With the Big Ten and Pac-12 announcing moving to conference-only schedules, there’s a good shot the other three Power 5 conferences will join them at some point soon. It’s not Plan A, but it very well could save the fall college football season.
COVID-19 has changed the sporting landscape, and with professional leagues and now college conferences trying to start back up amid a pandemic, tweaks are underway to try to save their respective seasons. The Big Ten made the first move and the Pac-12 followed suit late last week on the college level, leaving the ACC, Big 12 and SEC and discussing whether they should follow in their footsteps. It seems likely, even if the amount of games is up in the air.
Still, the Big Ten has the initial blueprint for conferences to share:
- A 10-game schedule with no bye weeks. This allows for games to be rescheduled if dates are postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
- Divisional games in the first half of the schedule. A 10-game schedule shortened to six games provides an undisputed divisional champion if the season is cut short (and it also provides an opportunity for the season to be completed in the spring if six games are completely played in the fall). An undisputed divisional champion is of course important for conference championship purposes, which are a massive cash cow.
- Cross-divisional games in the back half of the schedule. Some rivalry games are played across divisional lines, but those must wait until the second half of the season to make sure there teams are more likely to at least push through a six-game schedule against divisional opponents.
- Flex dates. The conferences have at least 13 dates to play a maximum of 10 games. That number of available dates could be extended to 14 if the College Football Playoff and its FBS members agree to shortened prep work if conference championship games set for the first week of December are delayed one week. Playoff director Bill Hancock has said previously he believes such a decision can be made and done so without hesitation if the need arises.
Conference-only schedules provide the Power 5 conferences and other FBS members flexibility to schedule and, also, the ability to enforce universal protocols across its campuses and athletics departments. Non-conference games would complicate the process, with separate conferences with different testing, quarantine and isolation guidelines also attempting to agree on dates that provide little-to-no-flexibility if postponement is required.
Scheduling within conferences will take some time, but it’s not difficult. In fact, the exercise will provide conference offices opportunities to set up dream matchups in the conference we would not have otherwise seen in 2020.
When is the cut-off date for a season in the coronavirus era? A six-game schedule would require the season to begin in late October. There are nine Saturdays combined in October and November, meaning Oct. 24 or Oct. 31 are the latest Saturdays in which a fall season could begin.
What we might also see is a spread of games across the week, with games spread across Tuesday through Saturday. This allows conferences to work with TV networks to provide as many live events possible without much overlapping. This will allow for bigger ratings, more ad revenue and, again, more flexibility in scheduling. Plus, the idea of playing weeknight games is easier if you’re not expecting fans in the stands. Games could conceivably move from a Tuesday to Thursday night should a big Thursday night game be canceled one week before kickoff. Again, the dance might be difficult, but it’s doable — and perhaps even a necessity to squeeze as much money out of the games to keep some athletic departments afloat.
247Sports’ recommendations extrapolated from discussions at conference offices:
- A 10-game schedule with the understanding at least six games must be played to crown conference and divisional champions.
- Flexibility among conferences and television networks to play games Tuesday through Saturdays, with some games moving with one- to two-week notices. Games would avoid the NFL’s schedule.
- Expand the College Football Playoff to eight teams for one season. With no big-time, non-conference games (Ohio State at Oregon, Alabama vs. USC, etc.), it will be more difficult than ever to properly judge an SEC team against a Pac-12 team or a Big Ten team against an ACC team. Power 5 champs receive an automatic bid and two more Power 5 teams receive invitations. The top Group of 5 school is also invited to the playoff. Think of it as an early test of what an expanded playoff could look like in the future, but with no promise it will continue because of the circumstances this year.
- Create a bubble for playoff teams. The eight teams selected for the playoff should play at one site in late December through early January. Players will not have classwork during the winter break, allowing them to travel to one city, where they will stay up to three weeks quarantined from the world to guarantee the playoff is conducted. Take lessons learned from the NBA and use it as a model for a one-city playoff with up to eight teams in attendance.
What a schedule might look like in the Power 5
Divisional games take precedence, even for programs with cross-divisional rivals. The goal is to play at least six games to properly crown divisional champions. The Big 12 does not have to worry about this because of its lack of divisions, so rivalries will be maintained.
Ten-game schedules were the norm until 1973. Six-game schedules were last commonplace in the early 1900s, when football was regional. One thing was mostly common over the last 100-plus years: the largest conferences usually played at least six conference games. Should seasons be shorted to a six-game, conference-only schedule, Power 5 conferences would not only keep that tradition alive but there would be a precedent for crowning divisional and/or conference champion after a six-game season.
at Michigan State
at Penn State
at Wisconsin* (2016)
*Note: Ohio State last traveled to Wisconsin in 2016 and the game may very well be a preview of the ensuing week’s Big Ten Championship.
at Ole Miss
*Note: Alabama last traveled to Kentucky in 2013 and last hosted South Carolina in 2009.
at Washington State
at Oregon State
at Boston College
at Florida State
at Wake Forest
at Notre Dame*
at Georgia Tech
*Note: Clemson was already slated to travel to Notre Dame for a non-conference game. The matchup remains on the schedule, but as a conference game with the Fighting Irish tapped as an honorary member of the ACC.
at Iowa State
at Oklahoma State*
*Note: Big 12 teams would have to play an opponent twice to fulfill the 10-game allotment. Rivalry games should be the repeat matchup if possible.
Further thoughts …
There is also the matter of Notre Dame, a Power 5 school without a conference. The ACC is open to allowing the Fighting Irish to join the conference on an interim basis, which provides four more unique matchups across a 15-team conference.
The SEC will discuss multiple options for scheduling in football Monday, but a conference-only schedule will include eight to 10 games, a source within the conference tells 247Sports. The idea is to schedule as many games as possible with the goal of playing at least six games (all divisional) by the end of the season (13 dates).
Meanwhile, the Pac-12 appears destined for a delayed start to the season. Mandatory workouts were scheduled to begin Monday, but those are on hold indefinitely. FBS members agreed in June a six-week acclimation period (two weeks of workouts and a four-week preseason camp) was needed to properly prepare for the season. If that remains the case, the Pac-12 may have already delayed the start of its season by at least one week. The six-week acclimation period for those playing in Week 1 begins July 24 with meetings and walk-throughs. Preseason camps are tentatively scheduled to begin Aug. 7.
Whatever the Power 5 conferences decide, count on flexibility. A 10-game season is the ultimate goal, but trimming the schedule to six games is doable before a late-fall call to delay until the spring or fall of 2021.
In other words, the decisions among the conferences’ leadership teams will not end with conference-only schedules. Adjustments will have to be made if and when the season begins.