Six questions about College Football Playoff after Pac-12’s return to play

The 2020 college football season took another turn Thursday night with the Pac-12 Conference’s decision to opt back into the College Football Playoff race.  

The Pac-12, which followed the Big Ten by postponing its fall season in August, will now play a seven-game season beginning Nov. 6. That means all five Power 5 conferences are back on — but the COVID-19 pandemic will still be a factor given that more than 20 games have already been postponed or canceled since the season started in the first week of September.

The College Football Playoff, which started in 2014, likely will see a one-of-a-kind race as a result. There is a lot to sort out over the next three months.  

How many games is everybody playing?  

Let’s stick with the Power 5. Here are the number of regular-season games each conference intends to play in 2020:  

ACC : 11. Ten conference games and one nonconference game. That’s the most of any Power 5 conference. There are no divisions.  

SEC : 10.  Conference-only, with six division games and four crossover games. 

Big 12 : 10.  Nine conference games and one nonconference game. Every Big 12 team is scheduled to play every other team in the conference. No divisions.  

Big Ten : 8. Conference-only, including six division games and two crossover games. The schedule will have no open weeks.  

Pac-12 : 7. Conference-only, with six division games and a crossover game that will count in the standings. The Pac-12 also will have no open weeks.  

Does starting early (or late) matter?  

That will be an interesting question given the traditional arguments about whether it’s best to lose in September or November.  

The ACC and Big 12 started their seasons on Sept. 12. The SEC opens this weekend, the Big Ten begins play Oct. 24, and the Pac-12 will cap off the openers with its Nov. 6 start.

2020 SCHEDULES: ACC | Big Ten | Big 12 | SEC

The ACC and Big 12 have the most room to reschedule league contests that are affected by players testing positive for COVID-19. For example, the Notre Dame-Wake Forest game that was postponed this week has been rescheduled for Dec. 12.  

Conversely, the Big Ten and Pac-12 have less wiggle room with rescheduling should teams be impacted by positive COVID-19 tests.  

Will teams that play more games get the benefit of the doubt?  

College football arguments are already subjective, but the SEC will have the most to say if plays all 10 games. The conference features six top-10 teams in the AP Poll.  

The SEC has put a team in the College Football Playoff every year, has had three different schools reach the CFP championship game and is the only conference to produce national championships since 2014.  

That is going to put pressure on the top contenders in the Big Ten and Pac-12 to stay unbeaten over a shorter season, especially without the benefit of nonconference games.  

The two simplest rules for making the CFP remain the same, even if they will be tested by the number of games.

— Stay unbeaten. Nine of the 24 CFP participants finished unbeaten in the regular season; eight Power 5 champions and Notre Dame, which is in the ACC this year.  

— Don’t lose twice. The other 15 CFP participants had one loss. Ohio State (2016) and Alabama (2017) are the only one-loss Playoff teams that didn’t win their conference championship. 

Will the Group of 5 have a chance at the Playoff?  

The Group of 5 — especially the American Athletic Conference — seemed to have an opportunity when just three Power 5 conferences were playing. 

The road has gotten tougher with the return of the Big Ten and Pac-12. Teams such as Cincinnati, Memphis and UCF — which routed Georgia Tech on Sept. 19 — have no margin for error off the field and do not have multiple nonconference showcases to impress the CFP committee.  

Remember, UCF finished No. 12 in the final CFP rankings in 2017 and No. 8 in 2018 despite back-to-back undefeated regular seasons. It’s going to be tough to crack that top four.  

Will the regular season end on Dec. 19?  

As of now, the Big 12 is scheduled to play its championship game on Dec. 12. The Pac-12 is scheduled to play its conference championship game on Dec. 18. The ACC, Big Ten and SEC will go on Dec. 19, and the College Football Playoff selection show is scheduled for Dec. 20.  

That is assuming each conference’s schedule goes according to plan. Given the postponements and cancellations thus far, it will be interesting to see how many games each school plays over the next three months. It also will be interesting to see if continued cancellations and postponements lead to pushing back the timetable.  

How intense will the CFP arguments get?

Buckle up. There is a reason every other tweet says the 2020 season will get its own “30 for 30” documentary.  

Notre Dame is in the ACC. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields — players who have been at the forefront for the push to play — could be the top two picks in the 2021 NFL Draft. Players who have opted are trying to opt back in. Nobody started before Labor Day and the Pac-12 is starting after Halloween.  

The Sun Belt upsets of Big 12 teams on Sept. 12 could be just the beginning on the field. COVID-19 will continue to be in the backdrop, making it is the most fluid college season of all time. We don’t know which teams will finish, but we know everybody is at least going to try to start.  

The arguments are going to be intense. Would one-loss Big Ten champion Ohio State be more deserving than one-loss SEC runner-up Florida? Would undefeated Oregon get in over one-loss SEC runner-up Alabama? What if all five conferences have unbeaten champions? What if Clemson beats Notre Dame in South Bend and then loses to the Irish in the ACC championship game? What about a Texas-Oklahoma split? Oh, those arguments are coming, and they have more variables than ever.  

Maybe the end of the road is the traditional monopoly of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma. Or maybe — just maybe — this season will produce the most unlikely four-team playoff yet.

That, as they say every five seconds, would be peak 2020.

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