos. 12-17 range and not playing Saturday (Ole Miss, Georgia, UCLA, Arizona State), you’re rooting for the likes of Ohio State, Kansas State and Arizona to lose to possibly open up a slot or two.  If you’re a fan of No. 18 Clemson, you’re rooting for Georgia Tech to stumble so that you could possibly sneak through the Orange Bowl back door.

While only a handful of teams play meaningful games in Week 15, the repercussions from those games, thanks to the new CFP system, will reverberate for many, many more teams and its fan bases than might normally be the case.  There will be rooting interests from coast-to-coast, with fans paying attention to games they normally couldn’t give two spits about.  All of which proves, once again, what a great system this CFP thing already is… and what an even better system it’ll be when we get an eight-team playoff sooner rather than later.

Big Ten pulls plug on fall football amid COVID-19 concerns

Getty Images
10 Comments

The Big Ten won’t play football this fall because of concerns about COVID-19, becoming the first of college sports’ power conferences to yield to the pandemic.

The move announced Tuesday comes six day after the conference that includes historic programs such as Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State had released a revised conference-only schedule that it hoped would help it navigate a fall season with potential COVID-19 disruptions.

But it was not a surprise. Speculation has run rampant for several days that the Big Ten was moving toward this decision. On Monday, coaches throughout the conference tried to push back the tide, publicly pleading for more time and threatening to look elsewhere for games this fall.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

The Big Ten touts itself as the oldest college athletic conference in the country, dating back to 1896 when it was called the Western Conference, and its schools have been playing football ever since. It became the Big Ten in 1918 and grew into a football powerhouse.

The 14 Big Ten schools span from Maryland and Rutgers on the East Coast to Iowa and Nebraska out west. Not only has it been one of the most successful conferences on the field but off the field it has become one of the wealthiest.

The Big Ten, with its lucrative television network, distributes about $50 million per year to its members.

Trump, coaches push for college football as cracks emerge

9 Comments

President Donald Trump joined a U.S. senator and a number of coaches Monday in the push to save the college football season from a pandemic-forced shutdown.

There was speculation that two of the five most powerful conferences — the Big Ten and the Pac-12 — might call off their seasons. Farther east, Old Dominion canceled fall sports and became the first school in the Bowl Subdivison to break from its league in doing so; the rest of Conference USA was going forward with plans to play.

A Big Ten spokesman said no votes had been taken by its presidents and chancellors on fall sports as of Monday afternoon and the powerful Southeastern Conference made clear it was not yet ready to shutter its fall season.

“Best advice I’ve received since COVID-19: ‘Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day,’” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey posted on Twitter. ”Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying.”

A growing number of athletes have spoken out about saving the season with Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence among the group posting their thoughts on Twitter with the hashtag #WeWantToPla. Trump threw his support behind them Monday.

“The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled,” he tweeted.

Old Dominion has stopped trying. The Virginia school canceled football and other fall sports less than a week after Conference USA set out a plan to play a football season.

“We concluded that the season – including travel and competition – posed too great a risk for our student-athletes,” ODU President Broderick said.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh took a different stand, saying the Wolverines have shown players can be safe after they return to school.

“I’m not advocating for football this fall because of my passion or our players desire to play but because of the facts accumulated over the last eight weeks since our players returned to campus on June 13,” he wrote. “I am advocating on August 10 that this virus can be controlled and handled because of these facts.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, picked up on the safer-with-football theme in a letter to the presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten.

“Life is about tradeoffs. There are no guarantees that college football will be completely safe — that’s absolutely true; it’s always true,” he wrote. “But the structure and discipline of football programs is very likely safer than what the lived experience of 18- to 22-year-olds will be if there isn’t a season.”

“Here’s the reality: Many of you think that football is safer than no football, but you also know that you will be blamed if there is football, whereas you can duck any blame if you cancel football,” added Sasse, a former college president. “This is a moment for leadership. These young men need a season. Please don’t cancel college football.”

Players unite in push to save college season, create union

3 Comments

Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds saw the tweets from Trevor Lawrence and other college football players pushing for the opportunity to play this season despite the pandemic.

Reynolds, one of the organizers behind a players’ rights movement in the Big Ten, didn’t like the way some on social media seemed to be pitting Lawrence’s message against the efforts of #BigTenUnited and #WeAreUnited.

“There was a lot of division,” Reynolds told AP early Monday morning.

Reynolds got on a call with Lawrence and the star quarterback’s Clemson teammate, Darien Rencher, and within a matter of hours the summer of athlete empowerment found another gear.

College football players from across the country united Sunday in an attempt to save their season and ensure they will no longer be left out of the sport’s biggest decisions.

Lawrence, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Oklahoma State All-America running back Chuba Hubbard, Alabama running back Najee Harris and numerous other players from Florida State to Oregon posted a graphic on social media with #WeWantToPlay and #WeAreUnited.

“We came to the conclusion, We Want to Play, their message might have been conveyed differently but at the end of the day the message wasn’t too far off from what Big Ten United wanted to promote,” Reynolds said. “Which is we all want to play sports this fall. Every athlete, I’m pretty sure, wants to play their sports. They just want to do so safely.”

The #WeAreUnited hashtag was used a week ago by a group of Pac-12 players in announcing a movement they say has the support of hundreds of peers within their conference. They have threatened mass opt-outs by players if concerns about COVID-19 protocols, racial injustice in college sports and economic rights for athletes are not addressed.

#BigTenUnited arrived on the scene a couple days later, a movement that claimed the backing off 1,000 Big Ten football players. Their demands were more targeted, strictly related to health and safety in dealing with COVID-19.

Sunday night, the call with Reynolds, Rencher and Lawrence led to a Zoom meeting — of course — with some of the Pac-12 players involved in “WeAreUnited.”

Washington State defensive lineman Dallas Hobbs got to work on a graphic and now the movement is officially nationwide.

“Just started bouncing ideas off each others’ heads and kind of discussing where we go from here and we ended up coming up with that statement,” said Reynolds, a senior from South Orange, New Jersey.

Under the logos of each Power Five conference — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — the players pronounced their platform:

— We all want to play football this season.

— Establish universal mandated health & safety procedures and protocols to protect college athletes against COVID-19 among all conferences throughout the NCAA.

— Give players the opportunity to opt out and respect their decision.

— Guarantee eligibility whether a player chooses to play the season or not.

— Use our voices to establish open communication and trust between players and officials: Ultimately create a College Football Players Association.

All of this capped a weekend during which the adults who run college sports seemed to be moving toward shutting it all down because of the pandemic.

A day after the Mid-American Conference became the first of the major college football leagues to cancel the fall season, Power Five conference commissioners met Sunday. They discussed mounting concerns about whether a season can be safely conducted with the pandemic still not under control in the United States.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said no decisions on the season have been made, but conceded the outlook has not improved.

“Are we in a better place today than two weeks, ago? No, we’re not,” he said.

Bowlsby cited “growing evidence and the growing pool of data around myocarditis.”

Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart and it has been found in some COVID-19 patients. There is concern it could be a long-term complication of contracting the virus even in young, healthy people, a group that has usually avoided severe cardiovascular symptoms.

Also Sunday night, the Big Ten’s university presidents and chancellors held a previously unscheduled meeting, a person with knowledge of the meeting told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was not announced by the conference.

Another person with direct knowledge of the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no votes were taken or decisions made about the college football season.

The final call on whether major college football will played this season rests in the hands of the university presidents who oversee the largest conferences.

With doom and gloom hanging over college football, Lawrence, who has become the face of the sport in a summer of strife, tried to push back the tide with a series of tweets.

“People are at just as much, if not more risk, if we don’t play,” Lawrence posted. “Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract covid19.”

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth had a similar message, and the parents of Ohio State football players weighed in, too.

Reynolds wants athletes to have a say in the meetings that are deciding the fate of their sports — starting now.

”All college athletes through unifying and not being afraid to speak our minds and having social media to kind of mobilize, I think that box on a Zoom call is something that is pretty attainable,” he said. “Especially, in the near future.”

After MAC surrenders to pandemic, will other leagues follow?

MAC football
Getty Images
5 Comments

In many ways, the Mid-American Conference has little in common with Power Five leagues that first come to mind when fans think of major college football.

There are no 75,000-seat stadiums in the MAC. Million-dollar per year coaches are rare. In a typical season, NFL scouts might find one or two potential first-round draft picks playing at the 12 MAC schools that dot the Midwest. The MAC’s biggest games — #MACtion, if you will — are often played on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Its television deal with ESPN pays per year only a few million more than the $9 million Clemson pays coach Dabo Swinney.

Still, the MAC is one of 10 conferences that competes in the NCAA’s highest level of football, and Saturday it became the first of those to surrender to the coronavirus pandemic and cancel the fall sports season.

So is the MAC an anomaly, done in by its small budgets or is this a dire sign of things to come in college football?

“I won’t try to judge what other folks are doing,” MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “I know we’re all in the same place. They all have their advisers. They’re going to make judgments based on the information they are receiving.”

Not long after the MAC announced it would explore second-semester seasons for all fall sports, including soccer and volleyball, the Big Ten made its own announcement that seemed ominous given the timing.

Tapping the brakes on football’s preseason, the Big Ten told its schools that until further notice full contact practices cannot begin. All teams will remain in the first two days of what is known as the “acclimatization period,” working out in just helmets. The first Big Ten games of the season are scheduled for Sept. 5.

“As we have consistently stated, we will continue to evaluate daily, while relying on our medical experts, to make the best decisions possible for the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes,” the Big Ten said in a statement.

The MAC’s schools were facing a significant financial burden by trying to maintain costly COVID-19 protocols, while also dealing with the uncertainty that campuses can be opened safely.

A move to the spring, however, could also be budget-buster if it means less revenue from the ESPN deal, which pays each school about $1 million per year, and football ticket sales. The MAC also shares about $90 million per year in College Football Playoff money with four other conferences.

“It would be naive to say that you don’t give thought and consideration to what the financial ramifications of any decision are, but this was a health and well-being decision first and foremost,” Steinbrecher said. “As we sit here today we don’t know what this will mean financially and how the rest of the fall plays out.”

Steinbrecher said the decision effects only fall sports, not basketball or others that begin in the second semester such as baseball, softball and lacrosse.

He added the decision was unanimous among the membership. Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier, supported by NIU President Lisa Freeman, has been a vocal advocate of delaying the season.

“No one wants to have football or sports more than me,” said Frazier, who played football at Alabama in the late 1980s. “Football gave me all the opportunities I have today, but I can’t do it at the expense of people’s lives.”

Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee said he has been feeling a sense of inevitability for two weeks about the MAC canceling fall football, but can’t predict whether this decision trickles up to other conferences.

“Could it? Certainly. There’s certainly a narrative out there that could happen,” Wetherbee said. “No, it wouldn’t shock me if some followed suit. In fact, it would shock me if some didn’t.”

NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline made clear that even though plans for the football season have been adjusted to accommodate potential COVID-19 disruptions like the ones Major League Baseball has had, they are all still aspirational.

“Almost everything would have to be perfectly aligned to continue moving forward,” Hainline said Friday during the NCAA’s weekly video chat on social media.

As the Power Five conferences re-worked their schedules to play exclusively or mostly within their conferences, another of the MAC’s revenue streams dried up.

MAC schools, with athletic budgets in the $30 million range, rely heavily on payouts from road games against power conference teams. Kent State alone had more than $5 million in so-called guarantee games canceled. Whether they can be recouped and when is still to be determined. Without that revenue, the strain became too great of trying to keep players and staff safe during a pandemic.

“Certainly there was a cost attached to it,” Wetherbee said. “But as a league we were prepared to do it.”

The move to try spring football has already been going on in the second tier of Division I.

Nine of 13 conferences that play in the Championship Subdivision, have postponed fall football seasons. The first was the Ivy League in early July.

Now it’s the MAC, which was among the first conferences to limit fan access to its basketball tournament in March as concerns for the virus began to soar across the country. On March 12, the MAC was among many conferences to call off their tournaments hours before the NCAA canceled all of March Madness.

“If you told me in March we’d be here today,” Steinbrecher said, “I’d never have believed it”