Spring Football? Nine-Game Season? ADs Ponder Contingency Plans

College football’s 12-game regular season divided over the fall and spring semesters.

The College Football Playoff semifinals and title game held in May – or even June.

A nine-game regular season.

Universities allowing student-athletes – but not the entire student body – back on campus to participate in games played in empty stadiums.

This very well could be the immediate future of college football, according to 112 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) athletic directors contacted by Stadium.

Those are just a few of the options the nation’s FBS ADs are pondering if the college football season can’t start on Aug. 29 because of COVID-19. On Tuesday, Stadium published the results of an anonymous survey of all 130 FBS ADs (in which 112 participated), asking how optimistic they were that the upcoming football season would be played in its entirety.

As part of a week-long series, today Stadium looks at some of the options – many which would have been considered quite comical a few weeks ago – the athletic directors are discussing as COVID-19 continues to impact our daily lives.

While the athletic directors stress that the safety and health of student-athletes is paramount, the ADs also realize how critical it is financially for the universities and athletic programs to have a football season once an “all-clear” is given for life to return to normal.

“Everything is on the table,” Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill said.

Pac-12 commish Larry Scott told Jon Wilner of The Mercury News that the end of May is an approximate deadline for determining the direction of college football’s preseason and regular season.

“The optimistic model has an elongated training camp and on-time start (to the season),” Scott said. “The most pessimistic has no season at all.”

Added a Power Five AD: “The biggest issue is it’s constantly a moving target on when we get the ‘all-clear’ signal.”

If the start of the season doesn’t kick off on Aug. 29, here are some possibilities athletic directors are considering:

• Start the season in October or November, concluding in the spring semester.

One Power Five athletic director asked if schools can’t begin in-person practices until late August or September, when would the season be able to begin? October or later?

“If we have to delay the start of the season, we could split it between two semesters,” a Power Five AD said. “Some bowls may not occur because of this, but we could play a full season, a majority of the bowls and the playoffs.

“Look, we are doing all types of contingency planning, even if these hypothetical scenarios never come close to happening. The biggest issue is (a start date) is a moving target.”

Another AD said they would favor the season being played over two semesters, something presidents usually have been against. That might mean a football version of March Madness.

“If we could play in a non-traditional season and extend into winter (after the traditional holiday break), I would be more optimistic about a 12-game season,” the AD said. “But it’s too early to tell.”

• Spring football, anyone?

If universities are operating exclusively online-only classes during the fall semester and don’t allow students to return to campus until January, what’s that mean for the college football season?

Just last week, a Group of Five president suggested going ahead in mid-March and moving the football season to the spring, said a Group of Five AD.

“We could move it to the spring,” a Power Five AD agreed.

Multiple athletic directors said if a fall football season can’t occur, a last-gasp possibility would be starting the season in January or February. It could mean the College Football Playoff’s semifinals from the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl could be held in May, and the national title game from Miami Gardens might be played in late May/early June around the Memorial Day holiday.

In this scenario, the regular season would get played during the NFL Draft and some bowl games might get canceled, an AD said, but at least the season would be saved.

“Would that be the preferred situation?” an AD asked. “Absolutely not, but the lights have to be kept on somehow.”

By playing in the spring — preferably in front of crowds — it would allow the universities to still recoup the millions of dollars in revenue generated by the football programs that is so critical to the athletic departments and universities.

“I think being open to a non-traditional season is a must for (athletic) departments to survive,” a Power Five AD said.

“If it’s our only option, we absolutely would have to do it in the spring,” a Group of Five AD said. “It would be incredibly difficult for us to survive financially without football revenue. That’s how critical it is to each university. We have to be creative in our thinking on this.”

• Universities determine that students may not return to campus in the fall and must take online classes, but allow an exception for student-athletes to return to campus to compete in athletics.

This is easily the most polarizing — and controversial — option. Several ADs believe it could happen under the right circumstances, while several others say there’s absolutely no way it could.

In this scenario, the student-athletes — only if cleared by health and safety officials — would be allowed on campus to take online classes and, yes, compete in athletics. They could be tested daily to guarantee they don’t have the virus (if we’re still at that point) and would play their games in empty stadiums.

“We’ve actually had discussions about this possibility,” a Power Five AD said.

My own two cents here: If this happens and no fans can attend games, ADs should move matchups to be played every day of the week. The TV ratings would be insane. Instead of 90 percent of the games being played on Saturday, spread out the games and have quadruple-headers every day of the week. It would be one way to recoup the television revenue, and perhaps the media rights holders could compensate the schools an additional amount for moving game dates around.

Now that I’m off my soapbox, here’s some of the ADs who think this is a viable option:

“As long as there’s no health or safety issues, I would have no problem with student-athletes taking online courses on campus and being able to practice and play games with no fans,” a Power Five AD said. “The university presidents would have to sign off on this — and a number of factors would have to be determined — but I think when the university presidents realize the financial impact that would come without having a football season, I think they would be more receptive.”

Another Power Five AD: “I believe it would work. Campuses have to stay open for essential services and some housing for those who need it. We have to believe this containment will work and we can get back to normal — which means we play football.”

“The (university) president that truly understands the value of athletics would be okay with that,” added a Power Five AD, “but there would be others that would not want to see athletes get an advantage other students don’t get.”

And there are those that don’t see this as a realistic option:

“I would be hard-pressed to see that happen,” a Power Five AD said. “That could never happen. I think people would really question that (thinking), even considering the huge financial impact.”

A Power Five AD: “There is absolutely no way my president would allow something like that to occur. I don’t see that being permitted. I also find it hard to believe our conference would allow that to happen.”

“I can’t believe a (university) president would assume the risk of bringing back only student-athletes without cover from a medical professional,” a Group of Five AD said. “Best shot at a season would be we contain the virus enough that medical professionals deem it clear to continue large group gatherings.”

• Cancel early-season non-conference games and play only conference opponents.

This would mean shortening the season by not playing games in September, but it would allow the bowl games and College Football Playoff to remain as scheduled.

The Power Five commissioners have daily communications, and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said if there was a reduction in games, that all of the Power Five leagues would decide as a group the number of conference games to schedule so they would all play the same number of contests.

But that could get tricky.

For one, there are 32 conference games involving the Power Five conferences in the month of September that would have to be moved to October or November. Then there’s the difference in number of conference games. The Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 all play nine league games, while the ACC and SEC only play eight. All of the Group of Five leagues have eight conference games.

But what about the seven independents, specifically Notre Dame? How would they schedule matchups in a conference-only format? What happens to the Army-Navy Game?

The easiest way to do the conference-only schedule might be allowing each school nine “conference” games. The SEC could add another conference game without any issues, while the ACC could have nine schools play Notre Dame and have it count as a conference opponent. The other five ACC league members could each schedule another independent (Army, BYU, UConn, UMass, Liberty or New Mexico State) to get its ninth game.

The independents would have to be very creative with their schedules to get to nine games, perhaps playing some sort of round-robin schedule.

Without non-conference games, the Group of Five schools and a lot of FCS programs would not get their big-money, million-dollar paydays for playing at a Power Five opponent. If that happens, “it would be crippling to the Group of Five programs and would destroy the FCS ranks as well,” a Power Five AD predicted.

Anything less than a 12-game season also means less revenue for all programs.

Whatever shape the upcoming college football season evolves into, one Power Five athletic director had the best advice.

“We really need to put competitive advantage aside and think big picture on this thing,” the AD said.

“However, I’m not sure people will.”

MORE: This Is What College Hoops Coaches Like to Watch While Stuck at Home