The 4 CFP contenders with the most to lose with a conference-only schedule

By Amy Daughters -

With the Big Ten and Pac-12 cancelling their non-league slates, the 2020 college football schedule is officially up in the air.

Will the ACC, Big 12 and SEC follow suit? And what about the Group of 5 conferences?

What we do know is that the College Football Playoff committee plans on sticking to its plan regardless of how many games each FBS program ultimately plays and who those games are against. In the words of CFP executive director, Bill Hancock:

Clearly there will be challenges this year, and we will see what those challenges are and work through them…Whatever the season looks like, the committee will select the four best teams based on the protocol…The fundamental mission of the committee has not changed.

And, that protocol, as per the CFP’s own “How to select the four best teams to compete for the College Football National Championship” includes consideration of the following criteria: Championships won. Strength of Schedule. Head-to-head competition (if it occurred). Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory).

While strength of schedule is already – in a “regular” season – a fluid conversation, cancelling a portion of some slates, and perhaps not others, makes for an unprecedented conversation in terms of complexity.

And while all FBS teams will be affected in some way, the programs with the most to lose are the one’s with a real shot at earning a place in the four-team CFP bracket. In other words, the contenders. Of Vegas’ top 15 teams most likely to win a national title in 2020, following are the four with the most to lose without a non-league schedule to play.

(1). CLEMSON

Drops: Akron, at NOTRE DAME, FCS the Citadel, SOUTH CAROLINA

Keeps: at Georgia Tech, Louisville, Virginia, at Boston College, at Florida State, NC State, Syracuse, at Wake Forest

Clemson has done an admirable job of beefing up its weak ACC schedule by adding a quality non-conference opponent to its standing date with in-state rival South Carolina. What may save it is if the Irish stay on board in 2020 as an ACC opponent, as opposed to a non-conference foe. This is tricky because Notre Dame technically counts as one of the Tigers’ four non-league foes this season. That said, it would be a win-win – for everyone – if the game was played, regardless of what we called it. Even then, the Tigers will only have faced – presumably – one ranked team during the regular season.

(T7). OREGON

Drops: FCS North Dakota State, OHIO STATE, Hawaii

Keeps: at Colorado, Washington, at Cal, Stanford, at Arizona, USC, Arizona State, at Washington State, at Oregon State

In a perfect world that didn’t include the COVID pandemic, Oregon already had a lackluster schedule compared to Vegas’ other top contenders. While USC should be ranked at the beginning of the season, Washington and Stanford haven’t appeared on many preseason rankings and will likely have to play their way into the Top 25. That’s what made the visit from a Top Ten squad – Ohio State – so key to the Ducks, who will have to woo the committee despite their weakened Pac-12 slate. They also will have to contend with Clemson – who has earned its national credibility by winning CFP games – which the committee will see as a popular choice regardless of their weak ACC slate.  A potential win over the Buckeyes, or even a strong appearance, could have convinced the tribunal that Oregon’s schedule was as strong as the winner of the ACC, and to a lesser degree the Big Ten or Big 12.

(12). NOTRE DAME

Drops: at Navy, Arkansas, Western Michigan, WISCONSIN (at Green Bay, Wisc.), Stanford, at USC

Keeps: Wake Forest (at Charlotte, NC), at Pitt, Duke, CLEMSON, at Georgia Tech, Louisville

Notre Dame is clearly the most intriguing contender due to its status as an independent. It’s been speculated that, regardless of how things play out, that the Irish may retain the ACC portion of their slate, due to their quasi-membership in that league. This could, as mentioned above, include top-ranked Clemson, which was earmarked as a non-ACC game in 2020. Even with that, the Irish would lose two of the only three locks on ranked opponents.

(15). USC

Drops: ALABAMA (at Arlington, Texas), New Mexico, NOTRE DAME

Keeps: at Stanford, Arizona State, at Utah, Cal, at Arizona, Colorado, at OREGON, Washington, at UCLA

Like Oregon, USC needs its non-league schedule to boost the strength of its Pac-12 slate. The only difference is the Trojans did a bang-up job of putting together an absolute beast of a non-conference slate for 2020. Not only were they set to play their annual date with the top-ranked Irish, they booked an epic opener vs. the program with the third-best odds of winning a national title. And, with a stroke of a keyboard in the conference headquarters, all was lost. On the plus side, USC draws Oregon – the top-ranked Pac-12 club going into the season – in cross-division play.

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Comments (10)

Man, I just really need the Lou Holtz Bowl to happen. I’ve always wanted to attend a game there, so seeing Arkansas (most likely a blowout loss) play there was going to make the trip extra special.

Nervous about what will come of this game.

ND is scheduled to go to Fayetteville in 2025. I have to imagine that both schools strongly wanted the first-time series to happen …. so I would be pretty confident that this season’s ND home game will be rescheduled, though it might not be until 2026 or later given how far in advance football schedules tend to be built …. I was really looking forward to this one as well.

North Dakota St won 16 straight games last year but since they’re not Kansas or Rutgers they may as well be Newfoundland St. Super job there

If the virus allows conference play the Notre Dame schedule is really interesting, what does a 5-0 (including Clemson) schedule mean to the committee if every other team has played 8 or 9 games?

Of course if this is stair step toward suspending the whole season like the Ivy and Patriot league did, it is all a mute point.

If the season goes ahead, I expect ND to be able to build a 10-game schedule with the ACC comprising at least five of the games and maybe even all 10.

BYU will also be looking for games, so ND-BYU would make sense as long as there’s mutual date availability.

The same is likely true for Army.

Western Michigan is still on the schedule and is only something like 100 miles from South Bend. Decent chance that game is preserved, particularly if ND is able to honor most or all of the financial contract, which is an important funding source for WMU.

We’ll see what happens with the Arkansas game. If the SEC tries to play, that game may still happen. There’s good rationale for at least one non-conference game among SEC and ACC members to preserve UF-FSU, UGa-Ga Tech, S Carolina-Clemson, Kentucky-Louisville. If so, Arkansas may well try to make the trip north. (This approach could cost ND the Louisville game.)

The Navy game seems uncertain. I’m sure Navy would love to play ND in Annapolis (and ND people would love to go there), but Navy has the most-committed schedule in the country between eight conference games and annual rivalries with Army, AFA and ND. If Navy had to pick one non-conference game, surely they would pick Army over ND …. though I think it’s also possible they would pick ND over AFA for a second non-conference game.

ND could also end up booking other Independents if it needs a game or two. The Irish have previously played UConn and UMass (once apiece) and have been playing increasing numbers of “buy” games, which wouldn’t preclude Liberty or NMSU in a pinch.

The real challenge for ND would be if the ACC decided to draw a hard line around its definition of “in-conference play” though this runs contrary to messaging earlier this spring and seems counter-productive over the intermediate term given the relationship with ND.

If the season proceeds, I think there’s a good chance the playoff is expanded to neutralize the fact that teams have lost control of their schedules due to so many cancellations.