The 2020 FBS college football season is supposed to start Aug. 29, but that’s looking less likely with each passing day.
On Wednesday, the Ivy League canceled fall sports and Ohio State announced that it was pausing offseason football workouts. The number of COVID-19 cases in the United States continues to increase, and those numbers are high in several key college football states.
Stadium.com’s Brett McMurphy reports that almost 75 percent of the athletic directors in the FBS believes that will result in a delayed start to the 2020 season. A total of 25 percent of those ADs believe the season will be conference games only, and that number increases to 45 percent among Power 5 ADs.
That’s the scenario to watch — because it seems like the best case at this point for a 2020 college football season. Here is how that could unfold.
The first FBS games are scheduled for Aug. 29, and the first full Saturday is scheduled for Sept. 5. That’s why the next two weeks are critical in terms of starting on time, which seems unlikely if the latest spike in COVID-19 cases continues.
Given the recommended six-week window for a fall camp, that timetable is looking dicey considering a major program like Ohio State decided to pause workouts. The ACC announced it will not have athletic competitions in other sports before Sept. 1 (not including football):
With that in mind, it might make sense to be proactive and scrap the September schedule, which is full of nonconference games. That’s a huge loss for Group of 5 schools looking for those “paycheck” games against Power 5 schools and it also means the loss of marquee nonconference games such as Alabama-USC, Ohio State-Oregon and Texas-LSU.
It’s telling that 45 percent of Power 5 athletic directors believe the best option is a conference-only schedule in the fall. It’s preferable to a spring conference season — which would be complicated by players being forced to choose between that and the 2021 NFL Draft. It’s also better than no college football season at all.
This is comparable to Major League Baseball’s 60-game schedule, which was hyper-regionalized to reduce cross-country travel. The conference-only model would also allow for the 10 FBS conferences to unify COVID-19 testing protocols for their member institutions and presents the fewest logistical hurdles for each conference in terms of trying to schedule games if that opportunity exists.
What would a hypothetical conference-only college football schedule look like? If games could begin Oct. 3, then that would allow for nine weeks before conference championship weekend on Dec. 5. This also would give the Group of 5 conferences their best chance to play.
Teams could play seven to nine games at that point, and most conferences play eight- or nine-game seasons. That leaves questions for independent programs such as Notre Dame, which has a five-game arrangement with the ACC.
Still, this seems like the most-feasible plan if football cannot start on time.
What if conference championship games aren’t possible? How would college football legitimize the College Football Playoff?
The last season in which there were no college football playoff games was 1991, and Miami and Washington spilt the national championship. That is another hurdle with the possibility that there would be no nonconference games in 2020.
The four-team playoff has left out the Group of 5 every season, and the Pac-12 has been left out four of the six seasons under the current format. That might lead to a push for an eight-team playoff this year, but the fact that the semifinals and CFP championship game have already been selected means that is unlikely. The CFP could still select four teams, even in a conference-only season.
At this point, a conference-only season remains the best-case scenario for college football in 2020. The Ivy League decision could be either a precursor or an outlier, but the FBS athletic directors, conference commissioners and school administrators have tough decisions to make in the coming weeks that will impact the next several years of intercollegiate athletics.
The problem is those decisions hinge on a pandemic that has not slowed down since the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was canceled.
The nature of where COVID-19 stands over the next few months will determine more than anything where college football goes from here.
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