Final decisions as to whether or not college sports get played during the 2020-21 academic year will ultimately fall to conferences and their member schools, but it doesn’t hurt that Mark Emmert is voicing optimism.
In a podcast interview Wednesday morning with The Athletic’s Seth Davis, Emmert, the NCAA president, said he believes there will be college football this fall in some form, even if it doesn’t look like what everyone has become accustomed to.
“I certainly think, sitting here today, there will be football in the fall,” Emmert told Davis, the managing editor of The Athletic’s college basketball coverage. “I think it will be different in many respects, whether it be the audiences in attendance or not in attendance, whether it’s the nature of the schedule, whether it’s the length of the season, all of those things will be different. Certainly the protocol in the way the games are played and the healthcare surrounding that has got to be different.”
Emmert’s thoughts come at a time when optimism across the country for an on-time start to football has begun to wane in the wake of positive coronavirus tests inside athletic departments. The NCAA allowed on-campus voluntary workouts to commence beginning June 1, a significant step toward normalcy, not to mention college football being played on time.
Since then, upward of 40 FBS athletic departments have either announced or confirmed positive tests of student-athletes, many of which pertain to football. Among the 40, Houston, Kansas State and, as of Tuesday, Boise State have all shut down voluntary workouts due to positive testing.
Athletic department officials at the University of Utah, BYU and Utah State are opting to not announce nor confirm publicly if and when a student-athlete tests positive.
As far as Utah goes, the Utes’ nonconference football schedule includes hosting BYU and Montana State, plus a trip to Wyoming.
On June 2, Montana State athletic director Leon Costello said on a Zoom call with reporters that he is progressing under the assumption that the Bobcats’ Sept. 12 game at Rice-Eccles Stadium will take place. A Wyoming athletic department spokesman told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday afternoon that the Cowboys still intend to host the Utes on Sept. 19 in Laramie. Albany County, where Laramie is located, has largely been spared of coronavirus trouble, reporting just 27 cases to date.
“I think today, we are likely to have football,” Emmert said. “I certainly hope so, most people hope so, but it’s all going to come down to whether or not it can be done in a safe fashion. Every school, despite all the challenges out there, every school out there is trying very hard to make sure this is about the health and well-being of the students.”
Football drives decision-making, not to mention athletic department revenue, so it has been and will remain the primary concern, but basketball at some point has to become a bigger part of the equation. Emmert had some thoughts on that, too.
When asked about a potential second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting college hoops this winter, Emmert floated the idea of beginning the season earlier in November. Starting earlier would, in theory, include playing some conference games before Christmas in anticipation that there may be significant coronavirus-related disruptions.
“If one or two student-athletes come down with it, then you’re probably quarantining the whole team, right?” Emmert said. “I’m making this up, but you may have to say, ‘Well, we’re not playing for two weeks.' If you’d started the season earlier and you’ve shortened the number of contests, you can afford to have some disruptions in the season and still get a full season in.”
The Pac-12 would appear to be at least a little ahead of the curve on this one. As the league moves to 20 conference games for the first time, each member will play two league games in December. Utah is scheduled to host Washington on Dec. 3 before traveling to Arizona State on Dec. 6.
Any interruption to the college basketball schedule has the potential to become a real mess as far as Utah goes, both in the short and long term. For starters, as part of their nonconference schedule, the Utes have five guarantee games at the Huntsman Center, for which they have agreed to pay out a combined $455,000 to the opponents.
Even before Emmert spoke, there was already uncertainty on this front because three of those five games are against California State University system schools, Nov. 17 vs. Cal Poly, Nov. 20 vs. Cal State Fullerton and Dec. 19 vs. Fresno State. The Cal State system announced May 12 it would have a mostly virtual fall semester, bringing any and all athletic events involving those schools into question.
In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune late last month, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said if nonconference games have to be canceled or postponed, and schedules need to be filled, one contingency plan being bandied about is playing 22 Pac-12 games. That would create a double round-robin where everyone plays everyone twice, home and away. Under the 20-game format for 2020-21, the Utes do not host Washington State, nor do they travel to Arizona.
“There are two theories here,” Emmert said. “One is let’s compress it, the other is let’s stretch it out and anticipate. We’re looking at all those scenarios because again, this is all uncharted territory, no one has ever done this before.”
As far as Utah goes, one major hoops-related item being kept tabs on is the status of Battle 4 Atlantis. One of the nation’s preeminent nonconference events, those three games played during Thanksgiving week in the Bahamas are hugely critical towards the Utes building a resume and giving themselves a chance at an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament.
There has been no indication yet from Complete Sports Management, which runs Battle 4 Atlantis, nor Atlantis Paradise Island, which hosts the event, that any changes are on the horizon.
The bracket for the eight-team field, which also includes Creighton, Duke, Ohio State, Texas A&M, West Virginia, Wichita State and Memphis, is expected to be announced later this summer.