With a pandemic nightmare looming in the fall, college leaders can still save football season

Pete Thamel
·7 min read

We are nearly a month from the start of formal 20-hour per-week college football practices and two months from the sport’s Week Zero kickoff.

As the numbers of positive COVID-19 tests spike across the country, college coaches have become increasingly dour about the prospect of any kind of functional college football season.

College football was always going to be the hardest sport to come back and play amid the pandemic. The sport is already sputtering to return in the voluntary workout phase, without the significant exposure increases that will come with actual practices, a full locker room setting and thousands of students returning to campus sometime near the start of the season. Football remains a contact sport, and it’s telling that it’s flailing amid the non-contact portion of its return.

Three different Power Five coaches in three different leagues summed up the reality of a conventional and uninterrupted college football season this week as somewhere close to impossible.

“I have no idea how we play,” one Power Five coach told Yahoo Sports. “We are cleared to have 10 guys work out at a time with no one within 10 feet of each other and have to clean the whole weight room. And two weeks later, we can line up in a walk (through) 11 on 11?”

Added another Power Five coach: “If it’s contact tracing and lose a guy for 14 days, I don’t know how we’re going to have a football season.”

The third Power Five coach quantified the chances of a 12-game season being executed in the fall without significant cancellations and chaos as “close to zero” percent.

With workout cancellations and quarantines the new normal at places like LSU, Clemson and Texas – and those are just the ones reported – there’s an emerging feeling that this season is headed toward a buzzsaw of medical risk, mass cancellations and eventual financial disaster. “If it’s not working in [professional] golf and tennis, how is it going to work in football?” asked one high-ranking college official.

And that leaves us with a bigger question: Why has there been no significant discussion about moving the sport to the spring? Yahoo Sports reached out to officials and athletic directors across the major conferences and there’s been little to no significant discussion about delaying the season to assure that it’s safer and more manageable.

Here’s the case for a spring season: The potential for lower health risk and medical advancements from treatments and vaccines, which means more potential fan revenue and a safer environment for players.

“I understand and am concerned about the challenge of playing two seasons in one calendar year,” said a prominent athletic director. “But in light of the country’s uneven progress in fighting the pandemic and some of the recent testing numbers from football programs, we have to revisit the possibility that spring football is the better of two suboptimal choices.”

The CFB 2020 logo is displayed on the field prior to the College Football Playoff title game between LSU and Clemson on Jan. 13, 2020. (Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images)
The CFB 2020 logo is displayed on the field prior to the College Football Playoff title game between LSU and Clemson on Jan. 13, 2020. (Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images)

If not, here’s the reality we’re bracing for: Do we really expect the start of actual full-contact practice and the eventual return of students to campus to decrease the number of positive tests and players quarantined? Does the season turn into a Darwinian survival test of who can field a roster each week? That’s where we’re headed, as the old cliché about availability being the best ability will become the mantra for a season defined by a battle of attrition.

Why not let the NFL and NBA play out and learn from their mistakes, best practices and benefit from the technology advances that will inevitably come along?

“It’s crazy that no one is seriously talking about playing in the spring right now,” said another Power Five head coach. “We would know so much more six, seven or eight months from now.”

A lot can change in the nearly two months until the season starts, but the lack of exploration of playing football in the spring looks negligent.

“It’s an absence of leadership,” said the high-ranking college official. “From the very beginning, there should have been parallel tracks being planned. A track to play in the fall until that’s untenable and then shift to the spring season track.”

The news this week that Dr. Anthony Fauci is “cautiously optimistic” that a coronavirus vaccine could be available late in 2020 or early 2021 should give athletic leaders pause. The ability to play in the spring would potentially help schools be safer, which should be the priority.

If the safety argument doesn’t win, then the financial one should. A vaccine would potentially mean more fans, which result in more than $30 million annually for the top-20 schools in ticket sales and donations tied to seating.

“I think it may be more of a topic of conversation soon than it has been up to this point,” said a Power Five athletic director about moving the season to the spring.

Think about it this way: the past week has seen a flurry of publicity about skepticism over the NBA being able to execute their plan to play in a bubble. If a bubble had an antonym, it’d be a college campus with thousands of students traveling back there. Two athletic directors mentioned potentially not sending players to in-person classes to mitigate risk.

An ESPN report on Thursday said that they will use “local, state and federal law enforcement, plus former special operations forces, to secure the bubble.”

All college football has is a hotel the night before the game and the head coach’s glare to sway players from nightlife. Counting on 13,000 college football players living monastically is a billion-dollar gamble that seems preposterous.

The pandemic has reinforced the leadership void, fractured agendas and the pervasive issues that come from no central leadership body in college sports. For example, who can answer this question: What date will there actually be a decision on whether they’ll play the season?

How would the season look in the spring? This won’t be easy, which is why planning would be required. We’d have to be comfortable with elite players – think the caliber of Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard and Oregon’s Penei Sewell – skipping the season. (That this model would hurt the NFL factories is one reason why the Nick Sabans and Dabo Swinneys of the college world wouldn’t want it to happen.)

There are health complications playing two seasons in a condensed timeframe, which may result in a delayed start to the 2021 fall season.

As for the schedule, a reasonable start date would be the week after the Feb. 7 Super Bowl, which gives teams six weeks after New Year’s to return and get in shape. The regular season would end in early May, or earlier if it’s shortened from 12 games. The playoff could culminate on Memorial Day, and perhaps the NCAA tournament would start the next week. (It could also run congruent to the conference title games, playoff and bowls in May, giving college sports fans the nightly sports binges they’ve been craving.)

There are TV questions which have yet to be explored, but the networks could figure out a way to play college football on Thursday night, Friday night, Saturdays, Sundays and Monday night and make plenty of money. They’d make it work up against pedestrian regular season pro sports programming.

There’s no perfect solution or plan for college football returning. But with cases spiking, rosters idling in quarantine and uncertainty shrouding the sport, perhaps college officials should start some exploration and modeling of the spring option.

If they want better safety, more money and better odds to actually finish the season, it’s a safer bet than the buzzsaw that awaits.

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