Will the 2020 college football season start on time? Stakeholders are discussing their options
Additional practices, shortened schedules and everything in between are being considered
College football stakeholders have begun the process of modeling what a return to play would look like for the sport, CBS Sports has learned. There will be at least some adjustment made to the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the cancellation of spring practices and spring games nationwide.
Specifically, there have been models for college football teams reconvening on June 1, July 1 and Aug. 1. In addition, there has been discussion of a truncated season, including one with only conference games being played.
Everything is on the table.
"We need to be talking grand scale," said Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association.
As the leader of a coaching organization, Berry doesn't specific loyalty to a conference or team. He has spoken with conferences about the look of a return to play and the NCAA in terms of health and welfare, eligibility, academics and even enforcement.
Some FBS leagues have been meeting by conference call daily since the crisis began. Cancellation of the season has been on the minds of those stakeholders, but one stressed that planning to play is the priority.
"I'm not worried [about not playing football]," said TCU coach Gary Patterson, who is also the current AFCA president. "We can only do what we can do. I would suspect that, if they have to cut back the season, people are going to lose their nonconference games. That's one theory out there. That hurts the lower levels for financial reasons. Everybody is going to have to pay a price."
Here's what could be accomplished given these dates for restarting college football:
The nearest facsimile of a normal calendar. That would give teams two months to prepare for fall camp, potentially with some additional practice dates or organized team activities (OTAs) built in to replace the lost spring practices. Starting then would also likely allow schools to stage their high-school camps, which are important for recruiting.
"I think by June 1 we'll have an idea what that's going to look like," Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. "It doesn't look like a whole lot is going to happen certainly before then. Then I think it's going to be a step-by-step process."
A restricted calendar could impact recruiting, pushing back or eliminating the early signing period. No high school camps. Perhaps there could be a condensed spring practice session.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly recently told ESPN that his program needs to be up and running by July 1 in order to not be severely impacted. It is among a handful of teams starting the season on Aug. 29 -- during the so-called "Week Zero." Notre Dame is scheduled to face Navy in Dublin, Ireland. The overwhelming majority of teams kick off Sept 5.
"If you can't start training your football team by July 1, you're going to need at least four weeks," Kelly said. "Strength and conditioning coaches are going to want at least six [weeks]. Sports medicine is probably looking at 4-6 weeks."
Riley, Virginia's Bronco Mendenhall and North Carolina's Mack Brown are among a group of coaches who have suggested they could get their teams ready to start the 2020 season on time with only fall camp to prepare and no additional practices to replace those lost during the spring.
"First thing is going to be getting players back on campus assessing where they're from a physical standpoint," Riley said. "Then you map it out from there. You can't start the conversation until they're back on campus. Once that's done, in my opinion, I think you could be ready to play [with] 15-20 practices. … We'd all like to have more, but to be able to go out and play, it wouldn't take a million practices."
After that, it gets sketchy as far as a playing full season. The first move would likely be to eliminate some or all nonconference games. That would be a blow to already shaky budgets impacted by the shortfall in NCAA Tournament revenue returned to the schools.
"Even if you do have the ballgames, it doesn't mean people will go sit in the stands," Patterson pointed out.
If the stands are open to fans at all.
"Not only does that affect the potential number of people in the stands," Riley said, "but just how many people can you have on the sideline? How many people can you have in the locker room?"
It's clear the sport's administrators are desperate to stay connected to the massive media rights revenue that drives athletic budgets. Without it, or at least a part of it, athletic directors are already making noise about having to lay off staff and/or cut sports.
"Certainly, when we start talking about [what] Oct. 1 would look like as a return date, all of us have a little bit of anxiety about, 'OK, do you extend the season, shorten the season?' [There's] bowl eligibility and playoff implications," Berry said. "That gets uncomfortable because we're not used to talking about that stuff."
George Washington University global health professor Dr. Ronald Waldman was asked if it is reasonable to project football could open on time.
"I'm going to say no," Waldman said. "I'm going to give you a flat no. Not because it wouldn't be possible to play a game in early September. … We're a democratic society. People will decide on the amount of risk they want to take. What if 100 people get together in a room and practice for a month?"
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said the next 60-90 days would provide more clarity. He called the current climate "unnerving."
As of Wednesday, there are 189,531 reported coronavirus cases in the United States -- the most worldwide -- and 4,081 deaths.
"It's an invisible enemy that we really don't know fully how to fight it," Bowlsby said.
The further logistics of pulling off an on-time, full season of play are increasingly difficult. In order to start the season on its scheduled dates, one must assume that the 41 states that house FBS teams will no longer be on lockdown.
"That's recognizing all these states aren't going to come back at the same time," Berry said. "Schools aren't going to come back at the same time. There's going to be even more inequities as things return to normalcy. The state of New York is going to be significantly different than the state of Oklahoma."
There is the possibility high school junior prospects may not be able to take the ACT/SAT entrance exams in the age of social distancing. Those tests are typically held in groups and monitored in person to prevent cheating.
There is eligibility and progress toward a degree concerns to figure out with players taking online classes. Berry explained enforcement concerns. Cheating in this lock-down virtual world?
"Certainly there are some things that could be taken advantage of from a meeting [limitations] standpoint," he said.
And then there is the quality of football itself if the calendar is shortened. There is a bit of good news on that front.
"To a fan's eye, I think the game will still be fantastic," Riley said. "To a coach's eye, a very experienced eye, they may be able to pick out a thing here or there. I don't think it would hurt the quality of the fan experience, the excitement."
All stakeholders recognize the most important aspect: the well-being of athletes. In addition to the continued risk of contracting the coronavirus, there remains a mental impact the pandemic is having on society as a whole considering the uncertainty surrounding the virus.
What is the allowable risk of spread when football reconvenes? Theoretically, one infected player would have to be quarantined along with everyone they contact.
"Unfortunately, it will be a bit of trial and error," Waldman said. "Somebody will open up [a sport] … and see what happens. Then maybe one will go well and two will go well and 10 will go well. And then on the 15th try, somebody will get sick. Somebody will say, 'Maybe we shouldn't have opened. Maybe we should close again.'"
For now, uncertainty continues to rule college football. Almost 20 percent of FBS athletic directors (18 percent) said there is 50/50 chance the season will be played in a survey conducted by Stadium this week.
"You go clear back to World War II," Patterson said. "If it's one thing that has always rallied people, it's sports. We've got to make sure to try as hard as we can. Not for a better reason than to give people something to rally around."
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