Time to face reality: ‘No one is playing college football in the fall’

The rampant pessimism about the possibility of playing college football in the fall of 2020 has spiraled to fatalism.

Take a deep breath, and begin to get comfortable with the idea there’s virtually no chance of playing college football in any recognizable form this fall. Start digesting the notion that the next time we see a college football game could be in more than 13 months, as the sport remains the most unlikely of all the major sports to execute a successful return. Consider any semblance of college football prior to Week Zero of 2021 as a bonus, an improbable gift from the football gods.

With the MLS struggling in a supposed bubble, MLB officials botching the testing portion of its return and an increasing amount of pessimism about the prospect of an NFL season, only a medical miracle can save college football this fall.

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“Right now, I don’t see a path in the current environment to how we play,” said a Power Five athletic director. “I’m confident we’ll get back to what we all think of as normal, but it may be a year before that happens.”

Here’s the cruel truth about how college football leaders approached football this fall: The entirety of their plan to return was based on hope. Hope that the COVID-19 would go away. Hope that college campuses wouldn’t be a petri dish for the virus. Hope that they could figure out a way to play a contact sport in a time of mandatory social distancing. Hope for a vaccine to keep players healthy and seats full.

A strategy of hope isn’t much of a strategy, and a half-dozen coaches and officials told Yahoo Sports this weekend that hope is being vanquished. It’s all over in the minds of many coaches and athletic directors, as the sport will keep pushing back to buy time until the inevitable happens.

“Ultimately, no one is playing football in the fall,” said a high-ranking college official. “It’s just a matter of how it unfolds. As soon one of the ‘autonomy five’ or Power Five conferences makes a decision, that’s going to end it.”

FILE - In this Nov. 12, 2011, file photo, LSU takes on Western Kentucky during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game in Baton Rouge. Defending league champion LSU wants to make already imposing Tiger Stadium even bigger, planning to borrow $75 million to add seats and suites and push the capacity at Death Valley past 100,000 by the 2014 season. That will give the SEC three stadiums with six-figure capacities _ Tennessee and Alabama are already there. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
It doesn't appear there will be college football in the fall. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

With more than 70,000 positive coronavirus tests in the United States setting a one-day record this weekend, outbreaks on college campuses all over the country and surges in cases in places like Florida, Texas and Arizona, the path to play college football safely is simply untenable.

College football remains a four-touchdown underdog, thanks to individual campuses, academic requirements and the inability to take 13,000 FBS players and put them in a bubble. If the NBA’s ability to play in a bubble that reportedly costs $150 million is being regarded as tenuous, the chances of college football being played in some recognizable form in the fall are similar to attempting to keep a candle lit while walking 10 miles in a hurricane.

The most interesting development in calls this weekend was the rampant uptick of pessimism in NFL circles about the season, as there are increasing obstacles for that league to play football this fall.

One high-ranking NFL team official pointed out that players with guaranteed money would be owed their entire salaries if one regular-season game is played: “The NFL is hell-bent on playing, but I just don’t know how it works functionality-wise, based on health risks and financial structure. It’s hard to see how it’s all going to happen.”

The best way to look at the Pac-12 and Big Ten’s decisions aren’t through their “health and safety” talking points. They’re best viewed as inevitable chronological steps that will unfold.

  • Status quo (The SEC, Big 12 and ACC are here.)

  • Conference play with the ability to delay (The Big Ten and Pac-12, which will soon have company.)

  • The Spring (This is gaining conversation, but detractors remain.)

  • Cancel (More people are talking about this than fans want to know.)

Those are the basic tenets of what could happen, as the desperation for some type of television inventory will allow creativity.

“What I have learned is that it’s not all or nothing,” said a television executive. “It’ll be push back, push back and maybe play four or six games in late fall. Then maybe decide to come back for another six in the spring. There’s a whole bunch of possibilities on the spectrum of getting a season in. People think it’s a binary, on or off situation. More than ever because of the money involved, they’re going to do whatever they possibly can to get in 10 football games between now and next September. That’s what it’s come to.”

The Pac-12 and Big Ten going to conference-only models is going to likely be remembered in the upcoming months like the day in March when the NCAA announced there’d be no fans at the NCAA tournament. It was a big story for a day, then forgotten as subsequent news cycles tornadoed on.

College coaches are stuck somewhere between bewildered and exasperated. They have to motivate a staff and juggle unprecedented logistics to get their players to campus safely and remain COVID-19 free. Yet they do it knowing that they are preparing for a season that isn’t happening.

“I hope I’m wrong, but I think the season being canceled is a foregone conclusion,” a Power Five coach told Yahoo Sports on Sunday.

The worry among coaches remains the same: Are we really going to keep pushing forward with the season and wait until there’s a player hooked up to a ventilator in an ICU and have that become the sport’s Rudy Gobert shutdown moment? Luckily so far – from Clemson to Texas to North Carolina, among those we know about – there have been no known hospitalizations among the college football players who’ve tested positive. But coaches remain concerned that players with pre-existing conditions like sickle cell trait could be at increased risk.

“I cringe when I hear administrators saying that the health and safety of the student-athletes is first and foremost,” said a Power Five coach. “No, it’s not. If it was, you would have already punted the season.”

The upcoming strategy for the Big 12, SEC and ACC appears to be to eventually follow the Big Ten and SEC and keep pushing things back until a path to play is available. Another Power Five coach pointed out that while perpetually delaying a season is a good strategy in a conference office boardroom, it’s more difficult in reality.

“The concept of delaying it or pushing things back makes complete sense from a conference office standpoint,” the coach said. “However, for coaches, to keep a group of 100 to 130 young men between 18 to 22 years old focused and not fall victim to the vices of normal college kids is in some ways unrealistic. Our chance to keep our cohort group healthy gets harder with time, not easier.”

Conversations are happening in the coaching space about what will happen to players with no games in the fall. Will there still be some form of a summer camp? Will schools keep players on campus? Are players safer on campus than at home?

In athletic departments, conversations have heated up about ways to figure out how to overcome the tens of millions in monetary losses that would accompany no football season. One Power Five AD estimated $60 million in lost revenue would be a safe number for a Top 20 athletic department. Another college official estimated that at least 80 percent of revenue wouldn’t arrive.

One industry source summed it up this way: “As presidents and ADs are coming to grips with the reality that football may not be played this fall, they are thinking harder on how to fill the economic gap without decimating their athletic departments. Depending on university and state rules, for some, it can be done through loans, either directly to the school or through the conference. There’s more discussion on the financial piece as the playing piece looks dimmer.”

A financial reckoning is coming for athletic departments. As one prominent athletic director has chuckled at the seemingly arbitrary budget cuts and salary cuts that schools have announced. “The thing that’s so bizarre to me is schools cutting the budget by 7 percent and 5 percent,” the athletic director said. “What world are you living in? Forget whether you lose all of your football revenue. Even if you go down to eight games, you’re not getting away with a 7 percent budget cut.”

While college football is a multi-billion dollar industry, higher education is a multi-trillion dollar industry. Another Power Five coach summed up his responsibility to the school by saying that the team being able to return to campus and operate gives the university hope it can pull off a return of students.

“Our school is opening,” the coach said. “They’re not closing down. We’re preparing and helping our university and our entire psyche in terms of, ‘You can go do this.’ I see it more from not just football, but giving colleges and universities a chance to see if they can wade through this. It’s more than just football. Can a university open and try and work through this?”

The spring option still has some support, but it’ll only be after every option to play in the fall is exhausted. Those options are dwindling by the day, as the strategy of hope that’s defined college football’s plan for the season is predictably falling apart. Hope is free, and college officials are getting what they paid for.

“The thing that’s starting to settle in for us,” said a high ranking official at a Power Five school. “We’ve been talking about this as a one-year problem. I’m not sure it’s a one-year problem anymore. To me, it’s more likely we’re in this situation the same time next year than we play college football in the fall.”

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