Ray Tanner did not mean to cause a stir Friday. But when the South Carolina athletic director said conferences “might not be aligned” in a return to play from the coronavirus pandemic, speculation flew.
Tanner made the statement during a board of trustees meeting. His answer suggested that all 130 college football teams comprising the 10 FBS conferences might not kickoff together.
In other words, some conferences may — theoretically — have to create schedules comprised only of league games, while others may not play at all in 2020.
“If I told you there would be football, but it’s not possible for everybody to be aligned, you’d still take football, wouldn’t you?” Tanner told CBS Sports.
Conferences could conceivably play their own respective seasons in 2020 if unable to play nonconference games due to lack of alignment at the state or university level of reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic. That’s the measure of the desperation for college football’s stakeholders to get access to the TV rights revenue that sustains the sport.
Tanner said he was responding Friday to a question from a trustee: “Do all the conferences work together?”
“My point in answering the question was [that] I think everything is on the table,” he said. “I can’t imagine that — if there are certain parts of the country that are open and they’re safe and the numbers are suitable they’re back to outdoor activities and congregating — they’re not going to not play.”
“I didn’t think my comment was newsworthy,” Tanner added.
Newsworthy enough to point out FBS independents are exploring playing each other if only intraconference games are played nationwide.
Tanner did not address how a postseason would look playing only conference games.
Unity is a key issue as all of college football contemplates a return to play. That means alignment from not only university presidents, athletic directors and coaches but governors, mayors and local health officials.
Businesses are slowly reopening in some states. Georgia’s governor allowed bowling alleys and hair salons to open on Friday. South Carolina’s “state of emergency” closing all non-essential businesses expires Monday. Other states that comprise the SEC are relaxing state-at-home orders this week.
Tanner was asked directly if he thought the SEC would go out on its own playing games while other conferences do not.
“As passionate as the Southeast is, in our conference, the health and safety and well-being of fans and the student body [is most important],” Tanner said. “We’re not going to put football ahead of safety and well-being.”
Tanner is among highest-profiles figures to suggest all 10 FBS conferences might not be united in a common return-to-play date let alone a decision to play in general this fall.
Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione said one of the greatest future challenges — aside from stopping the virus — would be “getting everyone to agree on a plan going forward.”
When asked about Tanner’s comments, another Power Five AD cautioned, “So many decisions to be made at state levels and institutional levels. This speculation is way too early. But no idea is off the table yet.”
Tanner’s comments were first reported in a tweet by The Athletic.
Cracks are already forming around a return-to-play philosophy. Vice President Mike Pence was told last week that there would be no football without students on campus.
The presidents at Missouri and Purdue have suggested students will be welcomed back in the fall. That’s far from a majority.
“In a perfect world, we’re aligned, we play, we have conference championships, we do the [College Football Playoff], the bowl games,” Tanner said. “But with this pandemic, there may be certain situations, certain areas of the country where you return to work and you have an opportunity to play … versus other parts of the country that might still be [under] stay at home.”
Playing conference-only schedules has been an option on the table, though it was primarily under consideration if the start of the season needed to be delayed. It has been considered — along with several other models — since commissioners began conceptualizing a return to play shortly after the NCAA Tournament was canceled March 12.
That’s why some FBS independents have spoken informally about playing a 2020 schedule among themselves if a full season isn’t played due to the coronavirus, CBS Sports has learned.
The talks do not involve Notre Dame or BYU. The remaining FBS independents are Army West Point, Liberty, New Mexico State, UConn and UMass.
“Two weeks ago, we thought the conference-only schedule was a possibility, so we’ve been doing the same thing,” Army AD Mike Buddie said. “We’ve already reached out to UConn, UMass, New Mexico State, Liberty and Notre Dame. They’re all doing the same thing.”
Buddie said the calls to Notre Dame were in regard to future scheduling.
The possibility exists of playing other independents twice in a season. If those five independents played the other four twice, that would amount to eight games. (Liberty and New Mexico State played each other twice in 2019.)
There would upheaval enough only playing conference games. However, in the Power Five alone, the ACC and SEC play eight league games while the Pac-12, Big 12 and Big Ten play nine.
“It’s a different time,” Tanner said. “We would all hope and pray this pandemic gets mitigated or eliminated, but we might not all be on the same schedule. We might not be on the same schedule. I hope we just have [a schedule].”