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College football independents, like BYU, are preparing to play only each other, if it comes to that, to save their seasons

Athletic directors of independents, excluding Notre Dame, recently got together via Zoom and discussed concepts for a possible round-robin.

UMass fans celebrate the start of a football game against BYU at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst, Mass., in 2019. The fellow college football independents could meet again if other conferences only play league games in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
UMass fans celebrate the start of a football game against BYU at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst, Mass., in 2019. The fellow college football independents could meet again if other conferences only play league games in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Herb Scribner, Deseret News

PROVO — It was the last question of about 20 for BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe Monday morning when he appeared on BYUtv’s “BYU Sports Nation” to talk about the viability of the 2020 college football season in the face of a worldwide pandemic. But it might have been the best, and most important.

If all or most of the other conferences join the Pac-12 and Big Ten and move to a conference-games-only schedule this fall, will the schools that don’t belong to leagues band together and play each other, perhaps twice, if necessary, to fill out their schedules?

“Yes, that could occur,” Holmoe said.

In fact, serious conversations among athletic directors at the independents without a formal scheduling agreement such as fellow independent Notre Dame has with the ACC have already taken place, UMass AD Ryan Bamford told the Deseret News on Tuesday. The other independents are UConn, Army, Liberty and New Mexico State.

“Yes, we have spoken, and we all agree that the landscape is changing by the day, and to stay in touch with each other, make sure we know what each institution, each program, is thinking. As an AD group, I think we’ve agreed to that,” Bamford said, noting that UMass has lost just one game so far, a Sept. 19 matchup in Amherst with Albany of the Colonial Athletic Association, which canceled its schedule last Friday.

Bamford said independent athletic directors met via Zoom a few days after the Pac-12 and Big Ten made their decisions, leaving BYU without five scheduled games. Like Holmoe on Monday, Bamford didn’t get into details of what an independents-only schedule might look like.

“We have talked concepts, certainly, but it is really hard to know what will materialize until we see what the rest of the FBS landscape is and what these other conferences decide to do with each of their games against non-conference opponents like us, and if they decide to go into conference play only, or if the fall football season gets played at all,” he said.

Last Saturday, a report surfaced that Alabama and BYU were discussing a potential Sept. 5 game so the Crimson Tide could replace USC and the Cougars could replace Utah.

“It is not just me, but most of those athletic directors and coaches that had their games canceled, had to all of a sudden start sprinting,” Holmoe said, neither confirming nor denying the BYU-Alabama rumors.

As for playing a potential indies-only slate, Holmoe said BYU would “work out some type of an arrangement” with other independents or “any other schools that for some reason might have a game available.” Having said replacing the lost Power Five opponents with other P5s is his preference, Holmoe obviously hopes that if the three other “autonomy” conferences go to a conference-only model, they leave room for a “plus-one” or “plus-two” scenario in which they could play BYU.

All three of those conferences consider BYU a P5-caliber program, for scheduling purposes.

Bamford, who was UMass’ AD throughout the recent four-game series with BYU, said he hasn’t had specific conversations with Holmoe about more games. Almost everybody in college football is waiting for the SEC, Big 12 and ACC to make their decisions, which most have said will come near the end of July.

“At this point we are just trying to look at the entire picture, and the opportunities as they exist,” Bamford said. “I am a little worried about (opening) in September still, so that is going to be part of our calculus. But I haven’t talked specifically to Tom about that open date (Sept. 19, when BYU was supposed to play at Arizona State).

In addition to UConn, UMass also has Army, New Mexico State and Liberty on its 2020 schedule. One idea being floated if everybody else stays in conference is a round-robin type setup in which the independents would play twice. That’s what Liberty and NMSU did in 2018 and 2019. Bamford said it is too early to speculate if that’s a realistic approach.

“Until we know where all the dominoes have landed, it is going to be hard to imagine exactly what the schedule is going to look like,” he said. “So I will probably reserve (speculating) until then. We are looking at every option imaginable that you could foresee. Unfortunately, this is one of those things that, as an independent, you have to let play out before you can make decisions on exactly how you want to conduct your season.”

Athletic directors at UConn, Liberty and Notre Dame declined to be interviewed for this article.

New Mexico State AD Mario Moccia told 247Sports.com that the aforementioned Zoom meeting with fellow independent ADs was productive, but not full of detail.

“I wouldn’t say it was a heavy conversation,” Moccia told Chris Hummer. “It wasn’t full of planning. But it was to get everybody on the same page and say, ‘Hey, we’re all pragmatic and have to look at every single possibility. … The thought was that nobody is taking anything off the table.”