We got through it. For now. There is still a truncated Bowl Season to go. Fingers crossed the College Football Playoff can be pulled off. But we got this far in the craziest college football season ever.
Mississippi State’s Mike Leach called the process of playing in 2020 “joyless.” Millions others needed college football for their mental health alone. Instead of finding guilt or innocence, we’re looking back — and forward — hoping we can learn.
While the SEC, Big 12 and ACC can claim some kind of “victory” for starting earlier, there were so many hiccups we needed a bib. The Pac-12 needs a publicist. (Four years without a College Football Playoff berth, 16 years without a national championship.) Notre Dame needs to reevaluate its independent status.
We all need a drink. Happy Holidays. Here are 10 things we learned from the 2020 college football season.
1. College football needs a commissioner: The sport desperately needed leadership in 2020 and got little. What did you expect from leagues that — in normal times — can’t even agree on the number of conference games to be played? Amid COVID-19, the leagues went their separate and self-serving ways in terms of medical protocols, scheduling and transparency. Except for medical recommendations, the NCAA and its president Mark Emmert largely stood on the sidelines. What we were left with is conferences using differing testing methods and changing rules on the fly to suit their own financial needs. (See: ACC, Big Ten.) The Pac-12 and Big Ten backed themselves into corners starting late with no bye weeks built in.
The College Football Playoff changed on the fly as well. We know that because the Rose Bowl was yanked out of Southern California Saturday night in the middle of the conference championship games. Executive director Bill Hancock blamed the number of rising COVID-19 cases. That was the case in Southern California three months ago. Do better, college football. It will never happen, but one suggestion for that college football commissioner: former West Virginia athletic director, NCAA executive, XFL commissioner, father of Andrew Luck — Oliver Luck.
2. The sport can be more nimble: The ACC played in one division matching its two best teams in the league championship game just like the Big 12. Wasn’t that fun? We maybe wouldn’t have gotten a Clemson-Notre Dame rematch without it … Teams rescheduled games the week of a cancellation. Why do we need schedules 15 years in advance? … The 85-scholarship limit went out the window with teams like LSU traveling 54 players to Florida on Dec. 12 and winning … COVID-19 showed us teams don’t have to stay in hotels the night before home games … Ohio State flew the day of the game for one of its road contests … Coaches and ADs took pay cuts during the pandemic to help balance budgets … Schools continue to cut expenses and sports to keep the heart of the athletic department (football) beating but the whole enterprise can be done cheaper and better.
3. Yeah, but the sport couldn’t help itself: Illinois, South Carolina and Auburn didn’t let a financial crisis keep them from changing coaches. You know, just like always — the bloated college football industrial complex kept chugging along even in the middle of the coronavirus. It will take South Carolina at least $30 million to switch from Will Muschamp to Shane Beamer. Auburn may spend $40 million to move on from Gus Malzahn. Stunningly, whoever is making the decisions on The Plains thought nothing of paying Malzahn a $21.5 million buyout without having a successor lined up, waiting in the wings.
4. Nick Saban is here for the long haul: At age 69, Alabama‘s has perhaps his best team and shows no signs of slowing down. Eleven wins, two coronavirus tests and one confirmed positive later, Alabama’s coach proved he’s not retiring anytime soon. This season proved one of Saban’s lasting legacies will be his ability to grasp the impact of the offensive revolution. He not only changed his offense, Saban changed the culture of his program to fit around it. Bama is the standard for creative and productive offense to the point it might have the best quarterback (Mac Jones), wide receiver (DeVonta Smith) and running back (Najee Harris). That has seldom happened — anywhere, ever.
5. The Group of Five will never, ever get a team in the playoff … unless the playoff expands. That was proven this season when Cincinnati went undefeated, won the strongest Group of FIve league (American) and still found itself No. 8 behind a three-loss Florida, a two-loss Oklahoma (that lost at home to Kansas State) and a one-loss Texas A&M that lost by four touchdowns to Alabama. Point being, the Group of Five has never been further separated from the Power Five — physically, financially, in terms of perception. And that gap will get wider. It’s not fair and it will not change anytime soon. As part of that gap, through the first seven years of the playoff, the CFP Selection Committee has constructed a glass ceiling above that best Group of Five champion.
6. Get used to that ceiling: All that said, there will not be an expanded playoff bracket for a while. For all the hand-wringing over the CFP, the committee basically got it right. Any expansion from the current four-team structure will have to wait. Like a lot of businesses, ESPN is interested in cost certainty. It doesn’t make financial sense to tear up a $7.2 billion CFP contract and pay more during a pandemic that has staggered the economy. That means that for at least the last five years of the CFP contract through the 2025 season things will stay as is. After that? Have at it. A six-team playoff — at least — is on the horizon.
7. The college athlete has never been more powerful: Days apart in August, players in the Big Ten and the Pac-12 released a list of demands amid the pandemic. Scores of players opted out from playing the season and not just those protecting their bodies for the draft. Utah State players refused to play Colorado State earlier this month after allegedly religiously insensitive remarks by its president. Utah became one of the scores of teams to opt out of a bowl game. Wide receiver Britain Covey summed up the aggregate feeling of the team saying, “We were burned out.” Name, image and likeness and one-time transfers are coming next year. It all means more safety, more compensation, more rights for athletes who came damn close to looking like employees as the adults steered them through a pandemic.
8. Football doesn’t build character, it reveals it: In the middle of a worldwide pandemic, there were some incredible acts of nobility, courage and achievement. Army and Navy spent most of the season isolated. UAB went to Rice for its final regular-season game having not played for six weeks. Missing 31 players because of COVID-19, the Blazers won, clinched the division and later won Conference USA for the second time in three years. This from a program that was dropped in 2015, resurrected in 2017 and will open a new stadium next fall. This is for the players who got up at the crack of dawn to be tested, slogged through countless, meaningless practices only to have games cancelled and the medical professionals who did their best to protect players.
9. Ed Orgeron isn’t the only coach who begins 2021 on the hot seat: We know this because LSU almost became first reigning national champion to follow with a losing season. The Tigers were bound to take a downturn losing 35 players and three coaches from that 2019 national champions. But the year descended from there into an injury- and COVID-impacted fog. Coach O is safe for now. LSU rebounded late to beat Florida and finish 5-5. A sign was sent when defensive coordinator Bo Pelini got The Big Haircut with numerous other assistants apparently on the chopping block. Meanwhile, Texas took its time in giving Tom Herman a sort of vote of confidence. Urban Meyer said he wasn’t coming which means the over/under on Herman’s job security becomes the week before/after the Oklahoma game.
10. The attendance issue is anything but fixed: At places like Alabama, LSU, Florida, etc. the stadiums will soon be packed again once we get the all clear. But at a large majority of college stadiums (and theaters and concerts and conventions) there will be a reluctance return after the coronavirus. We know this because in the best of times (2019) fans were staying away in record numbers. The fan experience will increasingly mean more. (Hey, do you want to sit through four quarters of Kansas without beer?) Cleanliness may become a deal-breaker for fans. You ready to prove you’ve gotten the vaccine at the turnstile? Folks will have money to spend on sports. They’ll want to know where they can safely spend it.