“The four best teams can go play,” Swinney told reporters this week. “We’ve been one of those four for five years in a row. So, in my opinion, it doesn’t change anything for us.”
Given the performance of the Big Ten and the Pac-12 in the CFP — 0-4 in the past five years, only appeared in the national title game in the first year of the event — maybe ol’ Dabo’s onto something. Maybe the fact that they won’t play this fall won’t have any impact on who the champion will be. If Arizona State and Indiana can’t play football till spring, what’s the diff?
“Whoever wins it, wins it,” Swinney said. “That’s the champ. It’s the same way in every sport.”
Easy now, Dabo. That’s not exactly the case.
As things stand, three of the Power Five college football conferences — the ACC, SEC and Big 12 — are moving forward with playing a season in the fall. Now, if we have learned anything about trying to contest sports as the novel coronavirus continues to rampage through the country, it’s that if you’re upset about the way things stand at a single point, wait a couple of hours, because they’ll change.
But Swinney’s matter-of-fact, we’ll-play-whoever-shows-up stance — just a couple of days after South Carolina got its weekly average below 1,000 new cases per day for the first time since June — brings up something that has eaten at major American team sports since they began to return late last month. The safety questions are paramount. But after that: Is any of this legitimate?
College football stands out as particularly inequitable, but it doesn’t stop there. The St. Louis Cardinals hadn’t played a baseball game since July 29 before they suited up Saturday for a doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox — a 17-day respite. The Cardinals, who have had 10 players and eight staff members test positive for the virus, have played seven games. By Saturday, most teams had played at least 20.
So let’s do some math, then, and see if Major League Baseball can hold a legitimate season in which 28 teams have played something that resembles a “normal” schedule and two — the Cardinals and the Miami Marlins, who also had the virus rage through their clubhouse — were or are on hiatus. Beginning Saturday, there were 44 days until the scheduled end of the regular season — 44 days in which the Cardinals would have to play 55 games to complete what’s supposed to be an already truncated 60-game season. That’s zero rainouts and 11 doubleheaders.
Is that even possible?
“Mathematically, it would seem challenging to me,” John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations, told reporters via Zoom. And Mozeliak said that last Friday.
Oh, and the doubleheaders would consist of seven-inning games. And the season is already only 37 percent of a normal season. And the stricken players have to be quarantined and symptom-free and test negative before returning. And …
“I think stop-starts are difficult,” Mozeliak said. “For players, staff and employees, emotionally we’re pulling on a lot of different cords here.”
The virus had already whittled what’s traditionally a grind of a baseball season to a sprint, and now it has further complicated matters for the Cardinals, the Marlins and a slew of their would-be opponents. That’s the most important question about the legitimacy of any of these seasons: Can the virus be staved off? And, therefore, can the games be completed?
But there are other, less important elements that contribute to the feeling that a season has been played in full. Baseball cherishes its numbers like no other sport, and even as batting average has been devalued as a worthy tool to evaluate a hitter — with good reason — the idea that someone could hit .400 for an entire season still has a certain romance to it. Ted Williams was the last to do it — .406 in 1941.
Look, though, at the stats now. Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon went into the weekend hitting .472, with just 42 games remaining — about a quarter of a regular season. Could he do it? Would it count?
“I don’t think I’ll be able to give it much credit, to be honest,” Blackmon told reporters. “I think it will be too easy to say that weird things happen. … It counts, certainly. This is Major League Baseball on major league fields, and it counts. But for right now, I feel like it’s different.”
The places where legitimacy seems to lurk most prominently are in the bubbles created by the NBA and the NHL. Each is holding playoffs that match the format from normal times — eight teams, four rounds, best-of-seven series, 16 victories to hoist a trophy. Sure, there won’t be fans, nor will there be home-city advantages, and viscerally the games feel different. But the paths to reach the postseason were fair and equitable, and the champ will have a rightful claim to being the best. In these unprecedented times, that’s the best we can hope for.
Which brings us back to college sports, so disparate and dispersed. The Pac-12 and the Ivy League have said they will contest no intercollegiate sports before Jan. 1. That obviously wipes out any sort of fall football. But what does it do to basketball seasons that, in theory, could be normal for Duke and Kentucky but lopped off for UCLA and Princeton?
Would the committees that select the fields for the NCAA tournaments — both women’s and men’s — be able to come up with a fair process to select a legitimate field among teams that played fundamentally different seasons?
College basketball, though, has time. College football increasingly doesn’t. It has always seemed, to me anyway, as the hardest sport to pull off during all of this. More teams. Larger teams. No bubbles even remotely possible.
Now, with the Power Five conferences split, will Swinney’s wish really be honored? Who wins the Heisman Trophy? Are there two? What if the Big Ten and Pac-12 play a spring season and declare champions who face off in the Rose Bowl in, say, April? Could there be a fall champ and a spring champ? Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12’s commissioner, was asked exactly that.
“You’ve asked a logical question, whether either one of them is actually a champion,” he said. “It’s a good question. But it’s unanswered at this point.”
Like so much in this life at these times. The wisdom of contesting high-profile sports as we struggle to contain the virus is debatable. But even if they can be staged — in fits and starts, without full participation — how will their champions be remembered?