Let me preface this by saying I am not an infectious disease expert and have very little insight on the details of the coronavirus. While it feels like even the people who are supposed to be in the know in times like these know very little themselves, I know even less than these people. What I do know, however, is that all of our lives have been heavily impacted by this virus, and that there is no clear end in sight and no obvious course of action.
What has this meant for the sports world? Well, for starters this year’s March Madness tournament was cancelled, and with it came the suspension of both the NHL and NBA seasons. Next it was the MLB, who had to shut things down in Spring Training and still has no clear start date in sight as we near the middle of May. None of these leagues have anything close to a concrete plan to resume any time soon, and while the start of summer is still over a month out, we are rapidly approaching the next sports season: football.
It is likely still too far out to speculate on exactly what will happen this football season, but it is definitely a question worth asking. Last week, our own Matt Tamanini wrote about what would happen to Ohio State’ 2021 early enrollees if the season is moved to the spring. Now, keeping in tune with SB Nation’s “What If” Week, let’s take a look at just what that spring season would look like. What exactly happens if the college football season is shifted?
Firstly, we must look at where the sport currently stands, in both the pros and at the collegiate level. To this point, the NFL has remained more or less on its normal schedule. Free agency started on time, and the NFL Draft went on as planned — albeit in a virtual capacity. It is now that the league is beginning to hit its first roadblock, as this is around the time teams would normally begin offseason OTAs. For now, the NFL plans to get as much done in a virtual capacity as possible, and for all intents and purposes is currently slated to begin on time in the fall.
College football, however, has its own unique set of challenges, the most pressing being the return to on-campus learning. Around the same time, sports began going off the grid, colleges across the country began sending their students home as they transitioned to all online courses. Without any sort of vaccine in the coming months, which from the start seemed unlikely to be produced at any point this year, it is hard to believe we will see thousands of students flocking back to campus this fall.
With the players that make up the sport being student-athletes, it would be both unlikely and unfair to ask them to return to campus while the rest of America’s students are told to stay home. Obviously nothing is set in stone. We don't know where we will be as a nation in August/September, but for right now this is clearly the first major hurdle that the sport will have to face.
What makes matters even murkier right now is that the NCAA has no plans to oversee the sport’s start to the season. On Tuesday, ESPN’s Heather Dinich reported that NCAA president Mark Emmert said the governing body will not mandate a uniform return to college sports, instead leaving it up to state officials and university presidents to decide when they think it is fit to play.
Different parts of the country are at different stages in their outbreak right now, which will likely remain true for the remainder of the year. While some had begun to speculate that this could lead to some conferences playing while others sit out, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey put a halt to those rumors on Tuesday. Speaking to Paul Finebaum, Sankey basically explained that the Power 5 conferences are too interconnected for one conference to play without the others. The schedules just wouldn’t make any sense unless everyone was on board.
With all the evidence we currently have in front of us, it would seem increasingly unlikely that the college football season begins on time. However, this doesn’t mean all hope is lost. There is still a chance the 2020 season gets played, it just might have to take place in 2021 — when the country would hopefully be better prepared and closer to its normal state.
What would a college football season during the spring semester look like? Well, this upcoming season is tentatively scheduled to begin on Aug. 29, with the regular season concluding on Dec. 12 and the national title game on Jan. 11. If the schedule is to be played out in its entirety, this means that you would need about five months to fit it all in. Let’s say the season began in early January. This would put its conclusion sometime in mid-to-late May. If you were to cut out the non-conference schedule and one of the two bye weeks, this opens the door for a four-month season ending in April.
Now obviously, other schedules and events would have to be moved around in order for this to work. The NFL Draft, which takes place at the end of April, would obviously have to be pushed back to allow time for the athletes to take part in the Combine and other pre-draft activities. There would also be competition for TV time during the NCAA Tournament — that is, if college basketball itself starts on time. However, it shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to venues, as the vast majority of schools have their own stadiums that would not be in use otherwise.
Of course, this massive overhaul of the schedule would also impact the 2021 season, as the players would not simply end the 2020 season in April/May just to pick right back up and kickoff again in August. It wouldn’t seem to be all too hard to return the calendar back to normal, as the following season could begin just a month or so later than originally planned to provide enough time for an offseason while also making sure the following season can return back to its normal start time in 2022.
There would also be some positives to college football playing in the spring. For starters, the weather would be nicer for some of the biggest games of the year. Instead of the Ohio State-Michigan game taking place on a frigid day in late November, it would be played on a much more temperate day in early spring. Plus, the CFB season would extend past the end of the NFL season — pending the league’s start time, of course — allowing teams’ front offices to focus greater attention on player evaluation for the draft while not being distracted by the ongoing NFL schedule.
Obviously all of this is speculation, and none of it is ideal. In a perfect world, college football starts up right on time with fans in the stands this August. With where we currently stand, that does not seem at all likely. Everyone wants there to be a college football season in 2020, especially the athletic programs that already lost out on the revenue from the NCAA Tournament’s cancellation. The powers that be will do everything in their control to make sure a season happens, it just might not start when you originally thought.