August 17, 2020

A Split Fall-Spring Schedule Could Save College Football Season

It should be obvious to everyone by now that the 2020 college football season is in peril. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already announced plans to postpone the season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic with hopes to play the season in the spring. The MAC and Mountain West have also given up hope of playing games this fall. Meanwhile, the ACC, SEC and Big 12 are trying to forge ahead with their plans to play. Clearly, the NCAA is lacking in leadership if its major conferences are split on whether to play the season or try again in the spring.

The solution, however, is a combination of the two. There are too many good reasons why college football shouldn’t be played this fall. There are also many reasons why trying to play a spring season doesn’t make sense. But splitting the season into two halves, with teams playing half of their schedule in the fall and the other half in the spring could mitigate some of the issues the NCAA is facing and allow a full season to be played safely.

Why a Fall Season Won’t Work

It’s not a stretch to say that it would be irresponsible for the NCAA to hold a college football season during the current circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has not been contained in large areas of the country, leading to legitimate questions about whether or not it’s safe for schools to host in-person classes, much less extra-curricular activities such as sports. 

With individual states still fending for themselves and no nationwide testing strategy implemented by the federal government, there is no reason to expect the virus to just disappear in the near future. In large areas of the country, things are worse than they were in the spring. 

If the NCAA didn’t think it was wise to finish the college basketball season, why would it be any safer to play fall sports?

Moreover, the logistics of dozens of different programs running their own protocols based on the situation in their part of the country and on campus are dizzying. The NCAA doesn’t have the luxury of hosting 20 or 30 teams in a bubble situation like the NBA, NHL and MLS have done. To play fall sports, every individual school would need to keep the virus under control on its own campus and pay special attention to student-athletes. It's a monumental task, as would be the NCAA NCAA monitoring more than 100 FBS programs to make sure they are keeping up to date on proper protocols.

Finally, there is little point in playing a college football season this fall if all conferences, especially the Power 5 conferences, aren’t on the same page. Any championship would surely come with an asterisk if the Big Ten and Pac-12 aren’t involved. The season would feel incomplete and illegitimate even compared to pro sports leagues that have shortened their seasons. In the end, having a few conferences play a season drastically altered by the current circumstances might not be worthwhile.

Why a Spring Season Won’t Work

Many coaches and athletic directors have been resistant to the possibility of moving the college football season to the spring. Naturally, few fans would complain if the season is ultimately played, which is the hope for the Big Ten, Pac-12 and other leagues. However, there is no guarantee the pandemic will be significantly better a few months from now. Even if it is, there are obvious drawbacks to playing in the spring.

For starters, the weather could be an issue for most teams. Even teams that play in warm-weather cities would have far from ideal conditions if they tried to play home games in January or February. For teams in the northern part of the country, and the Big Ten specifically, weather conditions could be downright brutal for games in outdoor stadiums anytime before April.

Playing in the spring will also increase the likelihood of players opting-out to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft

Several high-profile players have already announced their intentions not to play this season and even more of them would skip a spring season that would coincide with NFL Draft preparations. 

Perhaps most importantly, a spring season could mean a short turnaround before the 2021 campaign in the fall. In theory, a spring football season would last until at least April or May, possibly into June if bowl games and a College Football Playoff are played. That would require a 10- or 12-game schedule to be played before a summer break of two months or less before practice began for the 2021 season in late July or early August.

Such a plan would be unfair to the players — who aren’t professionals — and it'd create logistical issues for the 2021 season.

Why a Fall-Spring Split Has a Chance

So what is the solution? Playing half of the season in the fall and the other half in the spring could work if the NCAA can institute universal protocols to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. Teams would play five or six games between September and November and then play another five or six games in the spring with the hope that bowl games and the College Football Playoff could also be played in the spring.

Shortening the fall season to five or six games would mean teams would play games every two weeks. Games would be limited to conference opponents only, which most leagues have agreed to do already. 

In theory, the ACC, SEC and Pac-12 could play on odd weeks while the Big Ten and Big 12 could play on even weeks to ensure there are games every weekend.

With teams playing every two weeks, schools would have more time to test players between games and isolate any players who test positive. Players would then be isolated from the rest of the campus for the 48 to 72 hours before every game. This would help to eliminate any spread of the disease from one team to another. Such a plan becomes more feasible if teams have two weeks to prepare for every game. It also helps that most universities are holding most classes online, allowing players to keep up with their schoolwork while being isolated before games.

In the spring, there would hopefully be more scheduling flexibility for teams to play their remaining five or six games. If conditions don’t improve, conferences would continue to schedule games every two weeks under the same protocols as the fall season. If the spread of the virus has been contained by the spring, it will be easier to schedule the handful of games in March and April once the weather improves, ending the season as quickly as possible with an eye toward starting the 2021 season on time. Increased flexibility in the spring would also allow teams to make up an extra game or two if they had to be postponed in the fall because of an outbreak on a certain team.

Everyone On the Same Page

Needless to say, splitting a season between the spring and fall will still have its drawbacks. Some players will choose to play in the fall and then opt-out in the spring to prepare for the NFL Draft. It’s also far from ideal to crown a champion in May or June when the season began in September. However, under the circumstances, it might be the best-case scenario.

The catch, of course, is that everybody needs to be on the same page. All 10 conferences, or at the very least the power conferences, would need to see eye to eye on such a plan. As mentioned, the season doesn’t work if three major conferences try to play while two sit. 

The NCAA would also need to develop protocols and a testing strategy for every program to follow. They would need to do this by putting safety ahead of revenue. More than anything else, the NCAA would need to display strong leadership and find a way to get all of its members on the same page. There is undoubtedly a split right now between playing the season as scheduled in the fall or waiting for the spring.

In the end, a compromise between the two might be our only chance of having anything close to a complete college football season.

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