At some point late Monday night just outside of Miami, confetti guns will go off and a trophy will be handed to either Alabama or Ohio State and the entire college football industry will collectively exhale.
For 10 straight months, administrators at every school and conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision have worked through innumerable problems and uncertainties to get to the conclusion of a 2020 season that, at various points, nobody was sure would happen. But as soon as this season ends, college football officials will have to turn their sights to a new piece of the COVID-19 puzzle: What is the 2021 season going to look like?
“We know we're still in the middle of trying to work through a pandemic,” Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione said. “The football season may be over, but the pandemic isn’t.”
Beyond the existential challenges college sports will have to navigate in 2021 brought on by the name, image and likeness legislation moving through the NCAA and Congress and liberalized transfer rules for athletes, the next several months for college football will be consumed by more elemental issues including how long it will be necessary to continue strict COVID-19 protocols, the feasibility of spring practice, vaccinating players and whether the fall of 2021 will truly be a return to normal.
“I’m an eternal optimist so we’re about to roll out our new season ticket structure and we’re preparing to have as normal of a fall as we can,” said Boston College athletics director Pat Kraft. “That’s the only thing you can do. You hope the vaccine (is widely available) and everything is better. But we know this isn’t over.”
That means as football players whose seasons ended trickle back to campuses in the coming weeks for offseason conditioning, they will return to a similar environment they’ve been operating in for the last several months: Lots of testing, mask wearing and social distancing, plus quarantining for players who get contact traced to a positive test. The question nobody can really answer is whether that will last well into the spring, continue through the summer or perhaps carry into the fall season.
“We have at least as difficult a six months ahead as what we just experienced,” Tulane athletics director Troy Dannen said. “When we talked about playing our bowl game, part of the thought of having two more weeks of practice is that all bets are off right now as far as what spring football looks like. It will be three tests a week and shutting down groups, shutting down teams (for contact tracing). It’s going to look like the fall without games.”
And as pretty much every college coach has said either publicly or probably privately, nobody wants to go through that again.
Alabama's Nick Saban was one of several coaches who tested positive for the coronavirus this season. (Photo: Bruce Newman, USA TODAY Sports)
College football could be in limbo for a while
It leaves college football in an odd state of limbo, where July and August of 2021 seem far enough away that you can envision a large degree of normalcy. At the same time, the January reality is that the spread of the virus is at its worst point of the entire pandemic, administrators are bracing for the heavy lift of getting college basketball to the finish line and the vaccine rollout has been so slow in the initial stages that it would be foolish to project where college students would fall in the pecking order.
“We don’t have any specific knowledge at the moment when we would have a vaccine available,” Castiglione said. “I remember going back to the summer, people were saying with some certainty that the testing would be widely available and it wasn’t. So we’re being very diligent and patient and cautious to take any further step until we know for sure.”
Even then, the entire vaccine issue is a delicate one for schools, some of which are already in the process of surveying athletes about whether they’d be willing to take it and developing plans on how to present the option.
According to several public opinion surveys, Black Americans and younger people are more skeptical than other groups of the COVID-19 vaccine with a recent Pew survey showing just 42 percent of Black adults and 55 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds saying they would definitely or probably take the vaccine if it were available today.
Anecdotally, college coaches and administrators have experience with encouraging athletes to take flu shots every year — often with frustrating results.
“I would say it’s 50-50 on the flu shot,” Liberty coach Hugh Freeze said. “Some of these kids don't want needles period, and everybody's not going to take it I don't think. What do you do with that as opposed to the ones who took the vaccines? Do we keep paying for tests? There’s still a lot of questions.”
The general expectation is that college students would not be at the front of the line for the vaccine, though Washington State athletics director Pat Chun is hoping for more clarity later this month once President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated and the new Department of Education leadership weighs in.
But even assuming college football players could start getting those shots in the summer, there will have to be a set of protocols developed for players who choose not to take them. How often will they have to be tested? Would they be subject to contact tracing and quarantines if they were exposed to COVID-19?
In effect, it’s impossible to separate the national vaccine administration program — and how many players eventually take it — from the day-to-day operation of football in 2021.
“We’ll go through a process when the time is appropriate to educate them on the benefits or the risks in taking the vaccine, but if there’s anything we’ve learned from 2020 is we have to respect people’s opinion,” Chun said. “My assumption is if they choose not to, they’ll have to stay in some type of testing protocol.”
Will cardboard fans pop up again during the 2021 college football season? (Photo: Robert Willett, AP)
Fear of lost revenue continues to loom
College football will also have to be prepared for the possibility that certain local restrictions will remain in place for several more months, potentially stretching into the fall. New Mexico State, an FBS independent, decided it could not play this fall but has three basketball games scheduled against FCS teams for late February and early March. But they are still limited to five people at a time for non-contact practice, which is why the school sent its men's and women’s basketball teams to camp in Phoenix for the season.
Losing out on scheduled non-conference games with Florida and UCLA in 2020 cost the New Mexico State athletics department $2.75 million, which accounts for 85 percent of the budget deficit the athletics department will face as a result of the pandemic, according to athletics director Mario Moccia. As a result, it’s “absolutely critical” to be in a position next fall to play scheduled money games at Alabama and Kentucky.
“We have to play those games,” Moccia said. “We can’t go two years in a row without those guarantee games. We schedule those as a matter of our fiscal survival.”
On a different scale, programs at the Power Five and Group of Five levels are cautiously optimistic about having more fans in the stadium but recognize that there are several variables that could determine how many. After a year of limited attendance, or in many places no fans, administrators will be desperate to return to pre-pandemic ticket revenue levels.
“We open the season with Oklahoma at home and as I’m putting my budget together, right now we put that model together for 2021 and I’m counting on a return to close to normalcy,” said Dannen, the Tulane athletics director. “Not full normalcy because I don’t know what normal really is anymore, but from a financial standpoint, I expect to have people in the stands, I expect to sell season tickets.”
Because there’s an expectation that COVID-19 will still be around next fall, administrators are hoping that the FBS conferences — and particularly the Power Five — do a better job this offseason of getting on the same page to deal with protocols. That could be especially relevant as schools prepare to play non-conference games in 2021 between leagues that had different approaches this past season to testing and contact tracing.
“For these five or 10 leagues that were not on the same page with protocols, it’s an indictment against college football leadership,” Chun said. “You understood to a certain degree how we ended up here because everything was last minute. Everyone has different medical boards they’re dealing with, but as this goes into 2021 we now have data and we’ve studied this. There needs to be some uniformity in FBS on what are the baseline standards for COVID protocol heading into next year. There has to be some type of uniformity for us to move forward with non-conference games.”
College administrators hope fans will be back in seats this fall, boosting ticket sales and revenue. (Photo: Amy Sancetta, AP)
'End of the year isn't going back to normal'
For everyone who played, coached or worked in college football this fall, the notion that Monday night is the finish line for the season but not for COVID-19 is going to be difficult to reckon with.
Part of the reason everyone was willing to sacrifice their social life and constantly get swabs stuck up their noses was the goal of playing football games. The next games are a long way off, but the inconveniences of COVID-19 life aren’t going anywhere.
“The players — while they understood and were really good about taking the steps so they could do what they asked to do, which was have a safe path to playing — it’s fair to say they had some fatigue with everything,” Castiglione said. “My guess is there will continue to be some protocols in place. I think people will still be required to wear masks for the foreseeable future, and if somebody is just tired of it, well, sorry. It’s something you’re going to have to continue to do and to embrace as we find a way to expand the opportunity to have a season safely.”
At some point, college football will be in a position where nobody has to worry about whether a game will contribute to spreading a dangerous virus. But nobody’s going to take for granted that the path to get there is suddenly easy just because the 2020 season was completed.
In the days ahead, the focus will turn to what needs to happen to make things work in 2021. And even though it seems far away, there isn’t a lot of time to waste.
“When players come back, all the protocols go back — testing, everything,” Kraft said. “Getting to the end of the year isn’t going back to normal but hopefully through the summer and into September we’re in a place where we were where we open the building and play. We’re in a part of the country where everyone is taking it seriously but I think we’ll get there by kickoff of next year. I hope so. We need it.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports college reporter Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
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