“Do you think there will be football this year?”
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked that question by my friends and family since the scope and magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic began to become clear. And all along, my answer has been a resounding “I don’t know.”
But as September approaches, it seems as though the 2020 college football season is teetering on the edge of being cancelled for the first time in a century. The last time there was an autumn without college football, it was 1918 and the season was disrupted by World War 1 and the Spanish Flu pandemic.
Both ESPN and Sports Illustrated are reporting that sources within college football are indicating that the cancellation or postponement of the season are increasingly likely.
“Several sources have indicated to ESPN that Big Ten presidents, following a meeting on Saturday, are ready to pull the plug on its fall sports season, and they wanted to gauge if commissioners and university presidents and chancellors from the other Power 5 conferences — the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — will fall in line with them.
Sources told ESPN that a vast majority of Big Ten presidents have indicated that they would vote to postpone football season, hopefully to the spring. A Big Ten official confirmed to ESPN that no official vote took place during Saturday’s meeting.
Several sources have told ESPN over the past 48 hours that the postponement or cancellation of the football season seems inevitable. Many of those sources believed it ultimately will take a Power 5 conference to move things in that direction and that either the Big Ten or Pac-12 would probably be the first league to do it.
“Nobody wanted to be the first to do it,” a Power 5 coach told ESPN, “and now nobody will want to be the last.”
A Power 5 administrator added: “It feels like no one wants to, but it’s reaching the point where someone is going to have to.”
Sports Illustrated has heard similar comments, reporting,
“It’s gotten to a critical stage,” one conference commissioner told Sports Illustrated Sunday, after a conference call between the heads of the Power 5 conferences. “I think all of us will be meeting with our boards in the coming days. We have work to do that is no fun.”
While another source told SI:
“In the next 72 hours college football is going to come to a complete stop,” one industry source said.
The NCAA — particularly the Power 5 of the SEC, ACC, Big 10, Big 12, and Pac-12 — has resisted the idea of cancelling or postponing their 2020 season for most of the spring and summer.
Over that same period whole conferences at the FCS level have cancelled their season or committed to moving them to the spring, when a vaccine will hopefully allow a return to normalcy. We’ve also seen some of the best players in college football opt out of the 2020 season and turn their attention to the 2021 NFL Draft.
But, as things so often happen, there came an inflection point. This time it was the decision by the Mid-American Conference (MAC) to become the first FBS conference to postpone its season. On Saturday, August 8th, the MAC announced that it would be postponing its football season until the spring.
Like Rudy Gobert licking the microphones at an NBA press conference and then promptly testing positive for COVID-19, the MAC’s decision to punt the 2020 season to the spring seems to have served as a turning point for the rest of the league. And in the span of a weekend, the cancellation or postponement of the 2020 college football season has gone from “unlikely” to a very real possibility.
But as Shane Lyons, West Virginia’s athletic director and chair of the Football Oversight Committee, told ESPN, “No one has talked about a plan if the season is canceled. If it’s canceled, we need to be able to give clear direction at that time, as opposed to saying, ‘We don’t know.’”
And based on the current indications, that seems to be the main effort now, figuring out a coherent plan and direction. For the rest of us, we’re just waiting for word on what will come next.
What does it mean for the NFL?
This is, of course, the next question.
NCAA football and the NFL share a symbiotic relationship, and while that normally benefits both parties, what happens to one league can’t help but impact the other.
And since it’s been 98 years since a college football season was cancelled, nobody can say with any kind of certainty what will happen with the NFL. There are some likely questions we can ask and take some educated guesses at answers, but we should also expect unintended consequences.
If college football moves to the spring, what happens to the 2021 NFL Draft, scheduled April 29-May 1 in Cleveland?— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) August 10, 2020
The collective bargaining agreement says each draft shall be held no later than June 2 … so any delay beyond that would require approval by the players’ union.
The NFL Draft
The League absolutely depends on the yearly infusion of young talent from the collegiate ranks through its yearly draft. Leaving aside the question of whether or not a decision from the Power 5 to cancel or postpone the season will influence the NFL to do the same, the most obvious question we can ask is what will happen with the NFL draft.
NFL scouts and scouting departments began preparing for the 2021 draft almost as soon as the 2020 draft concluded. The process of scouting a player happens over multiple years, with reports built upon every time a scout visits a school.
For top players who have already opted out, guys like Caleb Farley (CB, Virignia Tech), Gregory Rousseau (EDGE, Miami), Jaylen Twyman (iDL, Pittsburgh), or Micah Parsons (LB, Penn State), the draft process will be little different than if they had suffered an early injury. Each is easily in the top two or three of their position and a likely Top-15 pick. Their elite traits are apparent and they have plenty of tape available for teams to study.
But what about everybody else? What about players like Joe Burrow, who ascended from anonymity to be the first overall draft pick based on one incandescent season?
Workouts will have to be of paramount importance for those players. The preparation for the 2021 draft could be the inverse of the prep for the 2020 draft, in which workouts and school visits (assuming it’s safe by then) take on unprecedented importance as the first time scouts will get a look at players in a year.
Complicating matters further, we don’t know what will happen to the postseason All Star games (such as the East-West Shrine Game or Senior Bowl) in the event that the season is cancelled.
And what happens if the 2020 season is postponed to the spring? Will the NFL consider upsetting its entire calendar to move the draft until after the delayed season is played? Will we see draft eligible players play a month of games before declaring for April’s draft and losing their eligibility? Perhaps we could see the 2021 Supplemental Draft have a historic class if dozens — or more — prospects are granted eligibility. Could the NFL sacrifice much of its 2022 draft picks for a 2021 supplemental draft? Nobody knows, but that could be one unintended consequence of the current pandemic.
But right now, for us on the outside, the best advice I can offer is to buckle up.