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Preparing for the 2020 College Football Season: The Weirdest, Wackiest, Most Confusing Season of our Lifetimes

Being a college football fanatic in the midst of a global pandemic has been quite the emotional rollercoaster ride. That ride took a few extra twists and turns last week when the MAC, Pac-12 and Big Ten all announced their fall seasons would either be cancelled or delayed, likely until the spring of 2021. However, the ACC, SEC, and Big 12 chose not to follow along in the footsteps of the other two Power Five conferences, instead making it clear that they planned to go ahead with the 2020 campaign. A number of other smaller conferences appear to be following their lead, at least for the time being, in the Sun Belt, Conference USA, and American Athletic. All this recent movement has left the status of the 2020 season completely up in the air. It seems likely that we will see some FBS football this fall, but how much, and for how long? Will we see a Heisman winner, a National Champion, a College Football Playoff? I decided to take some time to make my best educated guesses on what this season will look like, and break down a few of the storylines to keep an eye on as we work our way through the month of August. Of course, the impact of COVID-19 can change things within the span of hours, and things could be outdated within a few days. That's just the reality we're living in during the year 2020, and this college football season will be no different.

Will the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 Actually Play?: Even with the Big Ten and Pac-12 calling off this fall officially, the other three Power Five conferences are sticking it out. Both the SEC and ACC had previously announced conference-only schedules (ACC also had one non-conference slot on their schedule, which seems highly unlikely now), with the Big 12 set to announce their own schedule at the time of publishing. The commitment to a season makes sense in some ways, and is surprising in others. These conferences all play in geographic areas where college football is more than a sport; it is the lifeblood of the culture down south, and it's also particularly important for local economies, even if fans aren't able to flock to stadiums on Saturdays. The pushback from fans in these respective areas would be tremendous, even if there was an outside hope for a season in the spring. With that being said, it is particularly risky when you consider how this pandemic has hit the areas where these conferences call home. Florida and Texas have been ravaged by COVID-19 over the last couple months, and the situation has not magically improved as of late. Even so, Florida State is scheduled to have a scrimmage this week, and Florida governor Ron DeSantis is pushing for the Florida-Florida State rivalry to be re-scheduled, and played this fall. In the ACC, Clemson was one of the programs hit particularly hard by the virus, as 37 football players tested positive in the month of June. Yet, the ACC's top program has entered into fall camp, and they will be the projected favorites once again when the league does indeed kick back off. All of this creates a very fluid and shaky situation for these leagues. If they can make it work, it will be huge now and in the long-term, for both their finances and their on-field play. If it doesn't it could spell absolute disaster for each of these universities. With so much still unknown, it's anybody's guess on what direction things will go.

Is a Spring Season Even Attainable?: This is an obvious question each of these conferences have had to weigh in their decision-making process these last few weeks. Pushing the season back does make sense in that it gives these universities more time to figure out how they plan to do all this, but I also think it's important to note the negatives here. Perhaps the most obvious is that we simply don't know if the public health situation will actually be better in a few months. There's hope that a vaccine will develop and/or there will be better testing protocols in place, but that's certainly not a given. If things don't get significantly better, there's absolutely zero chance a spring season is a better opportunity. An even bigger issue for me is how the timeline will work for a spring season. Even if some spring football is able to be played, one has to consider what the 2021 season would then look like. Are we going to be forcing these athletes to play two seasons in the span of eight months? If we're going to act like we actually care about the health of these athletes, that seems like an awfully poor way to show it. Another issue on timing is when exactly practices and games would take place. For a spring season, are practices going to be starting in January and February? That would be pretty difficult for northern teams, even with indoor practice facilities. Sure, teams already play in October and November, but the winter months are a whole different animal in the Midwest and Northeast. To me, the idea of spring football is merely a delay tactic, and not a serious possibility for the next college football season. I believe if your team isn't playing football this fall, they won't be playing again until the fall of 2021.

Will There Be a National Championship Game?: We probably should establish we are actually playing a season before the issue of crowning a National Champion is discussed, but this is a legitimate concern. The National Championship race is always debated by college football fans, and can you imagine if a significant chunk of the college football landscape isn't playing? It's hard for me to imagine a College Football Playoff occurring this season. There are just too many moving parts and too many moving questions, and it would be particularly difficult to evaluate individual teams from different conferences when there is no play amongst different leagues. What I think will happen? Each league will play their conference-only schedule and their conference championship game, and then call the season good. I just don't think these conferences are going to be able to figure out a way to do anything more with all these question marks, and that's again making the assumption we see any football at all. With each league crowning their own champion but not moving further, I think the "National Champion" will be up for interoperation, in much the same way it was prior to the BCS era. That's not going to be popular amongst fans, but it seems like the most realistic scenario. Prepare for a whole lot of heated, never-ending debates if this scenario does indeed hold true. If you thought the Alabama/UCF National Champion conversation in 2017 was insufferable, a 2020 debate will be even worse.

What Financial Impact Will a Lost 2020 Season Have?: This is the thing that should really scare fans of collegiate athletics, not just college football. Personally, I can survive a fall without college football, and I think most fans can too. Sure it will be tough, but everybody is being forced to make sacrifices in the year 2020 and giving up one season of football doesn't seem like a major one to make. The real concern is what a lost season would mean financially for all these universities. The amount of money and revenue brought in by football is astronomical when you compare it to other collegiate sports. Just look at LSU as one example (left); only football, men's basketball and baseball brought in money to the athletics department in fiscal year 2019. Football brought in roughly $56 million, while men's basketball was the second biggest earner at just $1.6 million. Outside of baseball, every other sport lost money, and some of these sports saw a relatively significant loss. Now cut out football completely out of that equation; what options does an athletics department have but to cut sports left and right? There's simply going to be no way for athletics departments to survive but slashing a bunch of these programs, and it's going to happen across the country. Look at Stanford, a school that is well-known for boasting a strong athletics program top-to-bottom. They announced they would be 11 varsity sports programs by the end of 2020-21, a list that includes fencing, field hockey, rowing, and more. It isn't just going to be Olympics sports or less-popular ones that are going to be on the chopping block either; you're going to be see football, basketball, and baseball programs cut across the country. It's a particularly concerning time for the life and spirit of collegiate athletics, and it's hard to imagine a lot of these schools or conferences being able to recover.
I understand the frustration of players who are pointing to this season as being "only about the money", I really do. These athletes are essentially being used as guinea pigs in the midst of a global pandemic, in a rigged system that will primarily benefit those at the top of the ladder. But, the reality of college football for a lot of places is that it is all about the money. Football is just such a massive earner, and really is the driving force behind collegiate athletics. It's hard not to realize the devastating financial impact a lost season would have, and it would be foolish to think that isn't on the mind of a lot of college football leadership as they make these difficult decisions.

What About the Smaller FBS Leagues?: This is one of the details getting lost in the shuffle of the Power Five leagues: that smaller conferences are also suiting up to play 2020 as normal (or as close to normal as possible). The Sun Belt, Conference USA and American Athletic Conference will all play a modified schedule, but they are going forward likely to play. In fact, most of the programs in these leagues have already been practicing in fall camp for a couple weeks now, and they are as ready as anybody in the country to play, in terms of on-the-field product. As a fan of college football, I'd love to see any program play that feels like they can do it in a safe way. The case remains the same for these Group of Five leagues; if they figure out a way to do it safely, do it. It will be naturally more difficult for a smaller conference than a Power Five to play, considering they just don't have the resources of the bigger schools. Perhaps that could allow some more creative ways to ensure a safe environment for the student-athletes, which I'm all for.

What Other Long-Term Effects Will the 2020 Season Create (Beyond Financial)?: The good thing about the chaos involving the 2020 season is that it should teach university administrators and presidents some important lessons. First off, it should teach all athletic departments the value of using their money wisely. For years, college football leadership has blown away millions of dollars in facility upgrades, coach buy-outs, and fancy stadium renovations. That's not to say that money has been wasted by any means, but a lot of the spending at the collegiate level has been reckless simply because there is so much money flowing through the sport on a yearly basis. With so many financial questions left to deal with, I think 2020 will teach the college football higher-ups to be a little bit smarter with their money. It should also teach the same higher-ups a valuable lesson about planning. Leadership really had no idea what to do once this pandemic became a part of everyday life, and they instead spent the last few months simply hoping something would change. I think 2020 has taught us all that we should prepare and plan for any circumstance because, as this year has taught us, anything can happen.
The biggest impact the 2020 season will have long-term will likely come on the recruiting front. If the ACC, SEC, and Big 12 can actually make this season work, it's a major recruiting tool. They can essentially tout their commitment to their players, and argue that they are the "true" Power Five leagues. It's a massive recruiting advantage for schools that already have geographic advantages built in when considering college football's talent pool. Those geographic advantages are also going to be even more important in a post-COVID world. More and more, players are going to realize the importance of staying close to home as the fallout from this pandemic continues. I think it's going to create less instances of high schoolers going across the country to play ball, when they could stay closer to home. If you look at the 2021 Class, we already have seen a trend of players staying closer to home in their respective commitments, which could continue into our uncertain future. If it does, this gives programs located in recruiting hotbeds even more distinct advantages than those generally considered outposts or outliers. We'll see if this trend does actually hold, as college football recruiting can change rapidly.

What Now?: These next few weeks have the chance to be some of the most important in college football history. If these conferences can figure out a way to play in 2020 and keep their players as safe as possible, it creates a massive power gap in FBS football. It would put tremendous pressure on the Big Ten and Pac-12, who are already feeling the heat from their decisions to postpone last week. If the ACC, SEC, and Big 12 can't make it work, expect major blowback from fans, boosters and alums, and some serious long-term financial questions that could threaten collegiate athletics as a whole. There is just so much uncertainty and so many questions, but such is the reality of living in the year 2020. Either way, all I can say? Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Mike McGowan said...

Add Iowa the list list of schools cutting programs: Men's gymnastics, men's and woman's swimming and diving, and men's tennis.

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