The prognosis for college football gets iffier every week

FILE - In this Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020 file photo, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) leaves the field with his teammates after Clemson lost to Notre Dame 47-40 in two overtimes during an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind. As virus disruptions mount and the Dec. 19 end of college football's regular season draws closer, the possibility grows that conference championships, major awards and even College Football Playoff participants will be determined by COVID-19. (Matt Cashore/Pool Photo via AP, File)
FILE - In this Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020 file photo, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) leaves the field with his teammates after Clemson lost to Notre Dame 47-40 in two overtimes during an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind. As virus disruptions mount and the Dec. 19 end of college football's regular season draws closer, the possibility grows that conference championships, major awards and even College Football Playoff participants will be determined by COVID-19. (Matt Cashore/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Credit: Matt Cashore

Credit: Matt Cashore

Full disclosure: I doubted there would be college football in 2020. Wrong again. The ACC has slogged through more than two months, the SEC through seven weeks. So far as we know, there has been no documented case of the virus being spread, player-to-player or team-to-team, during a game. That’s an accomplishment. But it’s November and the weather has turned colder, and we were reminded this week that, as much as we’ve tried to run from COVID-19, we can’t quite hide.

The SEC postponed four of its seven weekend games. The Big Ten canceled Ohio State-Maryland. Fifty hours before kickoff, the ACC announced that Pittsburgh’s game at Georgia Tech had been postponed until Dec. 12. Among FBS schools, 15 games that were supposed to be staged Saturday were scrubbed.

The Big Ten – which decided not to play football until deciding that it would – has seen two Wisconsin games canceled, as opposed to postponed. A third cancellation could leave the Badgers, favorites to win the Big Ten West, ineligible for the conference title.

The Pac-12, which also reversed a decision not to play, waited until last weekend to get going. Two of its six opening games were canceled. Two more were canceled in what was supposed to be Week 2. Utah, which played for the league title last year, has seen its “regular season” chopped to four games. As of Friday morning, Cal was scheduled to play Arizona State on Saturday. That game was canceled. The Bears are now set to face UCLA at 9 a.m. PST Sunday.

On Thursday, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told SiriusXM Radio there has been discussion about pushing back the College Football Playoff and the New Year’s Six bowls. Said Bowlsby: “I don’t know if I see us playing a championship game in February, but you just never know. These are unusual times, and things that might not otherwise be acceptable have to be considered in this kind of circumstance."

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Over the past four weekends, only once has Georgia played when it thought it would. The Bulldogs were supposed to face Kentucky on Oct. 24. That game was pushed back a week because of SEC schedule-juggling. The Florida game in Jacksonville came off as scheduled, though not as hoped. This week’s Missouri game was postponed at 10:52 EST Wednesday. The makeup date could be as late as Dec. 19, providing Georgia isn’t playing for the SEC title that day. Or the game might never be played. With four postponements in a week, the SEC has fallen into a logistical tangle.

None of the Power Five conferences started on time. The Big Ten and Pac-12 said they were out, but the sight of the ACC, SEC and Big 12 playing in September shamed the two holdouts into reconsidering. But now we ask: With all the cancellations/postponements, might the Big Ten and Pac-12 have gotten it wrong after actually getting it right?

On Wednesday, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said he’d been telling those who’d ask: “Let me get through the games of Thanksgiving, and I’ll feel comfortable.” Then Sankey said: “Obviously, that’s changed. I have to acknowledge (being) troubled by what’s happened this week with our postponements.”

The pandemic worsens by the day. A week ago, U.S. daily cases broke the 100,000 mark for the first time. On Thursday, new cases soared above 150,000. This dwarfs anything we saw back in March/April, when the nation essentially shut down. We also saw in the spring that a shutdown carried a heavy cost, economic and otherwise, of its own. Nobody is eager to close all schools and churches again. But if the virus continues to rage, and the vaccine remains only a possibility, what’s the alternative?

The folks who run college football had a lot of time to think about what, come the fall, they should do. Unlike the NBA and NHL and college basketball, football wasn’t in-season when the virus hit. (Baseball was in spring training.) College administrators were having three Zoom calls a week to discuss strategy and protocols. They spent so much time figuring out a way they might play – and we’ve seen it work, though not all the time – that the philosophical component got tamped down. They stopped asking, “Do we NEED to play?”

Financially, they did. We’ve already seen the cost of not having football played before packed stadiums. Power Five schools have had to drop other sports, and that came only after the NCAA tournament was canceled. Football is on the 2020-21 fiscal year. The economic state of collegiate sports will get only worse.

And the greatest fear – that players would get really sick – hasn’t come to pass. Players have tested positive, yes, but it’s believed none has required hospitalization. Coaches have tested positive, done their time in quarantine and resumed coaching. Still, with COVID spiking as never before, we should look beyond football programs.

Most schools have allowed a certain number of fans at games, most of which are played outdoors. We’re approaching Thanksgiving, which means more people will be traveling and clustering than at any time since this began. At such a moment, is it in the interest of public health to stage anything that will bring more than a handful of people to a single place?

Among those who oversee the college game, some optimism remains. (Sankey: “I’m shaken but not deterred.”) As strange as it sounds, college football might benefit if colleges themselves opt not to reconvene after Thanksgiving. Then football players could essentially bubble up on campus for three weeks, which athletic departments would love. The date to remember is Dec. 20, when the CFP picks its field of four.

As for the playoff: There will be controversy. There’ll be fewer “data points” for the committee to consider. There’ll have been no significant out-of-conference games. Would a 9-1 non-SEC champ, which Texas A&M could be, trump an 11-1 non-ACC champ, which could describe Notre Dame? Would either/both be preferred over an 8-0 Ohio State? What of a 7-0 Oregon?

Those are the discussions college football bigwigs hope they’re having as Christmas draws night. Those same folks also know the road to Dec. 20 might not be navigable. It’s a minor miracle the sport has gotten this far. For it to go the distance, a major miracle will be required.

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