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Will college football be played this fall? Utah athletic director Mark Harlan weighs in

University of Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham speaks about the planned expansion of Rice-Eccles Stadium during a press conference at the stadium in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. At left is U. president Ruth Watkins and athletic director Mark Harlan.
University of Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham speaks about the planned expansion of Rice-Eccles Stadium during a press conference at the stadium in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. At left is U. president Ruth Watkins and athletic director Mark Harlan.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Even more than four months before it is scheduled to begin, the question of whether college football will be played this fall is a big one on sports fans’ minds as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

In an appearance Wednesday on the Bill Riley Show on ESPN700, University of Utah athletic director Mark Harlan gave some insight. As he has met with peers and medical professionals over the past few weeks, Harlan said a big determining factor will be how quickly players can start training.

He said sport scientists advise that players need roughly seven weeks to prepare their bodies (including fall camp) for the start of the season, which would be mid-July for the Utes, as their 2020 opener is scheduled for Sept. 3 at home against BYU.

Harlan noted that even determining that seven-week mark could be challenging for college football in general, however, as things might be stable in one state but not in another.

“That seven-week trigger, it may not be aligned, and the games that could be played here might not be able to be played at other places, and I think that to me, that’s what’s going to cause the date to (potentially) be moved further back, to try to get alignment with (all the schools),” he said.

Harlan said no deadline has been set for when a decision might need to be made to delay the start of the season, but he feels it should happen by mid-June.

“Where’s your campus at that time?,” he said, adding that having student-athletes on campus training while campuses are closed to other students wouldn’t be appropriate (numerous outlets reported Wednesday that in a call with Vice President Mike Pence, leaders in collegiate athletics were unified in the idea that sports shouldn’t happen until campuses are open for classes).

Should sports be possible in the fall, Harlan said he’s trying to remain optimistic about the idea of having fans in the stands. But he’s unsure at this point.

“If I look at a full Rice-Eccles Stadium, which of course it would be on that Thursday night in September when we play BYU, it’s just hard for me today to see that, but you just don’t know,” he said. “I know everybody would want that. It’d be such a great rallying cry, and to have the Jazz back, but we’ve got to be smart and we’ve got to rely on the scientists and we’ve got to keep people safe.”

In other items of conversation, Harlan said after the NCAA determined senior spring sport athletes could return for another season, “11 or 12” of the roughly 30 at Utah will be back next year.

“I’m really, really pleased with the way the conversations went and excited to have them,” he said. “I’m referring to them as our ‘super seniors.’”

On the subject of the one-time transfer waiver, which would make it so athletes can transfer once without having to sit out a year, he’s expecting it to be approved when it’s put to a vote next month.