Column: Still time for college football to avoid a real mess
ATLANTA (AP) — Well, it was fun while it lasted.
After a few seasons of relative sanity, where we could all look forward to a legitimate playoff system for determining the national champion and weren’t distracted by the musical chairs of schools bouncing from one conference to another, college football is headed for a mess of a season.
Or, dare we say, two seasons.
Nearly half of the schools in the sport’s top group, known as the Football Bowl Subdivision, have put off any attempt at playing until after the first of the year because of the coronavirus pandemic (which, frankly, seems the most reasonable course).
The others, including the mighty Southeastern Conference, are determined to press on in the fall even though Covid-19 is spiking in many of their states.
Speaking for all of us, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez summed it up best.
“This has really been a hard stretch for me,” he said. “I go to bed every night and my body just aches because I’m dealing with this.”
If each side sticks to this ludicrous path, we’re going to have two seasons that essentially mean nothing, leaving us to long for those years when we had split national champions that at least followed the same calendar.
The Big Ten and Pac-12, which are part of the Power Five conferences that essentially run the sport, have bailed on their fall seasons but hope to get back on the field in the early months of 2021. Two leagues from the next tier, the Mid-American and Mountain West, have gone the same route, as have several individual schools.
At last count, 53 of the FBS’ 130 schools have pushed back the start of their seasons until after New Year’s Day, which was long the traditional end to the college football year.
Meanwhile, the SEC, Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12 are sticking with their plans for a fall season, though all have made major revisions to their schedules in hopes of getting to the finish line ahead of a virus that already has claimed nearly 170,000 American lives. The other FBS leagues — Conference USA, the American, the Sun Belt — have chosen that path as well.
This is all madness, of course, but absolutely on brand for a multi-billion-dollar sport that essentially operates outside the purview of the NCAA, the highly flawed organization that governs the rest of college athletics.
Even though everyone in FBS vowed months ago to work together to deal with the enormous challenge of playing a high-contact sport in the middle of a raging pandemic, it soon became apparent that each conference would choose the path that suited its own interests.
No surprise there.
“It’s going to take some time to heal,” said Ryan Day, coach of Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State “But if we put one foot in front of the other, we’re going to get going again.”
If, by some miracle, the various parties come to their senses and agree to hammer out a reasonable solution that won’t really please any of them, maybe it’ll look something like this:
— An eight-game, conference-only regular season that begins the week after the Feb. 7 Super Bowl. Build in a pair of off weeks to avoid conflicts with the NCAA basketball tournaments, which would also provide a window to make up any virus-related postponements. Midweek games would be held ahead of the Final Four, and the regular season would end on April 17. Yes, the weather would be brutal in many parts of the country, but that could be worth it if more fans can safely attend games because the virus has subsided in a significant way.
— The conference championship games would be eliminated, replaced by an expanded, eight-team playoff that guarantees a spot to each Power Five winner, the highest-rated team among the Group of Five winners, and two wild-card teams. Such a playoff would begin with doubleheaders on April 24 and 25 at campus stadiums, followed by the semifinals on May 1 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and the Superdome in New Orleans (both sites are scheduled to host semifinal bowl games this season). The national championship would be held May 10 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, which is already down to host this season’s final game. Those dates might have to be tweaked a bit to work around spring academic schedules, but it should be doable. All other bowl games would be canceled.
— Any plans for a spring season would have to take into account the physical toll of trying to play two seasons back-to-back in a single calendar year. The 2021 season would have to undergo some major alterations as well, which would include pushing the starting date to early October (providing a roughly five-month break between seasons). The 12-game regular season would be reduced to 10 games, 11 at the most. The conference championship games would be eliminated for one more season, further reducing the players’ workload before the plethora of bowls and the four-team College Football Playoff.
“I think we can do anything we want, if we do it intelligently,” said Kirk Ferentz, coach at Big Ten school Iowa. “We have to look at it as spring and fall combined.”
Looming above it all is the virus, which could ruin the best-laid plans.
“We’ve got to make sure we’ve got this virus under control before you talk about a spring season,” said Jimmy Lake, coach of the Pac-12′s Washington Huskies.
There are certainly drawbacks to any spring plan, such as many top players opting out to begin focusing on the NFL draft.
But everyone must recognize there is no perfect solution in this very imperfect world we’re living in at the moment.
“I just want to play football, whenever that time may be,” said Skylar Thompson, the senior quarterback at Big 12 Kansas State. “I just want to get the ball in my hands and go compete one last time.”
For Thompson and others to have any shot at a season that doesn’t require a giant asterisk — or even worse, gets halted before it’s done — everyone has to be prepared to give a little, maybe a lot.
There’s still time to make it work.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press.Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org, follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and find his work at https://apnews.com
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo in New York and Sports Writers Steve Megargee in Milwaukee, Tim Booth in Seattle and Mitch Stacy in Columbus, Ohio contributed to this report.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25