CloseESPN Senior WriterSenior college football writer
Author of seven books on college football
Graduate of the University of Georgia
CloseESPN Senior Writer College football reporter
Joined ESPN.com in 2007
Graduate of Indiana University
What if college football can’t be played this fall? Is spring football really a possibility?
Can you imagine Alabama and Tennessee playing on the Third Saturday in March, instead of the Third Saturday in October?
Ole Miss and Mississippi State playing in the Easter Egg Bowl?
The Rose Bowl kicking off on Memorial Day, instead of New Year’s Day?
After the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced last week that their teams would play only conference games, the 2020 college football season has reached a tipping point. With coronavirus cases surging in states such as Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, high-ranking athletic officials throughout the country have conceded that their pessimism has grown in regard to the likelihood of an on-time start to the season — and acknowledged the harsh reality that the season might not happen at all.
The information continues to change rapidly, and there’s no shortage of speculation, but with the fall season in serious jeopardy, conference commissioners and other power players have acknowledged that spring football, which once seemed like an only-if-we-have-to option, is becoming more and more conceivable.
“I think we need to be prepared to do it, and I think it should be viewed as a viable option,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “We’re going to learn so much from the NBA and NHL and Major League Baseball in the next few weeks, and if, for example, those efforts go poorly, it’s probably going to be a really critical data point for us, and we’ll argue for delay. If that occurs, I think you’ve gotta be open to the spring.”
There’s still a sense, though, that it won’t be discussed in much more detail until it has to be.
Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley has been among the most vocally open-minded coaches on the topic of a spring college football season. Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Recent decisions by the Pac-12 and Big Ten were made to give the conferences more flexibility in pushing back the start of the season and making up canceled games, if necessary, because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Big Ten and Pac-12 prefer a 10-game schedule, if feasible, but everything seems to be on the table.
SEC athletic directors met Monday at the league office in Birmingham, Alabama. The ACC, Big 12 and SEC aren’t expected to announce their plans for the upcoming season until later this month, but SEC commissioner Greg Sankey offered a dire assessment during an interview on Marty & McGee on ESPN Radio over the weekend.
“We are running out of time to correct and get things right, and as a society we owe it to each other to be as healthy as we can be,” said Sankey, who described his concern for the upcoming season as “high to very high.”
Sankey isn’t alone. After announcing the conference-only model, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said, “We may not have a college football season in the Big Ten.”
The Pac-12 announced it would delay bringing back players to campus for preseason camp and would push back the start of football season.
“Our decisions have and will be guided by science and data, and based upon the trends and indicators over the past days, it has become clear that we need to provide ourselves with maximum flexibility to schedule, and to delay any movement to the next phase of return-to-play activities,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said.
Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour says delaying the college football season until the spring would negatively impact the 2021 season in the fall.
The Pac-12 announced Friday that Scott, 55, tested positive for the coronavirus, has mild flu-like symptoms and is self-quarantining.
One FBS conference commissioner whose league ran spring football models in the early weeks of the pandemic (after the NCAA canceled its basketball tournaments and other championship events) told ESPN that “it’s time to pull that back out, dust it off and see where we are.”
“Lots of complications,” the commissioner said. “Obviously not first choice, but I think we can find a way to make it work. Maybe not a full season, maybe a split season. It has to be an option at this point.”
Other athletic directors and conference commissioners across the FBS told ESPN that spring football is not their first choice, but if things don’t change dramatically in the next couple of months, it might be their only chance to pull off a football season before the fall of 2021.
“I’ve always considered it a viable option, but it’s certainly not first choice and probably not second choice, either,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “I think it would be a really big leap to say, ‘OK, we’re going to shut it down in the fall, and move it all to the spring,’ because there isn’t a whole lot of certainty in the spring, either. Having said that, I don’t consider it an infeasible option. I just wouldn’t call it first choice.”
Regardless of how the college football season looks — or when it might be played — College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN that the playoff will be ready “for whatever comes down.”
Rece Davis joins SportsCenter and says there is “a great deal of optimism” that the 2020 college football season will happen.
“This is why the committee has 13 football experts,” Hancock said in reaction to the Big Ten’s decision to move to a conference-only model for all fall sports. “Their task is to select the best four teams based on play on the field and schedules that conferences establish.”
Nick Carparelli, executive director of the Football Bowl Association, said that while he still hopes for a normal postseason, “The bowl system continues to remain patient,” he said. “We are still not in a situation where we can make any decisions about the future. We’re still operating under the assumption the bowl season will still happen at its traditional time, but they are all prepared to have a bowl season whenever the regular season concludes. If that happens to be the springtime, then that’s when it will be.”
Carparelli said it’s too early to model out what that would actually look like, but based on the current knowledge that the Big Ten and Pac-12 would prefer a 10-game league schedule, he said there wouldn’t be a need to change the current bowl-eligibility requirement of a .500 record.
“In a season that’s scheduled for only 10 games, 5-5 is already bowl-eligible by NCAA rules,” he said. “At this point we don’t feel there is a waiver or rule change that’s necessary.”
Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley has been perhaps the only head coach who has publicly endorsed spring football. Other coaches don’t seem ready to close the door on a traditional season this fall.
“In my opinion, they’re resistant because it’s never been done,” Riley told ESPN on Tuesday. “People don’t like change. I think there is some work that’s going to have to be done on the organizational side of it and there will be issues with it. I’ve heard the weather concern, but football is played in cold weather all the time. I don’t think that’s very legitimate, in my opinion.”
The Rose Bowl in May? While unusual, it might be time to entertain the possibility. Mark Holtzman Photography
The biggest potential benefit in moving college football to the spring, obviously, is that there might be a vaccine or improved therapeutics and medical care for those inflicted with the coronavirus. If there aren’t significant medical advances in the next six months or so, however, FBS programs wouldn’t have time to once again delay the start of the season. The traditional 2021 season would be right around the corner.
“Some people say, ‘Well, you might have a better chance of having fans in the stands, there might be a vaccine,'” American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said. “Well, there might be a vaccine, but that’s still very iffy. We don’t know that there will be a vaccine. And if there is, it’s likely to go to the people who need it the most right away. Whether it would be widespread enough to go to the student-athletes is very, very hard to say. You can’t rely on that. If you don’t play in the fall, and the pandemic is still around, how do you justify playing in the spring?”
If games can’t be played this fall, student-athletes would ideally return to campus in January, have four to six weeks of preseason practices and then open the season sometime in February. That schedule might work in the Southeast and Southwest but not so much in the colder climates of the Midwest and Northeast.
According to weather.com, the average temperature in Minneapolis was 29 degrees in February and 41 degrees in March. In Madison, Wisconsin, the average temperature was 32 degrees in February and 44 degrees in March, and in Buffalo, New York, it was 33 degrees in February and 42 degrees in March.
The middle of the traditional flu season also occurs in January and February, when epidemiologists fear the effects of the coronavirus on the health care system might be worse.
Laura Rutledge and Marcus Spears break down the possibility of West Coast schools playing a college football season in the spring should schools not fully reopen in the fall.
“For a national participation, you would need to start probably in March, and play March, April and May,” Bowlsby said. “You can’t count on playing games in East Lansing, Michigan, in February. I think it has some built-in challenges, and there’s no guarantee that everybody can do it.”
Former NFL All-Pro offensive lineman Chris Hinton, who played at Northwestern, has two sons currently playing in the FBS — Christopher, a sophomore defensive lineman at Michigan, and Myles, a freshman offensive tackle at Stanford.
Hinton and his wife, former Northwestern basketball player Mya Hinton, who is an attorney, started a parents advocacy group called College Football Parents 24/7. Hinton said he and his wife were alarmed that the NCAA doesn’t have a universal coronavirus safety policy for every football program in the country.
“I’d turn on the radio and a commissioner or coach so-and-so was talking about playing college football,” Hinton said. “I was like, ‘Damn it, what about parents? What about the players?’ Everybody wants fall football. I just hate when people try to change the narrative that we don’t want football because we do. We just want it to be safe, and we hope that decisions are made based not only on money.”
The group, which includes more than 1,400 parents, wrote a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert and hundreds of intercollegiate athletic departments expressing their concerns.
“The concern is that there are no universal guidelines,” Hinton said. “In fact, we’re more concerned now than we were a month ago. I use the analogy that if you saw a storm coming, you wouldn’t run into the storm, and that’s basically what’s happening. You’re about to kick it to a whole different level of interaction. At the same time, things are being closed down around the country, and we’re going in the opposite direction in college football.”
Hinton said both of his sons suffered from asthma as young children and his family often traveled with a nebulizer for breathing treatments.
Laura Rutledge discusses what it would take for college football to still start in the fall, or moving the season to the spring.
“Everybody talks about the death rate and how minuscule it is for the age group, but we don’t know the long-term effects, especially for someone with our sons’ issues,” Hinton said. “There isn’t a dinner that goes by where it doesn’t come up during our conversation. We may be forced to make a hard decision about whether they’re going to play or not.”
Another big drawback of playing football in the spring is that some players could potentially play 30 games in one calendar year if their teams were to win conference title games and reach the CFP National Championship.
Even players on teams that didn’t make the postseason would play 24 games in as few as 10 months if the seasons aren’t shortened.
“To play 24 games in a nine-month period, that’s a bit much,” Hinton said. “That would be too much.”
Last month, in a confidential poll of college football players conducted by ESPN, 64 of the 73 players said they would be comfortable practicing and playing games without a coronavirus vaccine. Only 37 of the 73 said they would be willing to play two seasons in one calendar year if the 2020 season is delayed or interrupted.
Riley said concessions would have to be made for a spring season to work, even delaying the start of the traditional 2021 season.
How would a spring CFB season impact player participation in the 2021 NFL scouting combine? Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports
“It’d probably be a [spring] conference season and postseason only,” Riley said. “We’ve seen often teams go in and play well into January in the College Football Playoff and start spring practice at some point in February and nobody says a word about that. You’d have to adjust your schedule to give players plenty of time off to get their bodies back in the summer. Maybe a little later start back the next fall.”
Another potential problem is that the game’s biggest stars — NFL prospects such as Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, Oregon’s Penei Sewell, LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and others — wouldn’t play next spring because the college season would be so close to the NFL draft.
“If we move football to the spring, the first phone call I’m making as a commissioner is to [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell,” a Power 5 football coach said. “How are you going to have a season without Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields and those other guys?”
The 2021 NFL draft is scheduled for April 29-May 1 in Cleveland, with the NFL combine in Indianapolis several weeks before then.
“If you can play in the fall, that is the better alternative for a lot of reasons,” Aresco said. “If you play in the spring, I don’t know if your best players are even going to play. You’d have the combine, you have the NFL draft.”
“You have to work around the draft, which I actually believe can be done depending on what the NFL does,” Riley said. “I could see us playing in the spring and that being a positive for a lot of those NFL teams. Now, if the NFL does play in the fall, I promise you they’d love to be able to send their head coaches and coordinators to actually come out and watch these guys play football games. I’ve spoken with a number of NFL head coaches that love that idea. I think from an evaluation standpoint, it would be fine and you’d obviously have to do something with the draft.”
Swarbrick said with so many other factors at play, players skipping a spring season and entering the NFL draft can’t be one of the deciding factors.
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick on football in the spring: “I think we need to be prepared to do it, and I think it should be viewed as a viable option.” Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
“The other issues are much bigger,” Swarbrick said. “As much as I and everybody else associated with our program wants to do everything we can to position the young men for whom that’s part of their future, the decision can’t be made solely on that consequence.”
While college football stakeholders are placing a greater priority on getting teams safely back on the field to compete, pushing football back to the spring might also allow schools to have fans or bigger crowds in their stadiums. An analysis conducted for ESPN by Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, estimated that the 65 Power 5 schools would collectively lose more than $4 billion in football revenue, with at least $1.2 billion of that due to lost ticket revenue, if a season wasn’t played. Each Power 5 school would see at least an average loss of $62 million in football revenue, including at least $18.6 million in football ticket sales, he said.
Not everyone is giving up hope on playing football this fall. In a letter to fans on Monday, Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said the Cyclones would incur $40 million in unfunded expenses in the next six months if fall sports aren’t played. Pollard said Iowa State lost more than $41 million in revenue from its educational fund for fiscal year 2021, and revenue losses and cuts since the start of the pandemic are expected to be an additional $73 million through Aug. 23. In other words, Iowa State’s athletic department can’t go to the university for support. Pollard also said state agencies, including the university and its departments, aren’t allowed to incur debt for operating expenses under state law.
Since the Cyclones returned to campus in early June for voluntary workouts, according to Pollard, they have recorded just three positive cases among 160 football players and staff. Pollard said he is “confident that our mitigation efforts can reduce the risk for fans at Jack Trice Stadium. We will be transparent about these efforts so fans can evaluate and choose for themselves whether they are comfortable attending games or not.”
“Some people have suggested that we should simply play fall sports in the spring when the challenges of COVID-19 could be reduced,” Pollard wrote. “Unfortunately, there are no guarantee things will improve in the spring and there are numerous hurdles to overcome. The most-significant challenge is committing another six months of operational costs (roughly $40M in our case) for the fall semester with no revenues to cover those expenses.”
There are other potential issues with a spring season, including disrupting the recruiting calendar. New Mexico already has moved high school football to the spring, and other state governments are urging their high school associations to do the same. The National Junior College Athletic Association voted Monday to move its football season to the spring, so it’s going to be a non-traditional recruiting cycle regardless.
Ryan Clark makes a case for why the college football season should go on as scheduled even if fans aren’t in the stadiums.
More midyear high school graduates might elect to skip their final prep seasons and enroll in colleges in January. Would they be eligible to play if the college season is delayed to the spring?
In the spring, college football would also be competing for television viewers against professional sports such as the NBA and Major League Baseball, as well as the NCAA basketball tournaments. There are only so many TV windows for live sporting events every week.
In spite of the numerous obstacles to a spring season, it’s an alternative the conference commissioners might have no choice but to eventually model with more detail.
“As we continue to go on and on, I think it becomes a much more viable option for us to be considering,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “We’re not there yet. That’s down the road, and if we get to that point, we have time to deal with that. We’re much more focused on some of the immediate challenges in front of us.”
For now, college football seems to facing third-and-very-long when it comes to a 2020 season this fall. The sport might need a Hail Mary to pull it off.