If the NFL doesn’t play, neither will college football, says Utah coach Kyle Whittingham

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah coach Kyle Whittingham walks off the field during a lightning delay as Brigham Young University (BYU) hosts the University of Utah, NCAA football in Provo on Thursday Aug. 29, 2019.

As far as Kyle Whittingham is concerned, the absolute best-case scenario for the 2020 college football season remains an on-time start, preferably with eight weeks to prepare.

The University of Utah coach’s worst-case scenario, which echoes anyone and everyone else with anything invested in the sport, is no season at all with the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing and no clear end in sight.

Somewhere in between those two polar opposites sits a compromise, whether that be a start later in the fall, or even a winter start. There are exponentially more questions than answers right now, but Whittingham seems sure of at least one thing.

If the NFL doesn’t play this fall, neither will anyone else.

“I think the real important thing is there is a football season,” Whittingham said Tuesday morning on a Zoom call with reporters. “I think that’s going to be critical to virtually every athletic department in the country, and it’s really a trickle down.

“I think if the NFL is not playing, I don’t see any way we’re playing. If we’re not playing, I don’t see any way high school is playing. The NFL, they’re kind of the leaders in this thing, so as soon as they get some sort of of hard and fast model, which they’re not going to be able to do for several weeks either because of the circumstances, it trickles down.”

The NFL has not yet altered its calendar, as evidenced by the fact the NFL draft will take place this week as scheduled, even if it is being conducted virtually instead of in person in Las Vegas. Training camps across the league open at the end of July. A date as to when a decision would need to be made on its 2020 season is unknown.

In an interview with 700 AM last week, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan indicated a decision on altering the 2020 college football season would need to be made by mid-June.

Decisions on the fate of college football are going to be directly tied to whether or not college campuses are functioning. If a campus is not operating and having in-person classes for the fall semester, it would be a tough argument to have student athletes on campus to play football, as well as other fall sports. For example, Utah will conduct summer sessions online, which means no students on campus likely until at least Aug. 1. A decision on Utah’s fall semester has not been announced.

To this end, it is worth noting that Cal State Fullerton announced on Monday that it will begin its fall semester Aug. 22 with online classes. Fullerton does not sponsor football, but no students on campus in the fall would affect its basketball team. As first reported by The Salt Lake Tribune on April 10, the Titans are slated to travel to the Huntsman Center on Nov. 20, with a $95,000 guarantee attached. There is language in the game contract regarding “uncontrollable forces,” which would allow for a delay or cancellation of the game at no cost to either side.

With the possibility of no students on campuses for fall classes seeming becoming more real every day, the feasibility of a winter start to college football has picked up steam.

“I guess it’s feasible, but now you’re starting to impact the next season, spring ball and that type of thing,” said Whittingham, who noted he and his staff have built six-week, seven-week and eight-week models of preseason preparation. “There’s going to have to be concessions made on the back end, which is doable, but we’ll see.”

While Whittingham believes concessions on the back end of a winter start are doable, those questions would be numerous. How long would coaching staffs have to wait to start spring ball for the 2021 season? What would the offseason and recruiting calendars look like? Would the 2021 Senior Bowl, NFL Scouting Combine and NFL draft all get pushed back? If those events are not pushed back, would seniors and even some underclassmen bail on all or part of a winter college season to prepare for the NFL?

Even the best, most-reasonably thought-out contingency plans would come with a unique set of questions and drawbacks. Unfortunately, football as a whole is still likely weeks away from any real clarity.