There is a "significant chance" the 2020 season begins without all FBS conferences prepared to start playing at the same time, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Tuesday.

During a Zoom conference call with the media, Swarbrick praised the cooperation between conference commissioners who have been developing an "overarching policy and an ability to start together" in regards to playing the 2020 season amid the coronavirus.

He then told reporters: "We all recognize there is a significant chance that may not be possible."

Swarbrick, whose team is an independent and therefore not a member of one of the 10 FBS conferences, is the most significant college football stakeholder to make such a specific declaration during the pandemic.

He said all the conferences would have difficulty starting together, "either because states or individual colleges take different approaches. You can't produce a season where all members aren't participating in Division I football the same way."

Florida and Georgia, for example, are reopening as cases continue to spike. California and Michigan, for example, are taking more conservative approaches.

Swarbrick, the longtime Notre Dame AD, is the latest to add his voice to the projections of what is looking more like a fragmented 2020 season.

Last week, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson wondered aloud if his conference could play with only nine of its 12 teams. The MWC's three California schools -- Fresno State, San Diego State and San Jose State -- could be impacted by how quickly the state reopens. 

"You know how competitive our world is," Thompson told CBS Sports. "Wait a minute here, do you wait for the others until everybody can open?"

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told a Jacksonville, Florida, radio station last week that he was "not sure" conferences have to be aligned to start together in order to play college football this season. South Carolina AD Ray Tanner told his board of trustees late last month that conferences "might not be aligned."

"If I told you there would be football, but it's not possible for everybody to be aligned, you'd still take football, wouldn't you?" Tanner rhetorically asked CBS Sports.

How that looks for the actual game is anybody's guess. For now, college football must align not only philosophically in terms of when to play but also with input from the medical community.

College football at the FBS level is currently played in 41 states. To begin on time, those states would all have to align in terms of how they approach the coronavirus. Several NCAA committees, as well as the association's newly formed medical advisory panel, are all mapping out a safe return to play.

"You saw [California Gov.] Gavin Newsome and you saw the mayor of Los Angeles kind of laughing at returning to large crowds [anytime soon]," said Georgia AD Greg McGarity. "Does that prevent the SEC -- if all of our states are OK [from playing a season]? Everybody is spit-balling ideas right now."

Swarbrick said any competitive advantages that emerged from those staggered state reopenings were less important than the health of athletes themselves.

"It's one thing to say a team gets a competitive advantage," Swarbrick said. "It's another to say, 'What's the circumstances under which you can play?'"

It all reflects fans' desire to watch live sports again amid the pandemic and conferences wanting access to the lucrative TV media rights money owed to them.

"How many games do you need to have in a regular season to have a playoff?" Swarbrick wondered. "What might a reengineered schedule do to the postseason and the bowl games? What about records? What about Heisman Trophies?

"If a team and a school decides it can't participate, is it considered a forfeit?"

Swarbrick added there is an "interesting tension" among his peers as new information to answer those questions comes in each day.

Several models for return to play remain possibilities.

  • An on-time start with most teams kicking off Labor Day weekend. (The season begins with a few teams starting Aug. 29)
  • A delayed start that could still include a 12-game season.
  • A intraconference only schedule.
  • A season split over two semesters in late 2020 and early 2021.
  • So-called "spring football" that would push the regular season completely into 2021.

Two sources discussed the concept of "regional schedules" with CBS Sports this week. One source did not wish to be named. However, American Football Coaches Association executive director Todd Berry described the concept in detail.

He said discussions have taken place pairing the SEC with the Sun Belt, Pac-12 with the Mountain West and Big 12 with Conference USA, among other combinations.

With regional schedules, regular conference games would be played. Nonconference games against that "partner" league would be inserted to reduce travel and fill out the schedule.

"If, for whatever reason, there is another outbreak -- let's say in the Pacific Northwest -- and that area is shut down and there are a lot of crossover games early in the season, there could be some make-up games regionally that allow you to have the 12 games," Berry explained.

Swarbrick spoke of a similar model: playing conference games "plus-one." That would include league play plus an extra game to preserve lucrative out-of-conference games. That could conceivably make it possible to still play Texas-LSU and Alabama-USC games if the schedule becomes truncated.

Swarbrick shared his confidence that Notre Dame, an independent, could play a representative schedule even if the season is altered.

Sankey sought to clarify his comments from last week, which looked, to some, that the SEC was going to play no matter what leaving everyone else to figure out a way to get on the field.

He referred back to March when the conferences decided on their own to cancel their basketball tournaments. They eventually all came to the right decision.

"The conferences have these history-making decisions," Sankey said, "That resulted in consistency. That is very much the clear desire and clear preference [going forward]."