The 2020 college football season probably won’t be fair. That’s better than no season at all.

The scattered approach to voluntary workouts is just the latest sign of how different schools will treat the coronavirus pandemic differently.
James Blackman and his Florida State teammates only got in three spring practices before the coronavirus shut things down. That's three more than the Gators did.
James Blackman and his Florida State teammates only got in three spring practices before the coronavirus shut things down. That's three more than the Gators did. [ Times ]
Published June 1, 2020

While the NCAA allows football players to start voluntary, on-campus workouts Monday, some schools aren’t allowing them until next week. Or next month. Or an undecided time after that, maybe.

Just as states have been deciding for themselves when and how to reopen their economies during the coronavirus pandemic, schools are making individual decisions about reopening their facilities to athletes, even if it means losing a competitive advantage to a rival. Expect the upcoming football season to look the same way.

It will not be uniform. It will not be normal. It will not be fair.

But in the middle of the pandemic, an imbalanced season is the best we can hope for.

Related: We’re starting to get answers about college football in the COVID-19 era

The idea of competitive balance in college football is, as Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby recently said, “largely a mirage.” The sport hasn’t crowned a first-time national champion since Florida in 1996. Power programs such as Florida and Florida State almost always beat mid-major programs such as USF and UCF on the field and in recruiting.

The mirage can’t look the same this year, no matter what virus-related actions the NCAA takes.

Only a few schools, including UCF and BYU, have said they’ll resume football workouts Monday. Almost all the SEC schools, plus Clemson and Ohio State, plan to start June 8. The Big 12 can resume workouts June 15, but Oklahoma won’t begin until July 1.

“Even though the NCAA has and is allowing voluntary workouts starting June 1, as we know in this environment, they’re really not determining what’s happening,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said recently. “The states and each institution really are determining what is safe.”

Because the pandemic has hit every area differently, guidelines differ at every school. Though Georgia aims to start workouts June 8, rival Georgia Tech won’t be back until a week later.

Related: Four college sports issues the pandemic has exposed, and how to fix them

An extra week of informal sprinting and weightlifting might not sound like much, but teams constantly search for every edge they can find. They employ armies of analysts to break down opponents’ second-and-long tendencies. Coaches spent the 2016 offseason either complaining about or exploiting satellite camps.

So, yes, the extra workout time “certainly could have an advantage,” as Mendenhall said. But a potential conditioning advantage shouldn’t be as important as the health of everyone in and around a program.

The scattered return-to-workout timeline is only one of the most recent ways the pandemic has affected teams unevenly. Arizona State finished its spring practices before the outbreak began. FSU got through three. UF didn’t start.

Homefield advantages will likely differ by state and school. Miami’s president has said he expects the Hurricanes to play in stadiums without fans. Iowa State is already planning on a half-full stadium. Ohio State is aiming for 50,000 fans in a stadium with a capacity for 102,780.

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Related: One college football program’s road map to a COVID-19 season

Numerous other hypotheticals could complicate the College Football Playoff picture and conference title races.

Some Georgia students were quarantined during an October 1918 influenza outbreak that closed all public places in Athens. What happens to a team and its opponents if something like that happens in October? Would one conference be disadvantaged if some members couldn’t play immediately? How would the College Football Playoff committee view a postponed game? And given how much things have changed in the past three months, what questions would arise three months from now that we can’t envision today?

“We all like to do the same things so we have a fair chance to compete,” Bowlsby told CBS. “And this is a situation where we’re just not always going to be able to do that.”

Not now, when players start working out again. Not next month, when it is hoped formal practices can begin. And not Sept. 5, when most teams are scheduled to kick off.

Related: Six historical lessons college football can apply to the coronavirus pandemic

This season, like the reopenings, will not be fair to everyone. But it’s better than no season at all.