COLUMBUS — The Fourth of July could provide fireworks for college football fans.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith set early July as a deadline to formulate a schedule for the 2020 season to occur in the fall.
“We need to not rush this,” he said. “I know everyone is anxious to do that. But we need to have the opportunity for our medical experts to continue to collect data, to see how our human behavior responds to the reopening environment across the country. We need to take into consideration not just Ohio but all other states.”
As states return to some sense of normalcy, college campuses are opening their doors. Coaches are allowed limited access to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, and players will soon follow June 8. Avoiding a spike in coronavirus cases and welcoming students back to campus in August will determine the direction of the college football season.
But what might that season look like?
Certainly not like 2019 and almost every year before it. Stadiums with few fans and perhaps none is a virtual certainty. Will all 12 games be played as scheduled? What if teams located in hotspots punt on the season?
“I’m hopeful that we can play 12 games,” Smith said. “I want to play (non-conference) games not just for us, but for (Bowling Green and Buffalo) because I know the dire straits that they’re in.”
The game on most people’s minds is Oregon, not Michigan. The OSU-Oregon series has been anticipated since it was signed in 2012. The 2020 contest, scheduled for Sept. 12 at Autzen Stadium, is one of the marquee games of the season. But doubts are creeping in about the game’s viability, especially after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced sporting events would have no fans through the month of September.
There has been speculation about flipping the sites, playing in Columbus in 2020 and Eugene in 2021. However, Smith seemed to end that possibility because it would cause an imbalance of home and away games for the Buckeyes in 2021.
“I’m not sure I’d flip it, because we wouldn’t have seven home games next year,” Smith said.
A conference-only schedule with as little as eight games is something Smith could support as being a legitimate season, though he’d be more comfortable with 10. If Ohio State only plays Big Ten opponents, it doesn’t necessarily mean all 14 teams will be playing. Rutgers, Maryland, and Northwestern, because of their locations to coronavirus outbreaks, are the most vulnerable.
“I believe that it’s best, of course, if we have all 14 teams playing,” Smith said. “We have not discussed that as ADs yet. I personally feel like it could be worked out if someone is disenfranchised, for whatever reason, we should be able to find a way to not penalize all the schools. We should have as much flexibility as we can to mitigate the damage to individual schools based upon where they are.”
A national solution is optimal. The problem is no one has jurisdiction over college football. It is the only Division I championship that isn’t overseen by the NCAA. The governing body is a mishmash of conference commissioners and athletic directors, with Smith and Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren among a group of powerbrokers who carry significant influence.
Major decisions will be based on collaboration, though there is some hypothesizing that conferences or even teams could go-it-alone. Just don’t expect masks to become prevalent.
“I think that’s unrealistic,” Smith said. “I think if somebody tells us that has to happen, in my view, based on what I’ve learned, we won’t be playing.”
Of course, the ultimate question is, what happens if a player (or staff member) tests positive for COVID-19? Rudy Goebert’s positive test shut down the NBA and all other North American sports.
Would the same happen if a college football player had the coronavirus?
“If someone gets sick, we turn to our medical staff,” Smith said. “And they’ll give us guidance on what to do next. It may be that they decide that we should shut it down. We have to rely on them.”