The college football landscape is chaotic.
As of now, just 77 of 130 schools are moving forward with a fall football season as the continuing coronavirus pandemic has forced schools and conferences to postpone their football seasons or even outright cancel them.
And there are far more questions than answers. While the Big Ten and the Pac-12 say they want to play football in the spring, no one has any idea if it will be feasible to do so or if other conferences will follow suit. Here’s our best attempt to answer some of those questions as modern college football navigates an unprecedented situation.
Who else is still playing?
The Big Ten and Pac-12 decisions that they won’t have football in the fall mean that the ACC, American Athletic Conference, Big 12, Conference USA, SEC and Sun Belt are the only six top-level college football conferences who — as of now — plan on playing in the fall.
The Big Ten and Pac-12’s decisions to postpone followed the Mountain West and Mid-American Conference’s decisions to not play fall sports earlier in the week.
A majority of conferences at the second-tier FCS level have also said they’re not playing football in 2020 and the NCAA canceled the Division II and Division III postseason tournaments.
What does the college football schedule look like now?
The SEC is planning to play a conference-only schedule that starts on Sept. 26. The ACC is allowing teams to play one non-conference game in addition to their conference schedules. We still aren’t sure what the Big 12’s schedule will look like. The AAC, Sun Belt and Conference USA are all letting their teams schedule non-conference games if feasible.
There’s a very high chance that not every team will play the same number of games. Again, assuming a season happens.
If it does happen, the ACC’s first scheduled games are for Labor Day weekend. We’ll see if there are any postponements.
Will there be a playoff?
“It’s too soon to say,” College Football Playoff spokesperson Bill Hancock told Sports Illustrated.
The College Football Playoff is not run by the NCAA. The playoff’s board is made up of a representative from each of the 10 FBS conferences and a representative from Notre Dame.
It’s hard to see a playoff happening in the fall if there’s a bifurcated college football season with some conferences playing in the spring. Especially a playoff with four board members from conferences that aren’t playing football in the fall. While we’re still awaiting official word on the playoff, our guess is that it won’t be happening as scheduled. And if it does, well, the Pac-12 and the Big Ten won’t be a part of it.
What about the other bowls?
There will undoubtedly be fewer bowls in 2020 because there are going to be far fewer bowl-eligible teams. While some bowls could still happen, there will be contraction, especially among bowl games that have contracts with conferences that have postponed the football season.
The Redbox Bowl had previously announced that it wouldn’t be held in 2020.
What about the 2021 season?
The 2021 season would likely be pushed back for leagues who do play football in the spring. Asking players to play 24 games in 12-month span would be a monumental — and dangerous — ask of college athletes. It seems like the only way the 2021 season will start on schedule for everyone in college football is if there are no spring seasons at all.
How does this affect the NFL draft?
Scouting has become a hell of a lot more important for NFL teams. And the draft and combine dates may have to be moved if college football teams are playing games in the spring. While the NFL has reportedly expressed reticence to move its annual spring events in 2021, it’s hard to see how NFL personnel would want to keep things as scheduled if there was a real chance to scout draft-eligible players playing in the spring.
Can players who opted out retain a year of eligibility?
As numerous players have opted out, college players have joined together across conferences to form a grassroots player-rights group. One of their requests is to allow players opting out of the 2020 season because of coronavirus concerns to retain their year of eligibility.
And that request seems likely to be granted. The NCAA’s board of governors directed the Division I council to decide by Aug. 14 if it would grant players who opt out another year of eligibility. It’ll be a surprise if the council does not grant that request.
Will stars play in the spring?
Players like Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, Penn State’s Micah Parsons and Purdue’s Rondale Moore were among the players who said they weren’t playing in 2020. All three of the players named above are preparing for the 2021 NFL draft.
It’s extremely hard to see how Parsons and Moore would come back to play in the spring of 2021 if there’s a season. And you can expect other draft-eligible players to skip out on the season too. All eyes will be on Ohio State’s Justin Fields if the Big Ten goes through with plans to play in the spring. Fields could be the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.
Can players transfer to play in other leagues still playing in the fall?
NCAA transfer rules make it hard for a player in the Big Ten or the Pac-12 to move to a league that’s set on playing in the fall. All undergraduate transfers have to sit out a year when transferring. And while the NCAA does grant immediate-eligibility waivers to transfers far more frequently than it once did, those waivers aren’t granted very expediently. And with football seasons merely postponed — for now — and not outright canceled, the NCAA may use that postponement as a reason to not grant waivers for players at schools in postponed leagues.
How does this affect recruiting?
The traditional recruiting calendar was upended when the National Junior College Athletic Association said that football had been postponed to the spring. And with state high school athletic associations all on different football timelines, there was no chance that the 2020-21 recruiting process was going to be anything close to normal if college football was played as scheduled in the fall.
The NCAA has already adjusted recruiting rules because of the pandemic and will continue to do so in the coming months. You can expect signing periods to be pushed back to allow teams to better evaluate high school and junior college prospects and manage their scholarship limits. Coaching staffs will also do a lot less in-person recruiting in this cycle. Just like scouting has become more important for NFL teams, it’s a lot more important for college football programs as well.
Are players safer if they’re not playing?
Only if they strictly social distance and wear masks when around others. Football programs have implemented strict social distancing and mask-wearing procedures at their facilities and are testing players and staff at a frequent rate. To use a tired cliche, teams are controlling what they can control.
What they can’t control is the main reason why we’re staring at a fall with far fewer college football games than normal. Coronavirus cases are expected to rise at college campuses across the country when students arrive and gather in large groups and that spread would likely infiltrate sports teams.
Many college athletics leaders believe that their players are safer on campus and at the team facilities than they would be elsewhere. And that’s likely true. But players aren’t spending every waking hour of their lives at the facilities.
Could the NFL play on Saturdays?
If there is no college football at all in the fall it’s certainly possible the NFL would explore pushing some games to Saturdays to fill the void and get even more television viewers. The league already expands to Saturdays in December when the college football regular season is over.
But if a few major conferences go forward with plans to play this fall it’s hard to see the NFL put some games that would inevitably compete with what’s essentially its minor leagues.
How does a lack of football hurt schools financially?
Schools are expecting revenue shortfalls in the tens of millions of dollars without football and the television money that it brings in. That money is a big reason why major conferences have waited so long to make a decision about football and other fall sports while the lower levels of college football were much quicker to announce their lack of fall plans.
Football doesn’t solve budget shortfalls either. Games that are played will likely be played in empty or near-empty stadiums. Schools will still be losing out on lots of ticket revenue and the donations to scholarship funds that come with those ticket purchases.
The Pac-12 is even prepared to provide a loan fund of up to $1 billion to its schools.
Could this be the beginning of fundamental change in college sports?
Yes. We’ve seen athletes across the country become more empowered in recent months and the push for enhanced safety protocols during the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated that empowerment.
Couple that with the NCAA’s impending shift to allow players to make endorsement and sponsor income on their name and image rights starting with the 2021 football season and the ingredients are there for further change across college sports. We just don’t know how significant change could be just yet.
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