OPINION: Eight Months After Championship Postponement, FCS Football Re-Emerges In Spring With As Much Uncertainty As Ever

It was supposed to be the triumphant return of FCS football competition, this time in the spring.

The week before February 13th was supposed to be one where gallons of virtual ink were spilled waxing pholosophic about Tarleton State and McNeese State – talking about their quarterbacks, who’s returning on defense, what strategies the Cowboys and Texans will use to slow down the opposing teams.

It wasn’t supposed to be about turmoil.

Turmoil was so 2020 – sheltering at home, online classes, at-home workouts. 2021 was supposed to be better – it was supposed to be about picking up the pieces of a wrecked fall season,

Fans had had enough of the upheaval, the daily Twitter doomscroll game of “which conference will opt out today?” Schools made their decisions to play, opt-out or postpone, and they did what they did. Now was supposed Morning in America stuff – COVID-19 vaccines on the way, as we cheer on the return to normalcy with the most American unifying pastime of all – football.

It most certainly wasn’t an opportune time for the MEAC to announce, midday on Thursday, after a meeting with their athletic directors, that they were suspending their conference football season.

The MEAC celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020. They tried very hard, ingeniously, to celebrate an anniversary football season, even pushing it to the spring of 2021. But in the end, it couldn’t be saved.

And it made abundantly clear that whatever this spring season becomes, the turmoil that dogged college football in the spring seems destined to continue through the spring, despite the presence of vaccines, return-to-class plans, and a seeming small turning of the tide against the coronavirus that has affected the world for the last eleven months.

A Brilliant Plan

What makes the MEAC’s decision crushing is how, at a conference level, they had a plan together early, and more guidance than most other FCS conferences on how to contest a spring football season.

On April 19th, the chair of the MEAC presidents and chancellors unveiled a plan for spring competition.

One of the main challenges of the MEAC was travel, since their member institutions ran from Dover, Delaware to Daytona Beach, Florida.

In that vein, the MEAC board proposed a unique conference-only schedule that split the conference into North and South divisions, with a championship game contested between the two divisions for this year only.

“Although it’s still too early to tell if the coronavirus conditions will improve fast enough to allow us to reconvene spring sports, we want to be prepared with a plan of action,” Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, President of Howard University and chair of the MEAC presidents and chancellors, said at the time.

Their plan was both radical and completely sensible at the same time. Create two divisions to minimize travel, play an abbreviated season, with the two division winners playing a championship game with an autobid to the FCS playoffs.

Even though in normal years the MEAC champion would play the SWAC Champion in the Celebration Classic at the end of the season, an arrangement was made with the NCAA to allow them an autobid in the spring football season.

The MEAC Forecasting Committee, comprised of several of the conference’s Directors of Athletics and Senior Woman Administrators worked for three months, came up with a plan, all while meeting twice a week to come up with solutions, consulting with the MEAC Health and Medical Advisory Group, which was made up of the league’s team physicians and head athletics trainers.

The plan they came up with was ingenious, and it showed a way forward on how to play during a pandemic when nobody, not even the Power Five, had any good answers on how to contest a season. It took a lot of work and creativity to come up with something so very different than what MEAC fans and FCS fans were used to, and being able to deliver it.

Though not exactly the same, a similar type of format ended up being adopted by the Patriot League for the spring only.

I’m not sure fans around the FCS fully appreciate how this model came at such a tough time for FCS college football and how it helped the schools of the FCS focus on something other than coronavirus cases and cancelled fall games. Privately, I referred to it many times when proposing possible solutions on how FCS conferences could play a spring season – I called in the “MEAC model” and I always talked about it in gushing terms.

Yet in retrospect, as everything else during these chaotic times, contesting this schedule always depended on progress made against COVID-19 and schools being able to practice, convene, and play safely.

And it also required a conference whose schools didn’t always see eye-to-eye to be able to agree to stick together and move forward.

In the end, it was a combination of the two that did in the best idea that came out of the temporary move to spring football.

The Downfall

The plan started with the idea that each division would play six regional conference games, spanning from February 27th to April 24th, with a championship game set for May 1st. But almost immediately, the plan would need to be modified.

The first change was made when Dennis Thomas, the commissioner of the MEAC, lobbied for the one-time FCS playoff autobid in the spring. That meant shifting the schedule to start on February 20th and ending on April 10th, with the FCS playoffs beginning the week of April 24th.

That made for unbalanced divisions – but the MEAC managed to make it work. “Northern Division teams will face each other twice, while teams in the Southern Division will have two teams they play twice and two teams they play once. Each team will have two bye weeks. The MEAC Football Championship Game will be held Saturday, April 17,” their release said.

But the main issue was that several MEAC schools were already one foot out the door.

Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman had decided in June to leave the MEAC and join the SWAC, and notified MEAC leadership by November 16th, the league’s deadline, that they were choosing not to play football in the spring and would instead simply resume in the fall in their new conference.

Undeterred, the MEAC redid their schedule with seven teams – including an unbalanced league schedule. The new schedule approved by the MEAC’s athletics directors called for the Northern Division teams to play four conference games within the division, including each institution playing one opponent twice. In the Southern Division, each of the three members would play each other twice, for a total of four games, not counting out-of-conference games.

Again, the MEAC took a very tough situation and made it into a workable schedule. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time they would have to do this.

In January, North Carolina Central was the first of the remaining seven schools to opt out. “This was a very tough decision to make, and my staff and I gave this a lot of thought,” head coach Trei Oliver said. “We evaluated our student-athletes after completing their first week of workouts this semester and determined we would not be physically prepared by the start of the season.”

“While it is tremendously disappointing, it is the right decision with regards to the health and well-being of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans,” MEAC Commissioner Dennis E. Thomas said. “As I have stated since the beginning of the pandemic, health and safety will continue to be at the forefront of every decision. We support those institutions who will continue to play.”

After another schedule change, things seemed like they were tentatively going to be headed to work – until Norfolk State decided to opt out as well, for similar reasons, on Monday. Though not mentioned in the original release, head coach Latrell Scott told WTKR that they hadn’t been on the practice field since January 29th in part to some COVID cases limiting their ability to practice.

“Due to the issues surrounding everything, I just couldn’t see, as a head football coach, the reality of putting a team on the field not having adequate time to practice and prepare for the upcoming season,” NSU head coach Latrell Scott told reporters Tuesday via a Zoom press conference. “We had to make a decision that made the best sense for us.”

“I’ve got bags under my eyes – I didn’t sleep well last night,” Scott admitted. “It’s difficult. Never in a 20 year career have I had to tell a team twice that we’re not going to play. But when you’re the face of something like this, sometimes you have to be criticized for doing the right thing. My job is to make sure I lead our program and protect us the best way possible. We wanted to play football, but we’re not able to. We will be able to play football and we’ll do the things going forward to be able to do that. But the one thing we’re not going to do is put our kids in harm’s way to be able to do it.”

A five team MEAC might have worked, with a sixth iteration of the MEAC spring schedule – but it would have required at least one long trip to or from South Carolina to Delaware or Maryland, and five parties willing to do it. North Carolina A&T, who is headed to the Big South this fall, and Morgan State decided that it wasn’t worth it.

Though there will be no conference title and no autobid, Delaware State, Howard and South Carolina State have expressed an intent to at least try to contest a limited season in the spring.
 
“While it is tremendously disappointing to suspend the spring 2021 football season, it is the right decision with regards to the health and well-being of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans,” MEAC Commissioner Dennis E. Thomas said. “As I have stated since the beginning of the pandemic, health and safety will continue to be at the forefront of every decision. We support those institutions who will continue to play.”

How Fragile It All is

The MEAC’s decision truly punctured the illusion that there might be less chaos or less uncertainty playing an FCS season in the spring than contesting games this past fall.

This week we are supposed to be celebrating the return of FCS football, as McNeese State will play a game that counts against Tarleton State. Unusually, FCS will have the football stage to itself, even if the crowd capacity is limited or prohibited. It’s an opportunity to grow the game and show that FCS plays great football that matters, even if the community aspect of football can’t be fully appreciated.

But the MEAC’s decision shows how fragile this all truly is. Conferences can have plans that deserve to win awards. They can be flexible and nimble, rewriting ways to contest games as schools make decisions.

But it only gets you so far. If a school is unhappy with the conference leadership, they could just decide to… not play. If a program has questions about the safety of players because they can’t get adequate strength and conditioning and practice in, they could decide to… not play. If a program decides “the juice is not worth the squeeze“, they could decide to… not play.

What seems clear is the FCS, and the conferences, have done everything they can to prepare for this spotlight. But they can’t control everything, and they still can’t totally control what happens with COVID-19 around their school and their communities. Like the teams that played in the fall, expect sudden cancellations, quick turnaround on schedules, and maybe some creative solutions.

Will it be enough to get though a complete season, including the playoffs? Hopefully. But we’ll have to see.

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