The Ghost of Pandemic Present has a hand, too, with the high-profile LSU-Florida game shelved Wednesday because of a covid-19 cluster on the Gators’ roster. To be fair, LSU (1-2) did its part to diminish the impact of this contest with its play to date, though this is usually a pretty entertaining pairing. Likewise, Oklahoma State-Baylor also was pushed back due to contagion.
Considering these postponements are an understandably every-week occurrence in the sport, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 not-so-understandably didn’t bother to build an open date into their schedules, it’s about time to think about the Ghost of Pandemic Future. Namely, how much longer can things go without rearranging the end of the season?
This is a different question than whether the season actually reaches its endpoint without shutting down. That’s a valid concern which never really left the minds of those who value public health, safety and well-being over entertainment and money throughout the last seven months.
Setting that aside, the ACC, Big 12 and SEC sagely built wiggle room into their schedules in the form of Dec. 12, a projected extra week before a conference title game. Those leagues have already combined to push five games into that window (Notre Dame-Wake Forest, Virginia-Virginia Tech and Vanderbilt-Missouri, as well as LSU-Florida and Oklahoma State-Baylor).
How long will it be before a team gets a second postponement and Dec. 19 looks increasingly unrealistic for a league title game (it could very well happen if there’s a single outbreak on a Big Ten team by month’s end)? In turn, how long will Jan. 1 remain a viable date for the playoff semifinals? And how deep into winter are college football’s powers that be willing to push games, even a national title?
These aren’t questions with clear-cut right or wrong answers. In a weird season with unusual conditions and a clear push to keep going — which, depending on your point of view, can be viewed as determination or recalcitrance — they nonetheless might require some sort of answer.
The sport’s power brokers shouldn’t be expected to have every contingency sorted out at this point, in part because firm plans are antithetical to the present reality. But it’s probably time to start publicly floating some ideas for how much college football is willing to juggle and how long it is willing to wait to achieve closure on this season.
Five with the most at stake
1 and 1a. Alabama and Georgia. There’s a possibility this is merely the first of three rounds between the two SEC heavyweights. Considering the state of the rest of the league, there’s an even better chance it’s at minimum a preview of the SEC championship game. The winner in Tuscaloosa emerges as the SEC’s last unbeaten team and owner of the best victory on the board to date.
2. Clemson. It’s the same story every week for the No. 1 Tigers; bank another victory and move a week closer to a sixth consecutive playoff berth. Yet no one is sharp every week, and even Clemson isn’t entirely immune to reloading the musket a week after the buildup to a blowout of Miami. The Tigers shouldn’t have trouble in a noon kickoff at Georgia Tech, but the Yellow Jackets have proved feisty so far.
3. Notre Dame. Another ACC unbeaten, the No. 4 Fighting Irish (3-0) conclude a four-game homestand to open the season (granted, a trip to Wake Forest wedged in the middle got postponed) as Louisville makes the trip to South Bend. While the Cardinals’ defense is deficient, they still have enough pieces on offense to create some headaches for Brian Kelly’s team.
4. Mississippi State. Oh, how quickly things change. Three weekends ago, Mike Leach was the toast of the SEC after the Bulldogs’ offense torched LSU. Then it sputtered in a loss to Arkansas and threw six interceptions in a 24-2 setback against Kentucky, and the latter outcome led Leach to revive his old habit of blaming his players for all that ailed his team. The Bulldogs get No. 11 Texas A&M at home, and with a trip to Alabama looming on Halloween, a 1-4 start seems likely if they can’t upend the Aggies.
5. Tennessee. While the No. 18 Volunteers stitched together a decent first half against Georgia last week, they still were bottled up to minus-1 rushing yards and didn’t score after the break. All that demonstrated is Tennessee (2-1, 2-1 SEC) isn’t at the same level as the Bulldogs, hardly an astonishing development. Do the Vols shake off their first loss in 51 weeks with plucky Kentucky (1-2, 1-2) arriving in Knoxville?
1. QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson; 1,140 yards, 10 TDs, 0 INT passing; 48 yards, 4 TD rushing. Ho hum. Another 292 yards and three touchdowns passing against Miami’s capable defense to lead the undefeated Tigers to a comfortable victory. Lawrence remains the favorite. (Last week: 1)
2. RB Najee Harris, Alabama; 347 yards, 10 TDs rushing; 7 receptions for 76 yards. Considering “the best offensive skill player on a playoff team” winds up with the stiff-arming statue more often than not, Harris is going to be a factor with a couple more games like last week’s 206-yard, five-touchdown display against Ole Miss. (LW: Not ranked)
3. QB Kyle Trask, Florida; 996 yards, 14 TDs, 1 INT passing. Tough to blame the senior too much for the Gators’ inability to stop Texas A&M’s offense. He would have been in for a huge day against the struggling LSU secondary were it not for a covid-related postponement. (LW: 2)
4. QB Mac Jones, Alabama; 1,101 yards, 8 TDs, 1 INT passing. He won’t get to face Mississippi’s abysmal defense every week, but Jones has completed 79.5 percent of his attempts. It isn’t fluky, either; last year, he had a 186.3 pass efficiency rating and threw for 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions. (LW: Not ranked)
5. QB Kellen Mond, Texas A&M; 845 yards, 7 TDs, 1 INT passing. Worth a look after shredding Florida for 338 yards and three TDs, though he needs to sustain that level of play over the Aggies’ next seven games. (LW: Not ranked)