Will We Play College Football in 2020? The Latest Signs Don't Look Good

Tony Barnhart

Back in late May I did a radio interview and was asked about my confidence level on whether or not we would have a 2020 college football season.

I said, in effect, that we would definitely play college football this Fall but we just didn’t know what it would look like. The only variable was whether or not there would be fans in the seats. Based on the folks I had talked to at the time, I was extremely confident that the 2020 season would start on time and play its entire schedule.

On June 26 in this space I wrote that I was starting to get a little nervous over the number positive tests among players who had returned to campus. But I still thought we were going to play.

Today, for the first time, I’m genuinely concerned that we’re not going to be able to play college football in 2020.

Sure hope I’m wrong.

But when you talk to college officials you can hear the frustration in their voices. They’ve been working daily since mid-March, participating in countless ZOOM calls, trying to put together a workable plan that would allow the games to be played safely. With enough work and enough planning, it could be a win-win for the players and the fans.

Their hope and belief was that as the summer moved along the numbers would get better and there would be positive momentum to play, even if there were no fans in the seats.

Instead the numbers have gotten worse, especially in the Deep South.

Then came word on Wednesday that both Ohio State and North Carolina were suspending voluntary workouts because of positive tests for the virus.

Also we learned that Stanford would be dropping 11 of its 36 due to the financial hardship brought on by the virus.

And as our Pat Forde details here, this could be just the beginning.

https://www.si.com/college/2020/07/

“It looks like the road to the Fall is getting more difficult,” one Power Five official said.

“Going off what our medical people are telling us, there is a lot of reason to be concerned,” said another Power Five official.

Based on conversations with various athletic officials, here are some thoughts about where we are now as we close in on mid-July:

**--College football and college sports are different than the pros which is why a lot of people like them. But in this case the unique structure of college football at the FBS level—with no overall commissioner or central governing authority—makes situations like this much more difficult to manage.

Example: The NBA will put its players in a “bubble”  in Orlando, confining them to a single location and restricting access to people outside the bubble.

Practically, college football can't put a squad of 100-plus into a bubble. The players live in dorms and apartments and travel where they please after workouts. They have the campus to themselves now. But in August they are scheduled be joined by tens of thousands of students.

Now some schools, like USC, have already decided that the students won't be back on campus for the Fall semester.

**--And if the students don’t come back? Could you still play the games? Depends on who you ask. I'm not saying it can't be done. But playing games on a campus without students is going to be a tough sell. 

**--We’re running out of time. A decision of some kind is coming late July or early August. The decision to go or not go with the season needs to be made a minimum of four weeks out from the first game. I expect the commissioners who run the Power 5 will wait as long as possible in order to get the best data possible.

**--If a conference like the SEC decides that the season will not start on time, it could cancel the season or leave it open ended to see if a window of opportunity appears.

Worth noting: There are five Saturdays in October and four in November if the SEC wanted to play a reduced schedule.

**--Is spring football an option? Originally it looked like the Ivy League was going to go this route when it announced Wednesday that all Fall sports would be cancelled. Instead the Ivy chose to leave the question open and not announce a start date. 

But for the big conferences it’s hard to see them playing in the Spring without the Trevor Lawrences of the world who are getting ready for the NFL Draft in late April.

**--And here’s one of the ultimate questions to consider: Isn’t the object of these games to have fun? 

The folks watching on TV will enjoy themselves. But is anybody who’ll actually be AT the games going to have fun? The players are probably going to be wearing face shields in 90-degree weather. If there are fans and there is a mask requirement, who’s going to enforce it?

**--Yes, I get the financial piece of this story. Without any income from football the Stanford story will be repeated throughout college athletics.

There’s more but you get the picture.

Like you, I really want college football to come back if it can be done safely. It will be a miserable Fall without it.

I hope something pretty dramatic happens in the next 3-4 weeks and we can play. But today, at least, the arrows are all pointing in the wrong direction.

I really hope I'm wrong.

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Tony Barnhart

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