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What a “spring” season might look like

Football is now a winter sport.

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Michigan v Maryland Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

It seemed shocking yet not surprising when we found out that Big Ten higher-ups only began thinking about the feasibility of and options for spring football the night before postponing the fall 2020 sports season.

Yet here we are, in a world of uncertainty after a brutal lack of foresight and planning from university presidents and other conference administrators. Some institutions stand to lose upwards of $100 million should there be no football this academic year, and, while it’s hard to believe a modified spring season could recoup it all, it would certainly help soften the blow while also affording players the opportunity to do what they love — play football.

Plans for the spring hinge on many factors — control of the spread of the coronavirus, advancements in testing technologies, the NFL agreeing to rearrange the combine and 2021 Draft, and the logistical and medical feasibility of playing two seasons in one calendar year.

Yet, within a day of the Big Ten’s postponement of the season, Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm released an initial schedule for spring and fall 2021 seasons, the most robust public proposal to date.

A week after the decision came from Rosemont and reality hit, several coaches and athletic directors are embracing the potential of a once-last resort spring season. Public proponents of an early 2021 season include Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman, Maryland coach Mike Locksley, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, and Brohm and his AD Mike Bobinski, among others.

One of the many sticking points about the possibility of a spring season is how it may impact the fall. If the Big Ten cited player health and safety as its decision to not play this fall, how can it take their health and safety seriously playing two seasons in the span of 12 months?

It’s worth using Brohm’s proposal as a starting point to see what can actually be done. The eight-game regular spring season would start at the end of February and finish in April, while a postseason would take place in May. The fall season would then be pushed to October and shortened to ten games with a traditional postseason. There are more details about health and safety factors, as well as advantages of playing in the spring, in the article.

Importantly, Brohm addresses the number of padded practices, calling for just one-two per week in season, which with other details amounts to a maximum 64 total padded practices over the two seasons, compared to the normal 144. Teams that don’t make either postseason will stage just 52 padded practices as opposed to a typical 114.

Any spring proposal must take into account practice regimens and limitations as Brohm’s does. Starting a regular season as late as the end of February poses challenges for players looking to partake in the NFL draft, and it shortens the time between seasons, which everyone would like to stretch out as much as possible.

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day has been outspoken for wanting to play this fall, and, though rumors of the Buckeyes exploring unconventional ways to do so refuse to go away completely, he said he might be able to embrace a spring season that starts soon after the New Year so as to limit impact on fall 2021. Penn State’s James Franklin has also endorsed this idea.

Day, of course, has a plethora of Sunday-bound talent he’d hate to lose, and, even if the league plays early in the year, a slew of Buckeyes could opt out. That brings us to the NFL’s place in potentially facilitating this most unconventional season. As Albert Breer speculated, the NFL would potentially be accommodating to colleges, since it has its own reasons in wanting to see a season, namely that college football makes the NFL stronger and teams want to be able to evaluate the 2021 draft class without looking only at 18-month-old tape.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who these days is not the most hated commissioner in sports, can move the draft back as far as June 2, more than four weeks from the currently scheduled date of April 29 - May 1. He could also delay the combine.

The cap on a spring season should eight games, it’s just hard to see anything more being doable. Breer’s plan mirrors something more like Day’s thoughts.

According to Breer, Big Ten and Pac-12 regular seasons would open New Year’s weekend and run through the end of February, with the Big Ten Championship happening March 6. Then, some sort of postseason (are we thinking a spring Rose Bowl?? which wouldn’t be crazy if it’s just the two conferences playing), wrapping the season up in the middle of March, with the combine pushed to late April and the NFL draft a month later.

I’d call Brohm’s and Breer’s schedules the two poles in this scenario, though I’m sure the health and safety logistics of Brohm’s proposal could apply to whatever plan is presented. Average these two approaches and you get what Scott Dochterman of The Athletic thinks.

Dochterman says start an eight-game slate on Super Bowl weekend that ends the last week of March. The opening weekend would be special, with teams playing at various neutral, indoor sites across the region in the days leading up to America’s favorite Sunday. Think Detroit, Indianapolis, Minneapolis and other cities like Milwaukee, St. Louis and Syracuse.

Wednesday afternoon, reports surfaced that the conference is looking to start the season in January, which would give players the chance to finish the season before the NFL draft and allow more time to rest before the fall season. According to one report, Wisconsin football parents were told it involves the use of indoor facilities.

Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour told reporters Monday that the league could release a revised schedule within a week. She also noted several Big Ten stadiums, including PSU’s Beaver Stadium, have infrastructure concerns — i.e. frozen pipes — if used in the winter. That may lend more support to playing at least some games indoors.

The SWAC recently became the first conference to release a spring football schedule.

An early January start would provide plenty of time for a post-Thanksgiving training camp, when campuses will be empty. However, it would allow only four extra months for the epidemic to improve in the U.S. and for the conference to feel more confident in schools’ abilities to frequently and rapidly test players, contact trace and treat effects of the coronavirus, like myocarditis. Some of the ability to have a playable season falls on the conference, while the rest hinges on the country’s ability to contain the novel coronavirus.

There are many questions to be answered, ranging from other conferences postponing their fall seasons, to eligibility concerns, to if early enrollees could play in the winter season, to what teams can do this fall. If there’s one thing the NCAA and the Big Ten should have learned by now, it’s that they should start coming up with answers before they commit to an idea.