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What was learned, reaffirmed about college football during the pandemic

COVID-19 wreaked havoc on college football in 2020, it’s true. It also revealed some things

An empty Rice Eccles stadium waits for the Utah Utes and Oregon State Beavers to play a college football game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.
An empty Rice-Eccles stadium waits for the Utah Utes and Oregon State Beavers to play a college football game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

College football’s regular season is finished, and not a minute too soon. Whew! That wasn’t easy, was it. About 140 games were canceled and bowl games are falling routinely. If the effort that was made to complete this COVID-complicated football season was applied elsewhere, we would end world hunger.

So, that was fun, wasn’t it? Well, unless you were Weber State (no season), Southern Utah (no season), Utah (two cancellations, two losses, three wins), Utah State (five losses, two cancellations, one win, one fired coach, one expelled quarterback, one boycott).

Actually, come to think of it, BYU is the only team that had fun, so never mind.

If nothing else, we learned a few things about the wacky world of college football this season — or we confirmed things we already believed:

• We don’t need that weird, monthlong gap between the end of the regular season and the start of the bowl season that has been part of the game forever. What other sport holds a four-week halftime before starting its championship season? COVID forced the 2020 season to finish in mid-December so there was no time for such a long break. Good riddance. Here’s a thought: Instead of stopping play in December, they should play the early rounds of a much-expanded playoff, culminating in the championship on New Year’s Day.

• As ridiculous as it sounds, we learned that while it’s preferable to actually play games, it is not completely necessary. Teams can still be nationally ranked without, you know, stepping on a field, and rankings = bowl invitations = money. All a team has to do is garner a strong recruiting class and look good on paper — voila, a ranking.

The Pac-12 didn’t play a game until Week 11, and yet Oregon and USC were ranked 12th and 20th, respectively — IN WEEK 10, with records of 0-0. The Big Ten wasn’t much better. Ohio State was ranked fifth before the Buckeyes played a game; meanwhile, other teams had already played three to five games. So, why settle things on the field when human voters can do it for you.

On the other hand, look what happened to the 8-0 Cincinnati Bearcats. They dropped from No. 8 to 9 in the CFP poll behind three teams with two losses. CFP selection committee chair Gary Barta said this was partly because the Bearcats hadn’t played a game in a couple of weeks.

To which we reply, borrowing a slightly altered quote from “The Princess Bride,” “Clearly, the CFP has a dizzying intellect.”

• It’s not necessary to have a strong schedule. This season shot down that theory. Yes, there was some understandable griping about BYU’s schedule (latest ranking: 95th in the nation), but that didn’t stop the Cougars from climbing to No. 8 in both the AP and Coaches polls at one point this year.

Nor did weak schedules prevent the following teams from climbing into the polls — No. 6 Cincinnati (schedule ranking: 86th), No. 9 Coastal Carolina (107th), No. 17 Louisiana (94th), No. 20 Tulsa (68th), No. 22 Liberty (140th), No. 23 Buffalo (135th) and No. 25 San Jose State (90th).

It turns out BYU has been approaching its scheduling all wrong for years. Here the Cougars were scheduling powerhouses from the Big Ten and SEC and it was completely wrongheaded and unnecessary. The new formula: Schedule the weakest of the Group of Five schools and just win.

• Games do not have to be scheduled years in advance, as they have been traditionally. This year teams were forced to rebuild their schedules just weeks before games began because of COVID and cancellations. Nobody did a better job of it than BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, who had to replace eight of BYU’s 12 originally scheduled games in a few weeks late last summer, and then added another game on the fly late in the season.

Why does all this matter? Because teams routinely schedule games too far in advance to know what games will create good matchups. The net result is that a lot of good matchups don’t happen. This year BYU and Coastal Carolina arranged a game 50 hours before kickoff. It was the game everyone wanted, a battle of unbeatens. Why not more of this? There are too many bad games in college football, and too many teams that avoid tough nonconference games. In other words, besides more entertaining and evenly matched contests, they can settle things on the field instead of by a voter (see previous item).

• Fans are fun, but not necessary. This year games were played without fans or with far fewer fans because of the pandemic. It meant lost income, but, let’s face it, TV contracts pay the bills and the games went on just fine with a TV audience. Fans learned to live without games, too, and who knows how many will return to stadiums. They might like not getting gouged for overpriced tickets, hot dogs and parking; they might not miss the long drive through traffic jams to get there.

• Computer rankings are better than human rankings, which are inconsistent, nonsensical and unfair. Millions of dollars ride on their decisions. In an era when nearly every important call on the field is reviewed electronically, why aren’t rankings decided by computers a la the Sagarin ratings?

We could hope that the people who run college football make changes related to all of the above — but don’t count on it.