Slowly, a sense of normalcy — or a reasonable facsimile of normalcy in 2020 — is returning to major college football.
On Thursday, the Pac-12 became the last of the Power Five conferences to announce a return to play plan, albeit a seven-game schedule that begins Nov. 6, two weeks after the Big Ten returns for its nine-game slate.
On Saturday, the Southeastern Conference begins its 10-game, conference-only schedule, joining the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12, who started play two weeks ago. With big-name teams such as defending national champion LSU and perennial titlist Alabama playing their openers, fall Saturdays will start to resemble what we’re used to.
Among those sorting out all the twists, turns and uncertainty to determine the best teams in the country are a couple of groups of differing influence: the College Football Playoff (CFP) selection committee and the media members who vote in the Associated Press Top 25.
The 13-member playoff committee wields the ultimate power at college football’s highest level. It will determine the four teams that advance to the semifinals in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. The members’ job has been changing by the day, said Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff.
“We’re learning flexibility and we’re learning patience,” Hancock said in a phone interview this week. “It’s certainly been interesting, and there will be challenges, but we’re prepared.”
So far, the CFP has shown patience by sticking to its four-team format and adjusting its schedule by two weeks, with the announcement of the four playoff teams moving back to Dec. 20.
As for flexibility, that’s ongoing. The committee will have to weigh the merits of teams with differing schedule lengths — as many as 12 for the ACC, 11 for the SEC and Big 12, nine for the Big Ten and seven for the Pac-12.
“The committee has almost always dealt with teams that have played a different number of games. That won’t be anything new,” Hancock said, before adding that a two- or three-game difference becomes more challenging to judge. “We haven’t had that kind of gap. No one knows how many games will be played this season. Everybody’s hoping for the best.”
While acknowledging that decisions throughout college football are fluid, Hancock was optimistic that by the time of the first playoff rankings — Nov. 17 — some clarity could develop.
“We should have a good look by then,” he said. “We’ll know much more than we did three months ago, and circumstances are different than they were three months ago. I would expect they’ll be different three months from now. I hope they’re better.”
Voters face new challenges
While the 62 voters in the AP Top 25 no longer have the championship-bestowing power that defined the poll’s heyday, the weekly rankings remain influential. Coverage decisions in the print and electronic media often are based on the teams that are ranked in the Top 25.
This year has been especially challenging for the voters. Any team was eligible to be ranked in the preseason polls, and the Gophers sat at No. 19. But teams in conferences that originally weren’t going to play this fall — the Big Ten, Pac-12, Mountain West and Mid-American — weren’t allowed to be ranked in the first two weeks of the season.
That will change Sunday when the new poll is released, as teams from the Big Ten, Pac-12, etc., will be eligible.
Confused? Bob Asmussen of the Champaign (Ill.) News-Gazette is, too.
Asmussen, in his 12th year as an AP voter, said he had six Big Ten teams in his preseason Top 25, including the Gophers at No. 9. He’s not yet sure how many he’ll have ranked on Sunday.
“It’s really complicated now because you have all these teams eligible and some who haven’t played,” he said. “Where do you slide them in? They’re not going to play for another month.”
Once all teams get some games under their belts, the polls should sort themselves out, Asmussen said. He’s even found a silver lining in the truncated September schedule.
“I got to see some teams that I hadn’t voted for before,” he said. “The best example is Louisiana. I watched both of their games. They looked great in the opener against Iowa State [a 31-14 win over the No. 23 Cyclones] and not so good in their next game [a 34-31 overtime win at Georgia State]. I’ve got them at No. 16.”
Hancock knows such unpredictability is part of the college football landscape, especially this year.
“As with everything else in 2020,” he said, “we’ll wait and evaluate the circumstances.’’