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Will COVID-wrought changes become football fixtures?

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia's Athletic Director Greg McGarity explains status of game against Georgia Tech following SEC decision to only face conference opponents in 2020.

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

Disclaimer: What follows is cart-ahead-of-the-horse stuff. We’re not sure any of the changes enforced on college football by the coronavirus will apply in 2020, let alone any year beyond this. (The NCAA could move to cancel everything next year, though it probably won’t.) Some if not all tweaks could be one-shot – or, if the 2020 season doesn’t happen, no-shot – deals. But we live in the South, which means we’re hard-wired to discuss to college football 24-7-366, and we can’t help but ask:

Will Notre Dame’s guest ACC membership lead to permanent football fidelity? Will 10-game conference schedules become the across-the-board standard? (Probably not in the Big 12, which has but 10 members, and Oklahoma and Texas can play only so many times.) Will Georgia vs. Georgia Tech go the way of Texas vs. Texas A&M? Will anything ever be the way it used to be?

Having indulged in a few (read: hundreds of thousands) such debates over the past 40 years, this correspondent is fully aware that the default button many fans push reads “tradition.” Under no circumstances can tradition be flouted – right? That’s why Nebraska’s in the Big Ten and Colorado’s in the Pac-12. That’s why a sport that used to conclude with differing electorates choosing a champion on Jan. 2 has adopted an actual tournament. That’s why Auburn and Alabama still meet every November at Legion Field.

The point being: Some things have changed. Some among us recall a time when Notre Dame was too snooty to grace a bowl. During the ’70s – the 1970s, we stipulate – the biggest game of every November was Oklahoma-Nebraska. They last met in 2010. Vince Dooley coached Georgia for 25 years. Know how many times he worked against Tennessee, with which this state shares a border? Seven.

College football’s tectonic plates began to shift when the SEC adopted a championship game. Now everybody has one. The novelty of seeing a champ crowed on a field of play, and not via a ballot, led inexorably to the BCS title game, which begat the College Football Playoff. The playoff has rendered all non-playoff bowls redundant. If you’re not in, to borrow the CFP’s phrase, you’re out. Everything now is about that field of four, and every conference spends most of its time trying to figure out how to crack the field. (The SEC and ACC have had no trouble. Other Power Five leagues have undergone years of sweating.)

Bowls used to be the sport’s most important entities. Five conferences have come to rule the roost. The ACC and SEC just indulged in an amusing but nonetheless revelatory round of flexing. The former sought to impose a plus-one on the latter, to which the latter said, “Take a hike.” Implicit in the SEC’s rejection of four annual SEC/ACC in-state rivalries was the message: We’re a bigger deal than you are. (Clemson might argue the point.) If it comes to choosing between League Affiliation and Longstanding Tradition, there’s no question which way the SEC leans – which means each of the other four leagues has no choice but to do the same.

Nick Saban has been lobbying for the SEC to adopt a nine-game conference schedule. His conference – and the ACC, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 – just one-upped that. It’s possible those leagues will, in a post-virus world, cut back to nine conference games. It seems unthinkable that any would ever return to eight. (The Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Pac-12 were already at nine.) Ask TV rights-holders whether they prefer to air Alabama-Georgia or Alabama-Georgia State.

Even the P5 leagues will lose a ton of money in the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2021; these arrears will be felt amid the dollars not banked because of the NCAA’s cancellation of March Madness. The easiest way to recoup money is to play more conference games and to offer fewer guarantees to lower-tier minnows for a guaranteed win that the CFP committee will care nothing about. If every conference adopts a 10-game league schedule, that would make it still harder for Notre Dame to keep going it alone. Would USC and Stanford want to play the Fighting Irish on top of 10 Pac-12 dates?

Notre Dame has hastened to proclaim its intent to stay independent in football beyond the pandemic year – assuming the pandemic lasts only a year, about which there’s no guarantee – but that stance, like every stance in our reeling world, is subject to immediate shift. The Irish could well find comfort, not to mention scheduling stability, in binding their future more tightly to a conference that already constitutes half their annual schedule.

As for the existing-except-for-2020 plus-one rivalries: It’s difficult to imagine Tech and Georgia – or Florida and FSU, or Clemson and South Carolina, or Kentucky and Louisville – not playing on an annual basis. (There are contracts in place, for one thing.) It is not, however, impossible. The SEC and ACC have never been the best of pals, and their little back-and-forth will leave a scab, perhaps a scar.

We’ve just seen the five major leagues go their separate ways. The virus has impelled people and institutions to prioritize what’s most important. The Power Five have chosen conference solidarity above all else. In the years ahead, it could be that Georgia says to Tech – or Florida to FSU, or Clemson to South Carolina – “With 10 conference games, we no longer have room for you. But thanks for the memories.”

Could be, we stress. Nobody yet knows anything. Nobody will for a good long while. But some temporary changes, it must be said, can prove to be bright ideas. Does anybody believe any major-league 10th inning will ever again start without a runner on second base?

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