The Power Five have been divided in their approach to nearly everything since the COVID-19 pandemic began -- whether to play, returning to play, schedules, coronavirus testing, game postponements, etc. But the next, most important consideration by the biggest, richest conferences cannot be ignored much longer. After all, it's a huge reason why they're playing in the first place.
That would be a shot at the College Football Playoff and its riches.
To get there, stakeholders must decide what will actually define CFP eligibility this season. COVID-19 has ravaged schedules and rosters. Eighteen games from retooled schedules have been canceled or postponed, including one that was a late-replacement game.
If the Pac-12 approves a fall schedule this week, there is a real possibility the Power Five conferences could play four different amounts of regular-season games.
Try that eye test on for size.
"There is a conversation to be had [about eligibility], and it's probably not going to be had right away. We're all going to have to see how many games we get in," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.
Bowlsby is part of the 11-member CFP Management Committee that sets policy for the playoff. That committee includes commissioners of the 10 FBS conferences and Notre athletic director Jack Swarbrick.
There are growing concerns among the group that comparisons of teams in contention for the playoff -- already a difficult task for the CFP Selection Committee -- could be complicated by contenders playing a disparate number of games.
The conversation boils down to this: What if a 6-0 team impacted by COVID-19 has to be compared to a 9-2 team able to play its full schedule?
It could get more complicated. What if that 6-0 team is Alabama, and it's not eligible because policy sets the minimum for eligibility at seven games?
That's why there is hesitancy by those leaders -- whether to move swiftly or at all. The management committee could punt and leave the decision up to the 13-member selection committee itself. Let them decide the playoff (and seed the New Year's Six bowls).
Bowlsby speculated that a final decision may not have to be made until early November.
"Depending on how the fall goes, the best situation might be somebody who has six or seven wins," he said. "It's just hard to forecast that. That's why we have to wait."
CBS Sports spoke to three members of the management committee. The other two spoke on the condition of anonymity, but all three agreed about the looming issue regarding teams playing different amounts of games. The management committee discussed eligibility on one of its recent calls.
"We're going to follow whatever protocol the management committee determines," said CFP executive director Bill Hancock. "The conferences set their schedules, and the committee bases its judgement on the schedules. It is premature to talk about much of this because no one knows how many games any team is going to play this season."
CFP selection protocol only notes that teams have to be bowl eligible to be considered for the playoff. But even that codicil comes complete with confusion this season. Given the circumstances, the NCAA has yet to determine what constitutes bowl eligibility.
A waiver seeking elimination of all bowl eligibility requirements has been submitted to the NCAA by Football Bowl Association executive director Nick Carparelli. A decision could come as soon as next week.
Under normal circumstances, bowl eligibility begins with a team having a .500 record. If there are not enough teams to fill all the bowl slots, teams with one additional loss get consideration in order of their Academic Progress Rate (APR).
"I say let the selection committee pick the four best teams," said a person with intimate knowledge of the selection process.
"It's curious because there's one camp that says we have 13 selection committee members that do a great job," that person added. "That's their assignment. Pick the four best teams. Yeah, but what if one team is 5-0 and another team is 8-1?"
That sort of debate could tear apart a sport that has endured an epic year of upheaval.
"I don't think, if you ask any of my fellow commissioners, they can tell you how many games their teams are going to play," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in an ESPN interview last week. "They know what they're going to try to play. But we've already seen … every league that's tried to play has had to postpone games. So no one's feeling supremely confident at this point."
Forget what "resume" even means this season. Baylor has already had two games postponed. A week after traveling to Kansas State with only 62 players and missing 20 (including nine starters) mostly due to COVID-19 concerns, Arkansas State postponed a Sept. 19 game against Central Arkansas until Oct. 10.
Notre Dame announced Tuesday that 13 players have been put in isolation and 10 more in quarantine for reasons related to the coronavirus. That led to at least a postponement of this week's game at Wake Forest. Memphis -- a New Year's Six contender -- has already postponed two games.
Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente tweeted earlier this week he "will not have a full roster," for the NC State game. "I hope we're able to play," he said.
The ACC, Big 12, SEC and AAC all have built in bye weeks to accommodate potential postponements. The Big Ten left itself no wriggle room. The conference announced last week it will attempt to play nine games in nine consecutive weeks beginning Oct. 24.
The implications of the Big Ten's COVID-19 testing protocol are just settling in. If a player tests positive, he is out 21 days. The general standard among conferences is 10 days. That means any player who tests positive after Oct. 3 will miss the season opener. Even more concerning, any player who tests positive after Nov. 28 would miss the remainder of the regular season.
We'll get an early indicator of those schedule disparities. With the first weekly CFP Rankings arriving Nov. 17, Big Ten teams will have played only four games.
If the Pac-12 decides to play this year, it would similarly have no bye weeks in a schedule that would start Oct. 31 or Nov. 7. Same for the Mountain West, which is considering an Oct. 24 start.
Here's how those disparate fall schedules stand at the moment.
|Conference||Games (league)||Divisions?||Start date||Open weeks||Title game|
Dec. 12 or 19
|Big 12||10 (9)||No||Sept. 12||3-4||Dec. 12 or 19|
|SEC||10 (10)||Yes||Sept. 26||2||Dec. 19|
Oct. 31 or Nov. 7
* Big Ten teams not competing in the league's title game will also play a ninth game on Dec. 18-19.
^ The Pac-12 has yet to announce a return to play this fall; however, if it does, their expected format is outlined above.