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Pac-12 football players lead way as college athletes speak out

It was a rare and dramatic power play from a group of organized college athletes. But how it was delivered to reporters was noteworthy, too. The message came from the Gmail account of Valentino Daltoso, an offensive lineman at the University of California-Berkeley, and offered the personal email addresses of the other players so reporters could contact them.

“The interests of athletes aren’t always in line with the institutions and coaches,” said Andrew Cooper, a Cal cross-country runner who helped organize the effort. “It was important that we talked directly to the media.”

As college sports navigate their returns, enveloped by issues of racial justice, safety and amateurism, athletes have advocated for themselves this year in unprecedented ways. That’s including how they have delivered their messages.

Many college athletic departments prohibit players from talking to journalists without team permission. Some team handbooks urge players to not speak to the media at all. Others, including University of Alabama and University of Georgia, have policies against freshmen speaking to the media during the regular season. And many schools have policies that monitor or even restrict players’ social media accounts.

But in their efforts to advocate for change this year, players have increasingly cut out their athletic departments. The Pac-12 players maintained correspondence with reporters over several weeks about their negotiations with the conference. When Florida State’s head football coach said in an interview that he was having one-on-one conversations with players about George Floyd and racial justice, defensive lineman Marvin Wilson tweeted that it wasn’t true. Clemson’s football program recently eliminated a long-standing rule barring players from using social media, after star quarterback Trevor Lawrence tweeted about players’ rights and the return of the season over the summer.

As games are canceled and some universities withhold information about positive coronavirus tests in football programs, it’s especially critical that players are allowed to speak out, said Frank LoMonte, the head of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

“We need to hear the voices of those most affected, who are putting their health and safety at risk to entertain us,” LoMonte said, calling schools “unduly secretive.” “It’s interesting to hear from athletes in normal times; it’s more important now.”

Some of those policies may even be unconstitutional, LoMonte said. Last month he wrote an article published in the Nebraska Law Review arguing that any restriction of speech for college athletes at public universities violates their constitutional rights.

“Anytime a government agency imposes a blanket restraint that you’re not allowed to be heard, it will be almost impossible to justify that restraint constitutionally,” said LoMonte, who previously headed the Student Press Law Center in Washington.

At least one school has, in fact, walked back its policy for fear of legal consequences. After a union drive by its football team, Northwestern University changed its team handbook in 2016. “You should never agree to an interview unless the interview has been arranged by the athletic communications office,” it once read. Now:

What will it take for a Pac-12 team to make the College Football Playoff?

Don’t completely rule out the Pac-12 from the 2020 College Football Playoff race.

Despite just a seven-game schedule including the conference championship game — on top of a three-year playoff-less streak — the Pac-12 has a 34% chance to put a team in the playoff, per the Allstate Playoff Predictor. Oregon (19%) and USC (13%) are the conference’s two real shots at getting in.

While it’s far from ideal for any conference to have that low of a shot at the playoff before playing a single game, this is actually a slightly better chance than the same model gave the conference back in May (then 28%), working at the time under the assumption of a normal schedule.

Given the circumstances of the Pac-12’s season it’s reasonable to ask: How?

Let’s start with the bad: The Pac-12’s schedules are easy due to their abbreviated nature.

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An average top-25 team would have a 37% chance to go 6-0 against Oregon’s regular-season schedule. That’s high! In fact, that’s the same chance that the average top-25 team would have to go 8-2 against Alabama’s regular-season schedule. And a decent bit harder than the chance to go 7-1 against Penn State’s.

But here’s a secret about the selection committee, at least historically: It over-emphasizes the number of losses a team has. I say “over” because theoretically, the number of losses shouldn’t matter beyond strength of record, which is the top predictor of a team’s playoff chances. To the committee, however, that number is important beyond strength of record, which is why we include it in our model.

And that works to the Pac-12’s advantage. Because there’s a very real chance the Pac-12 champion is undefeated. In fact, it’s a 44% chance.

When it comes to selection day, an undefeated champion will surely at least garner discussion, even against a shortened schedule. And especially if there are only two or fewer undefeated champions from Power 5 schools — which FPI says has a 70% chance to be the case.

The second factor here is the Big 12. Texas picking up a loss and Oklahoma racking up two opened the door for the Pac-12 to take a playoff spot one of those Big 12 powerhouses would have taken in some simulations. Some of the time, those spots go to a second SEC or Big Ten school, sure, but the Big 12’s demise — the conference has less than a 10% chance to put a team in the playoff — can only help the Pac-12.

So how about the contending schools — Oregon and USC — themselves?

The Ducks have been hurt by the loss of not only Justin Herbert to the NFL draft, but several critical opt outs.

Washington coach Jimmy Lake’s College Football Playoff plan would solve one tricky Pac-12 problem

Jimmy Lake has a plan for a more perfect playoff.

It’s a six-team field, and the seeding is simple: All Power Five conference champions are automatic entrants in the field, with the College Football Playoff committee ranking them using the same criteria it currently employs. The sixth and final spot goes to a “wild card” — whether an independent (like Notre Dame in 2018), a Group of Five champion (like undefeated and subsequently snubbed Central Florida in 2017) or a second-place finisher in a Power Five conference (like Alabama in 2017).

In the first of three rounds, the top two seeds receive a bye and the winners of a 3-6 and 4-5 match up advance to the semifinals. Then, same as the existing format, the final four teams play for a spot in the title game.

Of course, the JLP (Jimmy Lake Plan) would essentially solve one prickly problem — a Pac-12 program has not been selected for the College Football Playoff since Washington in 2016. It would also put significantly less pressure on the committee, with the foremost responsibility being ranking the conference champions and selecting a single wild card.

“I think that way you take all the subjectivity out of it, all the politics, the East Coast (bias), all of that,” Lake, the Huskies’ first-year head coach, said in a Pac-12 coaches media webinar Wednesday. “Let the champions move on. Let the teams play, and we’ll see who the best team is at the end of the year.”

Lake is so passionate about the JLP, in fact, that he and his oldest son — Jimmy Jr. — recently reseeded every playoff since the CFP came into existence in 2014, using their system. (The coronavirus pandemic, without a doubt, has provided time for passion projects.) Lake declared Wednesday that fans and media “would drool over this schedule.”

And when it comes to UW fans, he’s probably right. In 2018, rather than meeting Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, the Pac-12 champion Huskies would have matched up against undefeated Notre Dame in the opening round of the CFP.

“I know our fans would have loved to see that match up,” Lake said.

That’s certainly a safe assumption. But don’t expect the JLP to receive widespread support across college football. If, say, an SEC or Big Ten fan or administrator believes there are two (or three, or four) teams from their conferences that are better than the Pac-12 champion — as is the popular perception, right or wrong — then a permanent Pac-12 representative would theoretically steal a spot from a more deserving squad.

And even UCF, an undefeated Group of Five champion, still would not have cracked the six-team JLP field in 2017.

Lake, unsurprisingly (and perhaps correctly), believes the Pac-12’s best can compete with anyone in the country.

And the JLP would give the Pac-12 champion an annual opportunity to prove it.

“I have not shared this much with my peers, but I definitely have shared it internally —