Last March, the COVID-19 pandemic forced almost every sports league in the world to grind to a halt. Each league has had to figure out a way to resume play in a manner that protects the health of its players.
Some leagues have risen to that challenge. Both the NBA and NHL created bubbles in order to finish their interrupted seasons, and both seasons are continuing smoothly. The success of other leagues, such as the MLB, is more debatable. What almost all leagues have in common is that their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, whether good or bad, are the result of careful decision-making by a single entity that applies to the entire league.
College football is a rare exception to this. Unlike professional sports leagues, many of the administrative decisions of collegiate athletics falls to the conferences, and nowhere is this more apparent than in college football. College football is dominated by the conferences, which are in charge of the schedules and are responsible for the creation of the College Football Playoff. As such, each conference is responsible for making its own decision on what to do about its 2020 season in the wake of COVID-19.
The result has been a fracturing of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) that will lead to a weird, diminished college football season. On Aug. 11, the Big Ten announced the cancellation of its fall college football season, citing the health and welfare of its student-athletes. Later that day, the Pac-12 followed suit. Both conferences hope to play their football seasons in the spring of 2021.
“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” said Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”
Meanwhile, the other three major conferences in the FBS, the Southeastern Conference (SEC), Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and Big 12, all decided to move ahead with their season. All three conferences have released revised conference schedules that feature ten conference games per team. The ACC and Big 12 will allow one nonconference game per team, while the SEC will allow none. Of the Group of Five conferences, the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA and the Sun Belt Conference will play, the Mid-Atlantic Conference and the Mountain West will not. Notre Dame will play as part of the ACC for this season.
As of now, it appears that the College Football Playoff will take place as scheduled, and will only take into account the 76 teams that are taking this field this fall in the FBS, according to College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock. Unless things change, if the Big Ten and Pac-12 play their seasons in the spring, their teams will compete for conference titles.
The conferences that have canceled their fall football seasons, particularly the Big Ten, have received backlash for their decision. On Aug. 21, 25 parents of Big Ten football players gathered at the conference’s headquarters in Rosemont, Illinois to protest the Big Ten’s decision. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has publicly advocated for the Big Ten to hold its football season this fall, while Penn State head coach James Franklin expressed frustration at the lack of transparency and information from the conference. Meanwhile, the conferences that are going to play are facing increasing questions about the viability of holding a fall football season since cases are being reported among their football programs and on their campuses.
As with much of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 college football season is draped with uncertainty. The unpredictable nature of the coronavirus has made the season incredibly difficult to plan, and the situation is subject to change at any time. As of now, the ACC is scheduled to kick off the new season the weekend of Sept. 12, and fans will simply have to wait and see from there how the season progresses.