6 and 7 Game Seasons? Pac is Back? What Is Going On In College Football?

Barely over a month ago, the hopes for a college football season seemed dismal at best, and completely dead at worst. The Pac-12 and Big 10 had cancelled, as had the Mountain West and MAC, leaving just six of ten FBS conferences ready to play in the fall. Rumors were that the ACC were close to folding, but the resolve of Notre Dame to both play and join the ACC temporarily gave that desire new life to start playing. The FBS season kicked off on September 3rd, with Miami taking on UAB, and we’ve since seen three weekends of college football. There have been hiccups – Baylor has seen four different games called off due to coronavirus concerns, and certainly the season has not gone off without any problems, but the return of college football is real, and it’s feasible that everyone else will be back soon as well.

Yesterday, there we’re several announcements regarding the Pac-12 and Mountain West, which are intending to return to the fall football scene, albeit with shortened schedules. That followed up the Big 10’s announcement that they hope to resume play in late October, and overall, it’s been an absolute whirlwind in college football. Here’s a brief rundown of what’s going on:

The Pac-12 is back, playing a 7-game schedule

As of now, the plan is that the Pac-12 will return on November 6, and they’ll play a 7-game schedule that includes the conference championship. Teams play the five teams within their division, and one crossover game. On December 19, there will be a title game played, with the non-qualifiers playing an additional crossover game to round out their schedule. The full schedule will be released in a couple of days.

To this point, there is no indication of whether they are ineligible for the College Football Playoff, which could lead to some interesting debates if Oregon, or perhaps USC, goes 7-0, but they have to compare there resume with a mix of SEC, ACC, and Big 12 teams that have played 10 or 11 games. Simply being eligible will be key for the Pac-12, as that at least entitles them to the Power-5 payout, which last year was 66 million per conference.

The Mountain West and Big 10 pick up the same timeline

The Mountain West conference elected to take the same schedule format as the Big 10, beginning an 8-game slate on October 24, with their conference championship on December 19. With two 6-team divisions, it’s unclear what the specifics of the schedule will look like, but ultimately, the biggest factor here is Boise State. The Broncos are the only consistently good team in this conference, and they are a yearly challenger for the Group of 5’s spot in the New Year’s 6.

A notable exception at this point is the Air Force academy. Despite the Mountain West’s cancellation the Falcons had gone ahead with their plans to compete in their two-game series with Army and Navy. While their clash with Navy is scheduled for October 3rd, their game with the Black Knights is slated for November 7, which would be the third week of the Mountain West season. That potential dilemma was not mentioned by the Mountain West in their announcement today.

What about the MAC?

The MAC remains the only FBS conference to not have a fall season in place, but this could change soon as well. They were the earliest conference to postpone their season, doing so on August 8, but sources say they are planning on holding a presidents’ meeting, where the plan is to vote on a season. As of now, the rumors are circulating around a potential 6-game season in the MAC, which would officially get all FBS conferences into play. The MAC doesn’t have a nationally relevant team, with their best overall record last season coming from Buffalo, who finished 8-5. Regardless, at this point, it would be very strange for the conference to attempt to go solo and play a spring season by themselves, so expect some shortened season announcement to be coming soon.

Recent Virus Spikes Should Not Be The Reason To Shut Down College Football

The headlines have been both plentiful and negative this week, as reports of UNC reversing course and shifting to online learning, while Notre Dame did the same, although allowed students to stay on campus – for now. Both situations were caused by significant spikes in COVID-19 cases. UNC reported over 320 cases, with another couple of hundred students quarantined due to contact tracing. Notre Dame’s latest update had 222 confirmed cases as of Wednesday at noon. As with UNC, dozens of other students are currently quarantined. In an email, Notre Dame president Father Jenkins stated that the number of initial cases, just 15 days since freshman arrived on campus, and under two weeks after classes started, exceeded their initial estimates. New campus restrictions were set in place, and the student body is somewhat in limbo regarding their status for the rest of the semester. At UNC, most students are returning home. However, at both schools, sports, notably football, remains largely unhindered.

Notre Dame did not practice Wednesday, and they might not Thursday either. The players received tests for the virus, and it is believed that they will wait for results before continuing with practice. Their last set of test results came on August 10, with just 2 of 117 players and staff testing positive. Those who are against schools returning to in-person learning have been vehemently against a college football season. But quite frankly, recent developments show that these athletes may actually be safer with the season ongoing.

The COVID-19 virus remains a relative unknown, and obviously, player safety should be prioritized. However, can it be confidently said that cancelling the football season would make these players safer? I’m not so sure that the case can be made. Throughout the summer, many college football programs practiced, following strict health protocols and keeping case numbers extremely low and even nonexistent at times. These low numbers have been been a major point in the push from many college football players and coaches to keep their 2020 season alive. When seasons were cancelled, many coaches spoke out, discussing the guidelines they had successfully followed in order to earn the chance to play.

Would the numbers increase once the season started? Again, the virus can be a little unpredictable given how new it is, but it seems that if the testing capacity is there, it would not be the case. Look at the case in the NHL and NBA bubbles right now – no cases are being reported despite heavy contact sports being played with no masks and certainly very little distancing. Yet, with increased testing, there have been no cases in recent weeks. While they’re in a bubble, the MLB is not. And yes, the MLB has had some struggles with cases, but every team that has been shut down has been linked to activity that took place off the field, such as a few Miami Marlins’ players visiting a strip club. These sports aren’t particularly conducive to distancing, players aren’t wearing mask, and many of the other general safety protocols regarding COVID are not really in play in these bubbles. Football may be a new test, but it doesn’t appear at this point, given the success of summer practices, as well as the restart of professional sports, that playing sports dramatically increases the chance of infection.

But what about the bevy of Athletic Directors saying they won’t play football without their students on campus? We can only hope they will see sense. While yes, the college’s job is to educate their students, it would be ignorant to ignore the financial ramifications of losing the football season. Notre Dame, for example, uses the money from their contract with NBC to supplment financial aid packages for students. Football is the biggest moneymaker for many universities around the country. It’s not about prioritizing athletes over regular students – it’s about doing their best to dull the financial crisis that will arise out of this pandemic.

As for the recent spikes in cases? To this point, there is no reason to suggest that will be made better by cancelling football. Initial reports from Notre Dame said that the majority of their cases originated with a couple of large off-campus parties. UNC reported a similar situation. The trend has been pretty clear – off campus students, who have housing secured for the year, and non-athletes, with little to lose beyond in-person classes, have been careless and put their schools in tough positions. Notre Dame’s numbers showed that the majority of their cases came from two sources – senior students and business students. Seniors, and particularly seniors in business, often have jobs locked up, or close to locked up, entering their final academic year. Their housing situation would remain largely unchanged, and their future prospects would hardly be threatened by another virtual semester. Meanwhile, a general sense of outrage has permeated the campus, particularly among on-campus underclassmen, who would feel the brunt of the impact of a virtual semester.

There’s a reason that the numbers among football teams have been extremely low – these athletes are playing for their team and their future. Take away that season and all you are doing is adding hundreds of players to a careless student body. That doesn’t seem to lower the risk. The trend is clear – people with something to lose have been more careful, follow the guidelines, and keep the case numbers low. If we’re looking at a pros and cons list, the cons of cancelling football seem to outweigh the pros by a heavy margin right now. Fans or not, colleges need this financially, and if anything, recent events have shown that sports are not really the issue at hand – they’re simply becoming another victim in a hunt to end the virus that feels more and more like a chicken running around with its head cut off. Focus on the issue at hand and give the players the chance to play that they deserve.

And if you’re not an athlete – maybe don’t throw a massive party that gets your school shut down.

Effects Of Notre Dame And New Schedule On The ACC

It was a whirlwind ten minutes to be covering the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Waiting on a pending announcement regarding the commitment of the Irish’s top 2021 running back recruit Logan Diggs, news broke that Notre Dame would officially be competing in the ACC, becoming eligible for their first ever conference championship and the ACC’s bid in the Orange Bowl. It is strictly a one-year arrangement for now, as the ACC also dropped a revised schedule that follows a “10 +1” scheduling module involving ten conference clashes and one non-conference game played in an ACC home state. The schedule will be played over 13 weeks, allowing for two bye weeks, which may be arranged to abide by quarantine rules as much as possible. In the midst of that bombshell dropping, the awaited announcement from Diggs came, and the 3-star running back is headed to South Bend, making it a contender for the most exciting 10 minutes in the sports world in the past 5 months. 

But now that everything is official, let’s break it all down, and what it means for both the ACC and Notre Dame. 

Notre Dame to compete for ACC title, Orange Bowl bid

This is one of the biggest parts of the new addition to the existing partnership between Notre Dame and the ACC. Although just for one year, the Irish will have access to both a conference championship and the ACC’s guaranteed Orange Bowl bid, should they qualify. Quite frankly, Notre Dame becomes instant contenders for both. They’ll be given the 2nd best odds to win the ACC behind Clemson and gives the conference a 2nd viable Playoff contender. Given that they won’t be favorites to beat Clemson – and definitely not twice – it does seem likely that the Orange Bowl is a somewhat likely destination if Notre Dame holds serve against the rest of the ACC. In exchange for this, Notre Dame will share their NBC contract revenue with the rest of the conference. 

Season Format

The ACC will – as of now – shoot for a pretty ambitious 11-game schedule in 13 weeks, allotting two open weeks per team. The season is slated to start during the second week of September, and ten conference games will be played. The ACC is allowing one non-conference game, as long as it is played in the home state of the ACC school. This makes logical sense for the natural Clemson-South Carolina, Georgia Tech-Georgia, Louisville-Kentucky, and FSU-Florida rivalry weekend clashes, but it leaves some questions elsewhere. UNC and NC State and Duke will all have to find separate opponents to come to North Carolina, while Virginia and Virginia Tech face the same challenge. Notre Dame has a difficult situation, being so much further west than the rest of the conference, in that their array of opportunities for regional opponents is completely different. If the Big 10 remains strictly conference-only, the Irish are left with just Ball State as a non-conference match-up. Not ideal for strength of schedule, but a potential two games against Clemson should mitigate that concern. As of now, Notre Dame remains committed to their attempts to play Navy this season. It would at this point likely involve switching the venue to Notre Dame Stadium, as Annapolis isn’t an option under the new ACC guidelines. 

ACC Schedule

The ACC schedule looks different for everyone now, with the conference slate expanded by two games. The most notable change in set-up is that there will be no divisions –  no ACC Atlantic and ACC Coastal. Both were merged into one 14-team mosh pit of a conference, much like the 10-team Big 12. Ultimately, this set-up is a nice add-on in that it allows the two best teams to play for the title. Imagine the TV ratings for a Clemson vs. Notre Dame rematch in the ACC championship, rather than last year’s horrific Clemson-Virginia manslaughter. This may have been done to alleviate concerns about arbitrarily placing Notre Dame in one of the conferences. Putting them in the Coastal would have made them an instant favorite in the ACC’s inferior division, while slotting them into the Atlantic would have angered both Clemson and Notre Dame, as the clear two best teams would be competing for one spot in the championship. This avoids any disagreement regarding Notre Dame’s placement, and gives a struggling Power-5 conference the opportunity for their best championship game in years. 

How does this affect Notre Dame and Clemson

For the game schedule, the ACC released everyone’s opponents, although no dates attached to the game. Notre Dame added contests against UNC, Boston College, Syracuse, and Florida State. A notable omission was a clash with the Miami Hurricanes, who many wanted to see come to South Bend after Miami ended Notre Dame’s playoff hopes in beatdown fashion in 2017. There will be no resurrection of the Catholic vs. Convicts rivalry in 2020. Ultimately, Notre Dame’s schedule probably got a touch easier from their original slate. Florida State is a tricky game, as is UNC, but neither match the difficulty that USC or Wisconsin would have posed. Syracuse and BC are expected to be near the bottom of the conference so they add little to nothing to the resume. Ultimately, Notre Dame’s season should still come down to the Clemson game – or games – as, if the Irish play to their capability, they should beat everyone else on the schedule, especially with a tricky rivalry game and brutal road Big 10 clash out of the way. 

Meanwhile, conference favorite Clemson’s schedule – somewhat detabably – got harder, as they dropped a pretty bad NC State team from the schedule, as well as a Louisville team that is good but very unproven. In exchange, they added Pitt, Miami, and Virginia Tech to the docket, all of which have trap-game potential. Notre Dame’s addition to the conference likely gives Clemson some breathing room. Losing in South Bend may not end their season if they rebound with an ACC championship victory over the Irish, but their conference slate added a few more tricky contests to navigate, so things definitely got tougher for Clemson with these announcements. They’ll still be the favorites entering 2020, but in what’s sure to be a unique year, they’re far from a lock to cruise to a title.

Could A College Football Bubble Be Possible in 2020?

It all starts tonight. The Washington Nationals take on the New York Yankees, and the MLB will officially become the first major American professional sport to restart after a hiatus closing in on five months. Golf, soccer, and Nascar have made their restarts, but we’re entering the glorious phase of Project Restart the Best Sports (unofficial trademark). Eight days after the MLB throws the first pitch, the NBA restart will tip off in Orlando, followed the day after by the NHL playoffs in two Canadian hub cities. Sure, the last five months have been among the worst to live through as a sports fan, but sports are back and raring to provide us with hours of entertainment from (if you plan it right), the moment we wake up til the moment our eyes shut for the night. Happy times.

However, question marks still abound regarding how successful these restarts will be, and even more questions abound when it comes to the fall season, particularly at the collegiate level. While the NFL has announced there will be zero preseason games (wouldn’t mind that becoming a regular occurrence), there has been little information regarding their actual season. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who might be the most well-recognized name in the country at this point, has said that a bubble, such as with the NHL and NBA, must be implemented for a season to be feasible. The MLB is not doing a bubble – although they are keeping teams within the designated Eastern, Central, and Western regions, but baseball is already designed for social distancing. Football…well it’s safe to say that’s not the case. This idea of a quasi-bubble for the NFL may have some legs, but what about college football? The collegiate game is taking off in popularity, with TV ratings up 50% in some regions across the country over the past couple of seasons, while the NFL ratings slid 15% from 2018 to 2019. NCAA football is at an all-time high in popularity, and to not have a season would be devastating. The impact would be felt across the country and virtually every school. For many schools, football is their only sport that turns a profit, and losing the season will lead to other program cuts off the gridiron. We already saw this when the up-and-coming Boise State baseball team was cut after just one partial season of play (during which they compiled a 9-5 record). Financially, it would take years, potentially decades, for colleges to recover from such a massive loss. Many football programs also contribute profits to financial aid – Notre Dame being one prominent university which takes this step. This isn’t simply about football. 

Boise State Baseball was just one of the many programs that has fallen victim to Covid-related cuts

And with no college football, and virtually every professional sport (hopefully) raging in full force this fall, can anyone guarantee with 100% confidence that college football can jump back into the picture with the same levels of growth it has seen in recent years? I doubt anyone can, and it is clear that, whether it is moved to the spring, abbreviated, or otherwise modified, a football season needs to happen. 

Spring Season A Last-Resort Fallback

Ultimately, moving the football season to the spring is a nice move in the spirit of not letting players compete during a pandemic, but it ultimately places college football in the unpleasant situation of needing to force a spring season, with no guarantee that the situation will be much better. The prospects of a usable human vaccine by spring seem bleak at best by the latest projections, and while that may change, as nobody really seems to know what is going on with the virus, moving the season to the spring puts everyone in a corner. 

So is there a feasible way to play in the fall? The obvious problem will be keeping players healthy. While many of these athletes are vying to further their career professionally, they are not being paid and opt-outs ought to be expected if there is no viable plan in place to keep the players as safe as possible. Unfortunately, a bubble – the most logical solution being utilized at the higher levels – seems completely impossible at the college level, where players are student-athletes and must be able to be on campus and taking classes (unless you’re UNC basketball players but let’s not delve into that controversy right now). 

But what if a quasi-bubble was possible?

Virtually every college and university has about two months of experience going completely virtual in the classroom, so why not utilize that newfound proficiency in creating what essentially amounts to a part-time bubble. It will require readily-available testing for players and coaches, but given the clear and ugly impacts of no season, this seems like a small price to pay. Hear this idea out. 

Each conference plays conference-only schedules to minimize exposure. This allows teams to play in a controlled environment where their opponents have only played similar teams within that bubble. If we wanted to go completely radical, we could realign the conferences so they were more based on geography, but let’s assume our sticky-fingered friends making the decisions aren’t too interested in losing the financial benefits that come with the current conference alignment. The first requirement will be to standardize the number of games –  some conferences play nine games, and others play eight with an additional non-conference clash. For our purposes let’s set the number of games at eight. 

Testing and Academics

The next step is to determine testing procedures. With conference only play and a bubble location, schools should only be using buses to travel to games, at least for the regular season portion of this plan. Flying will cause unnecessary risk that throws a wrench in this set-up. The testing will be the trickiest aspect of this situation, as there is no speedy way to receive results in a timely manner. At least a 24-36 hour buffer is needed to receive results, meaning there will need to be other options available. Temperature checks will be necessary before getting on the bus each week. Ideally tests will be taken Wednesday, results received Thursday night. Positive results will not be allowed to travel and final temperature checks will be instituted as a precautionary effort right before commencing the bus ride to the bubble. Maybe not perfect, but between returned tests on Thursday night and Friday morning temperature test, it’s about as good as it can get right now. To make this possible, teams should be allowed to have expanded active rosters, in order to maintain the needed depth to compete in each game. On the academic side of things, virtual learning will need to be available to athletes who wish to quarantine prior to a game. This shouldn’t be an issue, as many schools are doing in-class/virtual learning hybrid models so quarantines and Friday bus trips should pose little to no issue. There will need to be some way to enforce the integrity of these tests. As much as we’d love to rely on the honor of every coach, what happens when Justin Fields tests positive prior to the game versus Penn State? Can we trust the OSU coaching staff to make the right decision and not look the other way? Enforcement will be necessary, but as long as the testing is available, this seems like a manageable step. 

Creating a Bubble

Secondly will be creating the bubble. For each conference, simply use the most centrally located campus. Yes, this provides an unfortunate advantage to the team whose campus is chosen, but ultimately, with so no fans, how much would this matter? If we’re not concerned with offending teams, we could make the centrally located campus a relatively irrelevant team (like Illinois in the Big 10, Kansas in the Big 12, etc, but that’s beyond the point. Pick a centrally located campus and host three or four games there each weekend. This would be somewhat manageable. So one school is designated as the bubble for each conference, and 6-8 teams converge each weekend to clash on the gridiron. The schedule can be modified per conference, to account for the different number of squads in each, but ultimately, an ideally situation would allow each team to play two out of every three weeks. 12 weeks, 8 games, season concluding by early December. If there isn’t a campus willing to host the bubble, potentially an NFL stadium could be used, or some other alternative location. Soldier Field in Chicago could work with the Big 10, or potentially one of the massive high school stadiums in Texas could be utilized in the Big 12. If we’re not going to have fans, or very limited fans, does stadium size need to be considered a serious factor?

Questions and Concerns

Now, evidently, there is a myriad of questions that come with any idea that comes with this.

The testing will need to be efficient, and everyone will have to be on board. Teams will have to be ready for player opt-outs. You’ve seen it at the professional level, where the athletes are paid, so that will inevitably be a part of this system. How would the Playoff look with conference-only schedules? The Committee’s job has never been harder, and a one-year expansion may be necessary. To enforce conference-only play, Independent programs like Notre Dame, BYU, Army, and others would have to join a conference – or at least be included in their bubble for the years.

Another obvious drawback is simply that there will be no games on most campuses around the country. That’s a difficult reality, but one that seems to be imminent regardless of how the football season plays out. If no fans are allowed, is it really better to have LSU host Alabama, but every student stuck in their dorm room watching on TV? Or Notre Dame students watching the long-awaited Clemson clash via NBC’s primetime broadcast? Some colleges are hoping to host fans – Texas A&M recently announced they hope to open up Kyle Allen Field up to 50% capacity this fall. Will that hold? It’s unclear, but if there are campuses willing to host fans, maybe that plays into this bubble conversation. A full season with travel seems ridiculously unlikely at this point, so virtually any idea must be laid out on the table. Obviously there is financial loss by not hosting games on campus, but it’s not as bad as no games at all, and at least this quasi-bubble plan allows universities to recoup some of their losses, helping at least cushion the devastating impact of Covid-19.

There’s a lot that concerns to be addressed. But looking at the alternatives… Is it worth a shot?

Thoughts Behind the Covid-19 Redshirt Year

Amidst all the school closings, store closings, and now quarantined lifestyles, many collegiate athletes find themselves at a loss. After a tragic and sudden end to the season of spring athletes due to the current Coronavirus, the NCAA has offered the opportunity for students to use this prematurely concluded season as a redshirt year. Some appear to be elated while others discouraged.

From an optimistic standpoint, many athletes have the ability to make up for their lost season and complete the typical 4 season run of most collegiate athletes. As well, for many student-athletes who might not see playing time in their future, there is the opportunity to better their skills without missing out on a season or spending a year riding the bench for most games.

Though, there is as well the negative standpoint. The first of which being no athlete truly wanted to lose a season like this. The current team they are a part of will no longer be the same as seniors graduate, programs adapt, and positions change. No chance at a national title, a conference title, or any accolades for the season.

One must also look at the financial toll of a 5th year taken after the occurrence of Covid-19. Many athletes are already being supported by a scholarship, but very few find themselves holding a full ride. Due to this, student athletes who may not be able to afford a 5th year as is must decide between debt, or losing a year of the sport they love they most (which many will cease to continue once their collegiate career ends).

There is then the aspect of the seniors. Many were looking at All-American status, captain-ship, a starting position, and a chance to lead their team into one last season of victory and success. This has now been stripped away abruptly, and these seniors now have to decide whether to accept this defeat, or postpone their futures for the sport they love. These seniors have already found themselves accepted into grad school, beginning jobs in different cities, and pursuing what the future holds for them. Now they must decide whether to put their future on hold or give up years of blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice.

Brown senior Garett Delano is one of the many seniors forced to make a tough decision about their athletic careers. Image courtesy of the St. Cloud Rox

The sacrifices collegiate athletes make for their sport are nothing less than significant. Even from the moment they touched a ball, a stick, a racket, or put on a uniform. You give up aspects of your social life, moments with your family, and the ability to live what is deemed a normal life. Instead of frat parties, there are 7am lifts. Instead of internships, there are summer workout packets. Instead of tailgates, there are film sessions. Through all this sacrifice, spring student-athletes are now in a position where their efforts seem to be for nothing.

Ultimately, nobody planned for the global pandemic we are currently battling, but we are now in a state of facing it. Collegiate athletes must now decide how to handle this and how to move forward. While it is not a pleasant option, it is an option they have to face. As an athlete in the college realm, the choice that is faced here is nothing simple, and it will be interesting to see how many athletes ultimately decide to use this redshirt year versus having to sacrifice a year of hard work.