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College football: Is anyone in charge?

The University of Michigan football stadium is shown in Ann Arbor, Mich., Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. A crumbling college football season took a massive hit Aug. 11, when the Big Ten and Pac-12, two historic and powerful conferences, succumbed to the COVID-19 pandemic and canceled their fall football seasons.
Paul Sancya, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The country is torn by the question of the day: How to respond to COVID-19 — hide out in the family room or return to some degree of normalcy? Nowhere is that drama being played out more publicly than on the football field, which, if nothing else, is a commentary on American priorities.

So far, four of the 10 FBS conferences have announced they won’t play in the fall — the Pac-12, Big Ten, Mountain West and Mid-American — as well as a few independent schools. That’s 54 of 130 teams. Three of those conferences will explore playing in the spring — the fourth said “when conditions improve” — creating, potentially, two seasons next year and three seasons in 18 months — fall 2020, spring 2021, fall 2021. Spring football practice will be replaced by the real thing, or at least that’s the (pipe) dream.

Six conferences, plus a small collection of independents (BYU, among them), plan to play in the fall.

And you thought the college game was a mess before the pandemic.

There could be a split champion (fall and spring). There could be teams playing back-to-back seasons (spring and fall 2021). There will be patched-up schedules and truncated schedules to accommodate the many team defections.

Meanwhile, the NCAA has no choice but to grant another year of eligibility to seniors who can’t play this season, which means increasing roster sizes and scholarship limits to accommodate next year’s freshman class. And all this during a time when those schools will lose millions of dollars in gate receipts, TV payouts and marketing.

All of which leads us to wonder: Is anybody in charge here?

Rice-Eccles Stadium is pictured in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. The Pac-12 Conference canceled its fall 2020 football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rice-Eccles Stadium is pictured in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. The Pac-12 Conference is one of four Football Bowl Subdivision conferences that’s canceled its fall 2020 football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Is there a grownup in the room, someone to lead this thing? Everybody is doing his own thing. There is no plan. The only plan is every school for itself. There is no leadership. Does anyone really think the NCAA is in charge?

The NCAA has a rulebook that is hundreds of pages long, governing everything from how much pasta a kid can eat to when he can dunk in pregame warmups, but the NCAA has no clue how to oversee college football, especially at a time when it is most needed. All we have is college football fiefdoms creating their own rules and protecting their turf.

College football needs a plan — any plan, even if it turns out to be the wrong one, would be better than what’s happening now.

Do you realize there is only one team in the West that is even practicing for the fall football season, and it’s BYU, which is preparing for a lame five-game schedule spread out over 2½ months.

College football is rudderless. The sport needs someone to look out for the good of the entire sport, someone, for instance, who could kill the dumb spring football idea. When has spring football ever worked (ever heard of the XFL?). Alabama coach Nick Saban calls it “sort of a JV season.” College football resisted a playoff — and continues to resist an expanded playoff — at least in part because it claims it would cost “student-athletes” more class time.

And now they want to have a spring football season?

There is also perpetual worry about injury, and yet, under the current plan, many teams would play two seasons — spring 2021, fall 2021 — with a break of only about three months.

When asked about the likelihood of a spring season, former coach Urban Meyer told the Big Ten Network, “No chance. You can’t ask a player to play two seasons in a calendar year. When I first heard that, I said that. I don’t see that happening. The body, in my very strong opinion, is not made to play two seasons within one calendar year. That’s 2,000 repetitive reps, and football’s a physical, tough sport. So I don’t — really don’t — see that happening.”

The pandemic has exposed the NCAA and its inability to lead college football — remember, it doesn’t even own or operate its own football championship; can you imagine the NFL giving away the Super Bowl?

The current do-your-own thing “plan” — it wasn’t really planned, it just happened because no one took charge — has created plenty of dissension. Parents of players at several powerhouse schools have bombarded the Big Ten hoping to reinstate the football season. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, a major contender for the Heisman Trophy if he plays, started a petition that has more than 280,000 signatures.

Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh watches from the sideline during game against Army, in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Sept. 7, 2019. The Michigan coach has been vocal about his desire to play football this fall.
AP

Michigan football coaches have tweeted messages about their desire to play the season, led by head coach Jim Harbaugh.

“Our student-athletes and coaches want to compete,” Harbaugh said in a statement. “They have committed, trained and prepared their entire lives for this opportunity, and I know how much they’re disappointed at this time. I share in their disappointment today. We have shown over the weeks since returning to campus that we could meet the challenge and provide our student-athletes the opportunity of a fall football season.”

It’s difficult to imagine that college football won’t be permanently and dramatically altered even after the pandemic ends, with conferences and schools breaking away to do what they will in the leadership vacuum. It is likely the college game as we know it will never be the same.