Minutes after the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced the cancellation of their respective football seasons, an SEC athletics director told me the 14-team conference “is staying the course” and their 14 members “think there is a pathway forward.” That answer—and the SEC’s official announcement of plans to play a season an hour later—mattered for a lot of reasons. The sport’s premier conference, one that has produced 10 of the last 14 national champions and dominated the NFL Draft for the last 14 years, might play football this year. That matters a lot.
But it didn’t matter for one reason, in my opinion: Minutes earlier, we crossed the line for the 2020 college football season. In wiping out 40 percent of Power Five teams, we no longer had a real college football season. I didn’t identify the line before Tuesday’s announcements by the Big Ten and Pac-12. In fact, I couldn’t identify the line before those announcements. I tried on the High Motor podcast three months ago when we asked, “What is the minimum viable product for a 2020 college football season?” and hundreds of times over the last three months. I didn’t know the line. But, I did know I would know when we crossed it.
It wasn’t on Aug. 5 when UConn canceled their season, nor was it three days later when the MAC did the same. With all due respect to the should-be-in-the-FCS Huskies and the fine people of the MAC, the college football product was still alive as the other 117 teams forged ahead. Then came the Mountain West and Old Dominion on Monday, followed by UMass early on Tuesday.
Twenty-eight teams out. One hundred and twelve in. And as much as I love late-night football in Boise, Reno, and Honolulu, we were still behind the line…
…until the Big Ten and Pac-12 waived their white flag hours later. Only three different programs from those two conferences have appeared in the College Football Playoff, none of whom have advanced to the national championship since Ohio State’s win over Oregon in 2014. The Pac-12 has fallen so far behind its peer conferences that it’s arguably closer to the American than any Power Five conference, and the Big Ten is littered with irrelevancy and two of the most overrated teams in American sports.
Still, that was the line.
Even if the ACC, Big 12, and SEC play, this is no longer a real college football season. I have no rebuttal for the “Clemson or an SEC team was gonna win the national championship anyway” argument. Ohio State was third in my preseason rankings and would’ve been a legitimate title contender, but we’re in a college football world dominated by Alabama, Clemson, and whatever SEC team is really damn good that season. It’s highly possible we’d have the same playoff field with or without the Big Ten and Pac-12. But it’s not a certainty, nor is it what makes college football special.
If those Power Five conferences, along with whatever Group of Five teams can play a season without COVID-19 outbreaks, that’s tremendous. The results and box scores will enter the record books and we might even crown a national champion.
But it won’t be a real college football season. We lost that on Tuesday.