Wiedmer: Will COVID-19 ultimately decide College Football Playoff champ?

At least once a week I get an email from some guy named Jimmy Shapiro about gambling odds on all matter of sporting events and subjects. Because I've never gambled on anything more than Powerball numbers or a $2 show ticket at Keeneland or Churchill Downs, I don't usually open them, much less pay attention to them.

But when Monday's email from Shapiro arrived about the newest favorites to win the College Football Playoff I decided to check it out.

And because the wise guys at BetOnline seem to be on the same page as most of the rest of us on this second week of November, it seems that the general belief is that top-ranked Alabama (yawn), second-ranked Notre Dame, No. 3 Ohio State (double yawn) and Clemson are the prohibitive favorites to battle it out for the 2020 national championship.

To be fair, and because it's pretty impossible for any person of common sense not to have two Southeastern Conference teams in the mix, BetOnline does give Florida the same odds as Notre Dame (12-1) to win college football's top prize.

But before anyone bets too much of his or her own money on what a so-called expert has to say about this most unique and unpredictable of college gridiron seasons, may yours truly toss out one remaining stumbling block for all five of the above teams, going from bottom to top, starting with the Florida Gators, who pretty much ended Georgia's championship dreams with last weekend's 44-28 win over the Bulldogs in Jacksonville.

Yes, the Gators are the flavor of the week, and, yes, UF quarterback Kyle Trask is a legitimate Heisman Trophy finalist, which isn't bad for a guy who never started a single game during his final three years at Manvel (Texas) High School, mostly because the starting QB was D'Eriq King, who threw five touchdowns for Miami last week in a 44-41 win at N.C. State.

In what would surely be a first, King and Trask could become the first pair of quarterbacks from the same high school to be invited to the same Heisman presentation as finalists. No wonder the other six quarterbacks on the Manvel roster when Trask and King were sophomores all transferred.

But we digress.

Back to Florida and its potential pothole on the way to the playoffs. Unless Notre Dame were to knock off Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game after stunning the Tigers in South Bend last Saturday, the Gators' biggest hurdle - having already lost at Texas A&M - would appear to be losing to Alabama in the SEC title game on Dec. 19.

Florida's remaining schedule is as follows: Arkansas this weekend, which would be far more dangerous if it wasn't in The Swamp, at Vanderbilt, Kentucky, at Tennessee and the regular-season finale at home against LSU. Win out, including Bama, and they're in. Lose once more and the Gators are done.

Then there's Clemson.

The Tigers are expected to welcome back quarterback Trevor Lawrence from his coronavirus quarantine for their next game at Florida State on Nov. 21 after this week's bye week. They welcome Pitt to Clemson the following week, then end the regular season at Virginia Tech. A rematch with Notre Dame could be dangerous if some of the Tigers' defensive starters can't return from injury, but expect Clemson to make the four-team playoff field.

Next up, Ohio State. Because the Big Ten appears as strong on the field as in a math class - the league has 14 teams, after all - it's pretty hard to see the Buckeyes not making the postseason with ease. But much as Clemson's loss at ND might easily be traced to COVID-19 due to Lawrence's absence, what if OSU quarterback Justin Fields suffers the same fate at some point.

The Ohio State University might win regardless, but it might not. Such is college football in 2020 amid a pandemic.

Still, it's hard to see any of the unofficial Big 14's other schools stopping the Buckeyes from reaching football's final four.

The same could not be said for Notre Dame, which has a very tricky road date at North Carolina the day after Thanksgiving. The Tar Heels have already lost twice to Florida State and Virginia, so their playoff hopes are done. But they've also averaged 45.8 ppg over their last five starts. If they come close to 40 against ND, the Irish would have to sweep Clemson to reach the playoffs.

Finally, we come to Alabama, which looks as much a playoff lock as ever. Last year was the Crimson Tide's first outside the playoff field since it began at the close of the 2014 season. With a remaining schedule at LSU on Saturday - if another Bayou Bengals coronavirus outbreak allows the game to be played - at home against Kentucky and Auburn, then a regular-season finale at Arkansas, it's not likely Bama falls before the SEC title game, if at all, though traveling to dangerous Arkansas the week after the emotionally draining Iron Bowl could become a trap game, especially if the Tide suffers significant injuries or a COVID outbreak.

Still, all things being equal in this upside-down season and year, expect Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and fellow SEC member Texas A&M if the Aggies win out, including a regular-season finale at Auburn. Then expect Fields to do for Ohio State against Bama in the title game something he didn't stick around to do for Georgia - win a national championship.

Yet the biggest obstacle for whichever teams make the playoffs may also be the same elephant filling up all our rooms and lives at the moment. And it's not Alabama, though it, too, remains unbeaten. It's COVID-19.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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