Last December, the NCAA received a peculiar inquiry from one of the four teams participating in the College Football Playoff.
Is it permissible to scout semifinal playoff games in person?
For nearly 30 years, in-person scouting of a future opponent’s game — in the regular season — has been prohibited under NCAA rules. However, during the postseason, the association permits in-person scouting, including multi-team, single-site events like the NCAA basketball and baseball regionals.
As the CFP semifinals drew closer last December, one participating school wished for clarification on the rule: Is it permissible to have staff members attend the other semifinal to scout future opponents?
That team, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, was Ohio State.
The unreported inquiry seemed quite innocuous at the time. And, yet, it ignited back-and-forth dialogue between the CFP and NCAA over the policy and eventually triggered an unpublicized change to the CFP bylaws.
Now, 10 months later, Ohio State's request is a new wrinkle in the fabric of the NCAA's investigation into impermissible, in-person scouting by Michigan, another CFP participant last year and the Buckeyes' chief rival. Michigan's alleged sign-stealing scheme — spanning three seasons, dozens of games and several people — has been unspooled with a daily trickle of news stories outlining an elaborate system.
At the center of the NCAA’s probe are two of its bylaws, one prohibiting scouting a future opponent’s game in person and another prohibiting the recording of an opponent’s signals.
As Yahoo Sports reported last week, multiple Big Ten coaching staffs — including Ohio State — knew of the Wolverines' sign-stealing system as far back as last season. Michigan was the No. 2 seed in last year's CFP and Ohio State was the No. 4 seed. The teams played in opposing semifinals — the Wolverines against No. 3 TCU in the Fiesta Bowl and the Buckeyes against No. 1 Georgia in the Peach Bowl.
Last December’s inquiry by Ohio State, while leaving a variety of unanswered questions, now seems strangely relevant.
An NCAA spokesperson confirmed to Yahoo Sports that a school reached out for a clarification around the in-person scouting policy. Because the playoff is not an NCAA-operated event, the organization turned to the CFP.
“We didn’t have a policy,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock told Yahoo Sports on Friday, “and we operated without one until the question was raised.”
Without a policy, CFP officials defaulted to the NCAA’s postseason policy around in-person scouting. They ruled that football staff members could attend the opposite semifinal to scout their possible opponent in a national championship game.
“We just followed the NCAA policy that allowed scouting in postseason tournaments,” Hancock said.
The CFP notified all four participating teams. Officials at TCU and Georgia confirmed to Yahoo Sports that they are unaware of having sent a staff member to scout the other semifinal.
It’s unclear if Ohio State and Michigan sent staff members to scout the opposite semifinal game.
A spokesperson at Michigan did not respond to a request for comment. An Ohio State spokesperson declined comment.
Roughly four months after the semifinals, the CFP governing board quietly implemented a new policy. It made in-person scouting of playoff games impermissible, an important note with the CFP on the cusp of expanding to a 12-team, eight-game tournament.
The inquiry is a footnote in one of the fiercest and most storied rivalries in all of college sports, each program captained by head coaches, Jim Harbaugh of Michigan and Ryan Day of Ohio State, who are not particularly friendly with one another.
The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry has swelled lately in intensity. Michigan has won the last two games in the 126-year-old series, outscoring Ohio State 87-50. The 2021 win in Ann Arbor broke a eight-game losing streak to the Buckeyes, at that time the most one-sided stretch in the rivalry since Michigan won nine straight early in the 20th century from 1901-1909.
The two programs, both unbeaten and ranked in the top three, are on a collision course with championship implications. They meet on Nov. 25 in Ann Arbor.