College crossroads: Is 2020 season in free fall?
Within a few hours of the Big Ten announcing on July 9 that it would play conference games only during the 2020 college football season, West Virginia Athletic Director Shane Lyons’ phone began ringing.
The Mountaineers were scheduled to play Big Ten member Maryland on Sept. 19, but the league’s decision left West Virginia with a significant hole in its schedule. By the end of the evening, Lyons had heard from schools across the country that were in the same situation, looking for an opponent to fill out their 12-game schedules.
That night, Lyons decided to hit the pause button rather than leap into another game contract “because you don’t know what’s around the next corner,” he said. “This became just one more ball in the air that we’ll have to deal with.”
The concept of playing a full 12-game schedule this year wasn’t conceivable for the Big Ten and Pac-12, both of which will limit football games this fall to conference opponents. Rising COVID-19 infection rates and negative trends nationally prompted those two conferences to make a call before most other leagues were ready.
West Virginia’s conference, the Big 12, along with the SEC and the ACC still haven’t decided what type of scheduling model they will utilize, but a 12-game regular season remains the goal for now, despite the uptick in coronavirus cases in the past month.
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Those conferences say they’ll determine a course for the 2020 season in the next few weeks, but the lack of any consensus among the 10 FBS leagues, and even the Power Five, reflects just how challenging it will be to stage a season that’s equitable for 130 FBS schools.
“With the Big Ten and Pac-12 deciding to change things up, it puts pressure on the rest of us to make what could be some hard decisions,” Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill said. “I’m staying optimistic that we can have a 12-game schedule, but we’re facing some headwinds right now that might lead us to playing fewer than 12 games or going conference only. But we’ve got a little more time before we have to make that decision.”
The opinions of college leaders are all over the board when it comes to viable scheduling models.
One Conference USA athletic director favored shutting down the 2020 season completely, saying “What’s different now vs. March 12 when we shut it all down?” and canceled spring sports. “We need one league to pass on the fall. We need one league to take that stance.”
Some already have.
Three NCAA Division I conferences, the Ivy League, MEAC and Patriot League, and two Division II conferences, the CIAA and SIAC, have shut down fall sports so far.
Another AD from the American Athletic Conference doesn’t see how schools will get through a full football season without major disruptions.
“At some point, we’re going to realize that this isn’t going to work and we’ll go to eight games and then settle on trying to get in six games” by Thanksgiving, the AD said. That will make for an interesting College Football Playoff selection show “because we’ll have 22 unbeaten teams. TV ratings will be great.”
The ultimate alternative is moving the season into the spring 2021 semester. None of the ADs or commissioners interviewed prefer this model, but it does serve as a last resort.
Again, opinions on a spring season cover a wide range of reactions.
The spring is a viable alternative, some ADs say, that would permit games to be played and media rights fees to be collected, which would have a big positive impact on athletic budgets. The argument against the spring season is that it sacrifices too much of the offseason by essentially playing two full football seasons in one calendar year. And there will be an inevitable conflict with winter and spring sports.
“We need to stop chasing games that are unlikely to happen,” another AD from the AAC said. “We don’t need to do anything that’s going to compromise a full 2021 season.”
In the meantime, despite the health trends nationally that are threatening the regular season, schools like Arkansas State are still looking to schedule replacement games. The Red Wolves were slated to play at Michigan on Sept. 19 for what was a reported college football record guarantee of $1.8 million.
One of the first calls Arkansas State AD Terry Mohajir made to fill his open date was to West Virginia.
In all likelihood, Mohajir said, the Red Wolves will have to wait for the ACC, Big 12 and SEC to make their decisions on the 2020 season before they know what their next move is, whether it’s scheduling a new opponent or leaving the date open.
“We don’t have anything concrete, but we keep sifting through the options, knowing that something could change,” Mohajir said. “That’s about all we can do.”