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College football may need a medical miracle to save the 2020 season

If positive cases don’t recede in the next two weeks, most stakeholders say, season won’t start in September like most fans hope

FILE: As the sun sets behind the west side of Rice-Eccles Stadium some light shines through for fans prior to the start Utes game against Oregon State on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. The Pac-12 announced last week it will play conference-only games this fall, but concerns surrounding the novel coronavirus pandemic have people questioning whether the 2020 season will happen.
FILE: As the sun sets behind the west side of Rice-Eccles Stadium some light shines through for fans prior to the start Utes game against Oregon State on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. The Pac-12 announced last week it will play conference-only games this fall, but concerns surrounding the novel coronavirus pandemic have people questioning whether the 2020 season will happen.
Matt Gade, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Mention the word “miracle” to college football fans in these parts, and most will invariably recall the 1980 Holiday Bowl. Jim McMahon led a furious fourth-quarter rally and threw a last-second Hail Mary touchdown pass to Clay Brown to give BYU a 46-45 win over SMU.

Not quite 40 years later, all of college football needs a miracle — perhaps an even more unimaginable one — to save its 2020 season.

A medical miracle, if you will.

To put it in terms that football fans can appreciate, we’re late in the fourth quarter, and that nasty, pesky and still somewhat mysterious novel coronavirus has a two-touchdown lead in its maddening determination to shut down not only our beloved college football this fall, but college sports entirely.

“If the current trend line continues — as negative as they’ve been the past few weeks — America is not going to return to normal. College football is just going to be a victim of that,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said last weekend.

From national newspapers such as The New York Times, Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, to sports-specific outlets such as Yahoo Sports and The Athletic, headlines the past 10 days — since the Ivy League ruled out playing all of its sports this fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic — have prepared fans for the worst.

“Time to face reality: ‘No one is playing college football in the fall,’” screamed a Yahoo Sports headline over the byline of highly respected national college football expert Pete Thamel.

Sources contacted by the Deseret News the past few days confirm reporting done by Thamel and others. Few, if any, would consent to being quoted publicly.

Stakeholders say every fall sports season is in jeopardy at the college level, but football appears to be the most vulnerable of all.

And there’s simply no playbook telling administrators such as BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe and Utah AD Mark Harlan what to do next.

Brett McMurphy of the @Stadium network reported Thursday that, according to his sources, NCAA president Mark Emmert told the NCAA Council that if the decision had to be made that day, fall championships (soccer, cross-country, volleyball and FCS football, which the NCAA oversees) likely would be canceled.

Experts say the next two weeks are ultra-critical.

What about a bubble?

With more than 13,000 FBS players, soon to be joined by thousands of students at campuses in every corner of the country, a “bubble” approach like the NBA is attempting in Orlando is not feasible, administrators say.

School presidents insist they can’t treat athletes differently than regular students, although most do in terms of priority class registration, training tables, nutrition and stipends, to name a few perks enjoyed by scholarship athletes. It’s a huge ask to tell athletes they can’t mingle with other students, administrators are discovering.

“Two months ago I was cautiously optimistic, but I’ve lost that,” said one of the most influential voices in the sport, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, on a conference call with reporters last week. “I am concerned we may not be able to play.”

Ohio State, which boasts the largest athletic program in the country, reopened its training facilities in June, but had enough positive coronavirus cases among the limited number of athletes that returned that it suspended summer workouts. It recently reopened them again. North Carolina, LSU, Houston and other schools experienced similar outbreaks that led to temporary closures.

None of the Utah schools in the FBS — Utah, BYU and Utah State — are publicly acknowledging results of their testing.

BYU officials declined to say if any student-athletes have tested positive, citing privacy concerns.

“We continue to work closely with university leaders and government officials to monitor the COVID-19 situation closely and provide all possible safeguards for our student-athletes and athletics personnel,” said Duff Tittle, BYU’s associate athletic director for communication. “The results of the daily screening process are not made public.”

FILE: San Diego State players look on as fans hold lights from their cellphones during a stadium lighting delay in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Stanford Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in San Diego. Whether many conferences or schools decide to turn out the lights on the 2020 college football season, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, is expected in the next couple weeks, while many NCAA programs have already made their decisions.
Gregory Bull. AP

Fueling the quandary: No central leadership

One substantial problem in trying to ascertain whether there will be a season or not arises because major college football does not have central leadership. There’s no czar, no commissioner, at the FBS level. Nobody is really in charge.

The biggest influencers are Swarbrick and the commissioners of the Power Five conferences — the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, ACC and Big 12 — and it is they who will make the call, unless local health department officials and government leaders don’t do it first. Of course, the people who run colleges — presidents and boards of trustees — will have their say, too.

All five P5 commissioners, and many Group of Five commissioners and leaders at the FCS level, have privately expressed grave concern that the season will start in early September, if at all.

“We have to shift our allocations a little bit, (put) a little more time on planning the alternatives and a little less time on planning routine, go-forward (approaches),” Swarbrick said.

Where does the NCAA stand in all of this? So far, it is taking a more hands-off approach because it does not control postseason play in the FBS as it does in college basketball. Of course, the NCAA basketball tournaments, extremely lucrative but not to the extent of an entire college football season, were canceled last March when the pandemic first hit.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact college sports nationally, the NCAA supports its members as they make important decisions based on their specific circumstances and in the best interest of college athletes’ health and well-being,” the NCAA said in a statement on July 9 when the Big Ten announced it would play only conference games in 2020 — a move that reverberated locally because it stripped two opponents, Michigan State and Minnesota, from BYU’s schedule.

The Pac-12 took similar steps the following day, canceling not only the BYU-Utah rivalry game scheduled for Sept. 3, but two other BYU games (Arizona State and Stanford) and two Utah State games (Washington State and Washington).

To add to the sense of gloom and doom, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott tested positive and is self-quarantining, the conference announced July 10.

As of Friday, the other three P5 conferences had not announced their plans, but are expected to before the end of July.

Situation looks dire

As positive cases continue to skyrocket across the country, especially in the football hotbed states of California, Texas and Florida, the situation looks more and more dire. Just as troubling, as the weather has warmed, cases have spiked in places — such as Utah — where the curve had previously been flattened.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Saturday he has “high to very high” concern that the season is in jeopardy.

“We are running out of time to correct it and get things right,” Sankey said on the “Paul Finebaum Show.”

Although the Ivy League does not offer athletic scholarships and is not close to the P5 or even the Group of Five leagues in terms of competitive level of play and revenue production, many college football experts believe the rest of the nation will follow its lead and try to move the season(s) to the spring. The Patriot League followed suit Monday, the MEAC on Thursday, and the CAA — one of the premier conferences at the FCS level — on Friday.

“From a health and well-being standpoint, things are not getting better in this country,” Patriot League commissioner Jennifer Heppel told ESPN. “It became clear for us that this wasn’t going to be in the best interest of our communities to have athletics this fall.”

After the Ivy League’s decision, Columbia athletic director Peter Pilling, a former administrator in BYU’s athletic department, predicted a domino effect because P5 presidents hold the Ivies in high esteem in terms of access to the latest and most reliable medical advice.

“I think other conferences around the country are going to follow,” Pilling said.

Even smaller ones. Wednesday, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, the largest Division II conference in the country, suspended fall competition in all sports.

FILE: Alabama activates its red LED lights for a crimson glow effect during a timeout in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Arkansas, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. How the SEC decides to handle the 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic could be the linchpin for the sport.
Vasha Hunt, AP

Woes out West

Utah is considered a pandemic hotspot, as is Arizona and selected pockets of the Intermountain West; high school football in the Beehive State is still a go, but that’s tenuous, too.

“I don’t like the trends out there right now, with the numbers and virus increases you see across the country,” Tom Wistrcill, commissioner of the Big Sky Conference, told the Bozeman (Montana) Daily Chronicle, putting the odds of playing football in the league that includes Weber State and Southern Utah at 50%.

Ultimately, many suspect that the linchpin in the whole process will be the SEC, the premier football conference in the country and located in the Deep South, where the sport is a religion and way of life for millions of people.

“We believe that late July will provide the best clarity for making the important decisions ahead of us,” Sankey said in an SEC news release.

Mark your calendars

An important date to watch is Friday, July 24, which is when another NCAA-allowed two-week window of coaching is permitted in preparation for the season.

One can bet BYU officials will be watching the SEC’s decision closely because the Cougars are scheduled to host the SEC’s Missouri Tigers on Oct. 10.

Other major stakeholders and influencers whose voices are sure to be heard before all is said and done are television executives and coaches of the biggest names in college football such as Notre Dame, Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, USC and Oregon.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told The Athletic he has a “high level of confidence” that the Irish will start preseason training camp on Aug. 7, as previously scheduled.

“The cautiously optimistic side of me says we’re gonna get to the starting line,” Kelly said. “And maybe we’re gonna play a game and then we’re gonna have to see how this thing works.”

Kelly told the online publication that the Irish’s phone has been “ringing off the hook” with prospective opponents since they had three games canceled by the Pac-12/Big Ten decision. One of those potential suitors is undoubtedly BYU, which still believes ND owes it a game. Why not now?

Ed Orgeron, head coach at defending national champion LSU, left no doubt where his mind is at during a Tuesday visit by Vice President Mike Pence in Baton Rouge.

“We need football,” Orgeron said. “We need to play. This state (Louisiana) needs it. This country needs it. … Football is the lifeblood of our country.”

But right now, the coronavirus is way ahead.