Rob Oller | Road to College Football Playoff marked with COVID-19 twists, turns

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Coach Nick Saban has guided Alabama into the College Football Playoff five times in the format's first six seasons. [L.G. Patterson/Associated Press]

The usual suspects — Ohio State, Clemson and Alabama — remain the usual suspects. After two early losses, perpetual playoff participant Oklahoma has disappeared into the deep, dark night of irrelevancy.

College Football Playoff scenarios begin with the Buckeyes, Tigers and Crimson Tide and end with a fourth team TBD, depending on where and how hard COVID-19 strikes next.

For purposes of this discussion, we will set aside for another day the debate over whether it is good for college football to have the same cool-kid clique make the four-team playoff every year. (Clemson and Alabama have appeared in five of the six, Oklahoma four and Ohio State three; no other school has appeared more than once since the playoff began in 2014.)

Clemson defenders Jalyn Phillips (25) and Nyles Pinckney (44) celebrate an interception by teammate Nolan Turner in the Tigers' 41-23 victory over Virginia last Saturday. Clemson again has the look of a legitimate playoff contender. [Ken Ruinard/USA TODAY Sports]

Instead, let's focus on whether the college versions of the New England Patriots make it back to the playoff, and if the coronavirus complicates the issue of season legitimacy.

From this perch, COVID-19 seems like a smokescreen that will allow conferences to blame the virus for weakening their shot at a playoff spot.

The Big 12 saw Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State push back games because of virus outbreaks, which has little to do with No. 9 Texas losing to unranked TCU and preseason No. 5 Oklahoma losing to Iowa State last weekend after having lost to Kansas State the week before. Texas continues to underachieve under wunderkind-turned-wannabe Tom Herman.

The Sooners, meanwhile, still treat defense like a computer screen in need of a wet wipe cloth; they’ll get around to it eventually. (Aside: ironic that the most famous tackling drill is named for a school that can’t tackle.)

Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) reacts after throwing a second-half interception last week against Iowa State. The Sooners have been been a playoff mainstay in recent years, but consecutive losses to Kansas State and the Cyclones likely sank their 2020 chances. [Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press]

The Big 12 will argue that the virus has caused so much commotion within the conference that game preparation has taken a hit. Blah, blah, blah. The truth is the conference is having a Pac-12 type season, and now looks like an afterthought in need of luck to receive a playoff invitation.

As for the actual Pac-12, it learned on Monday that Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin tested positive for COVID-19 and immediately entered self-isolation. Sumlin hopes to return by the Wildcats’ Nov. 7 opener at Utah. The Wildcats weren’t going to make the playoff anyway, but they become another test case for teams whose seasons get disrupted by coaches losing valuable practice time.

What happens if Oregon, currently the highest-ranked Pac-12 team at No. 12 in the Associated Press poll, loses some of its offensive staff to the virus for two weeks and only squeaks by UCLA and Oregon State? Can the Ducks make a case that the close calls were due to coaching absences and should not factor into the minds of the playoff selection committee?

Then there is the situation in South Bend, where No. 5 Notre Dame released a statement on Monday that two of the 287 COVID-19 tests administered last week came back positive, which caused seven players to isolate and four more to enter quarantine because of having been identified as close contacts.

The Fighting Irish play host this week to Florida State, whose coach, Mike Norvell, tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the Seminoles’ loss to Miami on Sept. 26 before returning to the sideline in Saturday’s win against Jacksonville State. How will the Irish be judged by the committee if they win by 30 points while distracted by the virus? Do regular style points become even more valuable virus style points?

Bah, it is all sleight of hand. The reality is Ohio State, Clemson and Alabama are three of the best four teams in the nation, no matter how much the virus decimates other programs in the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences.

It certainly helps the playoff chances of the Tigers, and especially the Tide, if the virus bears down on challengers Miami and Georgia, turning them into shells of their competitive selves.

But I don’t see Clemson and Alabama getting passed over for a playoff berth unless COVID-19 culls their herds to the point where the committee cannot select them based on potential.

Ohio State, meanwhile, is getting benefit of the doubt. The Buckeyes are ranked No. 6 despite not opening until Oct. 24 against Nebraska. They deserve their ranking based on returning talent, most importantly quarterback Justin Fields. But what happens if the virus wipes out two games, including at Penn State? Will there be enough “there” there to impress the committee?

What is the minimum number of games needed to accurately judge a body of work? I would think seven, which coincides with the Pac-12 schedule. But with conferences already moving games due to COVID-19, every schedule feels like a playoff minefield.

It may turn out the virus is the most important committee member of all.