For a little under 10 weeks we’ve been speculating on the potential impact that the coronavirus could have on the 2020 college football season.
Well, after countless Zoom meetings among officials at every level to discuss possible options, we are finally starting to get close to some really important decisions. Some of those big decisions could come this week.
So let’s take a moment to catch our breath and see where we are with 103 days until the start of college football season. Here are five questions to ponder:
1—Will the SEC presidents vote to allow football players back on campus in June?
Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger reported Monday that the NCAA Division I council is expected to lift the ban on on-campus sports activities that has been in place since March and was scheduled to end on May 31. The vote could come as soon as Wednesday.
That vote could be the first step in clearing the way for the return of athletes to campus.
Also this week the 14 SEC Presidents and Chancellors are expected vote on whether or not football players could return to campus as early as June 1. Some members of the conference would rather that date be pushed to June 15.
Given the fact that all 14 SEC schools have announced their intention to have students on campus this fall, I expect the presidents to approve the return of athletes to campus sometime in June.
The rationale to bringing the players back early is that they will be safer under the controlled supervision of team doctors, trainers, coaches, nutritionists, etc.
The early indications are that if athletes return in June, it would be for voluntary workouts and the process of getting acclimated to the new normal.
2—Will the 2020 college football season start on time?
All of the signs, at least in SEC territory, say yes.
If the players are back on campus in June then the season should be able start as scheduled on Sept. 5. That would give the trainers time to work on conditioning only in June and July. Then, after a break, preparation for the first game can begin.
The bigger question is whether or not the teams can get through the entire regular season without another outbreak of the virus that could potentially shut things down. Nobody knows the answer to that question but the possibility has to be a part of the planning.
Example: The University of South Carolina announced this week that it has cancelled Fall Break, which goes through Thanksgiving weekend, just to be on the safe side. So when the students go home for Thanksgiving, they are not coming back to campus until January.
3—Will there be fans in the seats for the first game?
I don’t see it. NASCAR started without fans. Golf started without fans. If Major League Baseball can work out its squabbles, it looks like they’ll play at least part of the season without fans. I would expect the NBA to do the same.
Now maybe the college football world will look different on Sept. 5, the first full Saturday of the season. But all the focus in the early weeks of the season has to be on the health and well-being if the players. Once it is proven that the games can be played safely, then the powers-that-be can turn their attention to letting some fans into the stadium under strict guidelines.
Is it going to be strange playing college football games without the energy of the fans? Sure it will. But it looks like the choices will be, at least in the beginning, football without fans or no football at all.
4—Is it possible that some schools/conferences will decide not to play this season or start the season late?
Absolutely. We’re all keeping our eye on California, where governor Gavin Newsom surprised a lot of people this week when he said pro sports will be allowed to play in the state without fans. Now does that mean that college sports will be able to do the same thing? We don’t know that.
We also don’t know if California schools would be allowed to play outside the state. USC is scheduled to open the season with Alabama on Sept. 5 in Arlington, Tex.
In the state Stanford hosts William & Mary, California hosts TCU and UCLA hosts New Mexico State on Aug. 29.
If the California schools can’t play, even with no fans, that would be a huge blow for the Pac-12, which was already having its problems in football.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey told me last week that he hopes the Power Five conferences will all be able to start the season on time because they are all connected by scheduling. But he did allow that there was room for different conferences to reach different decisions on whether or not to play.
5—Wouldn't it be unfair if some conferences can bring athletes back to campus earlier than others?
There’s going to be a lot of things that won’t be fair in this unprecedented season. Competitive balance is something that is going to be way down the list of priorities when it comes to getting this season played. In short, coaches and fans who are worrying about these kinds of things are going to have to get over it.
“There are no equal solutions,” Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson told Sports Illustrated. “There are pockets of coaches saying ‘Wait a minute, I didn’t get 12 Spring practices.’ Give me a break.”
Indeed. This will be unlike any college football season we’ve ever experienced. Everybody—players, coaches, fans, media—are going to have to be flexible.