Guide to the 'New' CFB Season: Big Weekends, Best Matchups and More
The first two weeks of the 2020 college football season are in the books, but it all still feels...bizarre.
The SEC hasn't started playing yet. The Pac-12 isn't planning on playing this fall. Who knows what the heck the Big Ten is doing? And for the leagues that have started playing, penalties, dropped passes and special teams gaffes have been abundant.
Welcome to college football six months into a pandemic.
Here's the good news, though: The schedule is eventually going to get much better, and hopefully so will the offensive execution once everyone shakes off the rust. And even though the postponement of several Week 3 games was ominously announced while Week 2 was still playing out, there's more than enough wiggle room baked into the schedules to survive these early hiccups.
When are those great games coming, though?
What, pray tell, should we expect in terms of future postponements, and what are the stipulations that can lead to a game getting called off?
And seriously, what is going on with the Big Ten?
I'll do my best to answer those questions in this primer of what has already been a most unusual college football fall season.
Texas vs. Oklahoma (Oct. 10)
Oklahoma State should also be a factor in the Big 12 championship race, but the Red River Rivalry is always one of the biggest games of the year. There's gobs of history between these programs, but this meeting is particularly intriguing because of the quarterback battle. The Longhorns have four-year starter Sam Ehlinger with nearly 100 career touchdowns, while the Sooners are breaking in redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler, who entered the season with 81 career passing yards. That has to be an advantage for Texas early in the season, right?
Georgia at Alabama (Oct. 17)
These SEC favorites will square off in the regular season for the first time since 2015—when Alabama went to Georgia and absolutely embarrassed the Bulldogs. It should be an exceptional game, on par with the gems in the 2017 national championship and 2018 SEC title game. But the real question is: How many rematches will there be this season? It would be fantastic if Alabama and Georgia run it back in the conference championship and meet for a third time in the College Football Playoff.
Clemson at Notre Dame (Nov. 7)
There will be many bizarre things about this fall in college football, but perhaps the weirdest of all will be Notre Dame trying to win a conference title. The Fighting Irish are temporary members of the ACC, and it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the winner of this game fails to earn a spot in the ACC championship. As with the aforementioned Alabama-Georgia game, there's a good chance this won't be the last meeting between Clemson and Notre Dame in 2020.
Florida vs. Georgia (Nov. 7)
This is, hands down, the most important game of the year, as the winner will have a huge leg up in what figures to be a two-horse race for the SEC East crown. Georgia has won the last three meetings, but Florida has closed the gap to the point where this looks like a coin-flip game. It may well be a "Who can score 17 points?" challenge between two of the best defenses in the country.
Alabama at LSU (Nov. 14)
LSU's starting lineup has gone through a near-complete overhaul since winning the national championship, but don't you dare write off the Tigers. There's still a ton of talent on this roster, and the Tigers will have more than half the season to figure out their new stars in advance of this home game against one of the favorites to win the national championship.
There are three main types of week in college football: A slate full of near-guaranteed blowouts, a slate with a couple of can't-miss games with national championship implications or, the best kind, an all-you-can-eat buffet of AP Top 25 teams playing in games with point spreads of seven points or fewer.
Here are the weeks that figure to fall into that latter bucket:
Week 6 (Oct. 10)
We start the "weekend" with an intriguing Wednesday night #FunBelt game between Louisiana and Appalachian State, but this Saturday is where things will start to get wild for the first time. We've already mentioned the Oklahoma-Texas showdown. There's also Florida at Texas A&M, Tennessee at Georgia, Virginia Tech at North Carolina and Miami at Clemson as possible ranked-against-ranked matchups. Mississippi State at Kentucky, Florida State at Notre Dame and Alabama at Ole Miss should also be fun.
Week 7 (Oct. 17)
Georgia at Alabama is the meat and LSU at Florida is the potatoes, but there are several other solid side dishes here, too. Louisville at Notre Dame and North Carolina at Florida State could shake things up in the ACC. Same goes for Oklahoma State at Baylor in the Big 12 and Kentucky at Tennessee in the SEC. There's also a huge AAC battle with UCF playing at Memphis.
Week 9 (Oct. 31)
This is low-key my favorite week on the calendar. Georgia is idle and both Clemson (vs. Boston College) and Alabama (vs. Mississippi State) are going to be heavy favorites, but it could be chaos elsewhere in the rankings.
LSU at Auburn will determine which set of Tigers enters November with a shot at winning the SEC West. Texas at Oklahoma State ought to decide who faces Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship. Memphis at Cincinnati has major AAC implications. And Oklahoma, Notre Dame, North Carolina, UCF, Iowa State and Virginia Tech could all face Halloween scares on the road.
Week 13 (Nov. 28)
Got to love a late-season reshuffling of the deck. Notre Dame at North Carolina and Iowa State at Texas are both scheduled for the Friday after Thanksgiving, followed by the Iron Bowl, LSU at Texas A&M and Kentucky at Florida on Saturday. Throw in Clemson hosting what should be a decent Pittsburgh team and both Georgia (at South Carolina) and Oklahoma (at West Virginia) liable to be challenged on the road, and chaos may ensue.
But There Will Probably Be More Postponements
Time to put an unfortunate "provided they aren't canceled by COVID-19" disclaimer on all those exciting games and weeks.
Already in Week 2, there were three Big 12 games postponed: SMU at TCU, Louisiana Tech at Baylor and Tulsa at Oklahoma State. (Considering Iowa State and Kansas State lost to Louisiana and Arkansas State, respectively, perhaps there's somewhat of a sense of relief that those nonconference games weren't played.)
Before Saturday's slate could get underway, the Week 3 Virginia-Virginia Tech game was postponed because of COVID-19 issues at Virginia Tech. This came after the Friday news that Memphis is temporarily suspending football activities because of an outbreak among its players, which resulted in the postponement of its Week 3 game against Houston. And the UVA-VT news came a few hours before Georgia Southern announced more than 30 players were inactive for its opener against Campbell—which was a failed two-point conversion away from resulting in a loss to that FCS opponent.
Later in the evening, the Week 3 game between BYU and Army was also postponed. At least that one can be easily rescheduled, though. Both Independent schools have open dates in Weeks 13 and 14.
Maybe things will get better and postponements will be reduced or eliminated entirely. I'm just about the furthest thing from an epidemiologist, but ongoing vaccine trials sound promising and rapid antigen testing may help contain outbreaks until we have a viable vaccine.
Or maybe things get worse as the ongoing pandemic overlaps with flu season.
I have no clue.
Neither do you.
The nonconference games getting wiped off the Week 2 schedule weren't that concerning, but nixing an ACC conference game was an early reminder that nothing is guaranteed this fall. Buckle up for a potentially bumpy ride down an unpaved road.
The Schedule Is Astoundingly (and Necessarily) Fluid
Normally, nonconference games are scheduled years—decades, even—ahead of time. But all these postponements are forcing teams to amend their schedules on the fly.
As previously mentioned, Baylor was supposed to play Louisiana Tech in Week 2 and Memphis was scheduled to play Houston in Week 3. The former was postponed Tuesday night, and the latter was called off Saturday evening. But within about three hours of the Memphis game getting nixed, Baylor and Houston announced an agreement to play each other next weekend, and that game will now be featured on Fox in the noon ET time slot.
Duke entered the day expecting to have an open date on Sept. 26, but it instead found out—pretty much right before taking the field against Notre Dame—that it will now be playing Virginia in Week 4 and won't get a bye until late October.
Changes like these will be inevitable, but like a Jenga tower, they are going to get much more difficult as the season progresses.
All three Power Five leagues at least had the foresight to work some wiggle room into the schedule. Both the ACC and Big 12 have two bye weeks in each team's schedule and announced that their championship game could be played on either Dec. 12 or Dec. 19. The SEC only has one bye week per team, but it decided from the outset to schedule the conference championship for the 19th while leaving the 12th as an open date for everyone.
For the time being, those leagues are going to get as creative as possible to avoid rescheduling games for Dec. 12, in order to leave that date open as a "break in case of emergency" option if a late-season game needs to be postponed. And they won't be shy about shuffling September/October/November schedules as necessary in order to preserve Dec. 12.
Rules Regarding Postponements
You might be wondering, how many players need to be unavailable for a team in order for a game to be postponed?
Naturally, the remaining Power Five conferences haven't even reached a unified front on this point.
The Big 12 announced on Sept. 4 that a team should have at least 53 total players (scholarship and walk-on) available, including seven offensive linemen, four interior defensive linemen and one quarterback. Teams are allowed to play if they fall short of any of those four thresholds, but those are the numbers where they have the option of postponing the game.
After the Virginia-Virginia Tech game was postponed, ESPN's Andrea Adelson reported that the ACC's thresholds are "an adequate number" of players available (whatever the heck that means), including at least seven scholarship offensive linemen.
Even more interesting than that individual game information (or lack thereof) is that the ACC may elect to cancel its entire season if fewer than eight teams are available, or if either the Big 12 or SEC cancels its season—which presumably would be triggered in those leagues if they also get to a point where at least half of the teams in the league are unable to continue playing.
The SEC season doesn't begin play until Sept. 26, and there has not yet been any official word on how that league plans to handle player absences. It's a reasonable assumption the SEC will come to a similar conclusion as the ACC and Big 12, but who knows. If we've learned anything thus far in 2020, it's that a lot can change in two weeks' time.
Free Year for Everyone
COVID-19 is the inescapable dark cloud hanging ominously over the season, but a much more positive theme to keep in mind is that every single player on the field will be eligible to return in 2021.
That blanket waiver for eligibility relief was passed on August 21, and it's going to introduce some intriguing wrinkles in terms of roster management.
First and foremost, the decision kept the opting-out trend from spiraling out of control. There were still quite a few players (mostly from the Big Ten or Pac-12) who decided after August 21 that this season wasn't worth the risk of injury and/or COVID-19 exposure, but rosters are not nearly as depleted as they likely would have been if everyone had to decide between playing in this atypical season or saving a year of eligibility.
Secondly, we're probably going to see more true freshmen on the field than usual—both because of depth charts compromised by players being unavailable and because there's no reason to keep guys on the bench in order to preserve a redshirt year.
That's assuming they are actually ready for game action, of course. Many of the early enrollees had minimal or no spring camp to get acclimated to their new system. Strength training and conditioning over the summer wasn't exactly normal, either. We'll see how that all plays out, but I have to believe coaches will be going deeper into their bench than they would in a normal year.
The real impact of this waiver will be felt right at the end of the season, though. By the time all the "Way-Too-Early Top 25" articles come out, we usually have a good idea of who's staying in school and who's declaring for the draft. But this year is going to be the Wild West for the mock draft community and early 2021 prognosticators alike.
It's also going to make things interesting on the recruiting trail, as neither the college coaches nor the high school prospects will have as firm a grasp on when teams are going to need help at which positions. This could also result in an unusual year for the transfer portal, though I'm not quite sure whether to expect significantly more or fewer transfers than usual. Guess that depends on what the NCAA decides about the proposal to eliminate the requirement for non-graduate transfers to sit a year.
That confluence of factors and unknowns is going to make the first few months of the 2021 offseason completely bonkers.
The Big Ten Might Still Play?
The Big Ten (and Pac-12) voted on August 11 to postpone its college football season, but now it might start playing as early as Oct. 17?
With advancements in rapid testing capabilities, another vote on whether to play this fall is imminent. But the whole journey to this point has been confusing and exhausting. It never made sense for the Big Ten to pull the plug when it did, and its inability to give a coherent explanation for why the decision was made when it was only stoked the flames of frustration.
However, if the Big Ten does figure out a way to play enough of a season to crown a legitimate champion before the end of December, well that changes everything.
Prior to that infamous decision, Ohio State was one of the top candidates to win the national championship, and Penn State wasn't far behind the Buckeyes in that regard. Considering how atrocious the Big 12 looked Saturday, going 0-3 against the Sun Belt, shoot, the Big Ten could theoretically swoop in and send two teams to the College Football Playoff.
It's going to be more than a little difficult to make any of that a reality, though.
Even if the Big Ten were to start playing Oct. 17, trying to squeeze an eight-game season and a conference championship in before Christmas will be a challenge to say the least—and that's without accounting for the inherent difficulty of only having one month to get back up to game speed. Rushing that process and then getting no bye weeks for two months sure sounds like a recipe for lots of injuries.
Where there's a will, though, maybe there's a way. We certainly aren't going to be mad if the Big Ten gives it the ol' college try. But at this point, an "I'll believe it when I see it" mindset is probably a wise one.