An atypical season will begin with an unsurprising, even predictable preseason Amway Coaches Poll.
Clemson leads in the poll released Thursday, followed by Ohio State and Alabama. Another two SEC teams, Georgia and LSU, come before Oklahoma. These six programs have combined for all but two spots in the past four College Football Playoff national semifinals.
This predictability will soon give way to Coaches Poll rankings that should accurately reflect college football's ongoing volatility.
Power Five conferences have adopted schedules aimed at creating flexibility and minimizing risk in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. The Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 have eliminated non-conference games outright. The ACC and Big 12 will allow one non-league game under certain caveats: ACC teams must play in-state, while Big 12 teams must play the game at home.
LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase avoids the tackle attempt by Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons during the College Football Playoff national championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. (Photo: Derick E. Hingle, USA TODAY Sports)
The Group of Five teams typically in contention for the Coaches Poll will not have marquee matchups against the Power Five to use as springboards for national recognition. Central Florida was scheduled to play North Carolina and Georgia Tech. Cincinnati had a road trip to Nebraska. Boise State was set to host Florida State.
Dropping these games will force voters to evaluate Power Five and Group of Five teams without the data points provided during non-league play — games that can often decide the broader reputation of conferences.
Eliminating non-conference play also means Power Five teams will be unable to pad their records with easy wins against weaker Group of Five opponents or Championship Subdivision competition. Instead, those will be replaced by at least one additional conference game, dramatically increasing the odds that few Power Five teams avoid multiple losses during the regular season.
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LOOKING AHEAD: Outlooks for the Top 25 teams in the preseason poll
OVERLOOKED: Five teams snubbed by this year's preseason Amway Coaches Poll
A year ago, while playing either eight or nine games in conference, just 15 teams from the Power Five lost two or fewer league matchups during the regular season. Another 16 teams in the Power Five matched or exceeded their conference win totals during non-conference play.
If that holds in 2020, the Coaches Poll may begin to resemble polls from before the nationalization of the sport, when even college football's best teams played fewer games altogether and a largely regional schedule while infrequently scheduling opponents from a lower level of competition.
The final Coaches Poll of the 1959 season, for example, included four teams with four or more losses at a time when teams played nine or 10 games during the regular season. One of those four teams, Missouri, added to its normal Big Seven Conference schedule non-league games against Penn State, Michigan, SMU and Air Force.
The final poll of last season included just three teams with more than two regular-season conference losses.
There’s another difference. The 1959 poll had a top 20. Today’s polls go to 25.
Scheduling alone could make the 2020 season resemble a "time capsule" of a previous era, said Jeremy Swick, the historian and curator at the College Football Hall of Fame.
Simultaneously, the pandemic has prevented teams from engaging in a traditional offseason; due to an inability to conduct business as usual, coaches and players have been behind schedule since March.
Concerns over health and safety have led some of college football’s top prospects, including Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, to opt out of this coming season to prepare for the NFL draft, leaving at least one year of eligibility on the table. Other standouts, such as Michigan State defensive end Jacub Panasiuk, have decided to redshirt and return in 2021.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields hopes to lead his team to the ranking that matches his jersey number. (Photo: Matthew Emmons, USA TODAY Sports)
The season will start at a staggered rate. Competition in the Big 12 may begin as early as Aug. 29. The Big Ten can start on Sept. 5 and the ACC on Sept. 7. The SEC and Pac-12 are set to begin play on Sept. 26. For several weeks, poll voters will weigh the perception of teams such as Alabama and Georgia, which will be inactive, against the results from other Power Five leagues.
"With college football the way it’s projected right now, we’re in the midst of conference play right away," said Swick. "Which is something we haven’t had in some time."
How, when and under what conditions the season ends will be determined by how capably conferences and teams weather the inevitable hurdles that come with holding competition amid a pandemic.
Ideally, the College Football Playoff would proceed as planned. On Wednesday, playoff executive director Bill Hancock said the selection committee would issue the final rankings on Dec. 20, one day after Power Five championship games and two weeks later than originally planned. Then, the national semifinals would be played on New Year's Day and the national championship on Monday, Jan. 11.
The entire plan could be derailed by the sort of outbreaks that have dotted FBS programs in several different regions since early June. If similar scenarios unfold during the regular season, the rash of positive cases that recently sidelined team activities at Rutgers, Northwestern and elsewhere have the potential to derail conference schedules or prematurely end the season altogether.
The worst-case scenario for college football may not be a season that doesn't begin at all; in that environment, conferences and university presidents could conceivably push competition to the spring and further amend schedules to allow for two seasons within one calendar year. Rather, the nightmare may be a season that heats up before being stopped in its tracks by the transmission of COVID-19 through one or more conferences.
If the season is canceled in October, for example, there may be enough results to gauge the best teams in the FBS without having the ability to settle the championship race under the current postseason format.
Under these conditions, the answer may be to turn back the clock: In a year without precedent in college football history, the Coaches Poll may end up reclaiming a deciding role in dictating the national champion.
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