A spring football season is like so much else in the COVID-19 era — it’s like wearing masks and infection danger and the idea of playing college football this fall.
The only consensus is the conflicting viewpoints.
“It makes zero sense,’’ a longtime college football administrator said. “If you can’t play in the fall, then let’s get through the virus, come back in January and have a full offseason.”
“Of course you can play in the spring,’’ a current athletic director said. “It’s a matter of if you want to play in the spring.”
We’re not sure of the Pac-12’s collective desire to play in the spring, especially in the immediate, emotional aftermath of canceling the fall season for the first time in conference history.
But we know the Pac-12 plans to explore the possibility of a spring season.
It will make the attempt because the conference wants money, the fans want football, and the players want to play.
Of course, they might not want to play 24 games in a single year — 12 in the spring and 12 more next fall — but they won’t have to. (We’ll get to that matter in a moment.)
“We wouldn’t have said we were postponing if we didn’t think we could play in the spring,” said Colorado athletic director Rick George, the conference’s representative on the CFP selection committee.
Before diving deep into a potential framework for spring football, we’ll start with an admission:
It won’t be the same as a normal fall season — can’t be, won’t be — so fans should drop their expectations a level or two. Or three.
But it doesn’t have to be. By the time we hit February, college football fans will have gone 13 months without college football.
Come early 2021, that gristly piece of skirt steak will look like a prime cut of ribeye.
OK, let’s proceed ….
A widely-available vaccine is not required to play in the spring. It likely would be necessary for fans to attend, but not for the players to compete.
The Pac-12’s medical advisory team listed six criteria for the resumption of competition (available in this account) and made no mention of a vaccine.
But the advisors were clear on two pieces of the coronavirus puzzle: Testing and community spread.
The former must improve, the latter must diminish.
— “Testing access and capacity to satisfy testing recommendations above, including the ability to test within 24 hours of competition and have results prior to that competition”
— “Capability to isolate new positive cases and quarantine high-risk contacts. Campus or community access to housing and food options to effectively ensure basic conditions for successful quarantine and isolation, point-of-care testing must become readily available in order for teams”
So our outline for spring football really makes three assumptions:
1. It’s not the same as fall football.
2. Testing improves by the late fall or early winter.
3. The level of community spread diminishes.
OK, now let’s get to the logistics — to the details of what would be an unprecedented endeavor for college football:
Producing a competitive, safe and entertaining spring season.
“It’s a complex formula, and we’d have to get our best minds on trying to build a model that’s workable,’’ Washington State athletic director Pat Chun.
“There a lot of hurdles: the timing, the health-and-safety piece, the number of games.
“But we’ve done a good job building a (scheduling) methodology that we put in place for the fall, and so we have that available for us to see if there’s a way to move forward.”
It is the Hotline’s belief that the ACC, SEC and Big 12 will succumb to the challenges posed by coronavirus — especially once students return to campus — and eventually abort their plans for the fall.
At that point, the Power Five could turn its collective focus — to the extent anything is done collectively these days — to the spring.
But the Pac-12 and Big Ten could move forward on their own if needed, with the conference champions facing each other in a bowl game … perhaps even in a bowl game in Pasadena, California.
The most significant logistical challenges facing a spring season would involve eligibility, roster size, the NFL Draft and, the physical demands on the players.
They cannot be asked to play two full seasons in one calendar year.
So here’s the plan:
Spring football becomes a nine-game, conference-only season — similar to what the Pac-12 had planned for this fall, but removing one game from the lineup.
But within those nine games, each player could compete in no more than seven.
Because it works with the calendar we’ll lay out in a moment.
Because that’s essentially half of a normal season: Teams that compete in bowl games play 13, and teams that participate in the conference championship and a bowl game play 14.
Again, two full seasons in one calendar year is too much, but one-and-a-half seasons in a calendar year?
That’s manageable, in part because the net increase in wear-and-tear would be less than a half season.
Normally, teams have four weeks of spring practice, which includes several scrimmages.
Speaking of spring practice: The Pac-12 should move it to late November or December, if the health and safety piece will allow.
(Get the players on the field in some fashion as soon as it’s safe, for the physical and mental well being.)
Our calendar calls for training camp to begin in late January and the season to start Saturday, Feb. 20.
Teams would play nine games and finish up on April 17, with the conference championship the following weekend.
A greatly reduced bowl season would play out in early May, and you’re done.
Players would then have 13 weeks off, with training camp beginning Monday, Aug. 9 for a normal start to the 2021 fall season.
(The fall schedule could be moved back a few weeks to give the players more time, but then non-conference contracts must be revised. Our calendar was crafted with the assumption that coaches, athletic directors, presidents and television partners want as little disruption to the fall season as possible.)
Critical point: Even a reduced spring season is a big ask of the players, both in terms of the physical demands — the reason behind our seven-game-per-player limit — and their eligibility.
They would be using a full year on a half season.
Some might opt out, understandably, and in those cases the NCAA must grant a waiver.
“The eligibility piece is a huge uncertainty,’’ said Chun, who represents the Pac-12 on the NCAA’s Division I Council, the group responsible for day-to-day oversight of major college athletics.
As for the NFL piece:
No, we don’t believe the league will delay the draft — it’s currently scheduled for April 29 – May 1 — to accommodate a spring college season.
Yes, we assume every top prospect, and the vast majority of all prospects, will skip the spring season.
Count on each roster losing 20 players to the draft and another 10-15 to health or eligibility opt outs.
That would leave teams with 60-65 players, including walk-ons — not enough, especially if each player is limited to seven games.
Here’s what you do:
Transfers would be eligible immediately, as would high school players who enroll early. The true freshmen would be granted waivers to play in up to six games without losing the year of eligibility.
Add the transfers and early enrollees, and roster flexibility becomes more manageable.
But even with that, more changes would be needed:
In-season practices must be light — as light as NFL practices.
And the conferences should consider tweaks to the rules, like a running clock in the fourth quarter of lopsided games, to further benefit the players.
Also, schedules could be crafted in such a way that cold-weather teams play most of their home games in late March and April, when they would typically be conducting spring practice.
Bottom line: It would take significant creativity and maximum effort for the Pac-12 to produce a spring season.
We’re not sure the schools have the requisite desire. It’s too soon, emotions are too raw, and the mere prospect of February kickoffs is too jarring to be fully comprehended at the moment.
Nor do we know how the conference’s TV partners feel (and what they would pay).
But if they want to play in the spring … if they really want to play … there’s a path forward.
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