First out, and last back in.
The Mid-American Conference’s presidents voted Friday to reinstate the fall football season, with a six-game regular season set to start Wednesday, Nov. 4. The championship game will be Friday, Dec. 18 or Saturday, Dec. 19, and probably still at Ford Field.
MAC football players will be subject to COVID-19 testing four times per week, starting the first week of October. Return-to-play protocols for athletes who test positive are still being finalized, the league said.
“Our decisions, in August and again today, have been guided by an overriding concern for the well-being of the student athletes, institutions, and the community at large,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “Our medical advisory group, presidents, directors of athletics, and others, have worked hard to develop a plan that provides the opportunity for student athletes to compete. We will be diligent in monitoring the dynamic health environment across the conference footprint and the country.”
The decision brings football back to Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan and Western Michigan, and brings all the Football Bowl Subdivision conferences back into the fold for fall football, after the Pac-12 and the Mountain West voted to play Thursday.
On Aug. 8, the MAC announced it was postponing fall sports until the spring, the first Football Bowl Subdivision conference to do so. Three days later, the Big Ten did the same, a first for the Power Five.
But with the Big Ten announcing last week a return to play, there has been pressure on the holdout conferences to do the same. And now they all have.
“We now have the opportunity to do what we love,” Western Michigan coach Tim Lester said. “And it is time to get to work.”
The MAC looked to the Big Ten’s health and safety guidelines in building its own case to play in the fall. The Big Ten is testing players daily, and while the MAC never was going to be able to do that logistically or financially, it is expected to follow other guidelines, such as a 21-day sit-out period for any player who tests positive, and a cardiologist’s approval before a player can return to play.
The emergence of rapid COVID-19 testing, as with all conferences, was critical toward reversing course.
The MAC said complete protocols will be released next week, though fans will not be allowed at MAC games. Limited guests of student athletes will be allowed to attend.
“While we are disappointed that our CMU Chippewa fans won’t be able to cheer on our team in Kelly/Shorts Stadium,” said interim Central athletic director Rachel Blunt, “we know that all of you will be there in spirit.”
The full schedule is expected to be released next week, with all games through at least Thanksgiving taking place on weekday nights for TV purposes. With six games in six weeks, there will be no wiggle room should any teams need to postpone — same as with the Big Ten and Pac-12, which are planning no bye dates.
The MAC went first with postponing Aug. 8 for a couple reasons, one of which was clearly financial. With most other conferences planning conference-only schedules, the MAC schools lost key, seven-figure “buy” games, a huge blow for football programs that already are heavily subsidized by their universities. Those schools still aren’t getting those games back, and also are losing ticket revenue, but the conference athletic directors and coaches felt strongly that a short-term financial loss was better than the potential years-long recruiting deficiencies if it was the only conference not to play in the fall.
Among the financial incentives to play in the fall: the MAC’s TV deal with ESPN, and its distribution payout from the College Football Playoff.
Over the last week, several MAC coaches and players have taken to social media to express their desire to play, including one video that included one player from each of the 12 schools.
“Our focus has been readiness for kickoff, whenever that day finally arrived,” Eastern coach Chris Creighton said. “I’m very thankful that our players will have a chance to play a 2020 season.”
Other MAC fall sports — men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey and volleyball — still are planning to be played in the spring.