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What the Ivy League’s fall sports decision means for the rest of college football in 2020

The Ivy League is putting its fall sports calendar on hold to combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, according to multiple reports Wednesday.  

CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein reported that the conference notified all fall varsity programs it will not entertain playing sports until at least Jan. 1 (which also means the start of seasons for winter sports like basketball and hockey will be pushed back), though officials remain hopeful fall sports could play in Spring 2021. 

Sources: Ivy League programs have been informed that fall sports have been cancelled.

The conference will not entertain any sports being played until after January 1st.

Winter sports will have an update in mid-July on their respective practice schedules.

— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) July 8, 2020

The shift follows Harvard’s decision to conduct all classes online during the entire 2020-21 academic year.

How will that decision affect the 2020 FBS season? Sporting News takes a closer look at its impact on the decision-making process.  

MORE: The best college football games for the 2020 season

Not just like basketball 

The Ivy League became the first NCAA Division I conference to cancel its basketball tournaments when it shut down on March 10. The move was not met with universal agreement at the time. Jazz forward Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 the following night, however, and that led to full-scale sports cancellations over the next week — including the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.  

Before comparing the Ivy League’s basketball and football decisions, though, there are two major differences to consider. 

The Yale men’s basketball team was awarded a conference championship and would have represented the conference in the NCAA Tournament had it taken place. Ivy League football teams, on the other hand, have no effect on the FBS or College Football Playoff. They play in the FCS.

Also, the 2020 NCAA men’s tournament was supposed to start March 17 — just a week after the Ivy League canceled its basketball postseason. The 2020 FBS season is set to begin in late August. While the FBS and CFP power brokers might take the Ivy League’s move Wednesday into consideration, they still have a lot of time to decide when to start. 

So, no, this is not just like basketball yet.  

COVID-19 has no timetable  

The biggest issue surrounding alternative scenarios is that the threat of COVID-19 has not waned in the United States. There are now more than 3 million confirmed cases, and there have been more than 130,000 reported deaths in the country.  

Florida, California and Texas — states that house 26 of the 130 FBS programs — have reported more than 50,000 new cases each in the past seven days. 

Numerous schools in other parts of the country, including Clemson, LSU, Auburn, Alabama and Kansas State, have reported positive tests among student-athletes during voluntary summer workouts. Those athletes have been quarantined, but the risks that contact sports carry have not changed in the last two months.  

The testing numbers will continue to influence decision-makers as they try to determine whether college football is feasible in 2020 — or even 2021. The Ivy League might be at the forefront, but the FBS will follow its own path when deciding whether its games can be played this school year. 

Follow the money  

Thirteen FBS schools generated more than $90 million in football revenue in 2018-19. The Big Ten generated $759 million in revenue, more than the SEC’s $721 million. Football is a main driver of athletic department budgets; that’s a big reason why contingency plans are in place. 

The Ivy League did not announce any plans for a spring season, which is another layer to the decision. 

There’s a huge gap between the FBS and the eight-team Ivy League, which plays a 10-game regular-season schedule and does not participate in the FCS playoffs. Those schools also bring in huge revenues, but they’re not dependent on football. FBS conferences make a lot of their money through huge television contracts and the College Football Playoff. Potentially skipping a season would be much more costly.

Alternatives for a fall season and a spring season must therefore be explored.  

Is fall football still possible? 

A fall season is still possible even if it does not start on time. Games are supposed to begin Aug. 29, and the ideal length for fall camp is six weeks. That’s why the next two weeks are so important to college football starting on time. Most conferences do not have virtual media days scheduled at this point. 

A later start might allow for fewer entanglements with testing protocols, and it would also eliminate unnecessary travel. College football does not have the luxury of playing in one location like the NBA or MLS, but it could take a cue from Major League Baseball.  

The best way to conduct a shortened season would be to make the sport hyper-regionalized. An eight- to-10-game schedule composed entirely of conference games is a decent option. Conference champions could still be determined, and that would validate the College Football Playoff.  

Is spring football a better option?  

Spring games don’t move the needle, but a seven-game regular season would.  

There are two sticking points that make this idea difficult to rationalize, however. 

Should unpaid student-athletes play two seasons in one calendar year? Football is a year-round sport, but a large chunk of the time is spent on conditioning and strength training for the following season. Altering the timetable for the sake of getting the 2020 season in amid the COVID-19 pandemic would be risky.  

A short spring season that ends close to the NFL Draft in April would force the hand of high-level players who might not want to risk their futures by competing. This would apply not just to Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, but also to the other top prospects who would be able to make life-changing money by reaching the NFL.

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