The 'great unknown' that could doom college football season

As pessimism about the reality of playing a full college football season this fall continues to build, no obstacle looms larger than the arrival of students on campus.

The biggest variable feared by medical experts, coaches and athletic directors is the arrival of tens of thousands of students from all over the country to many campuses that play FBS football. On most campuses, the students arrive around the same point when the football schedule begins, and the risk of significant spreading of COVID-19 will increase sharply.

“What I'm really worried about is, campus by campus, across the country, students coming back on the campus and spreading [the virus] like wildfire in their living situations,” said Paul Pottinger, an infectious disease expert at the University of Washington and a member of the Pac-12’s COVID-19 Medical Advisory Committee. “Unless we get past that, unless we can break that cycle, then it's hard to imagine campuses even opening up for the fall – for any purpose, much less for athletics.”

That leaves college football coaches and administrators wondering exactly how they’re supposed to pull off playing an entire season, as there have already been significant outbreaks in football programs that have halted workouts across the country before contact practices have even started.

Coaches and athletic directors remain worried about a stop-and-start scenario with canceled games, a chaotic schedule and, eventually, a season ending somewhere amid the fall. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley made clear that it’s his strong preference to play football in the fall as long as it’s safe for the players. But he acknowledged in a phone interview with Yahoo Sports on Tuesday that he’s concerned about how to keep his players safe from the virus once the school’s more than 20,000 students return.

“It’s on the mind of every coach,” Riley said. “It’s probably as easy as it’s going to be right now when most other students aren’t here. There’s legitimate concerns when the student body shows up. What’s that going to look like? It’s the great unknown right now.

“The scary thing about it for us, or the thing that gives you some concern, is that the students show up and a week or two later you’re trying to start the season. It’s on our minds. The more people in the area, the more potential risk and things you have to worry about.”

The CFB 2020 logo is displayed on the field prior to the College Football Playoff title game between Clemson and LSU. (Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The CFB 2020 logo is displayed on the field prior to the College Football Playoff title game between Clemson and LSU. (Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Talk about moving football to the spring has picked up momentum in the past week, but Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby summed up the tenor when he told Yahoo Sports that it’s “probably [the] last resort.”

Dominoes are beginning to fall around the country that hint at the long odds of a season starting and finishing in the fall. Arizona officials announced on Monday night that the school has paused bringing athletes back to campus, as that state is one of many seeing positive test numbers spiking precipitously. (Arizona plays Week 0 and is scheduled to start formal workouts July 6 while the schools on conventional schedules have their first formal activities scheduled for July 13.) Other bellwethers worth noting are a report by TMG sports that the Ivy League is considering playing in the spring, Division-II Morehouse canceling fall sports and D-III schools like Williams and Bowdoin canceling fall sports.

For Riley, he said the option to play in the spring is becoming “more real,” while his preference remains playing safely in the fall. Riley and OU officials have been cautious about players returning to campus, as the Sooners report July 1 for voluntary workouts. (Big 12 teams were eligible to return June 15.) Riley points to the potential of medical advancements such as treatments and vaccines as a primary reason to consider waiting.

“It’s very doable,” Riley told Yahoo Sports about playing football in the spring. “This can happen. We’ve been a part of putting together models of what that would potentially look like. This season is going to be different, we might as well come to terms with that. If we do decide that the spring is the best option, if we get to that point, we shouldn’t be scared of it. It’s very doable.”

Riley acknowledged some of the adjustments that would have to be made playing in the spring. That includes elite players skipping the season for the draft, a shorter schedule and potentially a later start in the fall. “If we reduce the number of games and give enough time off, I think it’s doable,” he said. “I really do.”

The biggest issue with a massive schedule adjustment remains that no one is in charge of college football. A big worry among coaches is that there’s no universal date to decide when to move on with the season. College leaders appear content to press on with camp, allow students to get back on campus and see if the 13,000 players somehow avoid the virus. (Or avoid coming in contact with anyone who has the virus, as contact tracing is inhibiting enough where Riley said “one positive test can knock out 15 to 20 people,” meaning they’d be put in quarantine for practices and games.)

That leadership guidance isn’t imminent, as the NCAA has very little say in the direction of college football and the commissioners all have agendas that fit the needs of their leagues. “There’s some concern about that,” Riley said about the leadership void. “Does our leadership structure fit a situation like now?”

Riley added: “This is the perfect example where you’d love to have a true head, like an NFL-type commissioner. Someone has to make a decision for everyone at some point. The model and way it’s set up, with different schools and league commissioners and the NCAA, there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen. There’s a lot of smart people, and they’re all not going to agree.”

One athletic director summed up the void this way: “There’s no one in a position of leadership taking on the very difficult challenge of developing the plan for spring football. Given that we are entering July, it now seems unavoidable that we are headed to a fall with a lot of canceled games and perhaps even a national stoppage a few weeks into the season.”

Everyone can agree that the return to practice is complicated. The return to playing is exponentially more so based on the influx of cases that will inevitably return with students to campus. “What I am really much more worried about is everything that happens off the field,” Pottinger said. “I'm worried about the dorm, I'm worried about the dining hall, I'm worried about the bedroom, I'm worried about the library, I'm worried about everything else. That's where we're seeing young people get burned.”

And that leaves coaches and administrators at the awkward crossroads of knowing that even if their athletes take all the necessary precautions to avoid the virus, there’s no guarantee the thousands of students around them will.

“We all will be having our antenna up when the students return to our campuses,” Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said. “And just like we’ve done for the last four months, we will continue to adjust to the best of our abilities. Our plan right now is to move forward with the fall. But we’re also listening to our health experts to guide us.”

Henry Bushnell contributed reporting.

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