PROVO — Among all the “what ifs?” being tossed around when stakeholders discuss the viability of the 2020 college football season amid the coronavirus pandemic, one in particular has caught the attention of independents BYU, Army, UMass, UConn, Liberty, New Mexico State and, to a lesser extent, Notre Dame.
© Scott G Winterton, Deseret News BYU’s Dayan Ghanwoloku defends Liberty’s Antonio Gandy-Golden in a football game in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. BYU won 31-24. One of the scenarios being explored if the pandemic shortens the 2020 season is for the fellow independents to play twice this fall if others play conference games only.
What if the season has to be shortened, and the 10 conferences in the Football Bowl Subdivision decide to only play conference games?
Where does that leave the independents?
“I am optimistic that we will play a full season, on schedule, and that’s what we are planning on,” Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw told the Deseret News on Thursday. “But we have discussed contingency plans.”
In a nutshell, those plans are to play each other — perhaps twice — in 2020. But the four independents who responded to requests for more information for this article stressed that the talks are in the preliminary stages, and nobody is giving up hope quite yet.
“We just want to play a full football schedule, like everybody else across the country,” said BYU associate athletic director for communication Duff Tittle.
New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia concurred with BYU and Liberty.
“I would label them as cursory conversations,” Moccia said. “If things blew up and it all just went to conference games, I think we would all get on the phone with each other very seriously. … We aren’t there yet where we have had a coordinated effort. But yeah, there have been some discussions, for sure.”
An Army West Point Athletics Association (AWPAA) spokesperson, answering questions directed to athletic director Mike Buddie, acknowledged that preliminary discussions have taken place recently.
“Army West Point truly embraces the reality that we’re all in this together. We are committed to working with the leaders of other schools to navigate these uncertain times and achieve the very best outcome for us all,” an AWPAA spokesperson said, while declining to provide specifics.
“Playing conference-only schedules has been an option on the table, though it was primarily under the consideration if the start of the season needed to be delayed,” Dodd wrote.
“I would label them as cursory conversations. If things blew up and it all just went to conference games, I think we would all get on the phone with each other very seriously. … We aren’t there yet where we have had a coordinated effort. But yeah, there have been some discussions, for sure.” — New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia
Of course, plenty of other scenarios are being considered, such as: starting in early September as usual, but without fans; a delayed start, but a full season that goes into January or even February; a spring season that begins in January and runs concurrently with the college basketball season; a combination of all those scenarios.
A lot depends on how much time coaches and medical professionals believe a team would need to get ready physically for a season; most put that between six and eight weeks.
BYU offensive lineman Brady Christensen said Friday he believes most college football players have been vigorously working out on their own since spring camps were canceled and could be ready in a month — which is the length of a traditional fall camp.
Is BYU included?
In his April 25 piece, Dodd wrote that “the talks (among independents) do not involve Notre Dame or BYU.” Asked for some clarification, Dodd replied in an email that he was told “BYU wasn’t in the mix.”
Contacted Thursday, BYU’s Tittle said the Cougars’ athletic department leaders haven’t participated in any formal conference calls on the matter, but reiterated that BYU AD Tom Holmoe has been in close contact with almost all of the athletic directors of fellow independents recently.
“We’re in (the mix). Tom is always in contact with athletic directors all over the place as he tries to develop a full schedule,” Tittle said. “Tom has had individual conversations with some of them. … Just conversations on contingencies, like what they are thinking, what they are doing. We have taken the opportunity to reach out to some of them.”
How interested is BYU?
Again, Tittle said other options are preferable, but the Cougars are keeping an open mind and considering all possible scenarios, including a shortened, independents-together, schedule. Obviously, BYU wouldn’t want to trade games against Power Five programs Michigan State, Minnesota and Missouri for Liberty, UMass and New Mexico State — having played those fellow independents within the past few years.
“Ultimately, the safety of our fans, and our athletes and coaches, everybody involved, is paramount,” Tittle said. “We would just like to be prepared for what happens and be prepared when we start seeing announcements made.”
Moccia said he has talked to McCaw and a deputy AD at Army and plans to reach out to Holmoe soon. The NMSU AD said “it kind of struck me, too,” when CBSSports.com said BYU was not involved in the discussions.
“I would certainly include BYU. There are only a handful of us (independents), so why not?” Moccia said. “My eyebrows went up, too, but I certainly didn’t take it as any purposeful exclusion. … In no way, shape or form would I think BYU should be excluded. I would think they would be included.”
Liberty’s McCaw said other than the final score (31-24), the Flames “had a very positive experience” playing at BYU last year and look forward to the Cougars’ scheduled visit to Lynchburg, Virginia, in 2022.
“Tom (Holmoe) and I have had some preliminary discussions about future games and we have recently spoken about the scenario if we need to play fellow independents in the 2020 season and there is mutual interest if we find ourselves in that situation, absolutely there is,” McCaw said.
Liberty’s AD said they first spoke with Army but have since contacted every independent except Notre Dame.
“But even Notre Dame will need games like everyone else,” he said.
Former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall wanted to play all the service academies — Air Force, Army and Navy — when the Cougars went independent in 2011, but that never happened. Asked if the Black Knights would ever consider a game against BYU that wasn’t forced by an independents’ scheduling agreement, the AWPAA spokesperson deferred to the second half, as it were.
“Army West Point is open to all future opponents who fit our specific scheduling needs in any particular year where such an arrangement is mutually beneficial to both schools,” he said.
So what’s the plan?
The aforementioned athletic directors cautioned that they are still a long ways away from putting anything down on paper, or outlining it to a reporter, but a few models are being considered — including what Liberty and NMSU did the last two years: home-and-home games in the same season.
McCaw and Moccia said that wasn’t as awkward as some might think.
“It was weird to a lot of people, but the NFL has been doing this forever,” Moccia said. “Maybe because I am a baseball guy, and not a football guy, I didn’t see that as sacrilegious. … It just made sense because we both needed games. We both had a relatively equal opportunity maybe to win that game. So that’s how it came about, and I thought it was a good deal.”
Said McCaw: “It just hasn’t been the tradition of college football, but the Bears and the Packers play each other twice each year (in the NFL). So it worked out well and we enjoyed our trips to New Mexico State and enjoyed having them here.”
As outlined in a previous Deseret News article, the independents’ plan could hinge on how many conference games the Power Five and Group of Five conferences decide to play — eight or nine.
Assuming Notre Dame is not in the mix because it has a scheduling agreement with the ACC that could be expanded, the remaining independents could all play each other twice for a 10-game season.
“It won’t be easy. This obviously wouldn’t be an ideal situation for BYU or the other independents,” said Brett McMurphy of Watchstadium.com. “But it beats the alternative — not playing any games.”
After all, that’s a plan nobody wants to consider.