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*The Asterisk Season

As I have started to explore college football’s unique traditions and rivalries in recent blogs, the spiralling events of the last few days mean it’s highly likely there may not be actually be a season to write about in 2020.

Recent events and the possible outcomes have been fascinating to follow.

Three days ago, the MAC (Mid-American Conference) made the decision to postpone all sport for the fall season due to COVID-19 concerns. The Mountain West conference followed suit a couple of days later, potentially triggering a series of events that could lead to the end of the season, certainly a very different one to the norm.

The MAC schools would have a big financial risk maintaining COVID protocols. In a report from Camryn Justice (Associated Press) cited “the health and safety of the student athletes, coaches and communities as its top priority.” MAC and the Mountain West sit in the Group of 5 conferences, which is really an unofficial second tier, although all their schools play in the national Division 1 FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision), the top tier level of college football.

The real power in college football lies in the Power of 5 conferences:

· SEC – Southeastern Conference – arguably the strongest and most successful, includes perennial powerhouses Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M and current champions LSU.

· ACC – Atlantic Coast Conference – includes recent national champions Clemson, also North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Miami.

· Pac-12 – Pacific based but also moved inland recently to add Arizona schools to traditional West Coast institutions UCLA, USC, Stanford and Washington.

· Big Ten – actually now 14 member schools traditionally from Northern states and stretching across to New Jersey, includes Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin and Penn State.

· Big 12 – originally the Southwestern Conference had merged with former Big Eight conference. Includes Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, West Virginia and an additional three schools from Texas.

The Power Five conferences had discussed or implemented switches to all conference games for the season only in the last few weeks, meaning they wouldn’t play any games against smaller schools outside of their conferences. The Group of 5 are significantly less wealthy than their Power Five counterparts and so the revenue they can generate by playing teams from these conferences is substantial. The impact of these match ups not happening is massive.

I’m realising college football is quite different from the NFL in this respect. The conferences in the NFL are purely aligned by geography. The AFC wields just as much power as the NFC and both are governed by a central body (the NFL) and a commissioner. This lack of a central leadership in college football threatens to fragment its season. Each conference could come to an entirely different decision about whether to play the next season.

The next two days could be pivotal.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 are close to making a decision that would postpone their seasons until Spring next year. The SEC and ACC seem to be pushing hard to play this season. #WeWantToPlay is the hashtag trending all over Twitter at the moment. The best coach in college football, Alabama’s Nick Saban, and Trevor Lawrence, Clemson QB, arguably the best player, have both come out strongly in favour of playing, advocating the safety of players in a structured, safe environment that a college campus and team routine can provide. The alternative, they argue, is actually putting players at risk by returning them to potentially unsafe environments across the country where their exposure to danger could be greater.

Even President Trump has tweeted in favour of a college football season going ahead.

Trevor Lawrence is the consensus choice to be the top pick in next year’s NFL Draft and facing a potential hiatus until then. His battle with Ohio State’s Justin Fields for Heisman Trophy and number one pick was set to be one of the stories of the season.

What happens next?

College football very likely face the risk of complete cancellation this season, or moving to a spring season next year. If it goes ahead, there are some intriguing possibilities. Teams seem prepared to look at other options. Rumours are that the SEC wants to pull together a group of teams in a kind of super conference which could bring in the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Clemson if football continues. There is a precedent – independent Notre Dame has already been invited to join the ACC this year.

The Pac-12 and SEC are already scheduled to start their seasons on September 26th and the ACC on September 10th if all goes ahead as currently stands. Decisions are expected today from the Big Ten and Pac-12 on their seasons. The SEC and ACC seem committed, so the future of the whole college football season could rest with the Big 12.

Does pushing the season back to Spring mean that Draft eligible (and so the very best) players skip their last season to avoid the risk of injury and as such their future professional careers and multimillion dollar contracts in the NFL?

Ross Dellenger and Pat Forde in Sports Illustrated quote an industry insider as saying “We’ve mastered the art of being entertaining, if nothing else. My God, what a mess.”

Whatever the outcome, college football in 2020 will always have an asterisk next to it, or will there be a line through the whole thing? The next two days will be critical in deciding that outcome. It feels like 4th and Goal with seconds left on the clock.

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