Biggest Things Impacted by Conference-Only Play in College Football
Whether there will be any college football this fall remains to be seen, but we at least know that neither the Big Ten nor the Pac-12 will be playing nonconference games.
The ACC, Big 12 and SEC have not yet come to similar conclusions, though it's hardly a leap of faith to assume those proclamations are coming soon.
Are these simply the first dominoes before an autumn and winter devoid of football, or could this "buy three more weeks of time for things to improve" Hail Mary be what saves a truncated 2020 season?
In hopes of a conference-only season still happening, here are the biggest things that will be impacted by the elimination of a couple of hundred games.
Group of Five Finances
Might as well start with the biggest impact: Money.
Without question, there are massive nationwide financial ramifications to an abridged college football season with what we're hoping/assuming will be limited-capacity seating.
Take Iowa, for example. The Hawkeyes were originally scheduled for seven home games at Kinnick Stadium, which has a listed capacity of 69,250. Per ESPN, they had 100 percent attendance for the 2019 home game against Miami (Ohio) and 92 percent against Middle Tennessee, so I think we can safely assume they would have been darn near 100 percent against each of Northern Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Illinois, plus definitely at 100 percent for the four Big Ten games. I'll spare you the mental math: seven times 69,250 is 484,750 tickets.
But now they're down to just four* home games, probably at 25 percent capacity, if they're lucky. And four games at 25 percent capacity is the equivalent of one game at full capacity. Without accounting for the potential of jacked-up ticket prices, that's an 86 percent reduction in ticket revenue, not to mention concessions, parking, etc.
If there's a full conference schedule, though, the Power Five schools will survive. They'll still get a bunch of TV revenue. They can temporarily reduce salaries among the coaching staff and administration. They can (continue to) cut the non-revenue sports. It won't be easy, but it's like recovering from a high-ankle sprain as opposed to a compound leg fracture.
But the Group of Five schools might not be so lucky.
Per USA Today's Steve Berkowitz and Aria Gerson, the Big Ten was going to pay out more than $22 million for "buy games." Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Kent State and Northern Illinois were each supposed to play two road games against Big Ten schools this year, which would have generated nearly $10 million in revenue within the Mid-American Conference.
That's no longer the case. And if and when the other four Power Five leagues follow suit, it's a reasonable assumption that we're now talking about more than $100 million essentially vanishing from Group of Five pockets—pockets that aren't lined with TV revenue anywhere near as well as their Power Five counterparts.
Some of the annual contenders like Boise State, Houston and UCF might be fine, but there are a lot of programs in those conferences that were already struggling to make ends meet. Stripping those schools of a few million dollars' worth of buy-game income is going to lead to a bunch of difficult accounting decisions.
*The Big Ten is considering a 10-game conference schedule, in which we assume every team would get five home games. At 25 percent seating capacity, though, Iowa still falls almost 400,000 tickets shy of what it would sell in a normal season.
The Record Books...Sort of
Two years ago, Clemson became the first 15-0 national champion since the 1897 Penn Quakers. Last year, LSU repeated that impressive feat. And with the pre-COVID-19 standard season format—12 regular-season games, a conference championship and two rounds in the College Football Playoff—it seemed like we would be seeing 15-0 teams pretty regularly for the foreseeable future.
If anything, we thought the next change would be to a 16-0 national champion, if and when the College Football Playoff is expanded to six or eight teams.
Instead, we'll be stepping backward to a season in which the national champion plays 13 games, at most. And that's assuming the Big Ten expands to a 10-game schedule (plus a conference championship), other leagues follow suit and nothing else gets canceled along the way.
It'll look a little weird compared to the past decade, but it's still better than what anyone over the age of 30 grew up watching. (And it won't look as weird as MLB playing a 60-game schedule after 24 consecutive 162-game seasons.)
Prior to 1998—aka the Pre-BCS era of college football—crowning a national champion was about as lawless as the wild, wild west. Even including bowl games, teams rarely played more than 12 games, and co-champions were relatively commonplace.
Go back even further and folks over the age of 50 might recall national champions who only won nine or 10 games. In 1966, Michigan State and Notre Dame were co-champions with identical 9-0-1 records, tying each other, no less.
Compared to that, it'll be much more fulfilling to have a 13-0 national champion who likely has to win its conference, its conference championship and a pair of games against two teams that did the same. Just remember that when woebegone fans demand an asterisk be placed on this season.
Spring football was either abbreviated or canceled altogether for most schools. Summer workouts at Kansas State, North Carolina, Ohio State and several other schools were forced to pause because of COVID-19 concerns or outbreaks. Fall camps will likely face similar hiccups. And now some Power Five leagues have canceled their "warm-up" games with plans of diving straight into conference play.
Add up all those factors ,and it's a terrible year for a team to have uncertainties on the depth chart, particularly at quarterback.
Remember Clemson's quarterback battle in 2018? Incumbent starting senior Kelly Bryant and true freshman Trevor Lawrence duked it out for eight months, and it wasn't until after the fourth game of the regular season that Lawrence was finally declared the winner of that competition.
That type of scenario seems impossible to transpire during a conference-only season.
Even though Lawrence's talent was undeniable long before he stepped foot on Clemson's campus, he needed all of those reps in practice/camp and those early games against Furman and Georgia Southern to prove he deserved the job. Transport that 2018 battle to 2020 and Bryant likely keeps the starting job without much of a debate.
Just among the expected-to-be-ranked Big Ten and Pac-12 schools, you've got Michigan, Oregon, Penn State, Utah and Wisconsin with quarterback decisions to be made. If and when the SEC joins the conference-only club, throw Alabama, Georgia and LSU into that mix, as well.
Maybe all eight of those schools would have come to the same conclusion regardless of how the past four months played out, but it's going to feel like more of a hope and a prayer than an informed decision because of the drastically reduced competition window.
Preseason Rankings Could Matter More Than Usual
A common complaint among college football fans—particularly those who don't care for the SEC—is that the preseason AP Top 25 ends up being a media-driven, self-fulfilled prophecy.
When you have seven or eight ranked teams from the same conference, you get a season full of "quality wins" and "forgivable losses" within that conference. Conversely, if a league is devoid of preseason AP Top 25 teams, even the best team from that league has a difficult time garnering any respect among casual fans.
By eliminating nonconference play, the AP poll turns into even more of a zero-sum game.
Thus far, we've already lost: Michigan vs. Washington, Ohio State vs. Oregon, Penn State vs. Virginia Tech, Iowa vs. Iowa State, Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame, USC vs. Alabama and USC vs. Notre Dame. In due time, Oklahoma vs. Tennessee, Texas vs. LSU and Auburn vs. North Carolina will likely also vanish from the schedule.
One way or another, those 10 games would have impacted the way we viewed those teams, as well as each of the Power Five conferences (and Notre Dame) as a whole. Without them, we—and more importantly, the College Football Playoff selection committee—have fewer noteworthy data points in the never-ending quest to figure out which four teams are actually best. Thus, we will be forced to rely more heavily on preseason prognostications than usual.
Filling Bowl Games Will Be a Mess
Even in an abridged season, the New Year's Six bowls won't have any problem finding enough qualified candidates. Nor will the top non-NY6 bowls, such as Alamo, Citrus and Outback. There were 33 Power Five teams that won at least 50 percent of their conference games in 2019. A repeat of that number plus Notre Dame and two of the best Group of Five teams and, boom, you've got 18 solid bowl games.
But 42 bowl games?
That only happens if they let 15-20 teams in based on Academic Progress Rate scores.
Last year, a total of 67 teams went .500 or better in league play—plus Notre Dame, Liberty and BYU each winning at least six games as Independents. That's only 70 teams for 84 spots, though.
Even if all 10 conferences play a nine-game schedule and it is decided that a 4-5 record is good enough for bowl eligibility, getting to 84 teams might be a stretch.
So do we let in teams that go 3-6, or do we ax some bowl games from the schedule? If the latter, how will it be determined whether Duke's Mayo, LendingTree or Bad Boy Mowers is least worthy of sponsoring a game? (Maybe they each get one-third of a Mayo Tree Mowers Bowl?)
We don't even know if there will be football two months from now, so worrying about bowl math and sponsorship for five months from now probably isn't the best use of anyone's time. But it's still a major impact of this conference-only approach.
No More Saban-Friendly Schedule
The art of putting together a schedule that mitigates the risk of facing substantial challenges on back-to-back Saturdays is hardly unique to Alabama, but the Crimson Tide sure have mastered it.
At most, they face one quality nonconference opponent per season, filling up the rest of the nonconference slate with games where they're favored by six or more touchdowns. The bye week always comes the week before facing LSU. And in each of the past seven seasons, the LSU game was followed by Mississippi State, an FCS opponent and then the Iron Bowl. Even this year, with both USC and Georgia on the docket, Alabama was going to make it all the way until late November before drawing two tough opponents consecutively—and it helps that those two games against Texas A&M and Auburn are both in Tuscaloosa.
Without the nonconference cream-puff buffers, though, the Crimson Tide will need to endure a more difficult regular-season gauntlet.
Perhaps the schedule gets rearranged and Alabama can massage a bye week or two into a favorable spot on the calendar, but its 2020 SEC schedule consists of home games against Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State and Texas A&M and road games against Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss and Tennessee. Hard to imagine the Crimson Tide would be forced to play Auburn, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M in succession, but tough multiweek stretches will be inevitable.
Anyone who tries to play the "But 'Bama ain't played nobody" card this year shouldn't be allowed to talk for a while.
Each Game Becomes More Important
While most of these impacts are negative, let's close on a positive one: By decreasing the number of games, we're increasing the importance of each one.
Marquee nonconference games tend to serve as a huge positive for the victor and as not much of a concern for the loser.
Examples: Despite collapsing in the second half of a Week 1 loss to Auburn last year, Oregon had a good chance of making the College Football Playoff until its late November loss to Arizona State. Conversely, Oklahoma was able to reach the 2017 CFP in spite of an embarrassing home loss to Iowa State, in large part because it won a big game against Ohio State earlier in the season.
But without games like Ohio State vs. Oregon and USC vs. Alabama, none of those teams has the luxury of entering league play with what essentially amounts to a mulligan to be used at a later date.
That doesn't necessarily mean every team in the nation is facing a "Go undefeated or kiss the CFP goodbye" ultimatum. The odds of at least four of the Power Five conferences producing an undefeated champion are slim to none. Even three such teams is unlikely in any given year, and perhaps especially so in this bizarre 2020 season.
However, if a team suffers one loss and also puts forth a half-hearted effort in a closer-than-it-should-have-been victory, the selection committee is probably going to be able to find four other teams that weren't disappointing for 20 percent of the season.
That makes each game in 2020 more crucial than usual—provided there actually is a season, of course.