5 biggest questions looming over college football's return

Pete Thamel
·6 min read

The path to return to campus for colleges and universities around the country is being forged. The administrations at a majority of the SEC schools and many Power Five programs have announced their plans for students to return to campus in the fall.

Is that a ploy to keep enrollment numbers – and the subsequent checks – flowing into schools? Are the plans for a football season to go on as scheduled a way to make sure that season tickets – and the expensive seat licenses that often accompany them – are renewed?

Regardless of the motivations, this has been a week of optimism for college football to be played in the fall. Administrators around the country are pushing ahead, sounding open to the notion that football in some form or fashion can be played on campuses.

In a phone interview on Thursday, West Virginia president E. Gordon Gee summed up the sentiment of the desire to have football back this way.

“The mental health of the nation needs to be served also,” he told Yahoo Sports. “There’s a battle going on between science, politics and common senses. Up to this point, science has won and rightly so. We need to start finding the middle ground and manage those middle grounds.”

What does football need to reach the middle ground? Here are the five biggest questions looming over the sport’s return.

LSU's Ed Orgeron (L) and Clemson's Dabo Swinney pose with the trophy after a news conference before the 2020 college football title game. (AP)
LSU's Ed Orgeron (L) and Clemson's Dabo Swinney pose with the trophy after a news conference before the 2020 college football title game. (AP)

What happens when an athlete gets COVID-19?

The biggest worry among every level of the university enterprise is a so-called “start-and-stop” scenario. This means that students/athletes return to campus to resume studying and athletic activity. But then the school or team becomes a hot spot and administrators are faced with a COVID-19 situation significant enough that they need to send everyone back home.

For football season, an outbreak would likely mean ending the season. (And perhaps losing a significant amount of television revenue.) That would ripple to league play, opponents and potentially all the way to the College Football Playoff. Not to mention the health of college kids and their families.

It’d be naïve to think there won’t be cases on campuses and among athletic departments. And that means a lot of testing, contingency planning and wishing will be involved for an entire season to play out without serious issues. “A lot of presidents are banking on scientific developments in the next few months,” said an industry source.

Testing and tracing on campus, much like in society, remain the buzz words for a return to college life.

Do students need to be back on campus?

The initial thought here was that college presidents and administrators wanted students back learning on campus before inviting athletes back. The group of leaders who spoke to Vice President Mike Pence made this a focal talking point of their call on April 15.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and others have notably reversed course on the idea that students had to be on campus for football to be played. Bowlsby told a West Virginia radio station that the sport could be played if courses were 100 percent online, countering the message he and other commissioners echoed after the call to Pence.

“Our players are students,” Bowlsby said in a statement after that call. “If we’re not in college, we’re not having contests.”

But that attitude has clearly changed. Gee summed up the current attitude this way on Thursday morning. “I think there’s a larger issue of managing [the virus], rather than letting it manage us,” he said.

Who will make the ultimate call?

We’ve reminded you in this space many times that no one is in charge. The NCAA will have little say in football’s return. The conference commissioners are meeting every day on Zoom, but there’s still a worry that leagues are going to eventually scatter to uphold their best interests.

Will schools in heavily impacted areas in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and in the Northeast get left behind? It’s certainly trending that way, if you parse the comments of the commissioners. They’re ready to mutate, regionalize and do whatever it takes to play a season.

“The fact that we’re not assured of a single nationalized approach to this reflects one of our biggest challenges,” a Power Five athletic director told Yahoo Sports on Thursday.

The expectation is for nothing to be clean. “We probably need to have a football czar to make those kinds of decisions,” Gee said.

As for whether there will be fans this fall, Gee mentioned a few ideas. He said he hopes West Virginia will make masks available at games, as they’re expected to be mandatory. (He also mentioned making stylish logo masks and selling them, with the profits going to charity.) He mentioned checkerboard spacing in stadiums, which will likely be what classrooms end up looking like.

Gee also stressed that no one has definitive answers. “This thing is a moving target,” he said. “It’s a big reason why people’s views change daily.”

What could the College Football Playoff look like?

At a time when every school is enduring a financial crunch, the nearly $500 million annually that flows down to the campuses from the CFP and New Year’s Six bowl games are the closest thing to a unifier that the sport has.

If the SEC, for example, forges ahead while the Pac-12 delays the season, how does the end look? The CFP remains one of the fascinating north stars in all of this. How many games are needed to qualify? What could it end up looking like if there’s a conference-only schedule? Is a 9-1 team with a loss in better shape than an undefeated 7-0 team? Be ready for a mess, as the only certainty at this point is that there will be significant inequity.

Officially, there hasn’t been any discussion about the CFP’s role. That’s viewed essentially as intentional avoidance. The CFP last met formally via Zoom for their annual meeting on April 20 and 21. Still, there has been no formal “what if” discussions on things like season length, potential inequities in schedule and any type of altered season. “It’s too soon to speculate,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock told Yahoo Sports on Thursday.

How big is the financial crunch?

Gee summed it up this way: “If you don’t have a football season, you probably don’t have an athletic department.” Gee said this, generally, referring to the importance of football in an athletic department’s budget.

But the reality is that every part of the university is going to feel financial stress from COVID-19. Schools are announcing they’ll be back without knowing for certain in order to keep enrollment from plummeting. Schools are expected to admit more students than normal to keep numbers up. Filling dorms and feeding thousands of students are huge fixed incomes for colleges.

While football is critical to athletic departments, athletics is only a small fraction of campus budgets. Those budgets are going to be tight for years, especially as schools face decreases in donations to go along with revenue losses.

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