Now an unhinged nation resumes one of its most sacred pursuits, the official ranking of college football teams toward that distant playoff bracket over yonder. As the College Football Playoff selection committee gathers in person and in Texas to issue its findings Tuesday night, the hopes of all the rational, less rational and far less rational fans rest again upon the 13. This year, that’s seven athletic directors, two former head coaches, one former U.S. Army chief of staff, two former all-American players and one sports columnist turned professor.

A few reminders:

  • In normal years the sports columnist is, by definition, the brains of the operation.
  • A committee debutant, one of the former all-American players, happens to be one of the most interesting athletes in the history of the land, former Penn State and Baltimore Ravens guard John Urschel, a mathematician who has been pursuing a PhD at MIT. That would seem to place Reminder No. 1 under serious threat, but a quick read of most any sports columnist will confirm the omniscience of that subspecies.
  • As a people, we’re really weird.

Rational, less rational and far less rational fans often have complained about the committee through its first six years and varying memberships, even as the committee has improved upon all the old systems of the first 145 years of the incomprehensible sport. This may or may not show a national yearning to complain as a means of passing the time, and it hints that the complaining might continue even through this coronavirus-wrecked year when maybe it shouldn’t. In normal years, the committee faces an indecipherable task; this year, it faces a more indecipherable task.

That would be true even without the fact that Clemson and quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who has returned from his coronavirus hiatus, flew to Tallahassee to play Florida State on Saturday and then couldn’t play because of disagreement over the wisdom of playing after the positive test of a Clemson player blared only after landing. It would be true even without the fact that Utah, a contender for the playoff late last season until going splat in the Pac-12 title game, finally started playing late Saturday night.

It lost.

It’s 0-1, whereas its beloved neighbor down Interstate 15 stands 9-0.

That’s BYU, and that’s a microcosm of mayhem.

No, even more than such farces, the usual kingdoms up top — Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, now Notre Dame — mingle with so much bubbling from just below that it might even refresh a tired land if the committee went all puckish and began its first list of 2020 with any four of these: Coastal Carolina (8-0), Cincinnati (8-0), BYU (9-0), Marshall (7-0), Nevada (5-0), Northwestern (5-0), Southern California (3-0) or Oregon (3-0). So many teams deserve a look even if their deserving of a look might owe something to pandemic schedule distortions.

Of course, the committee doesn’t do puckish, nor is it taught much at MIT. (At least Urschel won’t even have to leave the room per protocol for any discussion of his alma mater; there won’t be any discussion, with Penn State standing 0-5 for the first time in a history dating to 1887, when it played a November home-and-home with Bucknell, won both and called it an unbeaten year.) But as the 13 try to make sense of a year that doesn’t make much sense, at least fun things abound.

Southern California, of course, fascinates as we wait and wait for it to spice the playoff with West Coast flavor and as it deals with what Ryan Kartje of the Los Angeles Times described as “an ever-lingering sense of unrealized potential.” It won at its haunted house of Utah in the wee Eastern hours, forcing five turnovers so that a person in the East might have kept waking and wondering whether a fumble was a new fumble or a replay of a previous fumble.

“There was a lot of talk with our whole defense,” linebacker Kana’i Mauga told reporters via video, “saying that we’re going to be in a bar fight.” That did sound landmark, given how Salt Lake City bar fights usually start at earlier hours.

Cincinnati won, 36-33, at Central Florida, which is not easy, before 24 percent capacity, which is a little easier but still not easy. The Bearcats trailed ­14-3 early and 25-22 entering the fourth quarter but got a key interception from a linebacker with a splendid wide smile, Darrick Forrest, and then, when tension got thick, produced manful fourth-quarter drives of 71 and 57 yards that reaped one score and gobbled much clock.

“You want to start with a statement?” a university official asked Coach Luke Fickell before the postgame video conference.

“I think we just made a statement,” Fickell declared.


Northwestern, reaching 5-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since its storybook season of 1995, left a proud Wisconsin offense disfigured with five turnovers in a gritty knot of a 17-7 win. Then it brought to the front of the distancing cameras its array of becoming personalities. Defensive back Greg Newsome II said of his fourth-quarter interception: “It feels good to join the pick club. I think I was overdue. So it’s about damn time.”

Senior defensive end Earnest Brown IV began describing the throttling in general, then veered off to laud a teammate in particular: “And also, I’ve got two words for you: Eku Leota,” meaning the 6-foot-4, 250-pound sophomore defensive lineman from Asheville, N.C. “That man is a dog. I’ve got to give credit where it’s due. Just trying to hype my boy up. If you don’t know him now, y’all should.”

Of course, Northwestern has benefited from good teamwide coronavirus management so that players remain available, as Wildcats Coach Pat Fitzgerald stressed the previous week. “We spend most of our lives together,” Newsome said, and while that does sound unusually fun in Northwestern’s case, how would anyone factor in that stat, anyway? Should it be “fewest parties attended,” sitting right next to turnover margin? As the committee meets to decipher a season in which Clemson lost at Notre Dame in double overtime with Lawrence absent because of a positive test, the need for the committee to hire a sommelier — a masked one, of course — seems ever more aching.