Column: The data says one New Year's Six bowl game will not be played as scheduled. Why aren't those in charge considering bubbles?
The perceived success of this season, however that's defined, hinges on a successful playoff, but the odds are against all of the New Year's Six bowl games going off without a hitch
One New Year’s Six bowl game will be postponed (or canceled) due to COVID-19. That’s what the data from the 2020 college football season tells us.
Actually, to be exact, the data says that an average of roughly 1.4 of the New Year’s Six bowl games – plus the College Football Playoff National Championship – will not be played as scheduled, if you apply the college football season’s roughly 80-percent games played percentage to those seven all-important games.
This isn’t pessimism, some form of cancel culture, “woke” media or the thinking of a “Coronabro.” This is the reality of college football in 2020 – it has been for quite some time, if not the entire season – and we’ll soon find out if the disparate conglomeration of sparring fiefdoms that is college football will accept that reality and then even more importantly, choose to act upon it.
As someone who has tracked the weekly games played percentages throughout the college football season, I can tell you that the percent of total games played to date this season, as scheduled, has declined for seven consecutive weeks, starting in Week 10. From Week 9 through Week 13, the week-over-week games played percentage declined from the previous week, every single week.
There were 16 days in a row – from Sunday, Nov. 15 through Monday, Nov. 30 – that at least one FBS game was postponed or canceled due to COVID-19. Ever since Halloween, the trajectory of the season has been moving in the wrong direction.
After getting tired of seeing reporters list the raw number of games postponed or canceled, without any other context, only to have other media members counter by passive aggressively posting the raw number of games played this season, also without any other context, I decided to remind college football Twitter about percentages.
At risk of getting too far out over of my skis, it seems that since then, most reporters have tracked postponements and cancellations in terms of percentages, rather than raw totals, which is probably a better way of evaluating the season.
The percentages are why we’re here.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz announced on Dec. 18 that he had tested positive for COVID-19, becoming at least the 23rd head coach to announced he had tested positive among the coaches at the 127 FBS schools that played football this fall.
That’s 18.1 percent of all head coaches whose teams were active this season who have tested positive, which you’ll notice is a similar number to the percent of games that have been postponed or canceled this season.
One conference championship game was canceled (the Sun Belt), another conference had to find a replacement team for its conference championship due to a team having COVID-19 issues (the Pac-12 replaced Washington with Oregon) and the Big Ten changed its championship game eligibility requirements in the last week of its regular season in order to allow its best team, Ohio State, to compete for a conference title after it wasn’t going to be able to meet the original minimum number of games required. The Big Ten East team that Ohio State theoretically replaced in the Big Ten Championship Game was Indiana, which was then unable to play in Weeks 15 and 16 as it dealt with its own COVID-19 issues.
However you want to score those events in terms of the success or participation rates for this year’s conference championship games, the percentage of conference championship game participants that were affected by the virus probably comes out to a similar percentage as the number FBS coaches who have tested positive and the percent of games that have been postponed or canceled.
The regular season is over, but nothing was regular about it, except for – somehow – the teams in the College Football Playoff. Cal ended its season with a 1-3 record despite the program having just three announced positive tests during the Pac-12 season, Maryland finished the Big Ten’s scheduled nine-game season with a 2-3 record, and Florida International went 0-5 with just as many games postponed or canceled, which was just over half the amount of games that its Conference USA foe Charlotte lost or had rescheduled (nine).
Despite winning nine games this season, Army is currently not scheduled to play in a bowl game – not even the Military Bowl or the Armed Forces Bowl. The Black Knights are relegated to waiting on standby. Yet South Carolina, which fired its head coach more than a month before its conference held its championship game and which has only won two games all season (both against schools that also fired their coaches), will have the chance to lose its ninth game of the season when it plays UAB in the Gasparilla Bowl.
That is college football in 2020.
Now, the season is about to reach the point where it pays off – quite literally.
As long as there’s a College Football Playoff, plus the other, complementary New Year’s Six bowl games and a handful of other notable bowls, my guess is that most involved in the sport will dust off their hands, slam the grill cover shut over the chicken that’s somehow both undercooked in the middle and also currently on fire, and they’ll walk away, calling the season a success.
“Hey kids, here’s your dinner, and before you ask, yes, that’s exactly how the recipe called for it. It only looks like that because of the marinade, I just tried something different this time. No, I don’t smell a propane leak, I think that’s just you.”
According to 247Sports, at least 21 FBS schools have opted out of the bowl season, or roughly 16.5 percent of the teams that played this season, as a lot of participants in the sport are generally just over the season – that is, unless they’re still competing for a New Year’s Six bowl win, and especially if they’re competing for a national championship.
And that’s why it’s so surprising that the College Football Playoff isn’t instituting a bubble, a controlled environment, or some other workshopped synonym for “bubble” that their PR teams or legal advisers recommend that they use instead, when talking about 18 to 22-year-olds.
A spokesman for the College Football Playoff declined to comment when contacted by Out of Bounds to ask if bubbles or controlled environments are being considered.
An updated draft of the 2020-21 College Football Playoff Handbook, which was distributed to conference commissioners, athletic directors and the executive directors of the New Year’s Six bowl games on Dec. 8, and which was obtained by Out of Bounds, states that teams will arrive in the host city two days before their games, compared to the previous policy of “at least five days before the date of the bowl game.”
However, teams can still choose to arrive earlier than two days before kickoff, but that’s optional.
Below is a copy of the new and old policies from the CFP Handbook.
Stadium employees will be asked to complete a health screening assessment, which might ask about their travel in the last 14 days, yet the participating teams might travel as recently as two days before their respective New Year’s Six bowl games.
I want nothing more than for everyone involved in the college football season to stay healthy and for all of the remaining college football games to go off without a hitch, but all of the data from the last four months that’s staring us in the face has told us that, give or take, somewhere around 20 percent of whatever is going to be affected.
Roughly 20 percent of FBS head coaches testing positive. Roughly 20 percent of the games this season getting postponed or canceled. Roughly 20 percent of the conference championship game participants being unable to play for a conference title as scheduled.
It seems foolish to assume that a sport operating outside of a true bubble – a la the NBA’s bubble last season – can remain immune from the virus, even under the strictest protocols and a high level of buy-in. But strict protocols and complete buy-in might, understandably, be harder to come by during the holidays.
After the selection committee revealed this season’s playoff field on Sunday, Alabama coach Nick Saban told ESPN that the school will let its players go home for the holidays.
Alabama shouldn’t be shamed for letting its players see their families and friends over the holidays – many of the schools that opted out of the bowl season cited the grueling nature of the season and the importance of their players and coaches spending time at home with loved ones – but you can also acknowledge that the decision opens the Crimson Tide and the playoff to greater risk in terms of exposure to the virus.
The lack of a bubble or controlled environment for college football’s most important games is either due to a lack of organization and communication – really, a lack of unity in a sport that’s too big to be unified – across all of the various stakeholders at the College Football Playoff, bowl, conference and university levels, or it’s due to some combination of hubris and greed from the aforementioned stakeholders, who are potentially unwillingly to front a sliver of the $400 million to $500 million in annual distributions in bowl revenue that would be needed to create a bubble.
Because the lack of a bubble surely isn’t because the college athletics ecosystem has suddenly embraced athletes’ legitimate concerns about health and safety, or because of the stark contrast over the last five or six months between college athletes’ alleged status as amateurs with their general treatment as essential employees during the pandemic.
Go back and read the Pac-12 players’ #WeAreUnited post from August and see how many of their demands were received with genuinely open ears, let alone addressed. Sure, they and the rest of their peers were granted the ability to opt out of the season without having their scholarships pulled, along with the prohibition of schools imposing liability waivers, but those two items were arguably the bare minimum in terms of concessions made toward athletes’ rights during the pandemic.
So, no, the lack of a bubble for the College Football Playoff isn’t because some bowl executives, conference commissioners and administrators suddenly found religion in terms of expanded athletes’ rights and want to give athletes a proper seat at the table.
And, yes, if you call foul when presented with the idea of athletes being stuck in a hotel in Arlington or New Orleans or Atlanta or Miami for two or three weeks in order to play a bowl game without receiving any additional compensation or guarantees – or really even a choice – for their troubles, I’d probably be inclined agree with you, but college athletics is way past that point.
Actions speak louder than words, and for some college athletics programs out West, it’s been a game of Whac-A-Mole, where programs have relocated and popped up in new city in a new state when local health restrictions prevent them from playing in their traditional homes.
Stanford’s football team relocated to Seattle, Washington, then Corvallis, Oregon, for two games after Santa Clara County prohibited contact sports, before the Cardinal returned to California to play UCLA in its regular-season finale. New Mexico’s football team moved to Las Vegas earlier this season. New Mexico State’s men’s basketball team relocated to Phoenix and its women’s basketball team moved to Tucson due to local health restrictions.
There’s nothing technically stopping the College Football Playoff or the schools involved from creating bubbles for the sport’s seven most important bowl games. There are already general plans in place for controlled environments for the men’s and women’s basketball NCAA tournaments in the spring, and those are events of a much larger scale.
The car that’s carrying the 2020 college football season has been treading on the rumble strip for a while now and there have already been a few close calls in terms of the season’s ability to fulfill its destiny and the bottom line, such as when Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence tested positive for the virus and the Tigers subsequently lost at Notre Dame without him, and then when Ohio State needed a late rule change in order to secure a spot in its conference championship game.
Clemson only needed to beat Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game to make the playoff and you can argue that a 6-0 Ohio State team would’ve made the playoff even without appearing in the Big Ten Championship Game, but a playoff without at least one of those teams due to pandemic-related reasons, let alone a playoff without both college football superpowers due to COVID-19, could’ve resulted in the season getting a failing grade from even the most lenient graders.
Well, now, there’s going to be a playoff field that’s probably as desirable as possible for the television networks, who will pass along likely a little less than half a billion dollars in bowl distributions to the 10 FBS conferences, who will then funnel the money down to their member schools.
And yet, those in charge of the sport’s crown jewels are some combination of too disorganized, arrogant or greedy to divert a very small portion of that revenue toward the extra hotel rooms and meals needed to do everything in their power to prevent an 11th-hour postponement or cancellation in the season’s 11th hour. If there are positive tests during the week of a New Year’s Six bowl game, maybe the team(s) involved will just power through with less than the minimum number of scholarship players, which happened a handful of times in the SEC this season. Or maybe a bowl game with rosters limited by COVID-19 would get pushed back a week or two, ultimately reverse engineering a bubble for the interim period, sort of like how many college football programs operated in a pseudo-controlled environment in the fall, when many colleges and universities moved to online classes.
Or maybe this whole column will be for naught, and despite the rate that football games have been postponed and canceled this season, the College Football Playoff and its affiliate New Year’s Six bowl games will successfully roll the dice, come up with five sixes and yell “Yahtzee!”
But doing so would be leaving to chance the ability to put on a product that fuels a set of payouts that total nine figures.
This season was largely a cash grab, so if you’re going to make a shameless cash grab the right way, you might as well step into the whirlwind cash machine and grab as many flying bills as possible with both hands free, rather than with one hand tied behind your back.
Recap of the last newsletter
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“Georgia is a state that used to be a peer of Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, in terms of the number of top-100 recruits it produced on an annual basis, but it has recently joined the exclusive recruiting neighborhood that was previously limited to California, Florida and Texas.”
Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at email@example.com or on Twitter.