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How the Big Ten’s return impacts the CFB Playoff picture

The 2020 College Football Playoff looked like it’d be a three-conference affair with the Big Ten and Pac-12 postponing their 2020 seasons. No longer. The Big Ten on Wednesday, following weeks of speculation, announced it would return to play the weekend of Oct. 23-24.

That start date, along with an eight-game regular season schedule (there will be a ninth bonus game for everyone the week of the title game), puts the Big Ten in position to reach the College Football Playoff despite starting a full month after the rest of college football. The Big Ten championship game is slated for Dec. 19, meaning the league will play a nine-game schedule without a bye. That would allow the Big Ten to end its season a day before the final CFB Playoff ranking reveal.

With the Big Ten eligible for the playoff, the impact on the CFB Playoff field is nearly endless. Let’s run through some of the more notable scenarios.

Ohio State (And A Few Others) Rejoice

Ohio State really wanted to play football.

I mean REALLY. This Buckeye team, even with a few opt outs, was national championship-good. A staff member described the group to me earlier this offseason as “special.” Justin Fields will get to play his junior season, and the Buckeyes will be a heavy favorite to reach the playoff. This is what Ohio State wanted. A few other programs like Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin have a shot, too. Maybe even Minnesota. They’ll play for their playoff lives in a shortened season in which anything can happen.

Everyone else? Eh. Upperclassmen will get a chance to get some NFL tape, which is great. Coaches won’t have to deal with the recruiting sniping that would have come with a season in which everyone else played and they didn’t. But do you really think Maryland wants to be cannon fodder this year under difficult circumstances? 

Regardless, the Big Ten is now in position to get a $6 million payout if one of its teams reaches the semifinals. Just as importantly, the league isn’t likely to be dinged from a perception standpoint after missing out on the playoff for no other reason than it decided not to play.

The Big Ten Is Eligible With Little Wiggle Room

Under normal circumstances, the Big Ten would be a near lock for the playoff during a season in which the Pac-12 isn’t participating – insert your Pac-12 doesn’t usually participate joke here. That will still be the case if an undefeated or one-loss Big Ten team emerges following a full nine-game slate. The CFB Playoff committee won’t care a lick if Ohio State is 8-1 while the rest of the Power Five leagues have 10-1 or 11-1 champions.

Things get interesting, however, if the Big Ten has games canceled. With no built-in bye weeks, a 21-day suspension of play policy if players test positive and an automatic shutdown if a team has a five percent or worse positivity rate, it’s fair to wonder if some teams will be able to play even close to eight games in that window.

Think that’s too negative of a thought? Just think about the number of games that have already been canceled or postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.

Maybe the CFB Playoff Committee would wait a week or so to announce for the Big Ten to finish play. The conference is a partner, after all. But what happens if the Big Ten champion is just 5-1 or 6-0? Is that enough of a sample size for inclusion if the other champions play nearly double the number of games? I don’t think so.

The Big Ten simply can’t afford for games to be canceled in this timeline.

The Big 12’s Bad Weekend Got Worse

I won’t spend too much time here. Fact remains, an undefeated or one-loss Texas or Oklahoma is getting into the playoff no matter what. But given the weekend the league just had, in which three of its teams lost to Sun Belt programs, the perception of the Big 12’s mid-tier quality just took a hit.

That matters.

With a limited non-conference slate, there’s very little to separate the Power Five leagues from each other from a perception point. Usually, we know that a conference is somewhat decent following non-conference play based on the way they perform. Those results can often color how the CFB Playoff committee looks at a league’s strength from top to bottom. That formulation comes via the group’s protocol that looks at outcomes against common opponents.

While there won’t be many ‘common opponents’ between the three conferences this season, it’s still a damaging blow for two Big 12 teams – a top-tier (Iowa State) and mid-tier team (Kansas State) – to lose to two of the better teams from the Sun Belt.

Whether they admit it or not, the committee is going to think about Iowa State’s loss when considering their quality in light of games against teams like Oklahoma, Texas and Oklahoma State.

The SEC Is Going To Be A Bloodbath

Before today, the chances of the SEC getting two teams into the playoff looked rather high. The league will play the toughest schedule of anyone, and the perception of the league is always extremely high in the committee’s eyes. That put the conference in great position to get its champion plus an at-large team into the event.

That’s no longer the case. More so, there’s a chance the league’s champion is quite bloodied by the end of the road. The SEC, even with the conference trying to protect its contenders, has a much more difficult schedule than normal. It’s conceivable the league champion finishes with two losses. That team won’t get left out of the playoff. Best of luck to you if you think the SEC is getting left out of this event in 2020. But there’s a more than decent chance a two-loss team is awarded the fourth seed.

Sorry G-5, It Was Fun While It Lasted

Before today’s announcement, the Group of Five had an outside shot to reach the playoff for the first time. Programs like SMU were openly talking about the possibility, and it seemed realistic for a Memphis or UCF to run the table and have a strong argument for inclusion.

Those chances are now moot. With four Power Five champions available for selection, there’s almost no scenario in which a G-5 team will be able to get in ahead of its P-5 peers. We’ve seen this time after time. UCF, despite a string of 27 straight wins, only peaked at No. 8 in the CFB Playoff rankings in 2018. No G-5 team in 2020 will sniff the playoff if that team couldn’t.

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