How the California State University system's decision to go online only in fall could affect college football

A decision that could have a major impact on the 2020 college football season came from California State University system chancellor Timothy White on Tuesday.

White, who oversees the system’s 23 universities, announced that its campuses will hold fall classes almost exclusively online due to the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The decision made the CSU system — the largest four-year public university system in the country with more than 480,000 undergraduate students — the first to tell its students they would not be returning to campus for the fall semester.

“Our university, when open without restrictions and fully in person, as is the traditional norm of the past, is a place where over 500,000 people come together in close and vibrant proximity with each other on a daily basis,” White said in a meeting with the board of trustees, per the New York Times. “That approach, sadly, just isn’t in the cards now.”

The system has five branches that compete in Division I football, including three at the highest (FBS) level: Fresno State, San Diego State and San Jose State. All three are members of the 12-team Mountain West Conference.

That does not bode well for the normal return of football in the fall, especially when coupled with recent comments from Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and NCAA president Mark Emmert. In an interview with the Mountain West Network, Thompson said there would be no athletics taking place until campuses are open and fully operational.

"Unless they're in full mode with dormitories and housing and all of the other facilities are open, we won't have college athletics," Thompson said April 21. "We will not have college athletics until the campuses are open."

SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 08:  The Mountain West Conference and the logo of the San Diego State Aztecs attached to the corner endzone pylon prior to  their season home opener against the Sacramento State Hornets at SDCCU Stadium on September 8, 2018 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images)
San Diego State is one of three Mountain West universities affected by the Cal State system decision to shift to online-only classes in the fall. (Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images)

Emmert offered a similar perspective in an interview posted on the NCAA’s social media channels, saying that he does not envision a scenario where football (or any other fall sport) can take place if students cannot return to campus.

“All of the Division I commissioners and every president that I’ve talked to is in clear agreement: If you don’t have students on campus, you don’t have student-athletes on campus,” Emmert said. “That doesn’t mean it has to be up and running in the full normal model, but you’ve got to treat the health and well-being of the athletes at least as much as the regular students. So if a school doesn’t reopen, then they’re not going to be playing sports. It’s really that simple.”

In response to Tuesday’s news, the Mountain West issued a statement attributed to Thompson and the presidents of Fresno State, San Diego State and San Jose State.

“Certainly, all conversations are led by academics, as well as public health and safety,” the statement reads. “Within that framework, more determinations are necessary. All three institutions will work closely with the Mountain West. No decisions on athletics have been made.”

Earlier Tuesday, Fresno State president Joseph I. Castro, in response to a fan, tweeted that the Mountain West Board of Directors is slated to discuss “this important matter later this month.” Later Tuesday, Fresno State athletic director Terry Tumey released a statement saying the school would continue to “evaluate all opportunities related to the resumption of athletics in advance of the fall 2020 competitive seasons.”

Meanwhile, an SDSU official told Stadium’s Brett McMurphy that the school will offer a “hybrid model” for classes with some in-person and some being held virtually. The school is also working through “many scenarios” in athletics, including holding “sports in the fall.”

2 FCS members also affected

The Cal State system also has two FCS members: Cal Poly and Sacramento State. Both play football in the Big Sky.

Without students on campus and no football potentially being played, the Big Sky would also have to reshuffle its football schedules. And the cancellation of football at the FCS schools in California would also impact the schedules of FBS schools.

Cal Poly and Sacramento State both have non-conference games against two FBS teams. Cal Poly has road games against UL Monroe and Cal while Sacramento State is scheduled to travel to San Diego State and Washington.

Trickle-down effect throughout college football

Let’s get into the worst-case football scenario for a second and assume that three FBS programs and three FCS programs are not playing in 2020. While those numbers may seem small given there are 130 FBS programs and 127 FCS programs, the cascading scheduling effect would be far from small.

If the three Mountain West schools didn’t play football in 2020, the conference would be down to nine teams — assuming everyone else plays — and would likely need to scrap the division format. That could potentially work out OK. Mountain West schools play eight conference games apiece. With nine teams playing football, everyone could play each other once.

Fresno State, SDSU and SJSU not playing football would also have ramifications outside the Mountain West. Each team has four non-conference opponents that would be scrambling to find new games. Of those 12 opponents, four are members of Power Five conferences, three are independents and three are FCS teams.

There aren’t many straightforward ways for those 12 teams to rectify the holes in their schedules either. Penn State (San Jose State) and UCLA (San Diego State) could play each other on Sept. 19, but both teams would have to decide on a game site. And that’s also assuming that both UCLA and Penn State are playing a full football schedule.

Independent schools like BYU, UConn and New Mexico State would also need to fill games on a schedule that’s already cobbled together from teams across the country.

Idaho State would feel the effects on both fronts. It’s a member of the Big Sky and plays both Sacramento State and Cal Poly and also has a Sept. 5 game scheduled against Fresno State. Finding opponents for three games would be a tall task without major changes for other schools.

Here are the four non-conference games for each of the three Mountain West schools.

Fresno State

Sept. 5: Idaho State

Sept. 12: Colorado

Oct. 10: Texas A&M

Oct. 17: New Mexico State

San Diego State

Sept. 5: Sacramento State

Sept. 12: Toledo

Sept. 19: UCLA

Nov. 14: BYU

San Jose State

Sept. 5: Central Michigan

Sept. 12: UC Davis

Sept. 19: Penn State

Sept. 14: UConn

D-II conference suspends season

White’s announcement resulted in a decisive move from the California Collegiate Athletic Association, a Division II conference with 13 members — 12 of which come from the Cal State system. The CCAA, which fields 13 sports but has not played football since 1981, announced Tuesday it is suspending fall sports for the 2020-21 academic year.

“Based on Chancellor White’s May 12th announcement that the vast majority of CSU courses will be virtual for the fall semester of the 2020-21 academic year, and with utmost consideration for the health and welfare of our students, coaches, staff, faculty and communities, CCAA member institutions have determined that NCAA sport competition will not occur during the fall of 2020,” the conference said in a statement from commissioner Mitch Cox and CCAA Board of Presidents chair Dr. Gayle Hutchinson.

“The CCAA member institutions will continue to advocate strongly to maintain NCAA championship opportunities for all of our student-athletes, including our fall sports, during the 2020-21 academic year and recommend competition resume when it is safe and appropriate to do so for all of its members.”

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