The 2020 college football season is on the brink of complete collapse, with conferences apparently ready to succumb to the pandemic that has already transformed so much.
The Mountain West, which houses Utah State University and 11 other schools, canceled all fall sports Monday, saying they may play football in the spring.
That move had a direct effect on independent Brigham Young University, which had scheduled games against the Aggies, Boise State and San Diego State. Combine the loss of Mountain West games to those already canceled and BYU has just three games remaining on its schedule.
The University of Utah football team practiced Monday and planned to do so again Tuesday, multiple sources told The Salt Lake Tribune, but the chance that the Pac-12 also drops fall sports is real. It could happen as soon as Tuesday, when the Pac-12 CEO group, made up of one president or chancellor from each school, meets.
Utah practicing amid a wave of uncertainty comes on the heels of The Seattle Times reporting Monday that all football workouts at the University of Washington were canceled. It later clarified that the Huskies conducted strength and conditioning workouts but not a full on-field walk-through.
If local and state ordinances allow, which is not currently the case for all Pac-12 programs, league teams were able to begin mandatory summer activities Aug. 3, with training camp to follow on Aug. 17. Utah indeed began mandatory work on Aug. 3 and, at this time, still plans to begin camp Aug. 17.
An entire cancellation of football in the Beehive State would have dire economic consequences.
For fiscal 2019, which included the 2018 football season, Utah brought in $65.7 million in revenue, which accounted for more than 66% of all athletic department revenue for that period. Utah was already working with $8 million chopped off its fiscal 2021 operating budget, athletic director Mark Harlan told beat reporters last month. That $8 million shortfall was working under the assumption of the originally prescribed six home games with what Harlan called “limited fans.”
The Utes have since been reduced to five home games after the Pac-12 released a 10-game, conference-only football schedule July 31. Other Pac-12 fall sport schedules are in the latter stages of completion, but the current expectation is official practice can begin Saturday, with conference-only competition starting Sept. 26.
Utan State also faces a dire situation. The Mountain West began a new six-year, $270 million media rights deal earlier this summer, paying each school $4 million per year. That figure is up from the roughly $1.1 million each school was getting under the previous deal. Furthermore, Utah State athletic director John Hartwell told The Tribune in late April that he was lining up his fiscal 2021 operating budget at roughly $35.5 million. Pre-pandemic, Hartwell’s budget was estimated at north of $38 million.
The Mountain West had previously announced an 8+2 schedule, meaning eight league games and the option to schedule two nonconference contests. The Aggies were slated to face BYU on Oct. 2 in Provo, while still looking for a 10th game.
The approaching start to training camps has forced conferences to make a decision.
The Ivy League became the first Division I conference to cancel fall sports on July 9, but on Saturday, the Mid-American Conference became the first FBS league to follow suit. On Monday, the college football world locked in on the Big Ten, which appeared poised to become the first Power Five league to cancel. Presidents from the 14-team, 11-state league, according to a Detroit Free Press report, voted, 12-2, in favor of canceling, with Nebraska and Iowa voting to play. The Big Ten has not made an official decision, one way or the other.
Regardless of how the Big Ten proceeds, the feeling across the Pac-12, league sources told The Tribune, is that it will ultimately not move forward with fall sports. In the fall, Utah sponsors football, women’s soccer, women’s volleyball and women’s cross country.
All of this is happening under the backdrop of a never-before-seen level of player empowerment across the country. Late Sunday evening, the #WeWantToPlay player-fueled movement caught fire on social media.
Backed by prominent, big-name stars such as Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, #WeWantToPlay outlines player desires for mandated health and safety protocols, the right to opt out of playing, and guaranteed additional year of eligibility if a player chooses to do so.
Utah and the Pac-12 have stated numerous times in recent weeks that if players opt out due to COVID-19, their scholarships will not be affected. Matters of eligibility status and scholarship numbers for any given team will be a major topic of NCAA conversation, if and when the season is canceled.
Later Monday, several prominent Big Ten coaches, including Ohio State’s Ryan Day, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Nebraska’s Scott Frost and Penn State’s James Franklin, came out in support of finding a way to play the season. How much weight those sentiments carry remains to be seen as an official Big Ten stance remains up in the air.
Monday also saw President Donald Trump weigh in, calling for college football to be played this fall. Trump’s pinned tweet for much of Monday afternoon was a retweet of Lawrence’s #WeWantToPlay declaration. Trump had previously been vocal in his desire to have football played this fall, preferably in full stadiums.
Both notions are very much in doubt in the Pac-12, and neither will be happening in the Mountain West.