SALT LAKE CITY — College football’s return hangs in the balance as programs around the country watch with caution as COVID-19 cases surge in many parts of the United States.
Optimism about playing a full 12-game schedule was strong a month ago when cases started to drop in the U.S., but that notion has been tested recently as many programs have pulled back from optional summer training programs to avoid the spread of the disease. And the likelihood of resuming the season on time appears questionable, though nothing definitive is known about an ever-changing pandemic.
Even worse, the Ivy League, which doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on the Football Bowl Subdivision, decided Wednesday to cancel its fall season for all sports — a blow to several athletic programs.
The Big Ten, a major Power Five conference, announced Thursday its plans to only play conference games this fall. The news was first reported by The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach and later confirmed by the conference Thursday afternoon.
The Pac-12 is expected to follow suit, according to Auerbach, and so is the ACC, according to Brett McMurphy, as athletic programs across the country look to salvage part of a college football season that is already at risk of being delayed a month, pushed back until spring or canceled altogether — an economically devastating imposition for college athletic programs across the country already facing problems.
The other two remaining Power Five conferences, the Big 12 and SEC, could almost certainly do the same as the dominoes continue to fall. Though Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told the Des Moines Register that it had no plans for a conference-only slate.
The Big Ten is expected to announce today that it will go with a conference-only football schedule for this fall, a person with direct knowledge situation tells @TheAthleticCFB.— Nicole Auerbach 😷 (@NicoleAuerbach) July 9, 2020
In May, Pac-12 coaches already discussed the idea of a conference-only schedule. USC head coach Clay Helton said it was one of “the many structures” discussed to salvage a season. All the coaches were in agreement that they needed at least a six week run-up period to the opening game of the season to feel comfortable playing — more so as a safety issue for the players.
The elimination of the first month of games would almost certainly allow for conferences to have the time needed to start their season with at least six weeks of preparation.
So why a conference-only slate?
There’s many reasons why conferences would prefer to stay within the family, so to speak. Flexibility is the biggest reason seeing that the conference has the decision-making power to alter the situation at any time without worrying about another conference’s interests.
The Big Ten put it this way: “By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions, the conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic.”
As any return to fall sports will be guided by medical personnel, it’s easier to have one governing body oversee the decisions for a conference, particularly testing for the virus. The conference can govern, or at least create certain benchmarks necessary, to ensure the safety and testing of athletes within the conference is consistent. Any outside program, regardless of conference or resources, may not have the same systems in place, particularly from programs outside the Power Five bubble.
The decision to move to a conference-only slate isn’t a guarantee that fall sports will resume, but with football being the biggest revenue item for colleges, there’s going to be an almost absolute need for football to resume in any fashion to avoid athletic programs around the country from being forced to eliminate other team programs.
Even Power Five programs like Stanford recently eliminated 11 sports — programs that have been hugely successful and have won recent national championships.
But for programs like BYU and Notre Dame, who are unaffiliated with a specific conference, any shift to conference-only schedules will limit their ability to play this fall. McMurphy said the ACC previously talked about inviting Notre Dame to be a part of its conference for the season, but there’s no similar guarantee for BYU, who has three games scheduled with Pac-12 teams, two with Big Ten teams and one with an SEC team for the 2020 season.
So as the landscape of college football continues to shift, there’s still little guarantee the sport will resume; however, should the sport return, it’s likely nonconference games will be a rarity among the Power Five programs in the country, leaving the rest of college football in an unknown territory.