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COVID-19 and college football: The best-case scenario for 2020 season still stands

The college football season is still to be determined heading into August, and the uncertainty lingers across the landscape.  

Still, there is a prevailing sentiment that the 2020 college football season could happen. FOX Sports analyst Urban Meyer is one of those voices that is holding on to some optimism.  

“I didn’t say every conference is going to play. I didn’t say every team is going to play,” Meyer said last week. “I said we’re going to play college football. I really believe that conferences, presidents, ADs and the commissioners are going to work together with the head coaches, and they’re going to work this thing out.” 

MORE: Which conferences have canceled their 2020 season?

With that in mind, a perfect-world scenario must line up in order for the FBS to get rolling for a fall season. Here are all the factors to consider:  

COVID-19 flattens out

This has to happen before anything else can. The ongoing pandemic in the United States is the leading determinant at this point. The United States has surpassed 4 million COVID-19 cases, and there are close to 2 million active cases in the country right now.  

While the NCAA has released COVID-19 protocols for student-athletes, the number of new cases is still high in several states. How those numbers fluctuate in late July and August will determine whether it’s safe to run a full-contact fall camp geared toward getting college football athletes ready for a season.  

When would that season start? Given that teams need six weeks to get ready, that date is fast approaching.  

Eight to 10 games  

Ten games looks like the best-case scenario. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith has mentioned that number. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbick advocates an eight-to-10-game schedule with a later starting date.  

Swarbick is right. It’s OK if the season is trimmed to eight or nine games if that means getting organized with hopes that COVID-19 numbers dwindle. What’s a legitimate starting date?  

Think Oct. 3. That would allow for nine weeks of regular season football before conference championship games are supposed to be played Dec. 5. Even if those conference championship games get pushed back — which has been talked about — an October start makes a lot of sense to get conferences in line.  

MORE: Poll shows most fans don’t think football will happen in 2020

Conference-only play works   

The Big Ten and Pac-12 moved to a conference-only schedule for 2020, and the assumption is that the model works for those conferences and produces a legitimate conference race between two divisions.  

Since both conferences already use a nine-game conference model, that scenario appears to be possible. The Big 12 — the third Power 5 conference that uses a nine-game schedule — could follow the same model and plays its entire league schedule in nine weeks with no byes if the season were to start Oct. 3. That means losing a few blockbuster matchups like LSU-Texas, but that’s OK.  

So does ACC-SEC plus-one model  

CBSSports.com’s Dennis Dodd reports that the ACC and SEC are working on a plus-one model that would allow the conferences to preserve some of the rivalries between the two conferences.  

This also is an ideal move. If the SEC and ACC can keep their eight-game conference schedule and play a cross-over game, then games such as Florida-Florida State, South Carolina-Clemson, Louisville-Kentucky and Georgia-Georgia Tech can be protected, and the other schools can schedule one game out of conference.   

Or the conference could fall in line with a nine-game conference model. Either way, it’s best if all five Power 5 conferences play the same number of games in 2020 — but not an absolute given the circumstances.  

Notre Dame and independents play  

Swarbick’s comments hint that Notre Dame wants to play in 2020, too, given its ACC agreement and the number of other independent schools to play a legitimate schedule. Sporting News detailed those options, and they still check out

Group of 5 still in play  

The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman wrote about the possibility of a spring season for the FCS and the Group of 5. Those schools are affected financially by the loss of nonconference games to Power 5 opponents, and a spring season would be an interesting alternative to allow a chance to play in 2020-21.  

FCS schools and Group of 5 schools would be less impacted in some ways by a spring season given the number of potential NFL players on their rosters compared with Power 5 schools.  

Of course, the Group of 5 would prefer to play in the fall — and that is the best-case scenario for the American Athletic Conference, Conference-USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference and Sun Belt. Without the Power 5 to help, however, those schools might need to work together on scheduling. 

That’s assuming a season is possible. If it is, the schedule-makers could throw in a couple of bonuses for fans who have been waiting for a season.  

Put Bama on Friday night  

Let’s assume an Oct. 3 start date is possible. Why not put Alabama — the most-successful program of the past decade — in the opener against one of those flexed-in opponents? Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne squashed the rumor that the Crimson Tide would play Notre Dame in the opener.  

It doesn’t have to be Notre Dame, but it could be somebody like Notre Dame. And what better way to kick off the season then to put Alabama on a neutral site with a big-time opponent on Friday, Oct. 2? Or even a week earlier?  

It would build that much more enthusiasm for the first full Saturday (if that’s a possibility).  

For what it’s worth, Alabama is supposed to play Ole Miss on Oct. 3 according to the current schedule. Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin meeting at midfield in Oxford would do just fine, too.  

The Playoff stays at four 

Should the playoff do a one-time expansion to allow more teams in with a shortened season? In this case, less is more. The season itself will lend itself to some unforeseen circumstances — especially if schools are not able to play because of COVID-19. That’s one of the harsh realities.  

Still, if the season is able to produce five legitimate conference races, then leaving one or two conferences out of the Playoff won’t be any different than the past six college football seasons. The shortened season will resemble MLB’s 60-game season in some ways, and that should in turn heat up those conference races even more.  

The more practical approach — and most likely one — is to keep the Playoff at four and work to see how many postseason games can be played outside that.  

If those dates have to be moved up — the semifinals are scheduled to be played on Jan. 1 and the championship game is on Jan. 13 — that’s fine.

If those games can be played, then this best-case scenario will have worked out.  

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