No. 3 Ohio State and No. 13 Wisconsin, the teams favored to play for the Big Ten championship, have already had a combined three games canceled because of COVID-19.
A spate of postponements in the Southeastern Conference has created the distinct possibility that neither No. 1 Alabama nor No. 6 Florida will play all its games.
And the most important Atlantic Coast Conference game of the season was played without the Heisman Trophy favorite, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, because he was recovering from the coronavirus.
As virus disruptions mount and the end of college football’s regular season draws closer, the possibility grows that conference championships, major awards and even College Football Playoff participants will be determined in very large part by COVID-19.
“We’ve all accepted this is anything but a normal year,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said.
Pittsburgh’s game at Georgia Tech this weekend on Thursday became the 56th game involving Bowl Subdivision teams to be postponed or canceled since revised schedules were set in late August — including nine scheduled for this weekend and 10 for last.
The total number of FBS games played so far is 310, meaning about 15% of the schedule through 10 weeks has been impacted. The number has increased recently in part because all FBS conferences are now playing, with the Pac-12 and Mid-American Conference returning last week, but it has also coincided with surging COVID-19 cases across the country.
In major college football, five postponed games have already been made up and another 24 have been rescheduled with the Dec. 19 end date little more than a month away. As days come off the calendar and make-up dates become tougher to find, conferences will have to put more emphasis on the games that matter most.
Pushing back the playoff could provide more opportunity to complete the regular season. The semifinals are set for Jan. 1 at the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl and the championship game for Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Florida. But the idea of rescheduling the CFP does not seem to have traction among the conference commissioners who will ultimately make that call.
“At some point we have to have a finish line,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said.
Delaying conference championship games a week would put them on Christmas weekend.
“So going farther into December, I don’t think is a workable option,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.
Among the Power Five, the Big 12 has had just one league game postponed: No. 14 Oklahoma State at Baylor was rescheduled for Dec. 12, the week before the Big 12 title game.
“I’m a long ways from declaring victory,” Bowlsby said. “We could at any time be right where the SEC is this week.”
The ACC, which started conference play earliest among Power Five conferences, has postponed five league games. One has already been made up and another will be Saturday when Louisville plays at Virginia. The other three, including No. 2 Notre Dame at Wake Forest, are slated for Dec. 12.
“You know, when you have 15 schools with 11 games and all 15 still have a chance to play 11 games, you have to feel good about it,” Swofford said. “But you also understand that can change and it can change in a hurry.”
Still, the ACC race has already been heavily impacted by the virus. No. 4 Clemson lost in double-overtime at Notre Dame without Lawrence, leaving the Fighting Irish well positioned to reach the ACC title game. If the Tigers can win a league championship rematch with the Irish, it could set up well for both to make the playoff. But would the result in South Bend, Indiana, have been the same with Lawrence?
The Big Ten and Pac-12 left themselves no leeway to make up games by starting their seasons so late after initially postponing to spring.
Not even four weeks in, the Big Ten’s top contenders are already in precarious positions.
Wisconsin (1-0) returns to action this week after an outbreak forced two cancellations. The Badgers can’t afford to miss another game. The Big Ten requires a minimum of six to be eligible to play in its championship game.
Ohio State had its game Saturday at Maryland canceled because of an outbreak with the Terrapins. At most the Buckeyes will play seven regular-season games and the Big Ten championship.
“When you do everything right and make all these sacrifices, it’s hard,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said on his weekly radio show Thursday.
The College Football Playoff has not set a minimum requirement for games played, but conferences playing more have already been pushing for the selection committee to take note of the number of data points each team accumulates.
The SEC’s pile-up of postponements this week left it with two games that have no makeup date: Alabama at LSU and No. 12 Georgia at Missouri.
The SEC left Dec. 12 as an open date to makeup games, but LSU already has one that day with Florida. The Gators are in the driver’s seat to win the East and play in the SEC championship a week later, possibly against West leader Alabama.
Sankey didn’t want to look that far ahead, but the possibility of one championship game participant having to play the week before while the other is idle is far from ideal.
The Big 12 could face a similar situation if Oklahoma State qualifies for the championship, and needs to play Baylor the week before to clinch a spot.
What about the Heisman? Lawrence sat out two games, Ohio State’s Justin Fields has now missed a game. Alabama quarterback Mac Jones won’t get a nationally televised, prime-time game Saturday against LSU. Does all this help Florida quarterback Kyle Trask?
All the normal November chatter about championship races and Heisman chases seems especially tenuous this season.
“I’m driven to a ‘Wayne’s World’ quote about living in the now,” Sankey said. “I’m living in the now, man.”