Utah athletic director Mark Harlan: All options on the table for the 2020 college football season

It is still only mid-April, so anything and everything having to do with whether or not the college football season will start on time remains fluid in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To that end, Utah Director of Athletics Mark Harlan is forced to operate in a world where, yes, the Utes will open the season on time, Sept. 3 against BYU at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Harlan, though, is far from naive. There are any number of contingency plans being bandied about, including potential timelines being put in place. Appearing in his regular weekly spot on 700 AM Wednesday morning, Harlan offered some insight into what might be on the horizon.

“The best thing that we can do is develop a program that really focuses on, with our sports scientists, how many weeks a football player has to have before they enter a camp environment,” said Harlan, who represents the Pac-12 on the 19-member Division I Football Oversight Committee. “Somewhere around seven weeks appears to be the happy spot that most have landed on.

“Some have it a little bit more aggressive, but around the seven-week period of time that the body needs to be able to go, with being around strength-and-conditioning professionals, a ramp-up, each week how many hours you can work and then, you get into a camp environment.”

Pressed to clarify his seven-week thinking, Harlan said in part, “You take the first game and move it back about seven weeks and they’re on your campus.”

At some point college football will have to collectively come to a consensus on a timeline, whether that is seven weeks, less or more. Doing so may be difficult because down the line, COVID-19 may affect Salt Lake City differently than say, for example, Los Angeles. Utah may be ready to host games in September, while USC and UCLA will not be, which would surely lead to a pushed-back college football schedule.

Across the country, researchers at the University of Virginia are saying that Virginia’s peak day for new COVID-19 cases may not come until mid-August. The Cavaliers are scheduled to host VMI on Sept. 12 and UConn on Sept. 19 in Charlottesville.

As it pertains specifically to Utah, a seven-week timeline and an on-time Sept. 3 start will be problematic based on what we already know.

Harlan stood firm Wednesday on previous comments that football, not to mention other fall sports, cannot be contested until Utah’s campus is operational. Based on seven weeks, football players would have to be on campus on or around July 16.

The school has already announced summer sessions will be online. Final exams for semester-length classes are scheduled to end on July 31. Based on that fact, the best-case scenario would allow football players to be on campus Aug. 1. Seven weeks from Aug. 1 is Sept. 19, which, coincidentally, is a Saturday.

Any firm decision on such matters is still months away, but decisions will eventually have to be made, good, bad, or otherwise.

“The way I see it is, I think there needs to be some understanding of where we're at, let's say mid-June if we're still kind of in an environment like we are now,” Harlan said. “In mid-June, I think we're going to have to really take a look at and make any alterations to the football season.”

Some, not all spring-sport athletes to return

In regard to the NCAA’s decision to offer a blanket waiver to spring-sport athletes affected by COVID-19, Harlan said Utah “ended up with 11 to 12 students that will be returning to the University of Utah.”

Harlan followed that by saying those student-athletes opting to return in 2020-21 will do so at the same level of athletic aid they were already receiving. The athletic department, according to Harlan, has 28-30 total seniors who needed to make decisions about extending their careers.

After the cancellation of all spring sports by the NCAA, the college sports governing body announced on March 30 a blanket waiver for spring-sport athletes, but with a catch.

Scholarship limits will go up in 2020-21, but the catch is that schools have the option to offer the same, lesser or no financial aid to those getting an extra year of eligibility. While revenue sports like basketball and football are considered “head-count” sports, meaning full-scholarship sports, most spring sports such as baseball and softball are “equivalency” sports, which means the available scholarships for said sports are not full and can be divided up as a coach sees fit. In turn, most spring-sport athletes are on partial scholarships.