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WATCHING FOOTBALL: COVID and the Conferences

Here's how the Power 5 are handling the coronavirus.

I’ll spare you the usual opening paragraph that starts with some hackneyed phrase like “in these strange times.” We’re in the middle of a nationwide, worldwide battle with a scary virus. It’s super infective, even if not super deadly. You know this. I don’t need to say it.

Most states have imposed gathering limits, and part and parcel to those, major sports leagues have been reconsidering whether and how they can effectively play games. While many are coming back in bubbled, isolated, contact-minimizing, fan-less formats, that will not work for one very notable, very American sport: college football.

I originally planned to start my season previews this week for the five major conferences, but I’m pushing that off a week because all of them are still deciding how to deal with the virus.

College football can’t keep their players, coaches, and staffs isolated to the degree that the NBA, NHL, and MLS are right now, hunkering down in Disney hotels, playing on Mickey’s magic hardwood/ice/turf. These are student-athletes, for one thing, so they need to be at campus if classes are in-person. (Well, not if their universities go Zoom-optional. I’ve written about this.) And lots of programs rely on football ticket sales for a good chunk of revenue, not only for football programs but for their whole athletics department.

That last point is why some major conferences are making noise about a spring season. (Hey, guess what! I’ve written about this too.) Deferred money is better than none, and a spring season avoids all the scary uncertainty of the present moment – or at least delays dealing with it.

But for now, let me run down where the major Power 5 conferences are. Then, at the end, I’ll tell you what I expect will happen once everyone makes a decision.


ACC

The Atlantic Coast Conference, noted domain of Clemson, UNC, and a collection of dumpster fires, has been oddly quiet about what they’re planning. They announced last Friday that they’ll make a final decision on whether to play in “late July.” And then they canceled their virtual media days, scheduled for July 21-23, last Saturday. That last one’s a surface-level head-scratcher. If they were worried about timing, they could have moved the event. Oh, and UNC stopped voluntary workouts due to an outbreak. Not good signs.

BIG TEN

The north’s football conference send an earthquake through the sport by announcing a conference-only season for all fall sports last Thursday. Ohio State resumed workouts after postponing them, and Maryland and Indiana canceled workouts after resuming them. The B1G bought some time by moving to the midway step of conference-only play, rather than canceling the season outright. It remains to be seen, as I understand, if any games will move dates to accommodate this new reality.

BIG 12

Like the ACC, the Big 12 seems determined to wait as long as possible before deciding what to do about college football. And like the ACC, the Big 12 is playing things very close to the vest, saying only that they’re waiting until late July to make a choice. One reason why? They’re trying to rescue their non-conference schedule with an alliance with the ACC and SEC. Football is magnificently huge business for the Big 12’s schools. They’re treating it accordingly. And for what it’s worth, noted COVID pessimist and Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley says he thinks a season will happen this fall, in some form.

PAC-12

They followed the Big Ten and shifted to a conference-only season one day later. That’s honestly the most recent major news out of the conference. Moving on!

SEC

At last, we come to the conference where all the intrigue is. The SEC recently delayed some of its fall sports – volleyball, soccer, cross country, the like – to August 31. That doesn’t tell you much about football, considering that season already starts around then. Here’s what does: Greg Sankey, the commissioner, is making noise about declining COVID positivity in most SEC programs. LSU’s Cookie-Monster-sounding lovable lunk, Ed Orgeron, is telling VP Mike Pence that America needs football this fall (couldn’t agree more, Ed). And yesterday the conference affirmed players who elect not to play this fall won’t be penalized with lost scholarships (great idea). Lots of positivity. You love to see it.


So how do I think everything will shake out by August?

I’ve got three guesses, based on how the pandemic’s trending by late July.

If cases are still rising across the nation, be prepared for the Power 5 to shift in virtual unison to a spring season. Chatter surrounding that possibility’s already heating up, though I still maintain it’s premature. That’s because active case rates are starting to level off in most current hotspots, and the death rates are still astronomically low, especially for young people.

But what about if COVID cases are plateauing? I bet all Power 5 conferences shift to conference-only scheduling, delaying the start of the season into the fall and minimizing team travel.

If active cases start ticking down significantly, I expect things to stay basically where they are, with one exception. The Big Ten and Pac-12 play conference-only schedules – joined by the ACC, who seem skittish about an on-time start. Meanwhile, the SEC and Big 12 will play a full season, likely allying to play non-conference games against each other as multiple small conferences cancel their seasons entirely. The season will probably start with no fans in stadiums, but if cases keep declining, conferences will probably allow limited-capacity fan attendance. I still believe this is the likeliest scenario.

In summary, stay tuned. And I’ll be back next week to preview the ACC’s upcoming season – whenever it happens.

Because, and I believe this more than anything else about sports right now, college football will happen.

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