This is now a COVID-19 crisis redefined for college football. We're 38 days from the conference championship games and two additional weeks from the College Football Playoff semifinals commence -- and yet -- the sport is running out of runway.
The SEC on Tuesday postponed three games over coronavirus concerns. For the first time, there is the possibility the conference may cancel a game. Alabama-LSU came into the season as the game of the year. Now, it might not even be played.
Will that particular game matter? The answer isn't altogether evident, but the more time that ticks off the calendar brings a clearer answer: What ifs? are turning into what nows?
The count now stands at 52 FBS games this season that have been canceled or postponed. That's approximately a full Saturday of games for all 127 teams playing this fall. On the surface, that shouldn't be a surprise. Ten of those games were lost last weekend at the same time COVID-19 cases were spiking in 43 states.
Notre Dame students topped the weekend off by turning the Clemson win a potential super-spreader event.
We've learned this much: What happens in society usually trickles down to college athletics.
There is no bubble in college football. The sport is an open loop because these are college students. You can't hermetically seal them. There were reports the LSU problems started with a Halloween party some players may have attended.
When it happens in the SEC, as they say, it just means more. And considering current events, along with the arrival of winter and the flu season, college football's battle with the coronavirus is going to get more contentious.
With that in mind, these are the main considerations going forward after a dreary Tuesday.
Competitive balance is an issue
The SEC is in a situation where it just needs to play games. It can't afford to lose "data points" (games played) to other conferences in CFP competition. Not that the SEC has frequently been on the wrong end of the benefit of the doubt from the CFP Selection Committee.
If Alabama-LSU isn't played, tough spit. Neither has a common open date to make up the game. LSU has used up its bye week as the Florida-LSU game was previously rescheduled to Dec. 12. Obviously, Alabama can't play LSU that day.
But the conference may have to consider canceling Florida-LSU for competitive balance reasons. In the current scenario, Alabama would benefit from a cancellation with a bye week before the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 19, while Florida would be playing a game and exposing itself
not only to COVID-19 but potential injury and exhaustion that generally comes with playing football.
Someone (at Florida) will surely raise the issue about the same time the Gators clinch the SEC East later this month.
Prior to today, Texas A&M (5-1) was in great playoff position as a potential second team from the SEC. It already has beaten Florida, and its only loss is to Alabama. The way things are going, it won't have to risk that record in the SEC Championship Game. If this week's Tennessee game can't be played at a later date, then we're talking about a possible CFP pick 'em between an 8-1 Texas A&M (at best) against a possible 11-1 Notre Dame that loses to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.
A nightmare for the committee
I wrote about this earlier in the year: The prospect of the CFP Selection Committee having to make a determination between teams playing different amounts of games.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby's comments from September hold more urgency than ever. "There is a conversation to be had [about playoff 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," he said.
The picture is clearer now considering this possibility: If it comes down to it, is an SEC champion Alabama at 8-1 going to beat out an undefeated Cincinnati that played all its games and finished 11-0 as AAC champion? Probably, one would think. Now slot an 11-1 Notre Dame into Cincinnati's place. The answer gets less certain.
Shaky playoff scheduling
We now know what massive cancellations/postponements look like. We know what it looks like for a team to be missing its best player due to COVID-19 (Clemson and Trevor Lawrence). Should we just assume these threats are going subside in time for the CFP semifinals on Jan. 1 and national championship on Jan. 11?
Imagine if one of the four participants can't go because of a rash of COVID-19 positives three days before the semifinals. The closer we get, the more likely that scenario becomes.
The CFP may want to consider some kind of bubble. Flying teams into New Orleans (Sugar Bowl) and Los Angeles (Rose Bowl) for the semifinals doesn't seem wise at the moment. It may want to consider a central location like Glendale, Arizona, where all three games could be played at State Farm Stadium. There is at least one hotel within walking distance of the stadium that could theoretically seal the players in a bubble.
Just a thought.
Hope for the Pac-12?
Other Power Five schools playing less games is nothing but good news for the Pac-12. With its champion playing only seven games, the current COVID-19 crisis narrows the gap between the West Coast and the rest of the Power Five.
That is if -- and only if -- the Pac-12 can produce a 7-0 champion. With COVID-19 already impacting the league, that might be a stretch.
On one hand, the Pac-12 is at a disadvantage playing the fewest games in the Power Five. On the other, with a shorter schedule it's easier to go undefeated.
The clock keeps ticking.