Forget the fall: It's time to start planning 2020 college football season in 2021

Amid the pandemic that has shut down much of America, there remains a clamoring for normal. Schools, restaurants and stadiums are high among the places people are coveting a return to.

But nearly six weeks after the mass cancellations of mainstream sports, it’s becoming increasingly clear that was actually the easy part. The difficulty ahead will be the reintegration back to normal. In that sense, college football remains the most complex sport in the country because of its size, geographic diversity and attachment to academia.

The quandary facing college football right now is among the country’s polarizing extremes — refrigerated trucks for dead bodies outside New York hospitals to open beaches in South Carolina and Florida. Good luck finding a consensus when the local empirical data varies so greatly.

Nearly everyone around college sports can agree with this, however. The notion that there will be tens of thousands of fans crammed in the stands at Husky Stadium (Michigan at Washington), AT&T Stadium (Alabama vs. USC) and Ohio Stadium for opening weekend is unlikely. The notion that every one of those state’s governors, mayors and local health officials will allow an event with a mass gathering on Sept. 5 — the first full weekend of the sport — is trending toward impossible.

“It’s too idealistic at this point to think we are going to be able to have 80,000 people in stadiums in all 50 states with all universities in the FBS having in-person classes in the fall as opposed to continuing school online,” said a high-ranking college official.

It’s time to do something college athletics leaders tend to struggle with — think ahead instead of being reactionary. With many leaders already vocal about no college football without students on campus, it’s time to realize that all 130 FBS schools won’t have students on campus next year.

With that reality, it’s becoming clear that waiting and pushing back big decisions and hoping for some kind of medical miracle isn’t the smartest move for college athletics. Instead, the discussion of the future of the sport needs to begin shifting on playing some version of the 2020 season in 2021.

“Lead time and certainty,” the official said. “We announce we are playing in the spring, there’s no more [ticket] refunds. We can start selling tickets again. Start collecting seat [donation] gifts again. Start signing sponsorship deals again. TV can start planning. Sort of like the delayed payroll tax.”

A general view of the field before the CFP title game between LSU and Clemson on Jan. 13, 2020. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
A general view of the field before the CFP title game between LSU and Clemson on Jan. 13, 2020. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

The re-opening of America is a scientific debate more than a sports one. Even if some areas are ready to dare the virus and play in the fall, all of them won’t be. The idea of playing in empty stadiums this fall is foolish for college sports, as it’d come with both liability concerns and a significant amount of ticket revenue lost.

So what’s the most prudent plan for the sport? Announce they’ll be playing from January through April. Set a schedule. Let TV work around it. Let the economics of the season churn and eliminate the inertia of uncertainty that’s ensconced the sport. Let the American machinery of science, biotech and resources kick into high gear over eight months to pave a path to normalcy.

The certainty of a set schedule eliminates the drip-drip-drip of what we’re encountering now, the bleak waiting for the inevitable. Cal-State Fullerton announced this week that it’s canceling in-person classes for the fall. Could UCLA and Cal be far behind? Things appear bleak in areas significantly impacted by the virus, including Michigan, Louisiana, the Bay Area and New Jersey. We can’t be in the position where some schools are returning, but not all.

How do we know things will be fine in January? We don’t. But higher education is hemorrhaging millions outside of athletics — elective surgeries have stopped at many university hospitals and the money from residence halls and dining are huge blows to the school’s bottom lines. By January, there will assuredly be advances in medicine, a better understanding of both the treatments and risks. It will also help avoid the so-called “second wave” of spreading we’ve seen in different countries that rushed back.

This notion certainly comes with myriad complications. Would March Madness then need to become May Madness? Would the NFL draft happen right before camp? What about the NFL scouting combine, Senior Bowl and the entire pre-draft process? Would elite players skip the season or flock to the supplemental draft? What about weather in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Massachusetts?

The thorniest reverberation may be planning the fall of 2021. Would it have to be pushed back to October to allow for rest and healing?

On Thursday, there will be a meeting of the NCAA’s Division I Football Oversight Committee. It’s comprised of representatives from all the FBS leagues and also some FCS schools.

Each conference was asked to submit its perspective on how much lead time is needed to return to play. These models do not involve a specific date, but rather the conversation around the amount of preseason time it would take for programs to get players healthy and fit to start the season.

Conferences submitted models that varied in length, but the general conclusion was that it would take somewhere in the neighborhood of six weeks to get in shape and prepare for a season.

The number may end up at four weeks, however, because that’s the amount of time FCS schools typically take to get ready for the season. A source said that NCAA officials have changed their tone about the length of time because of the typically shorter prep period for the FCS season.

The struggle to find common ground on a hypothetical pathway to return underscores the uncertainty on figuring out a date to return.

People familiar with the Football Oversight Committee’s plans say that along with the discussion on the preseason, there’s an expectation of discussion of different models of playing the season.

“The initial plan is to figure out what it’ll take for us to get up and running, whatever that may be,” said a source familiar with the discussions. “Then the hope is to transition into, ‘When do we play?’”

The cleanest answer for the future of the sport is to start planning on January. By that time, it’s much more likely there will be students on campus, fans in the stands and testing available to avoid the nightmare scenario the NBA endured.

Canceling sports, it turns out, was the easy part. Bringing them back is going to be infinitely more difficult. That’s why lead time and certainty can bring some stability and cohesion to the sport’s future.

One athletic director summed up the sport’s quandary this way: “Everyone understands we’re all going to get kicked in the pants at some point. We need to figure out what’s good for the cause of greater college football.”

Unfortunately, with varied interests and no one in charge, there’s rarely anyone looking out for the sport’s greater good.

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