A month ago Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly spoke confidently about the school’s contingency plans for its 2020 football schedule in case COVID-19 coaxed Power Five football into becoming a conference-only venture in the months ahead.
On Thursday, Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford confirmed that the ACC has the football independent’s back.
Now just what will that look like?
That’s one of a myriad of compelling unanswered questions wafting through college football’s suddenly morphing universe after the Big Ten declared all 42 of the league’s non-conference games canceled.
That includes an Oct. 3 date for Notre Dame with Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in Green Bay., Wis., technically an Irish home game in its Shamrock Series format.
Incidentally, the teams are scheduled to meet next season in Chicago, in what will be a Wisconsin home game.
“We look forward to playing Wisconsin at Soldier Field in 2021, and (Wisconsin athletic director) Barry Alvarez and I are committed to scheduling a game at Lambeau Field in the future,” ND athletic director Jack Swawbrick said in a release Thursday evening.
The Big Ten’s rationale to go conference-only, implied more in its press release than plainly stated, is that it gives the league more flexibility to navigate the curves thrown at it by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Start the season earlier. Start it later. Stop and restart.
There’s also the notion of standards when it comes to COVID testing protocol, though certainly the results haven’t been uniform across the league of having players back on campus for workouts.
Incidentally, included in the Big Ten release was a statement that the league won’t shift to team-required workouts when allowed by the NCAA on July 13, but instead remain in “voluntary” mode.
None of it guarantees that a worse-case scenario isn’t yet to come, but part of the conference-game-only appeal was to make that less of a likelihood.
In the moments that followed the Big Ten’s bombshell, which reportedly caught its Power 5 brethren flat-footed, conflicting reports about the Pac-12 and ACC following suit ensued.
The Pac-12 has certainly explored that option in depth, and a dive into the Big Ten’s new world would mean lopping off a couple of more games on the Irish schedule — Oct. 10 at home against Stanford and the Nov. 28 regular-season finale at USC.
That would leave nine games for the Irish, presumably the number the Big Ten will try to play in 2020, although 10 may ultimately be more appealing to balance home games. Six of those nine Irish games are with ACC opponents — Wake Forest, Pitt, Duke, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Louisville.
Since the Irish joined the ACC in most sports, other than football and hockey, the football tradeoff was the Irish scheduling an average of five games a season against ACC teams. On rare occasions, it’s either four or six.
Even if Navy, Western Michigan and/or Arkansas opted out, the ACC is committed to aiding the Irish. And it fits the ACC agenda too, since the league schedules only eight conference games a year per team and not nine like the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12. (The SEC is also at eight league games.)
Four ACC teams not already on the Irish schedule had games canceled by the Big Ten on Thursday: Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Miami and Boston College.
The one thing you would not expect, even if ND’s schedule turns out to be all ACC games, is the Irish being eligible to compete for the ACC title.
College football’s big picture, meanwhile, couldn’t look more scrambled.
Would every Power 5 league try to play the same number of teams? Will they try to play conference championships games? Will there be bowl games? And at what point is so much integrity lost in terms of determining a playoff field that crowning a national champion via a playoff doesn’t make sense.
If you didn’t know how to pronounce asterisk, how to spell it or what one looked like (*), you will by the end of the 2020 college football season.
What’s been pretty universal in all this is the stated notion that the student-athletes’ welfare drives these kinds of decisions and the ones that will have to be made over the coming weeks.
But there has been very little detail in terms of specifics.
What’s the baseline? Infection levels nationally? In certain communities? How COVID-19 is being managed on various campuses? Data gained from having athletes back on campus?
Another big-picture enigma: If moving the start of the season to a later date is the best COVID-19 strategy, how does that square with the same motive prompting academic calendars to move up to an earlier start and finish?
The economic reality of what no football season would bring will keep athletic directors and conference commissioners inspired to keep searching for answers and solutions.
The wild card they have no control over is how we as a country respond to the COVID-19 surges in positivity rates, cases and hospitalizations.
Back in June, when contingency plans seemed so back-burner and virus curves were flattening, we, as a nation, had an opportunity to dance with the virus. Instead, too many of us mooned it.
And so here was are, revamping, rebooting, reconfiguring and hoping for a big change outside of college sports that will make them a reality, how ever twisted, this fall.