Michigan Football Chatter: Concerns Growing About 2020 Season

We update you on what we're hearing about the 2020 season from a number of sources inside the Michigan athletic department.
By Michael Spath ,

Put me in the camp that has been arguing for months now there would be a 2020 college football season. There's just too much at stake financially for the season to be cancelled outright and too much at stake for the players themselves, so many dreaming of opportunities in the NFL and needing the showcase of their college careers to make that dream a reality. 

However, over the last week I've had a number of conversations with faculty, coaches and athletic department officials that seriously have me questioning whether there will be football in the fall, or at the very least, anywhere close to what we've come to know football to be. 

One coach I spoke to noted that in discussing the upcoming season with a former colleague in the SEC he was surprised to hear that a straw poll among the staff of that southern school had overwhelming expressed concern about moving forward with workouts and (soon-to-be) team practices. 

"They've had a large number of positive COVID tests and not everyone is asymptomatic - you may find this hard to believe because we're football coaches and supposedly we're all fire-and-brimstone, rub-dirt on it, run-through-brick-wall personality types, but there is very real concern about our exposure, taking it home to our families, spreading it through our communities and impacting our loved ones," this U-M program insider shared. 

"No one is excited to travel. No one wants to get on a plane. No one wants to stay in a hotel."

There are very real discussions about playing a regional schedule if you can get away with it. One Big Ten school in the West Division supposedly has a tentative regional schedule in place, including, according to a source at that school, "multiple games against FCS schools." 

Other Big Ten schools are thinking about scrapping the year altogether. 

Michigan, with one of the best medical schools in the country, has leaned heavily on its experts to create the infrastructure to deal with COVID and as a result, U-M continues to report very low numbers, however, with little direction from the Big Ten and NCAA, every school in the conference (and in the country) is on its own, putting its own medical guidelines into place. 

"The most disappointing thing is the complete lack of leadership from the Big Ten and NCAA - I think the leaders are scared to death about taking responsibility and so it's every school president and athletic director for themselves," a Michigan coach said. 

"From what I understand, we'll have a football season this year if President Schlissel says 'Ok' and we're permitted by our state's governor. But he's making the call unilaterally [with significant input from the advising committee and coaches], and every school president is in the same position."

Multiple sources confirmed Michigan plans to go ahead with a football season but thinks that both the Washington and Arkansas State games are definitely gone, and that any school that cannot be bused to there and back on game day will likely be dropped too. 

"This is all about control, the more we can control, the better," a program insider said. 

A number of sources contend there will be a few Big Ten schools that do not play football this fall. While there has been nothing officially released - in some part not to cause panic - Michigan (and other programs) are working behind the scenes to schedule Mid-American Conference and Conference USA opponents. 

"It's going to be the wild, wild west pretty soon," one prominent coach said. "At some point, more schools will start announcing they will not play this season and we could be left with eight games on our schedule while Ohio State has 11 and Indiana has 10. The schools that decide to play football will be scrambling to fill games and you could see home-and-homes with conference opponents."

So why haven't schools announced yet? In the opinion of numerous sources it's two-fold: 1) it's July and they're waiting until the last-possible moment to make that call 2) no one wants to be first and incur the PR and recruiting hits. 

"Say you're a Big Ten school and you announce you won't play in 2020, none of your recruits have signed binding letters yet so you lose an entire recruiting class and you lose all momentum for 2022 class too," a member of Michigan's football community said. "Now you've dug yourself a huge hole and you know there will be football in 2021. 

'Trust me, there are at least three to four schools that are definitely considering not playing but they want to be the third or fourth school to announce that, not the first." 

While experts are keeping eyes on the potential "second spike" - and in many states, like Ohio and Florida, it appears already here - the biggest threat to the season could be the regular student population, every single of the sources at Michigan we spoke to said. 

A faculty member recently told WolverineDigest that a football season cannot be played unless campus remains closed and classes take place online for the entirety of the fall semester, and that has been a scenario Schlissel (and most college presidents) have been adamantly against. 

"Imagine what 'Welcome Week' will look like in Ann Arbor, with students partying up and down State Street, cramming into bars, no one wearing masks, bar owners not caring because they lost so much business in the spring, and then all of those students are in class with the football team, the volleyball team, the golf team," the professor said. 

"College kids are going to be college kids, and while I think that our student-athletes are some of the most disciplined students we have and will be extra cautious, there's just no way to limit their exposure entirely."

Unless of course colleges followed the lead of the NBA and other leagues that intend to isolate their athletes. Putting the entire Michigan football team in South and/or West Quad, serving all meals, holding all classes (via online platforms), busing them from the dorm to practice every day and back, putting in mandatory curfews and keeping the rest of the student population away is the surest way to increase teams' safety. 

But that almost sounds like prison. 

"There are really hard decisions before our university leaders," another faculty member that works closely with student-athletes noted. "How badly do you want a football season? 

"Frankly, what I think should happen and what I think will happen, at least at Michigan, is some level of democracy. No coach or football player should be required to participate. If they don't, they keep their job or scholarship, and for our athletes, maintain another year of eligibility.

"I also think it's a strong possibility that if you are on campus, even if outside on the Diag, you are required to wear a mask and violating can lead to expulsion or dismissal, but that's campus and most of college life takes place off-campus, in homes, apartments, restaurants, bars, parks, just walking down the sidewalk. You can't control that so there's always going to be risk."

Based off everything I've heard, I'll summarize what I expect for 2020:

• I expect Michigan to play football this fall. 

• I expect that U-M will play fewer than the 12 games on its schedule and that the trip to Washington and the Arkansas State game will be either canceled outright or replaced by Mid-American Conference opponents. 

• I expect Michigan to play at least one home-and-home and potentially two or more with other Big Ten teams, most likely Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State. I expect Notre Dame to be a very real possibility as a fill-in game because of the location and access via buses. 

• I expect that if Michigan holds in-person classes student-athletes will be required to attend them just like normal students, however, I do believe that there will be specific student-athlete dorms on campus, with all the fall sports teams (including upperclassmen) to live in the dorms. 

• I expect at least one Big Ten program not to play football this fall and as many as four or five. I think there is a chance for a four-team Big Ten championship bout to be played in December with the teams staying put in one city/hotel all two weeks. 

• I expect the other fall sports, field hockey, golf, soccer and cross country to play but have entirely regional schedules with no flights whatsoever. I'm not sure about volleyball. 

• I don't expect fans to be in attendance at any sporting event that is not football.