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Bad Idea Time: A College Football Playoff spot for the school that makes a COVID-19 vaccine

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Here’s an idea that wouldn’t backfire: tying postseason eligibility to a school’s medical research success.

Jonas Salk, illustration by Banner Society. Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

Some of history’s most critical vaccines have come out of university labs, so it surprises nobody that college campuses are working on some of the most promising efforts toward a coronavirus vaccine. Texas, Baylor, Louisville, Colorado State, Washington University, and others have been at work for weeks trying to solve our global problem. Researchers at Pitt, where Jonas Salk (pictured) developed a polio vaccine in 1953, have announced significant gains.

Thank you to the scientists and medical professionals working diligently to save the world. You deserve our eternal gratitude. You also deserve as much funding as possible. On that note, it is time to unearth every conceivable revenue line. One stands out as an easy way to get a powerful money hose pointed at our brilliant researchers.

We must devote a College Football Playoff auto-bid to whichever university is first to get a vaccine approved by the federal government.

Let’s begin with the most obvious benefit. America has a whole class of moneyed boosters who donate thousands or millions of dollars to football programs, but next to nothing to the science labs at their alma maters. We can’t order those donors around and tell them how to donate their money, but we can make scientific and football donations one in the same. How many Texan oil barons would send tens of thousands toward vaccine research if success could guarantee the Longhorns or Aggies a spot in the Playoff?

<looks at pandemic oil markets>

It’s a bad example, but you see where I’m going.

The benefits go beyond life-and-death matters. In a vaccine-for-Playoff scheme, we’d probably get some new blood (vaccine term) in the Playoff. Thanks to the highly ranked med schools at Stanford and Washington, the Pac-12 might even get a spot.

If Oxford University winds up being first to a vaccine, things get even more fun. At that point, are we even playing football? Are we returning the American game to its roots and letting the Oxford lads challenge Clemson to a game of kickie ball?

Blue-blood football schools might get mad. A four-team field is already small, and now we’re going to tell Bama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, LSU, and Georgia there’s one less spot than usual? The easiest response to those schools is that they should either 1) get over it or 2) run the no-huddle, hurry-up offense on vaccine development.

Alternatively, we could use the vaccine auto-bid as a Trojan horse (not a USC term) to get the Playoff to do what it should anyway: expand to eight teams. Four is a small number, and every other level of major football has a playoff that is multiples larger. So go to eight: the five power conference champs, the top Group of 5 champ, one at-large team, and (until we have a vaccine) one coronavirus vaccine school. If the first school to get a vaccine makes the Playoff independently, that school gets a first-round bye.

This series is, of course, called Bad Idea Time. And this idea has pitfalls.

A nerd school with an overmatched team might develop the vaccine. All due respect to Johns Hopkins, easily the most successful team in Maryland in the 2010s, but I don’t especially want to watch the DIII Centennial Conference champions go head-to-head with Bama. I could rewatch Bama-Notre Dame to achieve the same sensation, and we wouldn’t risk overwhelming hospitals with injured Johns Hopkins football players.

More pressingly, this auto-bid would encourage football-obsessed schools to put forward quack remedies and spin them as vaccines. The last thing the FDA needs right now is the University of Georgia, which does not have a med school, showing up and claiming a Chick-fil-A waffle fry dusted with whey powder and drizzled with Zaxby’s sweet tea is, in fact, a burgeoning COVID-19 vaccine candidate. Someone would tell UGA to please just pass, and as usual, the Dawgs wouldn’t listen.

But at the end of the day, offering a trade – a vaccine for a Playoff spot – wouldn’t even change that much about college football.

The big difference is that instead of ruining someone’s championship dreams with some stupid upset en route to a 5-7 record, Pitt would now simply take that team’s Playoff spot.