The first thing to say about a question as big as this one is: We don’t truly know. Mature adults need to be able to tell each other that they don’t know all the answers, if indeed they don’t know.
By Matt Zemek
We’re lying to ourselves if we claim to know with certainty what is going to happen in college football or the rest of sports in this calendar year. From reopening the economy to a lockdown to a second wave to a second lockdown to a second reopening, to the development of antibodies, to the development of increased testing, to the development of increased tracing, to the development of increased herd immunity, to the treatment of mutations or variants of the novel coronavirus, to the formulation of a vaccine for both the original strain of the virus and its mutations, so many variables are in play right now. Moreover, those variables exist within the context of 50 different states, not merely one nation.
Will college football happen? So many other things have to occur not only for college football to happen, but for any of us to even get a SENSE of what is realistic or possible come September.
No one knows if we’ll get college football will this year but looking at the current situation of Covid-19, the season could have a delayed start if it starts at all. If the season were to proceed like normal, Sports Betting Dime has already started publishing updated odds for the season so at least that’s something we can dissect for now until the season actually begins. Though, take those numbers with a grain of salt for now because things could change and we may not even have a football season.
Let’s start with a small-scale scenario: Will ANY college football be played this fall? Without offering a definitive yes or no, I think we can all agree that the odds of SOME college football, anywhere in the country, are a lot better than the odds of a full season being played. Before we deal with the full-season scenario, let’s deal only with the SEC.
What if the Southeastern Conference decides to play its own league season, and let the other regions of the country — with their groups of governors and public health officials — deal with COVID-19 on their own?
First off, if the SEC played a season while the rest of college football didn’t play, how upset would Southerners be? My inclination: not very.
If the SEC alone played its conference season, not only would the league get TV revenue (and CBS/ESPN ratings would likely be enormous), but Southerners would get to say they preserved their way of life and continued one of the most cherished parts of their culture in the midst of crisis. It would be a triumph.
Remember this: Alabama winning the 1926 Rose Bowl over Washington was a triumph not just for one school and one team, but truly for a whole region. The South, battered by the Civil War and shaken in Reconstruction, wanted to prove it could stand tall on the national stage and be an elite force in a prominent aspect of American culture. College football became one such bastion of culture the South, in time, owned… and that 1926 Rose Bowl got it started in many ways.
If the South pulls off an SEC season (with the public health being preserved, of course), that same sense of pride — being a positive example to the rest of the country, a paragon of strength and resilience — would make the 2020 SEC season one of the most significant in conference history. Will we get to that point? Again, we really shouldn’t be making predictions right now, but if it does happen, it would be talked about for centuries.
If it’s just the SEC and no one else, this means non-conference games would likely be canceled. USC plays Alabama at a neutral site in Week 1. USC’s campus has been declared closed to students through the summer session, which means August 11. It seems just about impossible that USC has any chance of being physically ready to play by the time of the currently scheduled Sept. 5 game. Maybe the game will be rescheduled, but if SEC teams are expecting to play 12 games on time, I don’t think the non-conference games in that larger reality are going to be able to fit.
This brings us to the larger scenario, but not the largest one: What if the Power Five conferences all played their league seasons, but dropped their non-conference games? The big conferences would be the big TV draws and could conceivably agree that at the end of their respective conference seasons, the College Football Playoff could still happen. The lack of a USC-Alabama game or a Clemson-Notre Dame game would affect strength of schedule ratings, but in a limited context, the mere fact that the Power Fives would still manage to play their league schedules might give the CFB Playoff enough reason to go on with the show.
One possibility if the playoff does happen after a conference-games-only season: The Sugar and Rose — this season’s scheduled playoff semifinals — would not host the semifinals. They would wait their turn until 2021, when (presumably) fans would be allowed to attend games again.
That’s right: None of what we are discussing involves fans attending games. Allowing fans into stadiums seems unworkable at this point; playing games without fans (to get the TV revenue and enable the sport to have SOME form of existence in living color) appears to be the most realistic solution at the moment.
Maybe schools can allow something like 10,000 fans into stadiums. The 10,000 (or something close to it) spectators could socially distance. A small sliver of parking and in-stadium (concessions) revenue could be recouped. A few people could be employed; it just wouldn’t exist on the scale of a normal gameday. Maybe. However, we’re simply not going to have 100,000 fans stuffed into a stadium. Of all the possibilities to be considered, that doesn’t seem like one we should entertain. We can cross that one out.
With or without a small (10-15,000) crowd, it would seem pointless to have a playoff semifinal in the Rose Bowl stadium or the Louisiana Superdome. Why make teams fly across the country? It would make so much more sense, IF a playoff does happen this season, to have one team stay on campus so that it doesn’t have to make a trip. The lower-seeded team would go to the campus of the higher seed. Given the need for minimal travel, these semifinals should give priority to geographical proximity, even more than what we normally see in the playoff. Have the national title game at the higher seed’s campus as well. That’s an adjustment college football should be able to make for one season.
An added note: Everything just explained would also be an argument for having the conference championship games at campus sites, so that only one team, not two, has to travel.
Let’s move to the biggest scenario of all: What if all 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams can play 12 games apiece? What if the season is pushed back a few weeks to accommodate? The salient point to make here is that if such a scenario does occur — and I think it’s quite improbable right now — it would obviously mean that governors and public health officials across the country got the virus under control in their states and their municipalities. It would be great… and if that happened in the regular season, the College Football Playoff would certainly happen. On campus would still be the better decision.
You might wonder: Well, if the Rose and Sugar don’t host the semis this season, that will create a problem with the playoff rotation down the line. In the remaining six seasons of the playoff contract (through 2025), the Peach and Fiesta Bowls — slated to host the final year of the contract in 2025 — would get nudged out of the semifinals that year.
A solution: Instead of the current national championship game locations, enable Atlanta (Peach) and Glendale (Fiesta) to host the national championship game as a makeup at some point from 2022 through 2025. Problem solved.
If all 130 teams do play college football this season, should we go ahead with non-playoff bowl games? To answer that question, we would have to see if a second wave of the virus is contained or not, and if testing and tracing would be up to the challenge. It seems pointless to speculate beyond that set of notes. I would, however, note that a ton of neutral-site games as opposed to campus games invites problems. Would on-campus bowl games be a terrible thing for one season? That possibility should at least be considered IF the situation can possibly allow for it. I am not recommending that as a course of action, only that it be given consideration if it’s a legitimate option.
The other scenario we have to mention in this article: What if six or seven games are played in September and October, and then the virus’ second wave hits in November? The season would have to stop. Would the season resume in March or April? The development of a vaccine, under this scenario, might be required to give football any real chance of restarting. However, asking players to play, then take several months off, then play again, and then take the summer off before the 2021 season in September, would strike me as untenable, unless some significant financial incentives were given to the players… which I don’t see happening.
One thing we can all agree on — and as I think you can see from this column — is that a ton of different questions and variables need to be addressed before any plan can go forward. This doesn’t mean the season is doomed. It doesn’t mean the season is sure to unfold and be completed in full. It doesn’t reflect any prediction. It only means that a ton of details and uncertain situations have to be managed and handled in ways which put college football in a position to happen.
This is beyond ESPN’s or CBS’s control. This is beyond Greg Sankey’s control. This is beyond the control of school presidents and athletic directors. Governments have to give the green light. Public health officials have to give the green light. Citizens have to contain the virus in the next four months and beyond to make it possible. Athletes have to be able to train and prepare for the season and get enough supervised practice in camp before playing live games. Testing athletes and coaches at game sites has to be fully available and, once conducted, proven to be reliable.
So many details. So little time, and so much uncertainty. Those are the realities connected to college football in 2020.
We don’t know if it will happen, but we know that if it DOES happen, a million different things need to be done properly. We’ll just have to wait and see, and then we can say more at the appropriate time.