PROVO — A lot of options are being thrown around these days as conference commissioners, athletic directors, coaches and even media members try to come up with solutions to save the upcoming college football season, or a good chunk of it, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
One possibility being bandied about, in particular, should have BYU football fans, and the program they support, feeling uncomfortable, perhaps even downright afraid.
That suggestion is for schools, particularly those in the Power Five conferences that pretty much run college football, to only play conference games in 2020 (or 2021, if the season is played next winter and spring as some pundits have theorized).
If the conference games-only plan materializes, the BYU-Utah rivalry game — currently scheduled to be played on Sept. 3 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City — will obviously be scrapped. If the entire season is postponed until January, the game could be saved. But does anybody want to watch the Utes and Cougars play in sub-freezing temperatures on, say, Jan. 2, 2021?
While discussing an array of pandemic-related issues on ESPN 700 AM radio Wednesday, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan confirmed almost every option is still on the table, from the most optimistic — a full season starting in early September — to the worst, nothing at all.
“If I look at a full Rice-Eccles Stadium, which of course it would be on that Thursday night in September when we (are scheduled to) play BYU, it’s just hard for me today to see that (happening), 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.”
Being in the Pac-12, Utah has fewer worries than BYU. A conference games-only setup could possibly leave independents such as BYU, Army, UMass, Liberty, New Mexico State and UConn scrambling to fill out their schedules if they want to have some semblance of a season as well. Notre Dame is also independent, but the Irish have a scheduling agreement with the Atlantic Coast Conference to play six games a year against ACC teams that almost certainly would stay intact in one form or another.
Of course, it is all speculation at this point, and for obvious reasons everyone’s hope is to play a full 12-game season, which might not begin until October, or even January or February.
“Make no mistake, the No. 1 priority is to get the entire season in,” Brett McMurphy, college football insider at Watchstadium.com, told the Deseret News. “But yes, one of the many options being discussed among athletic directors is a conference-only season.”
Another national college football writer who was contacted for this story, Dennis Dodd of CBSsports.com, said the conference-only option “is something to track” but noted that it isn’t among the most talked-about choices, yet.
“I haven’t run across the subject in my conversations with stakeholders,” Dodd said. “I will just say that everything is on the table, including conference games only, and that would certainly impact the independents.”
Are worries about a shortened season warranted? Certainly. Consider that Ohio State coach Ryan Day told ESPN.com recently that a shortened season that would feature only conference games is one possibility that should be considered.
”Any football is better than no football,” Day said Wednesday. “We’ll do whatever we need to do. We’ll make it work — whatever they tell us the parameters are — and we’ll adapt. And then we’ll play. With this time, there’s a lot of unique situations, so we’re OK with adapting. We’d love to play the whole season — we’re expecting to play the whole season — but if that’s what happens, we’ll figure it out.”
Matt Brown, associate director-college brands for SB Nation and the author of the popular Extra Points newsletter for fans of all college sports, keeps a close eye on BYU football although he is based in Chicago.
“It is a tough situation to project, with so, so many unknowns,” Brown said. “I think my big takeaway here is that there’s a lot of reasons for schools to try and avoid canceling games outright. They’d almost certainly have to play those games in front of fans, and I wouldn’t automatically make any assumptions about conference play, or even that every school would decide to play.”
McMurphy said Wednesday that, based on his discussions with primary stakeholders (athletic directors and coaches) he believes no football at all will be played this fall because school presidents will not allow football to be played when no students are on campus as schools stay open with online classes only.
Wednesday, 10 conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director held a 30-minute conference call with Vice President Mike Pence and told him that college sports can’t return from the shutdown until campuses have reopened.
“That’s the biggest concern,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told The Associated Press. “Until that happens we (aren’t) going to be having any sports.”
BYU may not have a say in the matter, because the school does not have any national representation as an independent.
But what if campuses open around Sept. 1 and conference commissioners decide they can get a shortened, conference games-only season in? Perhaps it could start in October with four weeks of prep time in September. What would BYU do?
First, the Power Five commissioners would need to come to an agreement on how many conference games they play. The Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 all play nine games currently, while the ACC and SEC only play eight.
McMurphy believes they would settle on nine. The SEC can easily add one conference game, and the ACC could make games against Notre Dame count as conference games. They could add three more games against the Irish and thereby take care of Notre Dame’s problem as an independent.
The remaining six ACC schools who are not playing Notre Dame could theoretically play one of the aforementioned six remaining independents to get to a ninth conference game.
Schools in the Group of Five conferences (American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt) all play eight league games, so they could add one more each to get all 130 FBS programs — except for the six independents not named Notre Dame — to nine games.
That scenario takes care of two games for BYU. How can the Cougars get seven more to get to nine like everyone else?
“It won’t be easy,” McMurphy says. “This obviously wouldn’t be an ideal situation for BYU or the other independents, but it would beat the alternative — not playing any games.”
BYU could play Army, UMass, UConn, Liberty and NMSU — yes, that’s about as unappealing as it gets for fans who have been counting on seeing the likes of Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State, Minnesota, Missouri and Stanford — and then play two of those fellow independents again, or keep its date with FCS opponent North Alabama.
Brown is the author of “What If? A closer look at college football’s great questions.” He says “there’s nothing in stone tablets that says in times of national emergency we have to play eight or nine conference games.”
He says if fans are still allowed to attend games under a conference games-only scenario, Boise State and Stanford might balk at giving up home games against BYU.
“Both programs could very well make more money in that game than they would against a league opponent, given how well BYU travels, perhaps even during a pandemic,” Brown said.
He called the “popular idea” that BYU would just play a schedule against other independents “less realistic” because he thinks the other independents might forego the entire season if they can’t count on “bodybag guarantee games” against P5 powers where they get paychecks as large as a $1.5 million per outing.
“A season with New Mexico State, Liberty, UMass, UConn, Army and some FCS team, even if you got Notre Dame on there too, would not be commercially appealing for anybody, including, I assume, ESPN,” Brown said.
BYU and ESPN agreed in January to a seven-year extension to their contract that allows the sports broadcasting giant the rights to the bulk of BYU’s home football games. Would ESPN settle for the Flames and Minutemen in Provo rather than the Spartans and Tigers?
Speaking of contracts, Brown said canceling games could get tricky because most agreements call for teams to pay $1 million or more if they don’t show up for a contest barring an “act of God” such as a hurricane or tornado. He’s not sure if pandemic falls under that category.
“I think there’s a pretty powerful legal incentive to play the games, if not on that exact date, then during that football season, if at all possible,” he said.
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BYU’s 2020 football schedule (for now)
Sept. 3 — at Utah
Sept. 12 — Michigan State
Sept. 19 — at Arizona State
Sept. 26 — at Minnesota
Oct. 2 — Utah State
Oct. 10 — Missouri
Oct. 16 — Houston
Oct. 24 — at Northern Illinois
Oct. 31 — Open
Nov. 6 — at Boise State
Nov. 14 — San Diego State
Nov. 21 — North Alabama
Nov. 28 — at Stanford