While there still are multiple logistical obstacles between now and legitimate collegiate fall sports competition — stakes and all — at least there’s an official framework.
The NCAA Division I Board of Directors on Tuesday approved and announced a plan to conduct reduced-numbers fall sports championships in the spring.
The board, which instructed its governance structure to pursue the idea a month ago, followed recommendations from the D-I Council and Presidential Forum in its decision.
At Idaho and Washington State, it means 2020-21 fall sports competitions, albeit altered, have been set for men’s and women’s cross country, women’s soccer and volleyball.
For the Vandal football team, a spring postseason run could be possible after the board also laid out its blueprint for the lower-level Football Championship Subdivision, which falls under the authority of the NCAA. On the other hand, the Football Bowl Subdivision — which is controlled by the Power Five and Group of Five conferences — is continuing to move forward with its College Football Playoff in January as WSU and its Pac-12 mates remain idle.
FCS competition will begin at each institution’s discretion, playoff selections will be made April 18, and the postseason will run throughout the next month.
Cross country will get underway Jan. 23, with its championships March 15; soccer will open Feb. 3, with playoffs concluding in mid-May; volleyball will commence Jan. 22, with its postseason wrapping up in the third week of March. Playoff selections are set to be revealed two to four weeks before the championships, depending on the sport.
“It definitely gives you an outline of the structure,” UI athletic director Terry Gawlik said. “As a league, I’d say our commissioner (the Big Sky’s Tom Wistrcill) has been really good with sharing direction — where he thought it was gonna go — so we were working out in front of it a little bit.
“It’s still a challenge. ... It’s now just making it work logistically.”
It’s some framework, at last, but it doesn’t settle everything. UI won’t play programs that are not testing their athletes for COVID-19, and many more questions persist, including: whether there will be some kind of bubble; how scheduling and venue conflicts (like the Kibbie Dome’s usage) will be sorted out; maintaining testing of athletes and coaches, plus officials; and whether nonconference contests will be considered.
“There’s still a lot to be resolved as we move through it,” Gawlik said. For instance, Portland State has not been able to conduct any workouts yet because the city still is in Phase 1 under Oregon’s ordinance. It’s uncertain whether some league schools will be ready to go by spring.
“It’s just puzzles, daily,” she continued. “It’s been challenging, coming up with scheduling, testing, and we’re still discussing what we’re doing as a league, who’s going to be able to play. It’s gaining momentum, but not codified is probably the best way to put it.”
Of the potential scheduling of nonconference games, Gawlik said the conference’s leaders will discuss options soon.
In addition, the board concluded venues for each postseason must be predetermined, and sites for preliminary playoff rounds should be reduced to “support health and safety and operational management of the championships this spring,” the NCAA release reads.
“The plan sent to us by the Division I Council provides the maximum number of opportunities to fall student-athletes to participate in NCAA championships while still being fiscally responsible,” said Denise Trauth, the acting board chair and president at Texas State, in the NCAA statement. “We look forward to the spring, understanding things will look a little different but knowing the competitions will be just as meaningful as in normal circumstances.”
Per the D-I council’s recommendation, as was reported last week, eight regular-season football games will be allowed and must take place during a 13-week period.
The FCS playoff bracket will be chopped from the usual 24 entrants to 16, with 11 teams acquiring berths as automatic qualifiers — those being conference champions. Usually, 10 league victors earn auto bids, but the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference has joined the fold for this year.
The MEAC typically fields a team in the Celebration Bowl between historically Black college and university powerhouses, which marks the start of the FBS bowl season every December.
Only five at-large berths will be granted this football season, a major change for a league like the Big Sky, which generally sends three or four teams to the playoffs. The “big three” FCS conferences — the Big Sky, Colonial and Missouri Valley — are expected to each have at least two teams in the postseason, leaving the other two at-large bids hotly contested.
The NCAA brackets for team sports are filled at 75 percent of their normal capacities. Cross country will see 255 competitors in each gender make the postseason; soccer will have 31 auto qualifiers and 17 at-large bids, and volleyball 32 auto berths and 16 at-large.
Some FCS programs, especially those in the South, have already begun competition. Contests conducted this fall will count toward the spring postseason.
The Vandals had their nonleague games called off Aug. 13, when the Big Sky axed all fall competition. Two days earlier, the Pac-12 did the same, but the league reportedly is considering a return to football this fall.
First practices for all sports will be determined by each school, with Sept. 21 having marked the permitted start date for on-field football practices. UI’s team, which has remained cautious — exercising in reduced numbers — will start padded practices Monday.
Basketball teams have begun individual drills, but no programs have yet gotten into standard, full sessions. Gawlik said the Vandals will unveil their complete hoops protocols Friday in accordance with an NCAA mandate expected to propose more testing, which could be tricky financially.
Idaho’s athletic department has continued to handle the coronavirus pandemic well after an early batch of cases. Out of 168 student-athletes tested two weeks ago, none came up with a positive result.
“You can’t ask people to not live their lives somewhat, you just hope they continue to practice the protocols we put out there as best they can for as long as they need to,” Gawlik said. “... What’s really made it positive for us is seeing the athletes out there working out. We got in a rhythm last week, then the smoke shut us down, so today and (Monday), it was awesome to see them. There’s a lot of energy.”
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Here is the schedule for the NCAA fall sports championships, which will be conducted in the spring and was laid out by the Division I Board of Directors on Tuesday:
* Cross country: March 15 (selections March 6, 255 runners per gender)
* Field hockey: May 7-9 (selections April 24, 12 teams, 10 auto qualifiers)
* FCS football: May 14-16 (selections April 18, 16 teams, 11 auto qualifiers)
* Men’s soccer: May 13-17 (selections April 18, 36 teams, 24 auto qualifiers)
* Women’s soccer: May 13-17 (selections April 18, 48 teams, 31 auto qualifiers)
* Women’s volleyball: April 23-25 (selections April 4, 48 teams, 32 auto qualifiers)
* Men’s water polo: March 19-21 (selections March 7, 6 teams, all auto qualifiers)
— Source: NCAA