After Weeks of Delaying, Decision Time Is Here for College Football

Will there be college football this fall—and if so, what will it look like? The clock is ticking to figure out answers.
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In the long-ago spring, when time was an ally, some college athletic leaders targeted June 1 as a deadline for declaring the fate of the football season. Then that became June 15 … then July 1 … then July 15. The worse the outlook got, the longer everyone wanted to put off potentially cataclysmic decisions.

And so the can has been kicked so far down the road that it has crossed state lines. Now, here in the final week of July, just over a month from the scheduled start to the season, the battered can has come to rest at a fork in said road. Decisions finally must be made.

College football this fall, or not? If so, when? And how much?

This week should provide some answers. Maybe not the final answers, but some plans must be agreed upon—or abandoned.

“When this (pandemic) started, we said, ‘O.K., we’ve got four months to figure it out,’“ one FBS commissioner told Sports Illustrated. “Now we’ve got no months to figure out it. It’s all circular. We just go back and revisit and re-think it. Everyone is doing their part, but the answers are not easy.

“We’ve got 50 governors. We’ve got state and local health officials. We’ve got boards of trustees and university presidents. Below them we have athletic directors, who are between a rock and a hard spot. We are all trying to assess risk tolerance and his twin, liability.”

BARNHART: This Week Is Going To Be One of the Biggest in CFB History

Is there agreement on where we’re heading? Hardly. On one end of the spectrum you have a coach who sources say declared on a league conference call last week, “We’ve got to start swappin’ spit here and see what happens.” On the other end of the spectrum are medical experts sitting on conference advisory boards who by no means are in favor of swappin’ spit.

Notre Dame football practices back in March

So here’s what could be coming down the pike this week, as the clock ticks:

  • An Atlantic Coast Conference schedule model, including a proposed starting date and a league championship game date, could be revealed as early as Wednesday.

The league’s athletic directors are meeting on Tuesday and are expected to forward a finalized model proposal to the ACC presidents, who meet Wednesday and can approve it. They also could kick it back to the ADs for more discussion in a scheduled meeting Thursday. A third, less desirable option: delay until next week, if other factors necessitate it.

The first decision to be made is format. Sources told SI that these are the leading two options as of this weekend: a 10-game league schedule, plus one non-conference game; or an eight-game league schedule, plus one non-conference game.

Coupled with that decision is how much Notre Dame factors into the mix. The Fighting Irish, a football independent but an ACC member in most other sports, could play 10 league games and those results would count in conference standings, according to Brett McMurphy of Stadium.

Notre Dame already has six ACC opponents scheduled (Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, Duke, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Louisville) but could struggle to fill out its schedule without additional help from the league. Its games against USC, Stanford and Wisconsin already were canceled when the Pac-12 and Big Ten announced they would play league-only schedules. (The Irish are expected to keep Navy on their schedule.) While acknowledging that an unprecedented Notre Dame season of football conference membership is on the table, an ACC source cautioned that “nothing is decided yet.”

The cost of one-season admission for the Irish? Quite likely a cut of their fat TV revenue generated from NBC. As one ACC source put it, “We need Notre Dame’s TV money as much as they need ACC games.”

Sources within the league say that the customary Atlantic and Coastal divisional formats are likely to be scrapped for this season in favor of more regional scheduling to reduce travel expenses and theoretically limit potential exposure to the coronavirus. Of course, potentially adding more games with Notre Dame, which sits within 350 miles of just one league school (Louisville) would run counter to that logic.

  • If the ACC announces its plans this week, will the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference do the same? That would also be in keeping with the “end of the month” timetable that has been mentioned by all three, but deliberations could spill into August for one or both of the other conferences.

The leagues have been working in concert since the Big Ten and Pac-12 made their respective decisions to cancel non-conference play. They currently have 13 games scheduled among their members. The ACC-SEC games: Clemson-South Carolina; Louisville-Kentucky; Florida-Florida State; Georgia-Georgia Tech; North Carolina-Auburn; Virginia-Georgia; Mississippi State-North Carolina State; and Arkansas-Notre Dame (kind of). The SEC-Big 12 games: Texas-LSU; Oklahoma-Tennessee; Mississippi-Baylor; and Vanderbilt-Kansas State. The ACC-Big 12 matchups: Florida State-West Virginia; and Kansas-Boston College.

If the SEC and Big 12 also go to a conference-plus-one schedule, look for most of those matchups to be the plus-one. (Georgia would probably have to boot its game against Virginia in favor of keeping the rivalry game against Georgia Tech.)

What will those leagues do? Neither has tipped its hand yet. However, it was notable that the Big 12 made a couple of scheduling moves over the weekend—Oklahoma moved up its opener against Missouri State to Aug. 29, and Kansas added Southern Illinois to the schedule in place of a canceled game with New Hampshire. That game also is slotted for Aug. 29.

If the Big 12 was planning to pare down to 10 games this week, those moves might not have been made. Missouri State seemingly would be the most disposable opponent on the Sooners’ schedule. It makes a little more sense for Kansas, which has a couple of geographically problematic non-conference games—Boston College coming to Lawrence and a road trip to Coastal Carolina—and lost the New Hampshire matchup.

A third Big 12 school, TCU, said last week that it is looking to add an opponent for Aug. 29. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that it could be UNLV, which like the Horned Frogs has lost a season-opening matchup with a Pac-12 opponent. A source said other Power-5 schools could also be looking for a newly scheduled Week Zero game.

  • If the Power 5 leagues continue to deconstruct the non-conference schedule, the backlash from the Group of Five conferences will follow quickly.

The Mid-American Conference and Mountain West were hard hit by the Big Ten and Pac-12 curtailing their schedules. The American Athletic, Conference USA and the Sun Belt are twisting in the wind, waiting to see what the damage will be to them if the ACC, SEC and Big 12 jettison games against their members.

If this ends badly for them in turns of losing games that are supposed to pay up to seven figures in guarantee money, legal challenges are likely to follow. Prominent sports attorney Tom Mars says he’s been contacted by several Group of Five schools recently, but declined to name them.

“Based on my review of several contracts for non-conference games, the Power 5 schools will have a tough row to hoe if they try to escape liability for liquidated damages to the G5 school they agreed to host this year,” Mars told SI. “None of the contracts I’ve seen have a force majeure clause that specifically covers an epidemic or a pandemic. While every force majeure clause I’ve reviewed refers to an ‘act of God,’ Power 5 schools will find little support in the case law if they attempt to avoid liability in reliance on those three words. Aside from the difficulties the Power 5 programs will face in dealing with the deficiencies in their contracts, they’ll also have to convince a court that ‘we decided not to play’ means the same thing as ‘we can’t play.’ Much like football, that kind of ‘Hail Mary’ legal argument is rarely successful.”

  • We may have to wait yet a little longer to find out whether all this scheduling is simply busywork that ultimately will be postponed or canceled.

The NCAA Board of Governors meets again Aug. 4. On Friday, it declined to make a call on whether to postpone Division I fall sports championships to the spring, partly on the request of the Football Oversight Committee. Even with time wasting, they asked for another 11 days to gauge virus numbers and monitor how professional sports leagues are doing with the return to competition.

This has been part of the can-kicking process: the NCAA is waiting for conferences to declare their intentions, and the conferences are waiting to see if the NCAA is willing to bail them out of some tough decision-making by doing it for them. If all involved parties really want to play the waiting game, they can probably avoid pulling the plug until mid-August.

Meanwhile, conflicting signals are everywhere. Some schools are scheduling games or accelerating their competition start; others (Michigan State and Rutgers most recently) are sending their entire teams into quarantine after multiple positive tests. Arizona State tossed a novel concept into the mix Sunday by redshirting its entire men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams—basically taking the year off and planning to try again in 2021–22. Other non-revenue sports programs are likely to follow that ground-breaking decision. “I’ve heard of a dozen coaches posit the idea (of a team redshirt), but as a hypothetical,” said one swimming insider.

If other sports are pulling the plug on competition, can FBS football go it alone? One athletic director who had been pessimistic for weeks about playing football now says the urgency is there to try, pointing at the financial responsibility to the rest of the athletic department. Another athletic director who had been fairly bullish on playing said last week that he doesn’t see it happening.

Two potentially major factors to keep in mind: what happens when players do begin “swappin’ spit” in full-contract practice; and what happens when the student bodies return and swell the campus population.

At this point, there is no rational hope for a tangible, national downward trend in terms of overall cases and hospitalizations. It’s possible that governors and other state officials will make decisions that force the hands of athletic entities. If not, university administrators will be the ones making very difficult decisions—not just about sports, but their entire campuses. What it all comes down to, as the anonymous commissioner above mentioned, could be risk tolerance.