The possibility of a spring FCS season is closer to becoming a reality.
On Wednesday, the NCAA Division I Council decided, pending Division I Board of Directors approval, to begin the FCS playoffs in mid-April. The playoffs, which will end in mid-May, would be cut down to 16 teams instead of 24. This comes after most programs decided to postpone all fall competitions to the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The model permits up to eight regular-season games during a period of no more than 13 weeks in the spring, with the last regular season game being no later than April 17. The intent is to allow flexibility for schools with the hope of returning to normal for 2021-22.
Also, beginning on Monday, teams may conduct on-field practice. From then until Dec. 31, schools are limited to 12 hours per week, a maximum of four hours per day, of countable athletics activity. Schools may start their preseason or regular season during this period, in which case the rules for preseason or regular season activity apply.
For the two weeks before the start of preseason, teams may have noncontact practice activities for up to 20 hours per week. Schools conducting fall practices can’t have preseason practice or competition before Jan. 1.
Before engaging in practice in the fall, schools must declare their first contest date. If practice is paused due to COVID-19, missed days may be used later in the window.
When the Big Sky Conference announced it was postponing its football season to the spring, the league said it was targeting an eight-game spring season. Conference officials also said they would wait until the FCS playoffs were finalized to make their own plans.
Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill hoped the FCS playoffs would be moved to the spring when the football season was postponed. Montana State athletic director Leon Costello had also stressed that he wanted to provide athletes the best chance at conference and national titles and that he was open to moving fall sports to the spring if that could happen.
In August, after the Big Sky had postponed the football season, Costello said shifting the FCS playoffs to the spring was “the ultimate goal.” He added that a spring season would provide a better chance to have more fans at games than if MSU had tried to force a season this year.
“Playing that many games one calendar year, we have to be very smart and strategic about how we set this up,” Costello said last month. “... I do think timing of when all this stuff happens, how we can push back games and how far we can push back some in the fall, that’s where you have to start and then you look at everything in between. But again, it all comes down to player safety and having them be able to recover from a previous season.”
One of the main benefits of this timeline is that a season can be squeezed into the spring while preserving hope of playing in some form in the following fall. However, this format creates unique issues that college teams, especially at that level, haven’t had to face.
Bobcats head coach Jeff Choate said in August that, if a spring season were to happen at all, he would want it over by mid-April.
“We’ve really worked through a lot of challenges,” he said this week. “There’s no playbook for anybody on how to do this. Perfect wasn’t going to be the objective, it was going to be process. How do we come up with a process that works for us? And I think we’ve really done that.
“Not to say you may have a contract tracing that keeps a guy out here or there, but I think we can push forward and play. I’m not as concerned with the COVID deal. It’s a factor that’s equally out of our control such as weather, playing surfaces that are safe for our student-athletes. That’s probably my biggest concern.”
If the Bobcats were to play eight games before mid-April, that means their season would begin in February. Bobcats coaches including Choate and defensive coordinator Kane Ioane have pointed out how difficult this timeline could be.
The Bobcats play at outdoor Bobcat Stadium and don’t have an indoor venue to easily prepare at. The cold weather would be problematic if they want to begin practice a month before their first game as they normally do.
Choate said the surfaces the Bobcats compete on aren’t normally usable through March.
“For us to be able to train in the offseason when it’s not negative-10 (degrees) and three feet of snow out here, we don’t really get a lot done in the winter,” Choate said. “One of the reasons that I am such a big downer on spring at all is we can’t practice half the time.”
FCS teams would also have a quick turnaround for the following fall. If a team made a run to the national championship, those players would have a limited time window to physically recover before August, when preseason practices usually begin.
Ioane earlier this month recommended the NCAA should push back the beginning of the fall season. In his mind, both seasons could then realistically happen.
The NCAA allowed fall athletes an extra year of eligibility, which provides flexibility for FCS players. Choate has also noted that a lack of a fall season this year should give players enough time to prepare for more games.
But he has also emphasized he doesn’t want a spring season to negatively affect the fall of 2021. He added that he would want his players to be able to “reboot” by early June.
“I think we can all survive a year without this, but two falls is going to be devastating to our game and possibly to a lot of athletic departments and programs nationwide,” Choate said. “So I think whatever we choose to do in the spring cannot be at the expense of a full legitimate season in fall of 2021.”
“That’s the one thing we cannot do,” Choate added. “We cannot screw up the fall.”
This is all assuming the pandemic isn’t enough of a hurdle to conquer by then. The NCAA initially allowed fall championships to happen if programs could meet extensive health guidelines, including testing and results within 72 hours of competition in high-contact risk sports like football. Wistrcill said acquiring the resources for that level of testing for everyone involved in FCS-level athletic programs, many already financially burdened by altered enrollment numbers and revenues, was “virtually impossible.”
“A lot has to change,” Wistrcill said. “Obviously we have to get in control of this virus in this country. We have to make sure we can play contact sports in a safe way.
“I think a lot of that will be determined by how we get students back on campus. Once all the students come back to campus, how can we manage the spread of the virus in all of our locations? I think we’ll learn a lot about our local health communities and how they handled it whether it be testing or any type of vaccine that’s available.
“It’s hard to say here’s the three or four things that have to happen, but there definitely has to be some changes. If we’re in the same place come March that we’re in right now, there won’t be any conference sports going on.”
The FCS seedings could also be complicated. Typically, the FCS playoffs will include 10 automatic bids that come with winning a conference championship during the regular season.
However, in that case, this leaves just six at-large bids compared to the normal 14. In the 2019 playoffs, five of the teams seeded in the top eight and given first-round byes were at-large teams, and 10 of the 16 teams in the second round were also at-large selections.
Last season, Montana State was an at-large bid as the No. 5 seed. The Bobcats were the third-highest team from the Big Sky below No. 3 Weber State, which won the conference title, and No. 4 Sacramento State. The Bobcats went on to make the semifinals, their first time since 1984, before losing to eventual national champion North Dakota State for the second straight year.
The Bobcats have legitimate hopes of reaching the national title game. In the preseason STATS FCS polls, they were ranked No. 6. No. 3 Weber State, No. 7 Montana, No. 12 Sacramento State and No. 18 Eastern Washington also made the top 25. Close games among these teams could knock out more Big Sky teams than usual because of the smaller playoff field.
“Whatever we do has to be really well thought-out. We can’t just jump back into this sort of limbo that we’ve been in for quite some time,” Choate said of the NCAA’s indecision before fall championships were canceled. “In the long run, there’ll be some changes that take place in college football, but I think the game will survive this pandemic and the other things that are going on in the game, but it’s going to take a lot longer to get back if we keep screwing up.”