What’s next for college football? A cycle of delay and hope

We are entering a cycle in college athletics of Push Push and Hope. Schedules are being delayed, nudged back with the hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will subside enough to allow some semblance of a normal college football season.

The strategy of Push Push and Hope was first adopted by the Pac-12 and Big Ten, which entered conference-only scheduling agreements earlier this month and are expected to start their seasons later in September.

The strategy is expected to be adopted in some form by the SEC, ACC and Big 12 in the upcoming weeks, as those leagues are in the process of formulating the best ways to forge ahead. 

The NCAA Board of Governors got into the Push Push and Hope conga line on Friday afternoon, tabling a decision on postponing fall championships until its next meeting on Aug. 4.

“We all remain deeply concerned about the infection trendlines that we see,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. “It is clear that the format of our championships will have to change if they are to be conducted in a safe and fair manner.”

As the group was meeting on Friday afternoon, news broke from Michigan State that punctures the hope portion of the Push Push and Hope strategy.

Michigan State announced that its entire football team will be quarantine for 14 days after two staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

The 14 days will put Michigan State at a competitive disadvantage, as it’ll miss nearly two weeks of the 20-hour practice weeks designed to get players ready for camp on Aug. 7. Michigan State players won’t return until Aug. 7, which could prompt concerns about health issues for not having the same time to get in shape as their conference peers.

The CFP 2020 logo is displayed on the field prior to the College Football Playoff title game between LSU and Clemson. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

One high-ranking conference official summed up the Michigan State issue this way on Friday: “The barrier to all this [returning to play] is what happened at Michigan State today. The quarantine is the issue.”

The freeze at Michigan State marks at least a dozen programs that have halted workouts during this summer, and that’s all before the start of contact practices. The two biggest barriers to football in the fall – outside of the virus itself – are the quarantining restrictions and the return of students to campus.

The good news for FBS football’s future on Friday came with the NCAA punting the decision on fall sports, which really ends up a win for optics for college football and little else. The decision to postpone fall championships wouldn’t have directly impacted big-time college football. The College Football Playoff is really just a television contract that operates essentially outside of the NCAA’s financial purview.

The decision by the NCAA Board of Governors was notable mostly because of what could have happened if fall championships had been postponed. That scenario would have come against the wishes of the Power Five commissioners and the Football Oversight Committee, making sure that the NCAA reaffirmed its well-earned reputation for being clunky, outdated and inefficient.

All week long, commissioners, athletic directors and coaches were fretting over the possibility of the championships potentially being postponed by a Board of Governors group that includes former NBA star Grant Hill, former surgeon general Vivek Murthy and the president of Spalding University. “You know that bar room scene in ‘Star Wars?’ ” joked a Power Five AD on Friday. “That’s a little bit what that room is like.”

No one would want to see that bar fight. And the question of why they could make a decision that impacts the SEC is for another day. Thankfully, it didn’t happen. After a week of getting slapped around by politicians in Washington D.C. earlier this week, Emmert can take a small victory in not infuriating many of the NCAA’s most powerful schools. 

As college leaders push forward attempting to navigate the high-wire act of trying to preserve the billions at stake this season, playing football in the fall would have been even more awkward if the collegiate governing body decided on July 24 to not have any championships. (And, likely, have all fall sports postponed.) It’d be surprising if the NCAA didn’t eventually reach this decision, but considering the championships are four months away it’s reasonable to hit pause for a few weeks.

With leagues like the Ivy League, Big East and America East having already announced they’re pushing back the fall seasons, the NCAA decision feels like an inevitability.

Until then, the strategy of Push Push and Hope continues. More football news is expected next week from the SEC and ACC, with the Big 12 presidents likely waiting a bit longer. It’s hard to overstate how wildly disparate the opinions are about playing in the fall. Many remain pessimistic about navigating a season, but there’s a decent percentage of coaches, athletic directors and presidents who seem ready to at least attempt to move forward until a big enough issue arises that forces them to stop.

On Friday, big-time college football got a bit of optical cover to carry on in their hopes to play. All while seeing the scenario at Michigan State that could derail a season if it emerged in October.

What we’ll find out in the next few weeks – especially with the start of camp – will be whether all the pushing leads to a pathway to play, or just serves as a way to delay the inevitable.

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