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MAC cancels football: What it means for the Power 5 and more

  • College football reporter.
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2008.
  • Graduate of Northwestern University.

  • ESPN staff writer
  • Joined ESPN in 2011
  • Graduated from Central Michigan

As pessimism built in college football circles about the chances for a fall season, sources noted the reluctance of schools and leagues to be the first to drop out. Days after UConn became the first FBS program to cancel its football season, the Mid-American Conference decided not to play football in the fall.

The MAC’s decision Saturday to postpone its fall sports season could have a major effect throughout the country. Here’s a look at key questions surrounding the MAC’s decision.

How did the MAC get here?

League presidents met Thursday to discuss the fall sports season but could not reach a conclusion and moved a vote to Saturday morning. Northern Illinois in particular had expressed its opposition to playing football and other sports this fall. Other schools had similar reservations, which led to Saturday’s vote not to play.

MAC commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher said the decision to postpone the season was a unanimous one by conference presidents who were looking out for the best interests of the student-athletes.

“Clearly, we are charting a conservative path, and it is one that has been recommended by our medical advisory group,” Steinbrecher said. “There are simply too many unknowns for us to put our student-athletes in situations that are not clearly understood. We have traditionally been a leader on student-athlete well-being issues. This has not been an easy decision, but for the Mid-American Conference, it was the right decision.”

What motivated the MAC to opt out of the fall season?

Health and safety concerns drove Northern Illinois to speak out strongly against the fall season. Athletic director Sean Frazier has been advocating to move football to the spring, telling the Chicago Tribune last month, “At least it gets us on track, and the following year we’ve learned our lessons and can have a traditional season. If we can’t get to the point of making that decision now, we’re going to be in trouble. For me, time is running out. Is [COVID-19] going to plateau? Is it going to decline? If not, we need to punt.”

Other MAC schools also were hesitant, both from a health-and-safety standpoint and the financial challenges of handling testing and meeting other protocols around competition. Several MAC schools have cut sports programs during the pandemic, and the financial challenges in the league are more pronounced than most around college football.

Steinbrecher said that based on medical advice and conversations within the conference, ultimately leadership was not comfortable putting the student-athletes in situations that students outside of the competitive arena would not experience.

“They’re different; it’s more risk, and there’s risks that aren’t completely, or there’s things we just don’t completely understand about this virus at this point,” Steinbrecher said. “I’m not a doctor and I’m not in position to really annunciate all of those things. However, we’re comfortable that we’re making the right decision for intercollegiate athletics.”

Having to bring the students back to campus is a differentiating factor from professional sports, which are able to create bubbles to keep athletes safe. Steinbrecher said that is not the world they live in on college campuses and would not be feasible.

What about a spring season?

The MAC likely will explore a spring season for football and its other fall sports, although there are plenty of hurdles to clear. Most MAC coaches strongly preferred a fall season and have concerns about players transferring to other FBS schools that are more likely to play games this fall. But the spring is a viable option for MAC football, especially as FCS leagues explore the possibilities.

Steinbrecher said that as of now, it is the conference’s intention to provide athletic opportunities in the spring, but that is still to be determined. The conference has a working plan to develop what a full calendar year would look like in 2021, including spring athletics, that will involve administrators, coaches, student-athletes, faculty, athletic training staff and doctors.

“This fall our presidents will get updates on a monthly report,” Steinbrecher said. “By mid-fall, we’ll have plans in place that will have been approved. Then somewhere later this fall, whether that’s in November, whether it’s December, I think the virus will have a big determination in our ability to ultimately say it’s a go or a no-go.”

What does the MAC’s decision mean for other conferences?

Sources expect other FBS leagues, including from the Power 5, to seriously consider following the MAC’s decision and not compete in football and other fall sports. But it might take a Power 5 league like the Pac-12 or Big Ten to opt out for the dominoes to really start falling. “If a P-5 conference or school shuts down, different game then,” a Group of 5 athletic director texted after the MAC’s decision. A Group of 5 coach who opposes playing in the fall added, “Just end the madness and let’s move on!”

Big Ten presidents are expected to meet later on Saturday, while Pac-12 presidents are scheduled to meet on Tuesday.

How does the MAC’s decision affect the Power 5 football schedule?

The decisions by the Big Ten and other Power 5 conferences to cancel most or all of their nonconference games had limited the MAC’s inventory of such opportunities. But some still remained, including Western Michigan’s Sept. 19 trip to Notre Dame, which now must find another non-league opponent, with Navy and Arkansas both off the schedule. MAC members Buffalo and Ball State still had matchups set with Big 12 members Kansas State and Iowa State, respectively. Defending MAC champion Miami (Ohio) was set to open the season on Sept. 12 at Pitt. Several matchups with AAC schools are now off.

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