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SEC football: Can there be a legitimate national champion in 2020?

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

Kirby Smart would be OK with putting an asterisk next to the 2020 SEC championship. Not to denote that the title isn’t legitimate, but rather to highlight that the team that won it may have gone through more challenges than any other team in the conference’s history.

His Georgia Bulldogs played nine SEC games when they won the crown in 2017. The team that wins it in 2020 will have to play 10 in the regular season alone. It will have to do so after having spring practice canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and under constant threat of losing players to virus-related quarantines.

“The only asterisk by that one would be, 'Is this the toughest team there ever was?’” Smart said. “Because they went through 10 games in our league and played a championship game. Hats off to them.”

The national championship, however, is a different matter. Because while all 14 SEC teams will vie for a spot in Atlanta, not all Power 5 teams will get the chance to play for a trip to Miami Gardens, Florida, to play for the national title after the Big Ten and Pac-12 made the decision to postpone their fall sports seasons.

There will be a champion if season plays out

The show will go on, however. The College Football Playoff plans to begin releasing its rankings Nov. 17. The semifinals are still set for New Year’s Day.

“Everyone understands that this season will be different,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock told the USA TODAY Network via email. “The job of the CFP selection committee is to identify the top four football teams coming out of the regular season and let them play it out on the field for the national championship, and that won’t change.

"An asterisk is in the eye of the beholder. As far as I’m concerned, if college football has a season, it will have a CFP national champion.”

The question is, will it be legitimate if four FBS conferences — including two in the Power 5 — don't play?

“Hell yeah,” said LSU’s Ed Orgeron, the last coach to hoist that trophy over his head. “The winner is the real national champion this season.”

That seems to be the consensus among SEC coaches and players. There were two main reasons for that. The first, according to Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt, is that “we can’t control how many teams play.”

The second, voiced by Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, is slightly less politically correct. But he's certainly not alone in thinking it.

“What's the joke? The two conferences that always win the national championship are still playing,” he said. “So I'm sure they'll be able to (crown a champion)."

What about the Big Ten and others?

Kiffin has a point. Ohio State defeated Oregon to win the first College Football Playoff at the end of the 2014 season, but no Big Ten or Pac-12 team has won a semifinal since. The Pac-12 hasn’t even made a semifinal since 2016 (Washington). The Buckeyes broke the Big Ten’s two-year drought last year.

The SEC and ACC, meanwhile, have produced every participant in the last five national championship games — Alabama (four times), Clemson (four times), LSU (once) and Georgia (once). Those are four of the top five teams in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll.

“The best ability is availability,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “So if you've got a chance to play, then the accolades that come your way are yours."

The loudest argument to that would probably come from Ohio State, which is not playing but not necessarily by choice. It ranked No. 2 in that preseason poll, behind Clemson but ahead of all three SEC teams (with 17 first-place votes).

The Buckeyes are by far the biggest wild card. The Big Ten’s decision to postpone the season, unlike the Pac-12’s, has been met with so much resistance that it still doesn’t feel entirely final. A lawsuit was filed. Commissioner Kevin Warren had a call with President Donald Trump. There are rumors that the conference could try to reverse course and start a season around Thanksgiving or even as early as October.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day (right) retweeted a message from his quarterback Justin Fields (left): "We want to play."

A season like no other

The question posed by Brad Edwards, an ESPN college football analyst and researcher for its Stats and Info group, is how the College Football Playoff would handle that.

Say the Big Ten starts playing in October or November: Would there be enough time for a team like Ohio State to show the committee that it’s worthy of a spot in the top four? Or would the committee not consider a Big Ten team at all? And even if the committee doesn’t consider them, what if the Associated Press poll continues ranking teams after the CFP is over? What if the Buckeyes go undefeated and claim a title?

There is no precedent for this. The closest parallel seems to be the 1943 season, when a number of universities — including eight members of the SEC — suspended their football programs due to World War II. But none of those schools started playing in November or held a spring season; they waited until 1944 to resume playing.

Still, if you scroll down the list of college football champions to 1943, you’ll see Notre Dame’s name listed there with no asterisk.

Let’s say Alabama and Clemson meet in the national championship game for the fourth time in the past six years. Can anyone really tell the winner of that game that their title isn’t legitimate?

“There’s going to be three conferences playing,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I think the players that play should have the opportunity to have a playoff and have a championship for the teams that are playing. That’s my opinion. I’m sure there are a lot of people that may or may not agree with that.

"If we’re fortunate enough to be able to manage this, with player safety being the No. 1 concern for all of us and we can go through a season and find out who the best teams are, I think there would be a lot of interest to see those teams play, and I know the players would certainly look forward to playing.”

USA Today Network reporters Marc Weiszer, Glenn Guilbeau, Blake Toppmeyer, Nick Suss, Adam Sparks and Brett Hudson contributed reporting for this story.

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here. If you enjoy Josh's coverage, consider a digital subscription that will give you access to all of it.