The dream, of course, is to start on time and play through the fall … straight through the fall … with no disruptions or abbreviations, no suspensions or delays or forfeitures.
Didn’t think so.
The Hotline was always skeptical of a 12-game, on-time start, even during the best of these bad times, back in May, when case counts were low and optimism was rising.
But as we survey the landscape in early July — even though positive tests are limited in the Pac-12 and we’re unaware of any college football player requiring hospitalization for Covid-19 — the rising curves in big states have cast doubt on the sport’s viability for the fall.
The virus is on offense, and it’s running the spread.
The backup plan … or the back-back-back-up plan … is a spring season: Play from February through April, or March through May.
The concept has merit and buys time (for vaccines, therapeutics and testing), and it could gain support Wednesday if, as expected, the Ivy League officially pivots to a spring season.
Take care not to draw a direct line from the Ivy League’s decision to the Power Five’s next move — the economic drivers are different — but they are not unrelated, either.
The Ivies are the closest thing to a moral center of college sports, and the move to delay football during a pandemic will surely resonate with presidents at some Power Five institutions.
The pivot probably will lead to FCS programs doing the same, possibly leaving Power Five and Group of Five teams without non-conference opponents.
But the heavyweight conferences aren’t prepared to commit to playing in the spring, not yet, not before they have no other choice.
Changing the football seasons doesn’t guarantee a football season, and playing into April or May would impact an on-time start in the fall of 2021.
Before the Power Five shift to February kickoffs, all reasonable options for this fall will be exhausted.
Let’s start that process right now: Forget the full slate of non-conference games. It’s not happening, and it shouldn’t happen.
The 12-game schedule hasn’t felt right since the pandemic began and has grown more complicated with virus spikes and positive tests — and with safety protocols that vary by the conference.
According to sources who spoke to the Hotline on the condition of anonymity, there is some support in multiple Power Five conferences for exploring a nine-plus-one schedule.
The model calls for nine conference games and one non-conference matchup against a regional opponent from the Group of Five or FCS.
The visitor could travel by bus, with the Power Five host supplying the necessary resources for testing and safety during game week.
After all, it would behoove any Big Ten or Pac-12 team to spend $25,000 or $50,000 to make sure its underfunded opponent wasn’t sending asymptomatic players onto the field.
But even the nine-plus-one model feels complicated and risky. The most reasonable scenario — the scenario that requires full attention right now — is a conference-only schedule.
It’s the best combination of manageable risk and necessary reward for the fall.
It allows for tight safety standards, controlled logistics and the TV paychecks every department craves.
Keep it in the family.
“It’s the only way there can be a season,” one longtime Power Five football administrator said.
But any plan — whether it’s for 12 games or nine, for the fall or spring — must account for disruption and delays, for isolation and quarantine periods.
With that in mind, we present the Hotline Plan.
Crafted by our crack research team following weeks of computer modeling using advanced algorithms taken from the NBA and Bundesliga schedules — just kidding: I thought of it one day while walking the dog — the Hotline Plan calls for the Pac-12 to play eight conference games.
Those eight would be slotted within an expanded calendar that includes a series of flex Saturdays for makeup dates in the event a team cannot play a scheduled competition.
Yes, the plan requires the Pac-12’s media partners, ESPN and Fox, to overhaul their broadcast schedules.
That shouldn’t be a problem given the adjustments required by the NBA and MLB seasons and, perhaps, modifications by the NFL and other college football leagues.
(The networks will have to roll with a fluid sports calendar like they have never rolled with anything before.)
Details of the Hotline Plan …
*** Delay the start of the Pac-12 season by two weeks, to Sept. 19, creating a cushion for schools to stop and start their way through training camp during this summer spike.
The delay would also account for possible micro-outbreaks on campus when students return for fall classes.
For the Pac-12’s seven semester schools, instruction begins the week of Aug. 24. If we presume a high-risk fortnight in the second half of the month, the Sept. 19 start date would come after quarantine and isolation periods.
*** Move the Pac-12 football championship game back one week, to Dec. 12, to create 13 Saturdays for the regular season.
*** Drop one of the four cross-division games for each team.
(Yes, this plan requires deft work by the conference schedule-makers. Also, the head coaches will just have to deal.)
*** Create a two-on/one-off rotation in which there are full slates of games for two weeks, followed by an empty (flex) Saturday.
That flex Saturday every third weekend would be used for games that couldn’t be played as scheduled because of roster issues related to quarantine/isolation.
There would be one additional flex weekend after the conclusion of the eight-game schedule to allow for makeups needed to 1) crown division champions or 2) settle the postseason pecking order.
(How bowl berths will be decided in a shortened season is one of many questions that have not been answered.)
The format would be as follows …
- Games on: Sept. 19 and 26, Oct. 10, 17 and 31, Nov. 7, 21 and 28
- Flex Saturdays: Oct. 3 and 24, Nov. 14 and Dec. 5
- Pac-12 championship: Dec. 12
Central to the plan is that each three-week rotation creates the potential for a 14-day break from competition, allowing for the full Covid-19 quarantine and isolation periods (if needed to get players back on the field).
The two-on/one-off format would give local health officials more time to potentially change the number of fans allowed in stadiums — if fans are allowed in the stadiums — based on local infection trends.
In addition, we recommend the conference eliminate the Thursday and Friday games this season. (Again, ESPN and Fox have no choice but to be flexible.)
The Pac-12 needs everyone on the same schedule: The same competition schedule and the same testing schedule.
The testing days and times should be established before the season by the conference’s medical advisory committee, based on the time required for results.
(Three tests per week are needed, at minimum.)
What’s more, the conference should designate one hotel in each city for use by all the visiting teams.
The host school would work with that hotel to ensure cleaning protocols meet the conference’s standards.
In other words, every aspect of the football season stays within the Pac-12 family.
The tighter the safety measures, the better.
The more uniformity, the better.
Oh, and that includes the cash: The conference should jettison its financial model for the 2020 season and create a revenue and expense sharing plan.
Pool the operational expenses (hotels, cleaning, testing) and split the total 12 ways.
Pool the game revenue (ticket sales, parking) and split the total 12 ways.
It’s the right move in an all-wrong year.