Buckle up, we’ve got a wild conclusion to the college football season coming.
That’s often the case, but with contact tracing because of covid becoming a huge challenge for the season now — teams are often having games canceled or postponed not because of positive cases, but because of contact tracing surrounding those positive cases — there’s no real idea how many games will be able to be played.
For the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 that’s a less significant issue — all three of these conferences built in schedule flexibility and have played enough games so they can feel confident about crowning a legitimate champion — but in the Big Ten and the Pac 12 this could get really messy.
I’ll explain exactly how below, but just know that the contact tracing absurdity — some schools have players who have never tested positive and have been quarantined for 28 or more days, while kids that test positive are able to be back playing after missing ten days or less — is driving coaches and administrators bonkers.
What sense does that make? A kid who never tests positive is missing more games than someone who tests positive.
One of the most glaring absurdities of the covid testing process is you’re better off testing positive — which means you miss ten days in most conferences and aren’t required to be tested again — as opposed to being contact traced, never testing positive and being held out of competition for 14 days. (21 days in the Big Ten). Worst of all, you can be quarantined multiple times via contact tracing, but you don’t have to be tested any more once you test positive and beat the virus.
This is why I wrote back in the summer that testing positive in the offseason was often an advantage for players because it pretty much guaranteed they wouldn’t miss any games once the season started. (Fortunately, despite the protestations of the coronabros before the season started, there have been virtually zero significant health issues for any kids on college campuses who test positive, athletes or regular students).
The end result: covid testing is just a fundamentally broken process right now. (And this doesn’t even consider situations like what happened at Stanford, where players that never had covid tested positive and were held out of competition for no reason thanks to false positives. If athlete testing has shown us anything, it’s this, our test results are often horribly flawed.).
We’ll discuss the complexities this covid issue raises with crowning a champion in a moment, but let’s dive into the Starting 11 first and talk about actual game results:
1. 8-0 Notre Dame just has to beat UNC, Syracuse and Wake Forest to lock up an 11-0 regular season.
At that point, Notre Dame, which handled Boston College with comparative ease this weekend, would enter into the ACC title game with an opportunity to knock Clemson out of the playoff and cement itself, probably, as the number two overall playoff seed at worst.
But going 12-0 isn’t Notre Dame’s only path to the playoff.
If the 11-0 Irish lose to Clemson in the ACC title game and Florida loses to Alabama in the SEC title game, then 11-1 Notre Dame would be in the playoff too.
Finally, if the Irish lost one of their final three games, but then bounced back to beat Clemson in the ACC title game the Irish would be in the playoff as well.
Put simply, the Irish are in very good shape to be a playoff team right now and have multiple paths to get there.
2. Florida just has to beat Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU to post a 9-1 season and set up an SEC title game for all the playoff — and league title — marbles.
I don’t see Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Tennessee or LSU — if that game happens — having anywhere near the defensive prowess to slow down this Florida offensive attack.
If the Gators win all four of these games, and they should be double digit favorites in all of them, then Florida would enter the SEC title game at 9-1.
Assuming Alabama is undefeated then the Tide would already have punched their playoff ticket.
Then Florida would need to beat Alabama to make the college football playoff.
A 10-1 Florida team with a win over Alabama, would, I’m quite confident, bump an 11-1 Notre Dame out of the playoff.
Which is why the only way 11-1 Notre Dame misses the playoff is if Florida beats Alabama. (A 12-0 Notre Dame, or an 11-1 Notre Dame that beats Clemson for the ACC title, would knock Clemson out, leaving 10-1 SEC champ Florida in the playoff alongside of one loss Alabama.)
I also think, by the way, that Kyle Trask should be the Heisman favorite right now. And that there’s a decent chance the Heisman trophy will be decided in the SEC title game based on who performs better: Mac Jones or Kyle Trask.
What Trask is doing right now is off the charts incredible.
It’s worth pondering this question: does Trask ever play for Florida at all if Feleipe Franks doesn’t break his leg against Kentucky? If not, think about how wild this is, Trask may end up a first round pick and a Heisman winner, but Dan Mullen wasn’t even going to play him at all if Franks doesn’t suffer a season ending injury.
3. Alabama is in the best playoff position of any team in college football.
The Tide just have to beat Kentucky, Auburn and Arkansas — and maybe LSU — in order to punch their playoff ticket.
A 10-0 Alabama team would be poised to lock down the number one overall seed, with ease, if they beat Florida in the SEC title game to get to 11-0.
But even if Alabama lost that game, the Tide would still make the playoff, I think.
The number one seed could be significant again as it appears likely Ohio State and Clemson might well be slotted in the two and three seed match for a second straight season.
If that happened Alabama, as the number one seed, would be poised, theoretically, to draw Notre Dame and then the winner of the Clemson-Ohio State game for the national title battle.
So seeding could loom large again this season like it did last year.
4. Who else is alive for the playoff outside of the five teams discussed already?
Right now I’d make the playoff flow chart look like this:
2. Ohio State, Indiana, Northwestern or Wisconsin as undefeated Big Ten champs
4. Notre Dame
6. Texas A&M if they finish 9-1
7. Undefeated Pac 12 champ
8. Oklahoma State if they finish with the Big 12 title and one loss
I think these are legitimately the only teams that could be in the running for the four playoff spots.
The flow chart above reflects the likelihood I believe each team would have of making the playoff.
We had SEC commissioner Greg Sankey on the show Thursday morning and I asked him whether he thought there was the possibility of an expanded playoff and he said he didn’t think that was likely because the more teams there are in the playoff the more difficult it becomes to get all the games played thanks to covid positive tests and contact tracing issues.
He did say, however, there was the possibility that the playoff could be bumped back.
In other words, that the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac 12 playoff dates, presently scheduled for December 19th, could theoretically be moved back to December 26th to provide one additional week for games to be played. That would mean the playoff would be announced on December 27th and that the two playoff games would be moved off their January 1st date.
But that becomes challenging for TV because TV wants the games played on Friday January 1st.
Could the playoff games be moved to the next Friday, January 8th? I suppose. But January 8th isn’t a holiday, meaning the TV viewership would likely decline substantially. And you can’t play on the weekend because the NFL has all of Saturday and Sunday loaded down with playoff games and the viewership for the college football games would get crushed.
I suppose you could potentially play the two playoff games on Thursday night and Friday night, the 7th and 8th of January? But would there be complaining over the extra day of rest one team would get? And would the notoriously difficult Rose Bowl, which is set to host one of the playoff games, balk at moving its game off January 1st?
There are many factors at play here.
Plus, if you move the first round playoff games then you also have to move the national title game.
Right now the national title game is scheduled for Miami on Monday January 11th.
So the national title game might be moved back to January 18th, because TV wants that game played on a Monday night.
And, again, remember the threat of positive tests and contact tracing will loom over all these games as well. What happens if one team is unable to play because so many players have to enter two weeks of contact tracing quarantine over a couple of positive tests?
This creates the possibility of a substantial delay.
Which is why contact tracing is just a total mess.
Especially since teams are going to be dealing with Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays during these windows as well. Think about how nervous coaches are going to be as their players all head back home for Christmas with their families.
As I said to start the article, buckle up, we’ve got a wild ride coming to finish the season.
6. What happens with Ohio State and Wisconsin in the Big Ten?
Both teams have to be terrified that more games could be canceled.
This weekend Ohio State’s game against Maryland was canceled, meaning the Buckeyes, at best, can now go 8-0 on the season.
But that’s not the worst of it.
What if covid positives continue to take games off the Buckeye schedule that can’t be rescheduled? (This presumes, by the way, that the Buckeyes themselves have no positive tests, which is always a danger too.)
Let me give you a scenario of how bad this could get. Let’s say Indiana, which is now 4-0, has a couple of players test positive on Monday, thereby meaning they can’t play against Ohio State this coming weekend. As a result of contact tracing the Hoosiers might even say they aren’t able to play against Ohio State on Saturday.
That would mean the best record Ohio State could now post would be 6-0.
Then Indiana is able to play against Maryland, Wisconsin, and Purdue to finish their season. If the Hoosiers won all three of these games, they’d win the Big Ten East because Indiana would be 7-0 and the best record Ohio State could post would be 6-0.
Can you imagine that mess?
How about in the Big Ten West?
Northwestern is 4-0 and scheduled to play 2-0 Wisconsin this weekend. But what if Northwestern couldn’t play because of covid positives? Then Wisconsin, which would miss its third game of the season, is no longer able to represent the Big Ten West in the Big Ten title game, effectively ending their season.
That would essentially lock Northwestern in as the Big Ten West champ.
My point? There are very real concerns that should exist for the top teams in the Big Ten given the fact that there are no added weeks to allow make up games. In the Pac 12 and the Big Ten if a game can’t be played, it’s canceled, not postponed.
And while you’d hate to think it’s a reality, could some teams use covid positives to their competitive advantage at this point? Potentially, yes.
Plus, think about the bad teams in the Big Ten, will they remain disciplined now that their seasons are effectively over? Coaches are terrified that won’t happen.
Look at the Buckeye schedule. In addition to 4-0 Indiana, Ohio State still has Illinois, Michigan State and Michigan left on their schedule.
Those teams are a combined 3-9.
If you’re a Buckeye fan do you feel confident about those teams continuing to follow their covid protocols? I don’t.
Hell, you want a real kick in the balls? What if Ohio State loses an opportunity to play against Indiana, Illinois or Michigan State — meaning they’ve already missed two games on the season — and then Michigan, which knows Ohio State has to play five games to be eligible for the Big Ten East title, says they have covid issues and aren’t able to play to conclude the season.
That would end Ohio State’s chances at a Big Ten title. (And probably a national title too).
My point with all of these hypotheticals? Get ready for some real messes to emerge, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
7. What’s going on with Penn State and Michigan in the Big Ten East?
Right now the two programs are a combined 1-7 on the season, 0-4 at Penn State and 1-3 at Michigan. In fact, Penn State is the only team in the Big Ten without a win so far.
My general belief is many people are going to toss the covid season on the dumpster fire and not use it as any major line of demarcation, but the Penn State and Michigan collapses are still staggering.
The Nittany Lions finish with Iowa, Michigan, Rutgers and Michigan State.
Michigan finishes with Rutgers, Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State.
For several years I’ve been pointing out that Jim Harbaugh was the most overrated coach in college football, but I never thought the Wolverine program would collapse like this. And I never thought every Harbaugh media defender would just disappear.
The domination by Wisconsin wasn’t all about the Badgers — Michigan appeared to quit.
And what about Penn State? This is absolutely stunning. The past four seasons in Happy Valley have looked like this:
And now you’re 0-4?
I think Jim Harbaugh will leave Michigan and return to the NFL, but I’m not sure what happens with James Franklin. A 3-1 finish for the Nittany Lions — which seems doable considering the final four on the schedule — would leave Penn State 3-5 on the year. That would be ugly, but it wouldn’t be debilitating.
But how does this play out going forward with recruiting classes? Especially since most recruits aren’t able to have traditional visits right now.
Indeed, there are so many traditional powers struggling this year — Nebraska, Penn State, Michigan, Florida State and Tennessee — that I think many people are just going to throw away this season as an aberration as soon as normalcy returns.
But that still doesn’t make what’s happened with Michigan and Penn State any less shocking.
8. What’s going to happen in the Pac 12?
USC is 2-0, but still not very good.
It looks like there is a decent chance Oregon and USC may both finish 6-0 and play in the Pac 12 title game seeking to get to 7-0.
But, again, that relies on Oregon and USC’s opponents — as well as the Ducks and Trojans — being able to play full schedules.
At this point in time, I just wouldn’t make that a likely outcome.
Which is why I think the Pac 12 champ has almost zero chance at the playoff.
9. My Heisman top four:
1. Kyle Trask
2. Mac Jones
3. Trevor Lawrence
4. Justin Fields
10. Outkick’s National Top Ten:
2. Notre Dame
3. Ohio State
4. Texas A&M
11. SEC power rankings 1-14:
At this point we are starting to get a good read in the SEC, the only real aberrant result is South Carolina having beaten Auburn. (And Mizzou beating Kentucky). Otherwise every team is ranked above the teams they beat and below the teams they lost to.
2. Texas A&M
7. Ole Miss
12. South Carolina
13. Mississippi State
As always, thanks for reading Outkick.