Photo courtesy of USC athletics

Earlier this week, the Big Ten and Pac-12 broke from their Power 5 peers.

To the disappointment of many, the two conferences announced decisions to cancel fall sports. That includes the biggest one of them all — football.

The decision was made as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to make its way across the country. The two conferences seem set in their ways, but should COVID-19 numbers fall into a more comfortable range, it may not be too late to reverse course.

While leagues like the ACC, Big 12 and SEC appear to be headed toward conference-only or almost exclusively conference schedules, division-only games could be a way for the Big Ten and Pac-12 to play a manageable schedule. It will also allow the conferences to crown a legitimate champion.

Pac-12

Although it tends to follow the Big Ten, the Pac-12 is in the best position to make this happen. Being that the North and South divisions have any even number of teams, it would take only five weekends to complete a division-only schedule.

A targeted Halloween start may be a manageable goal. The Pac-12 could play games over five weeks from Oct. 31 to Dec. 5.

The conference could then hold its title game on Dec. 12 between the two division winners. Another option would be holding the Pac-12 Championship on Dec. 19 and use the week of Dec. 12 to fill with any games that were postponed.

With an Oct. 24 start, the conference could hold a midseason bye week to allow for make-up games from the first half of the season and another on Dec. 12 to allow for any other contests to be made up. If everything went right, the regular season could be completed in just five weekends.

Going division-only would be a nice way for the Pac-12 to play meaningful games and preserve traditional rivalries. Under this structure, the “Apple Cup”, “Big Game”, rivalry formerly known as the “Civil War”, “Duel in the Desert” and UCLA-USC contests would all take place.

It is also worth noting that the MAC and Mountain West are set up the same way as the Pac-12 with two 6-team divisions. Those two conferences could use this same model to revive their seasons.

Big Ten

With seven teams in each division, the Big Ten would need seven weekends to complete a division-only schedule. Each team would play a 6-game schedule with one bye week.

With an Oct. 24 start, the Big Ten could complete the regular season by Dec. 5. As was the scenario given with the Pac-12, Dec. 12 could be used as a day for make-up games. Another option would be starting the season on Oct. 31 and finishing the regular season on Dec. 12 with the title game to come on Dec. 19.

The SEC plans on using Dec. 12 as a day to make up any contests while the ACC and Big 12 have listed its championship date for either Dec. 12 or Dec. 19. The Big Ten could use open dates and tentative championship schedules to keep its options open.

As is the case with the Pac-12 slate, this scenario allows the conference’s major rivalries to take place with the exception of the “Little Brown Jug”. We’d still have Ohio State-Michigan, Michigan-Michigan State, Penn State against the Buckeyes and Wolverines, “Paul Bunyan’s Ax”, “Floyd of Rosedale” and the “Old Oaken Bucket”.

Playoff and Bowls

How this would shake out in terms of the College Football Playoff and bowl games would have to be determined. Should this scenario play out however, all five major conferences would be crowning champions within a week of one another.

Bowl-eligibility may be as low as two wins in these two conferences, but it is probably likely that many bowls would be canceled. There would also probably be a high number of programs or maybe even conferences that would elect not to participate in bowls.

For teams that did not qualify for the conference title games, their seasons would be finishing only one week later than usual. In scheduled late-season games between teams eliminated from conference title contention, the option of simply canceling those games would be on the table if agreed upon by the schools. Players could be given the option of opting out at any time.

As far as the playoff goes, the Selection Committee would be presented with an apples-to-oranges comparison. Would a 7-0 Ohio State team be more deserving than a 9-2 runner-up in the SEC? That would be at the committee’s discretion, but a team with fewer than 10 wins have claimed a national championship as recent as 1970.

Other options may even be suspending bowls and the semifinals altogether. It wasn’t that long ago that champions were crowned based on regular season performances. The committee could also choose to suspend the playoff and just make the New Year’s Six selections and have the three polls — AP, Coaches, CFP — each name a champion at their completion.

Closing Thoughts

When it comes to COVID-19, there is a lot that we don’t know about the virus, including potential long-term effects. Despite the desires to move forward from the ACC, Big 12 and SEC, there are many who don’t believe any college football will take place this year.

As Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and others have pointed out however, being around teammates, practicing and playing football is no more dangerous as it relates to COVID-19 than being anywhere else. Lawrence made the case that it may even be safer given the motivation to follow guidelines and access to medical staff.

As far as the virus goes, there are some reasons for optimism. In New York and New Jersey, the two states with the highest COVID-19 death rates, virus-related deaths have come to a virtual halt. In current “hot spots” like Florida and Texas, the number of COVID-occupied hospital beds have dropped by more than 30 percent since their peaks at around July 21 and 22, respectively.

Months ago, Dr. Sheldon Jacobson, a professor at Illinois, predicted three to seven COVID-19 deaths if college football took place. Jacobson has since reversed course and now says the odds of a death are “highly unlikely”.

Time will tell whether any college football will take place this year, but a division-only concept would buy the Big Ten and Pac-12 a little more time. Preseason camps could probably resume as late as early October. The option to opt out would still be on the table.


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This is obviously all conjecture and there may be no college football whatsoever. Adopting the concept of going division-only for the Big Ten and Pac-12 however, would at least give football a fighting chance. It could also provide the possibility to small bubbles.

The players who want to play at least deserve the conferences’ efforts to try. Some see it as their livelihood.

Mike Ferguson is the managing editor for Fifth Quarter. Be sure to follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. Follow all of Mike’s work by liking his Facebook page.