For nearly five months, college football has grappled with how to conduct a traditional season while acknowledging the uncertain degree of health and safety concerns caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
If the league officially cancels play this coming season, the Big Ten may be the catalyst for every Power Five conference arriving at the same conclusion: Despite the best efforts to create a workable environment for competition, college football is an unfortunate casualty of COVID-19.
While awaiting the fate of the 2020 season, here’s what we know about the state of play in the Bowl Subdivision:
The Power Five domino effect
The conference has been driving the conversation on playing amid COVID-19 since at least July, when the Big Ten’s decision to eliminate non-conference play was largely mirrored by the rest of the Power Five.
In that case, the Big Ten was quickly followed by the Pac-12. Those two leagues, long in lockstep, are again seemingly in agreement about the ability to play even an altered schedule against the backdrop of the pandemic.
The immediate impact of the Big Ten’s potential move on the entirety of the Power Five is difficult to assess. By scheduling games to begin in late September, the SEC may feel comfortable waiting deeper into August before announcing its plans. Likewise with the Big 12 and ACC.
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In a series of tweets, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said Monday the conference “has been deliberate at each step since March.”
“We know concerns remain,” he said. “Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying. We support, educate and care for student-athletes every day, and will continue to do so … every day.”
On Tuesday on The Dan Patrick Show, Sankey said it is unlikely the SEC would play on its own if the other four Power Five conferences decided not to have fall football.
“I don’t think that’s the right direction, really,” Sankey saidl. “Could we? Certainly. There’s a difference between can you do something and should you do something in life.”
One thing is certain: By again leading the conversation, the Big Ten will force the rest of the Power Five to address whether it’s possible to justify competition when at least one other league has decided to table play at least through the winter. And if so, can three or even two leagues compete as standalone bodies without all the accompanying pieces to a normal season?
The Mid-American Conference and the Mountain West have already announced the cancellation of their fall seasons
Coaches and players are frustrated
There is a high degree of frustration among coaches who feel stuck in a waiting game due to an uncertain season. While practices continue, coaching staffs are unable to provide information to players who have already spent five months largely without any concrete direction regarding the fate of competition.
“We know how things change and how fluid it is,” Louisville coach Scott Satterfield said. “We’d like to get something definitive, just for our mental sake.”
Meanwhile, players are frustrated by their lack of a voice in the decision-making process. That led to several star players posting tweets on Sunday using the hashtags #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay.
“Football is a safe haven for so many people,” Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence posted on Twitter. “We are more likely to get the virus in everyday life than playing football.”
Lawrence also posted a statement calling for universal safety protocols, guaranteed eligibility and the creation of “a College Football Players Association” with player representatives from each of the Power Five conferences.
The possibility of spring football
The Big Ten — if it chooses to shut down — will likely shift its attention to the spring. In a vacuum, spring football will follow the same blueprint as a traditional season and conceivably end with the College Football Playoff, though that format would need to redraw the postseason map and potentially change locations for the national semifinals.
Several questions remain unanswered, however. For one, when would a spring season begin? When would it end? Would teams be able to play non-conference games? What about bowl games? And what would a makeup season in the spring mean for the traditional calendar of competition in the fall of 2021?
How next fall would look
Playing two full seasons in one calendar year is highly unlikely given the inability to give players ample time to rest and recover between the end of a potential spring season and the start of the fall.
Instead, should the FBS shift to a spring schedule look for both seasons to be truncated, with a conference-only spring matched by a similarly short fall season. In both cases, the solution for trimming games would to eliminate non-conference play, which the Power Five already established as a solution for providing scheduling flexibility without making any major sacrifices to the championship race.
Players opting out
We’ve already seen a handful of high-profile college stars opt out of this season to get ready for the NFL, led by Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons. While others have committed to playing in the fall, such as quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, the equation would change since the entire FBS move competition to the spring.
There’s the possible conflict with the NFL draft, which would seemingly overlap with the final stage of a spring season. An injury suffered during the spring would have even an stronger impact on a player’s draft stock due to the proximity to the fall — a prospect who suffers an injury may not be able to recover by September, for example.
Even if players entering the draft were able to make it through the spring season healthy, the prospect of immediately turning around and going into an NFL training camp would be challenging physically.
Changes coming to recruiting
The whole calendar will need to be adjusted to meet the impact of the coronavirus, which has already profoundly altered the normal flow of recruiting during the 2021 cycle.
Should football be held in the spring, the NCAA will have to decide whether to allow early enrollees, who typically start classes in January, to participate in the season and still retain another four years of eligibility. That’s in addition to deciding whether to move the second national signing day away from February and deeper into the spring, which may in turn require changes to the 2022 cycle.
Schools currently are not able to host recruits for official visits though Aug. 31. That likely will be extended if the season is shut down.