PROVO — BYU’s 2020 football schedule had been regarded as one of the best in school history.
That was, at least, until the past two days, when the Big Ten and the Pac-12 announced they will be playing conference games only this fall due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Just like that, the independent Cougars’ entire September schedule, against four Power Five opponents, has been wiped out.
The Pac-12’s decision came Friday, one day after the Big Ten’s.
Now the Cougars have just seven games remaining on the 2020 schedule after contests at archrival Utah (Sept. 3), Michigan State (Sept. 12), at Arizona State (Sept. 19), at Minnesota (Sept. 26) and at Stanford (Nov. 28) were canceled.
BYU’s remaining games, for now, are against Utah State (Oct. 2), Missouri (Oct. 10), Houston (Oct. 16), at Northern Illinois (Oct. 24), at Boise State (Nov. 6), San Diego State (Nov. 14) and North Alabama (Nov. 21).
Former BYU athletic director Val Hale, who served in that position from 1999-2004, before BYU went independent, has an idea what current athletic director Tom Holmoe — who has spent years creating the 2020 schedule — is going through right now.
Most athletic directors only have to worry about scheduling three or four nonconference games each year. Holmoe, who’s at the helm of an independent program, must schedule 12 games for every season. Holmoe’s tough job just became even tougher.
“The fact that it’s basically a month and a half before the start of the season, that puts you almost in panic mode. Tom may be scrambling to find some teams that can come in and play. I’m guessing he’s working around the clock to try to figure out what to do there,” Hale said. “Not to mention that in the back of his mind thinking about all of the financial implications this will have on the program. Football generates most of the revenue for the program. How do you deal with the loss of TV revenue if those games aren’t played? There are so many issues that are coming at him right now from so many different directions. His head is probably spinning.”
Meanwhile, the BYU-Utah rivalry has been interrupted only a few times since the series officially kicked off in 1922 — World War II (1943-45); Utah’s two games scheduled against Michigan (2014-15); and the current pandemic.
BYU will have to wait another year to have a shot at ending its nine-game losing streak against the Utes.
“The Utah game, especially since BYU has become an independent, is the game that BYU hangs its hat on. That’s a game that, if they can win it, a lot of the rest of the season is a success,” Hale said. “Not being able to play it hurts from a prestige standpoint, but also from a recruiting standpoint. This is the year BYU fans were hoping to reverse the trend of how many years in a row. Not being able to do that, and having to wait for another year, and trying to see what happens as they compete for players with the U., and as they compete for bragging rights around the watercooler.”
On Thursday, in the wake of the Big Ten’s announcement, BYU released a statement.
“The Big Ten’s announcement today obviously has specific ramifications regarding the 2020 BYU football schedule,” read the statement. “As we navigate the uncertainties of the current pandemic, BYU will continue to have discussions with other universities and our stakeholders to make the best possible decisions for our student-athletes and our athletic program.”
Pac-12 released a statement Friday on its decision to play conference-games only in football, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports continues to be our number one priority,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. “Our decisions have and will be guided by science and data, and based upon the trends and indicators over the past days, it has become clear that we need to provide ourselves with maximum flexibility to schedule, and to delay any movement to the next phase of return-to-play activities.”
BYU has three games against members of its former conference, the Mountain West, on the schedule (Utah State, Boise State, San Diego State). The Mountain West is dealing with a similar problem as the Cougars. The league lost 13 scheduled games against the Pac-12 this fall. Will the Mountain West decide to play a conference-only schedule as well?
“We are fully engaged with our membership and advisors on a nearly daily basis exploring the myriad of potential scenarios around returning to competition,” commissioner Craig Thompson said. “We ... will continue to evaluate the appropriate decisions and the proper timing going forward.”
On social media, there are plenty of solutions (some hopeful, some serious and some facetious) being proffered by pundits and fans, from BYU scheduling Alabama (the Crimson Tide were scheduled to play the Pac-12’s USC on Sept. 5), to the Cougars temporarily joining the Big 12 to BYU temporarily going back to the Mountain West this fall, to the Cougars playing every week against fellow independent Notre Dame (which is expected to be accommodated schedule-wise by its partner, the Atlantic Coast Conference), to playing other independents like Liberty, Army, UMass, UConn and New Mexico State.
BYU’s broadcast partner, ESPN, is expected to assist the school in finding additional games. In January, BYU announced that its home football games will be televised by the ESPN network through 2026 as part of a seven-year contract extension.
“I would suspect that Tom right now must be trying to explore all options. Obviously, his games in September are now gone. There may be a chance for other teams who are experiencing similar things, that also had games against teams in those conferences, they may be looking for games as well,” Hale said. “Maybe there’s a chance that they could do some last-minute shuffling in the schedule and bring some of those teams in and find a way to play three or four games that month. I hope that can happen. Most college football fans would hate to see college football delayed, especially BYU fans would hate to see the whole month of September with nothing.”
And with the way the coronavirus is spreading, there’s no doubt that the college football season is hanging in the balance.
“The jury may still be out on college football a little bit. You see what’s happening in Arizona right now with the surge they’ve had with this virus that’s significant,” Hale said. “They’re not going to play college football with a lot of people in the stands. If they play at all, my guess is they’ll play with small crowds there. That may be the case throughout most of the country. There may be games still canceled if the virus doesn’t get under control.”