College football's 2020 season is moving, albeit tentatively, towards an on-time start. Once athletes begin arriving on campus and playing games, though, the inevitability of additional COVID-19 outbreaks could cause disruptions. That's what Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby sees from his 1,000-foot view in late May with Week 1 a little more than three months away. From brief, school-led pauses to halting the season altogether, Bowlsby said on CBS Sports HQ that the conference is preparing for a "bumpy road."
"I expect we will have some outbreaks during the course of the school year on campuses and within athletics departments," Bowlsby said. "We've been told to expect a bumpy road, so that's what we're preparing. I don't think much of hope as a strategy, but we hope things will go smoothly and prepare as if they won't be."
As to whether the season could be put on hold entirely given another massive outbreak -- flu season could be extra rough with the introduction of COVID-19 -- Bowlsby explained such a stoppage will have to be handled in real-time.
"We aren't going to have the benefit of making lots of plans well in advance," Bowlsby said. "We're trying to get back to campus and workouts and some semblance of normalcy. Beyond that, we have a 12-game schedule. We start on Labor Day weekend and we'll have to play it by ear. We don't want to put anybody at risk from a health standpoint. We need to go through this and recognize that we're dealing with mostly young, healthy athletes, but that doesn't mean they can't be transmitting the disease.
"We're going to have some difficulties during the course of the year, and I fully expect we'll have some disruptions. We are going to do everything we can to minimize the likelihood of those things happening and to optimize the disinfectant process that we have in our weight rooms, locker rooms and training rooms. And we'll practice good social distancing," Bowlsby continued. "It will be somewhat unique to individual institutions. This has always been managed by governors and public health officials and, to some extent, mayors. Soon it will be in the hands of university presidents and chancellors and then athletic directors."
"When you think about places where viruses would spread very easily, you'd have to think a place like the State Fair of Texas -- or anybody's state fair -- would be a place where something that's as virulent as COVID-19 could easily be spread." Bowlsby added "If we can do it with fans, we'll love to do it with fans ... and if we find that we've had an outbreak that makes public assembly inadvisable, then that's a reality we'll have to deal with at the time."
Playing it by ear will be the theme of the 2020 season, whatever that looks like. Uniformity from a scheduling aspect seems unlikely given the number of moving parts and state-by-state impact of the coronavirus. And, in the end, that's something college football will just have to deal with for the time being -- because chances are it's either that or no football at all.
"We're used to having what we have euphemistically called a level playing field or competitive fairness. I think we all know some campuses have advantages, some university towns have advantages. Some regions have better recruiting than others. So [competitive equality] is largely a mirage," Bowlsby said. "We all like to do the same things so we have a fair chance to compete. And this is a situation where we're just not always going to be able to do that. To the extent that we have an institution or a couple of institutions that can't start on time or perhaps have a disruption during the course of the season, we'll just have to deal with those things."
Some schools have given return dates for athletes. Some have outlined goals for attendance figures for the upcoming season. The intentions of playing college football are good, but the reality is everyone in college athletics will largely be making up the plan as they go. That was true when conferences began cancelling basketball tournaments in March, and it will be true when they start fielding football again in the fall.