BYU looking at a wide array of options for playing the 2020 football season, including independent, regional schedules

COVID-19 has canceled or postponed a multitude of events, celebrations and gatherings since being named a pandemic in mid-March. More than half of the country’s states, including Utah, have reopened, with a few more states planning to start up the economy again soon.

However, the pandemic is far from over.

Utah’s state epidemiologist is actually expecting a second wave of the coronavirus to hit this fall, when the number of cases will coincide with the flu season. Both are viruses and spread in the same way, Dr. Angela Dunn said last week in a briefing.

What does that mean for fall sports? Particularly BYU football?

It may still be too soon to make any hard decisions, but that doesn't mean the BYU athletic department isn't trying to look at all possibilities of how they could salvage a season.

BYU associate athletic director of communications Duff Tittle said the staff, especially AD Tom Holmoe, are keeping an eye on everything, but won't be making any formal decisions any time soon.

“We want to play our 2020 schedule,” Tittle said. “We love our 2020 schedule — we worked so hard to put it together.”

Same schedule, no fans

So, what could the 2020 season look like? Well, it could play out a few different ways, but most likely it would play out without fans.

Even with states reopening, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to warn against mass gatherings or large community events, as they can contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

LaVell Edwards Stadium has a seating capacity of 63,470, but hosted a record attendance of 66,247 in 1993 when the Cougars hosted Notre Dame. Include the players, coaches, staff and stadium employees and that number can quickly near 70,000.

At the moment, BYU is still set to host Michigan State, Utah State, Missouri, Houston, San Diego State and North Alabama. As of Thursday, Utah had 5,724 cases. According to NBC News, Alabama had 8,691, Missouri had 9,453, Texas had 35,436, Michigan had 45,054 and California had 60,622.

For the other half of the schedule, the Cougars would travel to Arizona State, Minnesota, Northern Illinois, Boise State and Stanford — not including the season opener up at Utah.

Illinois had a whopping 68,232 cases, while Arizona had 9,707, Minnesota had 8,579 and Idaho had 2,158.

Just having the players and staff travel for games could potentially expose the group and risk a spread of the disease, but having family, friends and fans travel to watch a game could make things worse.

Many sports organizations are considering starting their seasons back up and playing without fans until a vaccine becomes available, because only then will it be safe for people to congregate in large events like games.

The no-fans scenario is one of the options BYU is considering, Tittle said.

“The safety of our fans, players and coaches is paramount in making our decision,” Tittle said.

Independent schedule?

Another possible scenario making the rounds is to delay the start of the season, and play only conference opponents, resulting in an eight- or nine-game schedule.

Of course, the independent Cougars have no conference foes, but Tittle confirmed that BYU has been involved in talks with fellow football independents, including Army, UMass, UConn, Liberty, New Mexico State and Notre Dame (which has a scheduling alliance with the ACC for five games per season) about possibly constructing a schedule involving those schools.

As BYU prepares to enter its 10th season of football independence, Holmoe, in his 15th year as athletic director, has plenty of experience working with the other independent programs.

Of the other six current independents, BYU has played all but one.

The Cougars have faced off against the Minutemen the last four seasons. Last year also saw the first match-up between BYU and Liberty. BYU has played New Mexico State three times, most recently in 2018, and UConn twice in 2014 and 2015.

Notre Dame has played the Cougars eight times dating back to 1992, but hasn’t played BYU since 2013. However, the Fighting Irish are still on the hook to play a game in Provo, the lone remaining contest of a six-game-series-turned-three-game-series.

Army is the lone independent that has never played BYU.

Tittle says he is confident that if college football is forced to take this route to salvage the 2020 season, BYU has worked closely enough with the other independent programs that they would be able to work something out.

Regional games

As a last resort, if long-distance traveling is out of the question, schools might consider putting a schedule together completely made up of nearby opponents.

Utah and Utah State are already on BYU’s 2020 slate, but the Cougars could also look to FCS opponents like Southern Utah and Weber State if they want to keep the schedule focused in-state. Looking north, the Cougars already have a long relationship with Boise State, and could perhaps reignite an old rivalry with Wyoming. Then there’s UNLV and Nevada down I-15 and east on I-80, respectively, and Air Force, Colorado and Colorado State to the east.

Because of BYU’s past affiliation with the Mountain West and Western Athletic Conference, Tittle said BYU has a great history and many dormant rivalries with a majority of the programs nearest Provo — if they’re willing to play ball.

Tittle said BYU remains are far from making any decision or readjusting their 2020 schedule. But one thing is for sure — the Cougars sure want to play this season — one way or another.