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Answering the latest questions as college football preps for a return to play

With the ACC likely to make a decision this week about its scheduling model and a possible season start date, and the Big 12 and SEC likely not too far behind, here are the most pressing questions surrounding the college football season.

What does MLB’s Miami Marlins outbreak mean for CFB?

While it clearly shows the challenge of playing a sport outside of a bubble — even in a sport where athletes can naturally socially distance, unlike football — it hasn’t changed the perspective of college football power brokers just yet.

“We watch everything that’s going on around us, and I think we always said that if we’re able to go forward and play sports throughout the year, there will be disruptions,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told ESPN. “I think this is a good example of that.”

Where does testing stand?

If college football has any shot at playing in the fall, the testing component might be the biggest key. The NCAA issued testing guidelines that recommend testing athletes and coaches 72 hours before games, but the Power 5 conferences are expected to have their own guidelines and testing procedures — and will expect all opponents to adhere to the same testing guidelines. It remains unclear how often schools will test once practice begins Aug. 7, but NCAA guidelines recommend weekly testing for any high contact-risk sport during the preseason, regular season and postseason.

Schools have 10- to 14-day quarantine and contact tracing procedures in place for anyone who tests positive, but there remain large unknowns, including: How many positive tests are too many to play a game? If someone starts showing symptoms in the 72 hours between testing and the game, whom does contract tracing identify as those needing to quarantine? If someone tests positive after playing in a game, who would be considered a close contact and in need of quarantine? The NCAA used CDC guidelines to note that anyone with high risk of exposure — including teammates and opponents — would need to quarantine for 14 days. Among those considered high risk: An individual who was within 6 feet of someone with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes; someone who has direct physical contact or was touched by respiratory droplets from an infected person.

If a coach tests positive, a school can replace him temporarily with a graduate assistant or analyst under NCAA rules allowing for extenuating circumstances. Power 5 schools and the American Athletic Conference feel confident they have the required capabilities and funds to test as frequently as they need to. Perhaps the largest remaining concern is turnaround time — especially for those schools that do not have hospitals or medical schools on their campuses. Ideally, a rapid test would be available to allow testing to happen as close to game time as possible. But the rapid tests currently on the market are simply not reliable enough to use. Commissioners remain hopeful there will be advancements made in testing that allow them to close the current 72-hour window, but until that happens, they will go with PCR tests. Game officials are also expected to undergo testing weekly, but specific testing guidelines for any other personnel working the game remain unclear at this time.

The biggest concerns are how frequently the testing happens and what to do when there are positive cases. Schools across the country have had to stop workouts because they have had too many positives. Michigan State just had its entire team quarantine or isolate for 14 days after a second staff member and player tested positive. If that happens during the season, the potential is there for two to three games to be canceled or postponed.

What will practice look like?

In a sport as physical as football, practicing in the middle of a pandemic is uncharted territory for coaches and players. The enhanced summer access period began late last week, and allows for walk-throughs with a football for two weeks before most teams start fall practice on Aug. 7.

NCAA guidelines encourage the use of masks or facial coverings, and keeping players in specific groups to help mitigate the possible spread. Florida State, for example, will only allow physical contact for a maximum of 15 minutes over the next two weeks. North Carolina coach Mack Brown and his staff will use sticks to stay 6 feet apart from players. Coaches across the country will wear face shields. Some will use electronic whistles.

But there is no uniform way schools are handling practices. Some have plans to work with their first and third teams at one time, and their second and fourth teams at a different time. Some have plans to keep quarterbacks and offensive linemen in separate practice groups in order to avoid entire personnel groups getting sick. But beyond what practice looks like, the biggest unknown might be this: If testing is only done weekly, could physical, contact practices mean possible spread of the virus?

What will schedules look like?

We can use the proposed Pac-12 plan as a possible road map. The Pac-12 and Big Ten have already decided to go to a conference-only schedule, while the ACC, Big 12 and SEC are weighing their options. According to sources, the Pac-12 plans to play a 10-game league schedule that begins Sept. 19 and has built-in bye weeks in case there are games that cannot be played as scheduled. There also is flexibility on the date of the conference championship game. The plan still needs approval from league presidents but it would feature five division games and five crossover games. Big Ten athletics directors are still determining what their conference-only schedules will look like.

Meanwhile the ACC, Big 12 and SEC have looked at models that feature conference schedules plus one nonconference game, something that would allow all three leagues to keep some of their biggest matchups — including ACC/SEC rivalry games, Auburn-North Carolina (Sept. 12), LSU-Texas (Sept. 12) and Oklahoma-Tennessee (Sept. 12). As for Notre Dame, the Irish will figure into the ACC scheduling model (they already have six scheduled games), somehow. One proposal has the ACC moving to a 10-game conference schedule plus one nonconference game, with Notre Dame playing a full ACC schedule. Notre Dame has nine games currently scheduled, including Navy in the opener and Arkansas on Sept. 12.

It is also important to keep in mind that the SEC and ACC play eight conference games, compared to nine for the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. So the largest discussions in the SEC and ACC center around how many conference games they should play.

Will the season start on time?

Nobody truly knows. At the very minimum, the Pac-12 will not, as it has already announced it will push back the start to its conference-only season. But any decisions conferences announce now do not guarantee the season will start on time, or that the schedules as they are laid out will be played in their entirety, if at all.

As any administrator will tell you, the coronavirus will dictate whether it is safe enough to start. And they all emphasize they will not play unless they can do so safely and mitigate the risks. That means presidents, chancellors, commissioners, athletic directors and coaches will lean on the advice of their respective medical advisory groups to make those decisions. One more thing to consider: The season might start on time, but then have to be halted should positive cases spread across teams.

What is the possible College Football Playoff impact?

College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock has steadfastly said the CFP “will be ready for whatever comes down,” without going into further details on what that could mean for the way the selection committee evaluates teams or whether it is feasible to push the entire playoff back should there be significant delays to the season. Schedule evaluation is always a critical component, and so are marquee nonconference games.

Now that the Pac-12 and Big Ten are going conference-only, how does that evaluation change? If the Big 12, ACC and SEC go with models that allow them to play a nonconference game, does that give them an advantage in the all-important strength of schedule factor? “This is why the committee has 13 football experts,” Hancock told ESPN earlier this month. “Their task is to select the best four teams based on play on the field and schedules that conferences establish.”

Indeed, the conference commissioners and Jack Swarbrick set the playoff protocol and will more than likely determine the number of games that need to be played to qualify for the four-team playoff once all leagues come up with scheduling models. But even then, we might not have an answer to this question until we are in season — What if the teams in the hunt for the playoff have played a different number of games because of cancellations due to the virus?

As for the games themselves, they remain on as scheduled, including the national championship game in Miami on Jan.11. But as Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl CEO Gary Stokan said, “We’re adaptable as well. If we need to push back and I think Bill has said this, if they need to push back the championship game, they and Florida have had those conversations, and they remain flexible to do that as well.”

What is the impact to bowl season?

Remains to be seen. All bowl games are on as scheduled, and if teams are able to play a minimum of 10 games, those that finish .500 would remain eligible under current rules. Only one change has been made so far: Teams will be allowed to count two FCS opponents toward bowl eligibility. This will not impact Power 5 schools that more than likely will not have multiple FCS opponents on their schedules, but might help others who need to fill out their current schedules because they have lost games. Stokan added that all Football Bowl Association directors remain flexible on when their games can be played.

Is there any chance at a spring season?

There’s always a chance! But really, only as a last resort. There is a reason the Power 5 are preparing schedules for a fall season. Moving the season to the spring brings its own set of uncertainties, to say the least. Among the biggest: Nobody knows whether it will be safer to play in January as opposed to October. As Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told ESPN earlier this month, “I’ve always considered it a viable option, but it’s certainly not first choice and probably not second choice, either. I think it would be a really big leap to say, ‘OK, we’re going to shut it down in the fall, and move it all to the spring, because there isn’t a whole lot of certainty in the spring, either. Having said that, I don’t consider it an infeasible option. I just wouldn’t call it first-choice.”

The SEC and Big Ten have opposed a spring season, although Big 12 coach Lincoln Riley has said he would have no issues playing in the spring. But no matter the opinion about when to play, one thing is certain: In order for athletics departments to survive financially, the powers-that-be must figure out how to safely play the 2020 season.

What would the NFL do if college football moved to spring?

As of right now, not much. The NFL has not given any indication it would move the Senior Bowl (Jan. 30) or the NFL combine (February), although there is a chance the draft could move back a few weeks depending on when the college season starts. The NFL is waiting to see what happens with the college season before making any decisions. If the NFL does not move its important draft events, seniors and draft-eligible juniors will have to decide whether to skip their last collegiate season to prepare for the NFL.

Will fans be allowed to attend?

Depends on where you live. Texas, for example, is going ahead with plans to have its stadium at 50% capacity. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said no fans will be allowed at sporting events in the state in the fall. Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack said the school is seeking further guidance from the governor’s office.

Athletic directors are modeling out various scenarios for capacity, including 25 and 50%, and have polled season-ticket holders about whether they would attend games. If capacity is limited, athletic directors would have to decide which games season-ticket holders can attend. In addition, operations staff have worked on how seating would look in reduced-capacity stadiums (aisles clear, alternate rows), how to ensure social distancing at tailgate lots, and adding extra entry gates to avoid long lines and crowds gathering.

All those models might be for naught, though. Whether fans are allowed to attend ultimately depends on decisions from state, local and university authorities.

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