For those of us whose FCS football programs are on COVID-19 pause, the long overdue news that discussions are happening amongst FCS commissioners to set up a possible spring season with a 16 team playoff felt like a ray of sunshine cutting through a tiring and dark football offseason.
This announcement followed the SWAC and MEAC, who have already announced their conference-only schedules and plans for conference championship games. The SWAC announced a seven game regular-season schedule, with six conference games, a bye week during a possible basketball conference tournament week, and the potential for one out-of-conference game as well. For their part, the MEAC announced a six game schedule, a split into divisions, and a brand-new championship game.
In the East, Richmond athletic director John Hardt hinted heavily that the CAA is considering an all-league schedule “and pursuing regional models within that,” he told John O’Connor of The Richmond Times-Dispatch.
So there is motion in the world of FCS college football towards spring play, and according to Lafayette head football coach John Garrett, “We [Patriot League head coaches] met with executive director Jennifer Heppel and her staff,” he said on LV Fox Sports’ Happy Hour program. “There’s some excitement and serious talk about playing a spring season.”
The main question then becomes: How might the Patriot League contest a spring season, and how might it tail into the proposed FCS Playoff structure?
I have five burning questions on the issue that might help to give clarity on what a spring season for the Patriot League might look like. (With the assumption, of course, that we make enough progress and encounter few setbacks between now and the spring to have football at all.)
1. When would the season start, and how many games?
If you look closely at the proposal being shown to the Football Oversight committee, it shows that the proposed 16 team playoff would start Sunday, April 18th (presumably, that would be Selection Sunday) and the 8 playoff games, possibly at home sites.
That leaves a pretty wide window of the number of games you could schedule.
The Patriot League has seven members – Lehigh, Lafayette, Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Fordham, and Georgetown. If the Patriot League elects to have a conference-only schedule, they could start the season on March 6th, contest six conference games, and crown a champion, who would then play in the FCS playoffs. (Though it is theoretically possible for a second-placed Patriot League team to qualify as an at-large team, it would seem unlikely.)
Lafayette head coach John Garrett said on LV Fox Sports’ Happy Hour that a six game season with two out-of-conference games was his preferred scenario, with a playoff opportunity afterwards.
If coach Garrett’s scenario comes to pass, then the start of the season would have to be February 27th or maybe even February 20th, if bye weeks are deemed necessary. But a 6, 7, 8, or even 9 game schedule could still be on the table in any case, and the schedule may or may not have byes.
I agree with coach Garrett – an 8 game schedule feels like the right number of games. But an 8 game schedule still isn’t easy to pull together.
2. How do you conduct a preseason in February?
Lehigh, as long as I have been covering the team, has always conducted the same spring football schedule. In mid-March, the team reported back to campus with a weigh-in and a series of practices, leading up to the Brown/White Spring game in the middle of April.
I’ve seen springs where the Whitehead practice fields, which are natural grass, are pristine. But I’ve also seen others where they have been in rough shape thanks to some combination of a wet winter, downpours in spring, and late, freezing weather.
How would Lehigh, and other schools, handle a full preseason camp and a week-long break before starting on February 29th?
Aside from the obvious answer of “pray for a mild, dry winter,” there are certainly options available for Lehigh to practice indoors, and if necessary (and if available), there are artificial turf fields at Lehigh where they can practice if the practice fields are unusable for whatever reason. But it’s not abundantly clear whether that is the case everywhere.
Specific to Lehigh, could Murray Goodman Stadium host a football game on February 29th if they had to? At most schools in the Patriot League, this isn’t really too much of a problem, since they are playing on FieldTurf. But at Holy Cross and Lehigh, which still compete on natural grass, it’s very unclear as to whether you could have a full turf field ready in the last week of February.
Adding to this is the question of fans, and how this might affect this question too. If there are no fans or severely limited fans in attendance, contesting a game at Frank Banko Field or Ulrich Field, which are both artificial turf, is theoretically possible (and in fact have been used for practices in the past).
3. Do you find an independent team partner to get to an 8 team block for the spring?
With 7 teams, a spring Patriot League football season would have a gap in the schedule. Those gaps could be bye weeks, or they could be filled with out-of-conference contests. But in a compressed spring, it could be an enormous scheduling headache that raises questions of fairness. Who gets the bye week the first week? If a team wants to play an 8th game against an out-of-conference team that they line up, should they be able to, even though other teams get a bye?
If somehow the Patriot League could align with a team in the spring to fill out their schedules, many of these thorny issues would disappear.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that the Pioneer League decides that they cannot contest coast-to-coast football that requires plane trips. Marist, who is a part of that non-scholarship league, might still want to play independent FCS football in the spring with bus trips for all their games. The Patriot League could offer Marist a scheduling arrangement for the spring, ensuring them at least 7 games, and when the Pioneer League resumes in the fall, Marist could rejoin the Pioneer League then.
This would mean no Patriot League teams would have to worry about bye weeks – or the league could be more flexible with them. And it would ensure that every team would have a game on April 17th to end the season – which almost certainly will be the best conditions to play for everyone.
4. Does it make sense for the Patriot League to have a scheduling alliance with another league?
Having 7 Patriot League teams and Marist together would provide a huge advantage as well if the Patriot League wishes to enter into a scheduling alliance for the spring.
With the CAA seemingly unavailable for out-of-conference games and no clarity on the Ivy League’s spring football plans, the Patriot League and NEC could arrange to contest one out-of-conference game on the schedule to make a compact 8 game schedule with no bye weeks.
The NEC consists of St. Francis (PA), LIU, Central Connecticut State, Duquesne, Sacred Heart, Wagner, and Bryant. Merrimack, which is scheduled to be a part of their conference in fall of 2021, is competing as an FCS independent in the spring, but should be a part of the NEC’s schedules in the spring.
If you include Marist with the Patriot League, you could contest the first weekend with all cross-conference games, helping both conferences. For example:
Fordham vs. Wagner
Marist vs. Merrimack
Colgate vs. LIU
Lafayette vs. Sacred Heart
Bucknell vs. St. Francis (PA)
Georgetown vs. Duquesne
Holy Cross vs. Bryant
Lehigh vs. Central Connecticut State
As you can see, scheduling arrangements of this sort would work much better in terms of an 8 team grouping instead of 7.
If the Patriot League doesn’t pursue another team, can they still enter a scheduling alliance? Sure – however, if they are negotiating with the NEC or Ivy League, one of their teams will still need to schedule an out-of-conference game, which might not be ideal for them.
5. Can all of this work alongside all the other sports going on?
The $64.000 question for every school contemplating spring ball is how a spring football schedule will work alongside a full (socially distanced) sports buffet in the spring.
If, for example, the Patriot League men’s and women’s basketball championships remain on their regular schedule in the first two weeks of March, the first few weeks of the season will be happening at the same time basketball teams will be travelling to other sites. (This is probably has been the subject of sports Information Director nightmares for several months now.)
Can schools balance all the facilities necessary to have all of these teams practice and compete? Will any or all of these events have fans or paid ticketed attendance? And how many sports are we talking?
There remain a huge number of unknowns and hurdles to contesting a spring season. But the fact that we can have a discussion about it now is a huge step forward from all of the uncertainty of the past few months.
Chuck has been writing about Lehigh football since the dawn of the internet, or perhaps it only seems like it. He’s executive editor of the College Sports Journal and has also written a book, The Rivalry: How Two Schools Started the Most Played College Football Series.
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