It's no secret that America loves its college football, and there's no doubt that over the last couple weeks, the conversation about the 2020 college football season has shifted.
Whereas six weeks ago, the conversation was, "Will college football be played at all?" the new conversation that being had is, "Will California screw up college football for the rest of us?" That's because as more and more states continue to loosen stay-at-home restrictions, and more and more school presidents - ranging from Georgia
and everywhere in between - are proclaiming that they plan to have students on campus in the fall, California appears to be the one, last holdout nationally. While restrictions are slowly starting to loosen within the state (more on that below) it does feel like California could be - to use a term from my buddy Tim Brando - the "fly in the ointment" to the start of a successful college football season.
And that's not really an opinion, but instead a fact, with two big stories coming out this week to hammer that point home. One, we had several national media members speculate that a Week 1 matchup between USC and Alabama might not happen. After all, if Los Angeles doesn't loosen restrictions and USC's players can't get back to campus to prepare for the season, that game could be cancelled. ESPN's Paul Finebaum went so far as to say that Alabama is already making back-up plans in case USC is unavailable for the game
Two, the Cal-State school system, a set of 23 campuses across the state of California, announced their plan to go to online only classes for the fall. While that does not impact any Pac-12 schools, it does mean that three FBS football playing schools (San Diego State, Fresno State, San Jose State) aren't expected to have students on campus this fall. If the campuses aren't open, the thought is they can't play games. And if they can't play games, that messes up not only the Mountain West schedule, but also any out of conference games those schools are involved in. As it pertains to major "brands" in college football, Fresno State was scheduled to play at Texas A&M in early October, potentially putting that game at risk. Same with San Jose State's trip to Penn State, a few weeks earlier.
So yeah, it wasn't a great week if you love college football, and again, it does feel like the media sentiment has swung in favor of, "We're going to have to figure out a way to play college football without these schools in California."
Yet, I live in California and am not buying it.
I'm not saying that it is 100 percent that college football will open Week 1. I'm not saying things might not be delayed by an extra week or two, or some out of conference games cancelled. I'm not even saying the in-person experience of college football might be different (masks for fans?) or there might be no fans at all. No one, not Mark Emmert, Greg Sankey or Nick Saban can say that with certainty.
But after talking to people all across the college sports landscape these last couple months, I do believe college football will be played in the fall, and it will include those California schools.
To explain why, I wanted to separate some fact from fiction as it pertains to the state of California, and then share what it means for the college football season as a whole.
(By the way, if "reading" isn't your thing, I embedded today's podcast, which hits on this topic, below)
First, let's separate fact from fiction:
My biggest personal issue with the national coverage of how California is handling coronavirus is that there are a few things that have been presented as "fact" that are simply not true. I bring this up only because a lot of things that are being misrepresented as facts are shaping the conversation around college football this fall.
Myth No. 1 - Los Angeles's stay at home order was NOT extended for three whole months earlier this week:
On Tuesday, an article surfaced from the LA Times that quickly picked up steam on social media. It stated that "in almost all certainty" stay-at-home orders in Los Angeles would be extended at least three more months.
Obviously it frustrated a lot of Los Angelinos, but as it pertains to college football, the entire country essentially had the same reaction: Well, there goes USC-Bama in Week 1. If LA is locked down through the end of July, there is no way that USC will have time to get its players back to campus and properly prepare for this game (even if they have zero percent chance to win anyway).
Of course, like most things in life, the devil was in the details, and few people actually chose to read the article (it didn't help that the article was behind a paywall, so many couldn't read it even if they wanted to). Because of it, a lot of misinformation was spread quickly.
First off, the "three-month stay at home" comment was not an official government guideline. It did not come from the mayor of Los Angeles or governor of California and it did not come in a formal press conference. It was said behind closed doors, where it was never intended to be heard publicly. Then it got leaked to the media and spread all over the internet.
More importantly, the headline didn't actually mean what most think it meant, and LA's mayor even clarified that later that evening. It didn't mean that Los Angelinos
won't be able to leave their houses for three months. Instead, as the mayor explained that night
it meant that some form of stay-at-home orders will be in place for months to come (like most places in America). Whether that means reduced capacity restaurants, or no gyms, what the mayor claims he was trying to say was "don't expect things to go 100 percent back to 'normal' any time soon."
It does not however mean, that the citizens of Los Angeles will stay homebound for three more months. Nor does it definitively mean that USC's football team - or any team in California - won't be able to return to campus in the coming weeks.
Myth No. 2 - The entire state of California is NOT in lockdown either:
Another misnomer nationally is that the entire state of California is in the middle of some draconian lockdown. That is not factually accurate either.
While some parts of the state (mostly where the major cities, with dense populations sit) remain in pretty extreme stay-at-home orders, there are other parts of the state that are already largely back to normal. Several counties
that are less densely populated can already order sit-down service at restaurants and even in Los Angeles, public beaches, state parks and other outdoor activity areas are open.
Would many Californians like the restrictions to be loosened even further? Of course. But they have already been loosened quite significantly in recent weeks.
Myth No. 3 - The Cal-State schools that aren't open can't play football:
A widely held belief since this lockdown began is that if there were no kids on campus, you can't play college football. After all, college football players are college students, and if it isn't safe to have regular students on campus, how is it safe to let them play football?
Therefore, with the Cal-State school system shut down for on-campus teaching, it must mean that San Diego State, Fresno State and San Jose State won't play football this fall, right?
Well, not exactly.
First off, an important thing to note is that reports that the campus are "shut down" are somewhat inaccurate. While it's expected that most classes will be instructed online only, there are some classes that will meet in person (mainly the ones that are impossible to teach/take part in, in an online only setting). So parts of the campus will in fact be open.
And at least at San Diego State, that is enough for their AD to say that he expects his fall sports teams to play. In a conversation this week
, he still said that SDSU plans on having sports at the fall, and went so far as to even share a date that the school plans on bringing athletes back to campus (July 7th). Fresno State has also said they are planning to do everything they can
to play sports in the fall, and the Mountain West themselves gave a very loose, vague statement about what the shutdown of the Cal-State schools means for its conference. It ends with the statement, "No decisions on athletics have been made."
Point being, even without some of the schools being open in a traditional sense, it doesn't mean that sports involving those schools are off. At least for now.
What do those facts mean for college football?
Alright, now that we got important facts out of the way, it's time to use those facts to kind of create some consensus opinions on what it all means for college football. So before we go forward, yes, understand that below is more opinion-based than fact. But it is also highly-informed opinion (coming from people inside college athletics) and only pertains to what this all means for the sport of college football going forward.
Here are three reasons why I believe - based on the facts above - that college football will be back largely intact this fall:
Time is still on our side:
I'll give myself a little credit here, because I was one of the first people nationally to really talk about the issue of time as it pertains to college football. All the way back on April 6th I began this conversation on my podcast
, explaining that to get college football started by September 1, the focus couldn't be on September 1. Instead, the focus had to be on early to mid-July so players have time to get back to campus and have their bodies physically ready to play by Labor Day.
Still, with all that said, it doesn't change one simple fact: Even if players have to be back on campus by early to mid-July, we still have time on our side.
If you don't believe me, just think about this all in its simplest form.
Most of the country began the lockdown right around March 16th; that was the Monday after the NCAA Tournament and all other major sporting events were cancelled. Doing a little back of the envelope math there, it means that the country as a whole really shut down 59 days ago. Well, 59 days from now is still only
July 14th. Meaning that if you take the same time from Day 1 of the shutdown to now, and extrapolate that same time into the future, we will still only be in mid-July.
That's not a ton of time, but still plenty. Especially if you can step out of the context of focusing on today, and begin to think about where we could be 59 days from now, around the time students would have to be back on campus to start college football season on time.
What I mean by that is very simply this: Think about how much the conversation about coronavirus has changed since everything shut down on March 16th? Putting any individual opinion aside, I think we can all hopefully agree that the conversation has changed for the better. I think we can all also agree that the data suggests that college-aged students (especially ones in peak physical condition) are one of the least susceptible populations to major coronavirus related health issues. And I think we can also all hopefully agree that loosening restrictions in all states is a good sign that we are headed in the right direction in battling this illness.
Well, if you think about how much the conversation and social restrictions have changed in the last 59 days, think about how far along they could be 59 days from now. Again, take yourself out of the moment and try to put yourself into the moment two months from now. For as fearful as we were two months ago, we're in a much better place. And two months from now we'll hopefully be in an even better place than we are today.
If that happens, it probably means that most or all colleges have athletes back on campus by that time (remember, San Diego State has already said they expect athletes back on campus July 7th). And if athletes are back on campus at that point, it makes the start of college football season that much more realistic.
Coaches are also beginning to argue publicly (and accurately) that the safest place for a kid to be is on campus:
I remember having this conversation off the record all the way back in March and early April, and it has trickled down into the mainstream the last couple weeks. Florida football coach Dan Mullen said as much this week
. But the simple facts suggest that the safest place for a student-athlete to be is actually on campus, not at home.
While that might sound like coach-speak nonsense, it's actually true.
To explain as much, just think about a student-athlete's life on campus versus those who are stuck living at home right now.
First, there are those who are stuck at home. For some, life probably isn't noticeably different from on campus. Many come from good backgrounds, have plenty of space and freedom to complete schoolwork, eat adequate meals, and have found a way to work out in safe and clean environments. Again, for those guys and girls, life isn't all that different.
However, if we're being realistic, that just isn't the case for most college athletes. Without trying to generalize or stereotype, many don't come from those kinds of backgrounds. I've talked to several coaches this offseason who've told me all sorts of horror stories of kids living in one- or two-bedroom apartments with three, four, five or more other people. From an academic perspective, some don't even have internet, making at-home schooling next to impossible. But even outside schoolwork, is the health safety aspect of it all. As we all know, it's just not safe to have that many people living in that small of a space period. Especially during a pandemic.
It's worth noting there is the opposite spectrum as well. There are plenty of other college athletes who grew up in rural areas. If God forbid they came down with a serious case of Covid-19, they might not have easy access to adequate healthcare. In some cases, it could be hours in the car to the nearest hospital.
Again, those are not my opinions. They're the realities that thousands of college athletes are dealing with across the country.
Now compare that with what players will have access to on-campus. They would obviously be living in safe housing (my guess is that most schools will slowly bring back older players who live off-campus, before bringing in the freshmen). They'll have access to world-class medical treatment. They will have customized meal plans and workout opportunities in safe and sterile gyms. Not only will that allow them to (in theory) have success on the field, but also keep their immune systems up, which would hopefully help them fight off the virus if they were affected.
The longer this goes, the more those in the college sports community are starting to understand that the safest place for college athletes is actually on their college campuses.
Finally, expect political pressure with other states opening:
If you're hoping to have football in the fall, and you're worried about California schools holding out, well, there are probably two things that worked in your favor this week: Arizona will officially open up, with essentially no restrictions this weekend. And Florida governor Ron DeSantis publicly said on Wednesday that any professional sports team displaced from coronavirus will have a home in Florida. Florida AD Scott Stricklin has already said that he is more than willing to allow "The Swamp" to host NFL games.
Those two things are important from both a political and sports sense. And - in speaking with people around LA - there is a real belief that it is the sports world that will push the political world to loosen things up a little bit.
Why is that?
Well, from the practical sense, California has the country's largest economy - over $3 trillion annually. And with Arizona now open and Nevada not far behind, where do you think Californians who are fortunate enough to have disposable income right now will go spend their money? If they can't go to the mall, or stay at a hotel or eat at a restaurant in California, they'll hop on a $50 Southwest flight to Phoenix or Las Vegas instead. Trust me, these are real conversations that are being had. Young, healthy people that have disposable income are not going to sit around and wait until the politicians tell them they can do things. They'll do them on their own, which also puts political pressure on people in California. Do they really want to see hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in commerce leave their state? I didn't think so.
And really, it's the same from the sports perspective. I truly believe that Ron DeSantis offering up Florida as a home to displaced teams will be a turning point in California's road to loosening restrictions. That's because - if we can take it outside the college sports world for a second - the Los Angeles Rams are set to open up a $1 billion stadium this September. And for those who aren't familiar, that stadium was built with zero taxpayer dollars, meaning that Rams owners paid the entire bill. You think they're going to let that stadium lie dormant while the Rams play in Gainesville, if there is any way to safely get fans in the stands?
(For what it's worth, I was also told that on Thursday morning Fox Sports college football analyst Joel Klatt floated the idea that in the college world, USC would also consider playing its "home" games in either Nevada or Arizona in the fall.
I have not yet heard the audio so don't want to comment, but that is a similar sentiment to what I was saying above. Again, if the games can be played they will be. And I find it hard to believe that the power players behind the scenes - and there are plenty in California - will let their home teams play in other locales if it's at all safe to play in the state)
Admittedly I know this article went long and there is a lot to take in. But over the last few days, California has truly become the epicenter of the college football conversation, in terms of when it could start, what it could look like, and what limitations may apply.
In the end however, with time on our side, I believe - with the information I have today, on May 14th, 2020 - that college football will go largely on time and as scheduled on Labor Day weekend. That can always change, and it could come with modifications. Maybe stadiums won't be full, or fans will wear masks. Maybe an out of conference game or two is postponed or delayed or cancelled altogether.
But despite the news of this week, there is still plenty of time to safely get college football started in the fall.
(To listen to more of the conversation, as well as an interview with Arkansas hoops coach Eric Musselman, listen to today's Aaron Torres Podcast below)