What a spring college football season could — and should — look like

NCAAF


In the social sciences, there is a concept called a “wicked problem.” It was coined by University of California, Berkeley professor Horst Rittel and describes, in effect, a unique problem that has no right answers. Whatever you choose to solve a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation” that cannot be undone. You don’t learn everything about the problem until you try (and probably fail) to solve it. Finding the least wrong solution requires creativity and early dialogue.

Typically, college football’s wicked problems deal with things such as “tackling a full-speed Derrick Henry” or “converting a third-and-long against Brent Venables’ defense.” The coronavirus pandemic changed that calculus.

For a sport with layers of financial inequity (Division I vs. lower divisions, FBS vs. FCS, Power 5 conferences vs. Group of 5, rich P5 schools vs. the middle class), no central leadership model for making enforceable decisions across all conferences and a group of players paying more attention than ever to this lack of leadership, it’s no surprise that pulling off a season in the current environment is the wickedest problem of all.

It appears that the least wrong answer — a spring football season — is the one college football’s higher-ups have somehow not discussed in detail until recently. Now, with the Big Ten and Pac-12 joining the group of schools and conferences deciding to postpone their fall football seasons, let’s talk about how the spring timetable could play out. It doesn’t have to be as destined-to-fail as some might think.

First things first: Everyone is right.

At the Power 5 level, the general reflex reaction to the idea of punting until the spring has been to say “Eww,” declare that it has massive logistical drawbacks and is the last resort, and move on. At least, that was the case until the fall began to look like too much of a risk.

Of course there are logistical drawbacks to a spring football season. That’s why football is played in the fall. But when you’ve reached wicked-problem territory, it is inexcusable to not explore every option, including your last resort. The fact that there hasn’t been much thought put in to how spring football would work has kept the concept foreign, untenable and seemingly realistic.

Let’s talk about the basic anti-spring arguments to see if we can make this seem more doable. Some issues can be accounted or adjusted for, and others cannot.

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Rece Davis blasts the idea of playing a spring college football season as “irresponsible” and talks about the elevated risk of concussions and other injuries.

Top pro prospects will opt out.

Most likely, yes. Quite a few already have, and more are likely. Fall or spring, we are going to be moving forward without some of the sport’s biggest stars, and the spring would likely see more opt-outs than the fall.

A spring season conflicts with the NFL draft.

It does. Maybe the NFL could be convinced to move the combine and draft back a few weeks — getting more film on guys before making selections is a good thing, after all — but maybe not. If the draft remains in April and there is no NFL combine, it would be awkward. Still, the Major League Baseball draft happens during the College World Series. This doesn’t have to be a make-or-break issue in this one-time-only moment.

How do we know the coronavirus situation will be any better in the spring?

We don’t. We can hope that case totals will go down, but we don’t know that they will. One of the biggest issues right now is a lack of rapid-result testing, which makes contact tracing difficult or impossible. In theory, postponing for a few more months will help with that, though it was certainly rational to assume that we would have had a solution to this problem in the five months since the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the sports world.

The weather is going to be bad.

When we talk about a “spring” football season, we mean winter-spring. In Columbus, Ohio, for instance, average high temperatures are 12 degrees lower and average precipitation 3 inches higher in February than in November. We all love a good snow football game — I watch the 2000 Independence Bowl every time it shows up on my television — but there will be some dramatically inclement weather games … if they’re played at home stadiums.

They don’t have to be played at home stadiums. The Big Ten footprint has indoor stadiums in Indianapolis, Detroit and Minneapolis within reach of its campuses. The SEC (which has better weather to begin with) has Atlanta and St. Louis close to its campuses. The Big 12 has San Antonio and Dallas, etc. Playing in cities such as those, with lots of hotel space and repeatable health-and-safety protocols, would significantly mitigate the weather issue and help teams create the best bubbles possible.

Not playing won’t keep players safe from the virus.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence went down this road on Sunday.

Others have talked about the mental health effects of the virus amid the stoppage.

Obviously, we’re talking about football in this story. But from the standpoints of mental and physical health for all students, not just student-athletes, the next few months will be critical for colleges. Even so, the postponement of football prevents the potential spread of the virus from one campus and state to another. That alone makes it a potential net gain.

Why wouldn’t we first postpone the fall season for a few weeks?

There’s some logic here: The athletes are in good shape now, schools that can afford it have established pretty good bubble procedures, and we’ll know a lot more about case numbers on campuses in a few weeks, once more schools start classes.

The big-ticket reasons for postponement, however — national case numbers, painfully slow testing, still unknown long-term health effects — aren’t likely to suddenly improve. Postponing until the spring would allow for a full reassessment, better information-gathering and, in theory, improved testing protocol. (It could also buy time to work on solutions for the ongoing player organization movement.)

How can you say you care about player safety and then ask players to play two seasons in one calendar year?

This has been a talking point from the moment spring football was first mentioned. How in the world do you play a season from February(ish) to April(ish), then turn around and start the 2021 season in September?

Two responses to this:

  • Playing in the spring could absolutely impact the 2021 fall schedule. (This assumes that things have returned to normal by the fall, which is not guaranteed.) You might have to delay the start of the season by a certain number of weeks. Again, any solution to a wicked problem is a one-off and will have a unique set of effects.

  • As strange as this sounds, even with a spring season, players will end up taking fewer hits over the course of a year or so (in this case, March 2020 through April 2021) than ever before. Under normal circumstances, they would have had a full set of 2020 spring practices, a 12-to-15-game season in the fall and another 15-practice spring session in 2021. Granted, they’ll be taking more hits in the spring of 2021, but in terms of short-term vs. long-term effects, there’s nothing guaranteeing that the traditional structure would be any safer. (There’s nothing guaranteeing that it’s less safe, either. All of this is new territory.)

The biggest issue with the tight timetable could end up being eligibility. Any decent-sized injury in the spring of 2021 could result in a medical redshirt in the fall, and the NCAA is already going to have to address if and how teams get to carry extra scholarships during this strange time, as it did with spring sports a few months ago.

How would spring football work?

First, let’s assume for this example that every conference ends up moving to the spring. Obviously that might not happen, and most of the examples could be used if some conferences continued to pursue fall football. But this is a thought experiment, so let’s think big.

Let’s also assume that if players remain on campus this fall (not guaranteed for schools going to online classes) and positive tests remain low, there will be some sort of spring-football-style practice window. There might not be as much contact as in a normal set of 15 spring practices, but there will be time for instruction, drills, run-throughs, etc., like what was going on in most places recently. Then, in this future world in which testing is fast and the virus is better contained, “fall camp” will begin sometime in January, and things can get rolling from there.

Here are some potential winter/spring scheduling options:

Keep the schedules as they are, and simply move them.

Power conferences just did a lot of work in creating 10-to-11-game schedules for the fall. There are 14 Saturdays between Jan. 31 and May 2. Start on Jan. 31, begin the postseason (the College Football Playoff, plus whatever bowls exist) quickly after, and finish around the time most schools are letting out.

That’s an awfully tight timeline. It’s maybe too tight. It’s maybe too many games. Here’s another option:

Go back to the original eight- or nine-game conference schedule.

Use the same general timeline, with some bye weeks built in and/or the possibility of wrapping up a couple of weeks earlier. Along these lines, you could go even more bare bones, with a division-only model followed by conference title games and a CFP, finishing by the end of April.

Those are pretty straightforward ideas, and that’s fine. But some players might not find a five- or six-game season worth it and might decide to opt out or redshirt. That should be well within their rights, but it could cause some issues when it comes to the number of scholarships teams have locked up for future seasons. That, in turn, could result in fewer scholarships available for current high school juniors and seniors, a set of players who are already seeing their recruitment altered dramatically by the coronavirus pandemic.

If this is a concern, you could get creative to raise the stakes …

Have division-only play, followed by a conference jamboree.

Play a five- or six-game division schedule for seeding purposes, then go full-on Maui Invitational.

Let’s use the SEC as an example. Round-robin play in the East and West divisions could produce the following hypothetical standings:

  • West: 1 Alabama, 2 LSU, 3 Auburn, 4 Texas A&M, 5 Mississippi State, 6 Ole Miss, 7 Arkansas

  • East: 1 Georgia, 2 Florida, 3 Kentucky, 4 Tennessee, 5 South Carolina, 6 Missouri, 7 Vanderbilt

Using high school basketball seeding practices, you could then create an eight-team tournament in which the West’s No. 1 team plays East No. 4, W2 vs. E3, etc. You would end up with a bracket of Alabama vs. Tennessee, Florida vs. Auburn, LSU vs. Kentucky and Georgia vs. Texas A&M, played either at neutral sites or at the home of the higher seed.

Depending on what’s preferable, you could play it single-elimination style or have a full bracket with consolation rounds in which everybody plays three games. Similarly, the bottom three teams in each division could have a consolation bracket to determine who finishes Nos. 9-14. Now everybody has played either nine games or between six and nine, you produced the world’s first and only SEC Spring Football Champion, and you move into the postseason. If there are bowls, then the order of finish can determine qualification.

Those are pretty good stakes, and if you need to raise the bar further, you know what to do …

Have division-only play, followed by an expanded College Football Playoff.

Every athletic program in the country has revenue shortfalls to account for or adjust to, given the events of the past five months. For FBS or power-conference schools, at least, it would make sense to figure out how to make as much money as possible in whatever season exists. The best way to do that is with a big playoff.

You could start once again with division play. Have a conference title game after that if you want. Then, fit as many teams as is feasible into a national playoff bracket. Sixteen? Twenty-four? Thirty-two? Power 5-only or all of FBS? All fair game. Get weird. Go big.

Using February SP+ projections as a guide, here’s what a 32-team bracket could look like with every FBS conference champion and 22 at-large bids:

  • 1 Alabama vs. 32 Ohio

  • 16 North Carolina vs. 17 USC

  • 8 Oklahoma vs. 25 Nebraska (!!!)

  • 9 Wisconsin vs. 24 Washington

  • 5 Penn State vs. 28 Iowa

  • 12 Notre Dame vs. 21 Oklahoma State

  • 4 Georgia vs. 29 Boise State

  • 13 Oregon vs. 20 Minnesota

  • 11 Auburn vs. 22 Memphis

  • 6 LSU vs. 27 Kentucky

  • 14 Texas vs. 19 Tennessee

  • 3 Clemson vs. 30 Appalachian State

  • 10 Texas A&M vs. 23 Miami

  • 7 Florida vs. 26 Florida State (!!!)

  • 15 Michigan vs. 18 UCF

  • 2 Ohio State vs. 31 Western Kentucky

Play them all in neutral domes or home stadiums — whatever is more practical. This would preempt or even prevent bowls, but bowls might not exist in a spring situation anyway. This would also require conferences to work together on something — which, as we’ve learned, is just about impossible — but the payoff would be immense. Would it change levels of support for an expanded CFP in the future? Perhaps. But A) that isn’t automatically a bad thing, and B) this is a wicked problem. All bets are off.

Why should we do it like this?

A couple of weeks ago, when the ACC and SEC were establishing their scheduling models, we briefly fell into the old, comfortable narrative rhythm we’re used to with college sports. We started comparing each conference’s efforts to the others’, talking about how the ACC had “outmaneuvered” the SEC in regard to which conference would take the blame for canceling key rivalry games such as Florida-Florida State and Clemson-South Carolina.

The “maneuvering” has continued this week. The Pac-12 is going to postpone the fall season! The Big Ten waffled! The Big 12 is split down the middle! The SEC and ACC want to charge forward! It is hard to avoid the thinking that some of the posturing we have seen has to do with recruiting and being able to say, “WE’RE serious about football, and THEY’RE not.”

In what universe should conferences be “maneuvering” against one another during a pandemic? There is not even enough leadership in the country’s most popular college sport to get five leagues to work together during the most wicked problem in 75 years. Why exactly does an NCAA-type governing body exist if it cannot help guide schools through extraordinary circumstances such as these?

The rest of the college football universe — especially those in the FBS’ Group of 5 — had to sit and wait for power conferences to make their scheduling decisions before it could come up with any sort of plan for itself, and now those power conferences are jockeying against one another. This sport has never needed leadership more, and it has never gotten less.



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