As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, bringing with it a complete, prolonged stoppage to sports in the United States, an increasingly-pertinent point of discussion is what is going to happen to the 2020 college football season.
Week Zero, which includes a high-profile matchup between Notre Dame and Navy in Ireland, is still five months away, so nothing definitive is happening quite yet, but there are a bevy of potential contingency plans making the rounds at athletic departments and conference offices across the country.
As a qualifier for any contingency plan, it is worth noting that the University of Utah’s Mark Harlan, one of 64 Power Five athletic directors across the country, is in favor of a full 12-game slate.
“I would say, just generally, I’m going to be very bullish and very supportive of trying to do a full season,” Harlan said Thursday morning during his weekly appearance on ESPN700 AM. “I think that’s very important as it relates to our television partners, our season-ticket holders, if possible, when possible, where possible to do a full season. I think we have to stay focused on that.”
Harlan may be in favor of the full 12 games, but if COVID-19 persists into the summer and fall months, how that might actually get accomplished is up for debate.
Harlan noted what others have this week, in that however you get a season in, the start date has become a moving target. Within that notion, two questions:
• When would student-athletes need to be on campus to have an on-time start to the season?
• How many days preparation would a football team need before safely playing a game?
Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour shed some light Thursday on both questions. Citing her ‘sports science folks,’ Barbour said on a conference call with reporters that her football team would need 60 days together to get ramped up and prevent future injuries. The Nittany Lions open Sept. 5, so Barbour is eyeing a July 7 report date if Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf lifts the state’s stay-at-home order in time.
“There’s been about 50 days lost or so with our coaches being around our kids in certain capacities,” said Harlan, partially referencing the fact spring practice was axed with Utah only having gotten through three of 15 practices. “What do we need to do? What do we need to formulate in that period of time to get them ready and how many days do they need before they put on pads, etc., etc.
“I think if you start focusing in on that and start moving that date from September 1 to September 15, October 1 and you just keep moving it from there, you can slide your planning accordingly.”
Utah opens the 2020 season on Sept. 5 against BYU at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Going by Barbour’s thinking, 60 days before Sept. 5 would mean a July 5 report date for the Utes.
One big potential hurdle there is that on Monday, the school announced it would be moving all summer classes online. Semester-length and second-half classes both end at Utah on July 29. That means, short of some special dispensation for student-athletes, Utes football players reporting July 5 does not appear feasible.
If early-July report dates do not come to fruition, the logical move, as Harlan alluded to, is to move everything back, and keep moving it back until it is deemed safe to compete. To this end, playing football in an empty stadium, as has been suggested, is unreasonable.
“I’m also a big proponent of doing these games with our fans,” Harlan said. “I really don’t see any path to compete without our fans there because really, you can just look at the science of it. If it’s not safe to have a group of people in a stadium, how is it safe to have 22 people bashing into each other? The last time I checked, it’s a contact sport, so in my mind, I’ve moved on from that.
“Our campus has to be operational for us to run football. Students have to be back. That’s my view, and I think that’s the view of a lot of ADs that I talk with. I think that’s a clue to look at, where is your campus?”
One of the more-radical ideas currently being bandied about is to cut out the non-conference games and play a shorter, conference-only schedule, but that move comes with its own lengthy set of logistical problems.
Everyone winds up playing 12 regular-season games, but not everyone plays an equal amount of conference games. The SEC and ACC play eight, while the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 play nine. Furthermore, anything less than 12 games would mean millions of dollars in lost revenue, both at the gate and likely from lucrative media-rights deals.
Utah’s 2020 non-conference slate consists of BYU, Montana State, a trip to Wyoming, and rescheduling any of them would not be easy. For starters, the next time in which Utah has an open date in a year it is not already playing BYU is not until 2030. Beyond 2020, the Utes and Cougars are locked in for games in 2021 and 2024-28.
Montana State would feel the brunt of a cancellation of its Sept. 12 trip to Salt Lake City. Per the game contract, obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune via GRAMA request, Utah will pay the Bobcats $675,000. There is a subsection in the contract labeled ‘uncontrollable events,’ part of which indicates that if the game is delayed or is cancelled, it is to be rescheduled under the same terms. Based on future non-conference schedules for both programs, the earliest that could take place would be 2025, a year in which Montana State is already playing at Oregon to open.
Utah-Wyoming in Laramie on Sept. 19 is the front end of a home-and-home agreement, which will bring the Cowboys to Rice-Eccles in 2025. Like the Montana State contract, the Wyoming agreement has language covering cancellation due to ‘an unforeseen catastrophe or disaster,’ but there is nothing implying the game needs to be rescheduled.
“The non-conference piece is challenging when you move,” Harlan said. “We could work as a league to work some things out, but what about those non-conference games and what are their schedules going to be? Any movement is going to be difficult, but that’s why we’re talking about it now, that’s why we’re looking into it.
“If we can fit in football, in a way to keep the whole operation going, I think leadership across the country will find a way to do it.”