Opinion: Moving 2020 college football season to spring might be only salvation in coronavirus pandemic
My pal Carey Murdock asked Lincoln Riley a question near the end of his Zoom press conference Friday. What OU defensive lineman would make the best offensive lineman, and what offensive lineman would make the best defensive lineman?
In a normal world, it’s the sort of silly question that brings much-needed levity to serious football talk. But the world is not normal. The question was not silly. It’s completely relevant to a 2020 season that figures to be the strangest since 1918, when the Spanish Flu ravaged the sport and most of the rest of American society.
A wiped-out line or a quarantined quarterback room is coming to a team near you this autumn, if college football proceeds as planned.
Optimism prevailed on June 1. Games would be played. Fans would flock. Thirty percent capacity, 50 percent capacity, 75 percent capacity! Confidence went as viral as did the Covid.
But pessimism prevails in July. Coronavirus cases are surging, especially in the South and Southwest, where college football is revered. Even holdouts Texas and Florida have retreated on the re-opening of society.
Will the season start on time? Will it be interrupted? What are the protocols for postponements, cancellations and forfeits? How many positive tests per team warrants a game being called off? Will some coaches try to get out of games, if too many key personnel are quarantined? The prospects are head-spinning.
Consider this. It’s not just positive coronavirus tests that can sideline a player from team activities. Following contact tracing protocol, isolation results for anyone who is exposed to someone who contracts the virus, until further tests can be administered. Did you read that closely? If Spencer Sanders or Spencer Rattler test positive, all the quarterbacks at OSU or OU, respectively, could be isolated. No practice, no games, for anyone exposed, until they test negative.
All of which has brought back the idea of a spring season. Delay college football until February or March. Give the country and college campuses a chance to get a grip on the pandemic.
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We’re two months away from the OU (Sept. 5) and OSU (Sept. 3) openers. But we’re seven months away from early February and eight months away from early March. That’s half a year difference.
Half a year for the Einsteins to find a vaccine. Half a year for the doctors to find better treatment. Half a year to better learn how to live with this plague. Half a year to give universities a handle on how to handle campus during such a time as this.
A fractured schedule would be economically devastating to athletic departments. Losing in-house fans would be crippling. Losing games would be worse. Reduced scholarships and reduced programs for sure, plus other unseen disasters.
And a fractured schedule seems assured, if college football tries to launch in September.
The spring offers no guarantees. But the spring offers at least a chance at some normalcy. And it might just work.
“May not be preferred,” said OSU athletic director Mike Holder. “But yeah, anything's possible, and I think our athletes, they just want to play.”
A spring season was one of the models considered when the pandemic first hit, but the optimism of a month ago squashed spring talk. However, the wise kept it on their list of options.
“I know it died out on the national scene,” Riley said. “But I think our leadership among conferences and ADs have still been continuing to work on different models for the season because it is just so unpredictable. I know the spring was one of the models that they continued to work on.”
The Pac-12 has been the most vocal conference about a potential spring season. The Big Ten probably is the least excited about the spring. February is freezing in Big Ten country, and March is quite cold, too. Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour called a spring season a “last resort.”
Agreed. But last resorts are better than no resorts.
“I hope like hell we can play in the fall and do it as close as to how we’ve done it before,” Riley said. “If we can do that, then I’m all for it. That’s the best option.”
But Riley pointed out that the coronavirus hasn’t withered in hot weather, like viruses of the past. So belief has waned that college football could get in the bulk of a season before a potential second wave hit. We have no idea if the first wave will relent before autumn.
“We’ve heard reports from some of our nation’s medical leaders that there’s … potential chance for a vaccine by the end of this year, possibly early next year,” Riley said. “There are some positive things, some of the treatments they’re starting to develop that obviously would have an impact on players, staff, fans, everybody.
“Then, to me, it just becomes do you think it’s doable? I personally do. There are differing opinions on that. I don’t believe you could play a full season. It would probably be a conference season, postseason only.”
A spring season likely would start in March, with conference games only. If fortune shined and things improved mightily the rest of 2020, perhaps February could be used for a couple of non-conference games.
Yes, a spring season would collide with most of the rest of campus sports. The winter sports, particularly basketball, would be hitting their climax. The spring sports would be getting in gear at the same time.
But football funds most college sports. Allowances would have to be made.
ESPN and Fox, the prime telecasters of college football, would have to adjust some schedules. ESPN is all over conference basketball tournaments the second week of March but could figure out the sacrifices that needed to be made for college football, a ratings powerhouse. ESPN is heavy into the NBA playoffs, but the 2021 NBA playoffs might be delayed, since next NBA season will start late.
CBS, which telecasts an SEC game each Saturday during the season, would face a conflict with the NCAA Tournament in March and the Masters the second week of April. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
The football calendar would be askew. The NFL Combine comes in February, followed by the draft in April. Some have suggested the combine could move to December or January, before the college season. The draft could be moved to June. Again, this isn’t easy on anyone.
Some star players might choose to forego the college season. A high NFL draft pick might not be interested in playing games into May, with his NFL training camp only two months away. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is an example.
That would be an unfortunate byproduct of such a revolutionary plan. But playing a semi-full schedule, void of selected stars, beats a Swiss cheese schedule with stars.
“You are talking about two big entities there with college football and the NFL,” Riley said. “They care about the game and the good of the game and having the game. I can’t imagine both sides wouldn’t be able to get together and work something out.
“I’m not saying it’s easy, but people have to adjust and have flexible during this time. It’s not easy, but very doable.”
The college football calendar would be off the rails. A second straight season without spring football practice. But a fall practice could be held, similar to what is about to start in the next week or so.
The 2021 season could be adjusted, with a slightly later start time, to give the players more of a summer break.
There’s no guarantee a spring season could launch without hiccup. “That may not be a reason not to try, but there’s currently no guarantee on anything,” said OU athletic director Joe Castiglione.
No guarantee. But spring, not autumn, offers the best chance to have a college football that is something other than a total disaster. Health-wise. Finance-wise. Normal-wise.
“I can’t speak for everybody, but if the best thought leaders in our country felt like a disruption was guaranteed, I think (they) would decide to move towards a spring model,” Castiglione said. “If people were feeling like there wasn’t going to be possible to get a fair number of games, I don’t know why we would start and stop it. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
Two months ago, we seemed to have plenty of time to make a decision on the season. But now it’s July. Sometime this month, those thought leaders will have to make the call. Forge ahead on a season in which cancellations are abundant, emergency quarterbacks are routine and your linemen are playing both sides of the ball. Or wait for spring and hope the virus is more under control.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.