Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, and starting in 2020, the pandemic made a sport tethered to longstanding traditions and norms reconsider almost everything. From recruiting via video chat to scheduling games on a few days' notice, decision-makers around college football were forced to be open-minded about new ways to approach old problems.
In a sport plagued by perennial issues that can sometimes feel hopeless, could that same spirit of innovation apply to rethinking the entire college football calendar?
Our team of ESPN reporters -- Bill Connelly, Heather Dinich, David M. Hale, Adam Rittenberg and Tom VanHaaren -- spent the offseason putting together proposals to fix the year-round schedule. We then polled people throughout the sport -- decision-makers and those who would be directly impacted -- on the pros and cons of such theoretical changes.
"Everything that you have on here, there's not one thing that I looked at here that says, 'That's crazy,'" Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said. "These are the issues [we need to address]."
Sure, getting 131 disparate schools -- presidents, administrators, coaches, players, as well as commissioners -- on the same page would be a tall order, but that's not a reason to avoid taking a fresh look at the sport's schedule, with the primary aim of solving some of its most persistent headaches.
Worried about opt-outs during bowl season? We're reimagining bowl season altogether.
Hate those one-sided games against FCS opponents? We're moving those off the fall schedule.
Want to expand the playoff in a way that won't compromise player health and safety? We've got a plan for that, too.
The college football world is evolving quickly, and the calendar needs to evolve, too.
So, what might that future look like?
PRESEASON CAMP and BOWL GAMES
July 21 through mid-August: Fall camps
Third Saturday in August through Labor Day: Bowl season
What's changing: Who says you need to finish your dinner before you can have dessert? We're moving bowl games from the end of the year to late summer, kicking off college football's season with some of its best matchups. In doing so, fall camps may need to open a week earlier, but it's a worthy trade-off for what could be gained by rethinking the bowl calendar.
Why it works: Let's face it, bowl games are anachronisms -- a system based on traditions from a century ago that rarely function well for modern purposes. Heck, the NCAA didn't even recognize statistics from bowl games before 2001. (And, while we're on the subject, let's add those back in). But if we abandon one of the biggest traditions -- playing the games a month or more after the season ends, a schedule designed to accommodate travel during a time well before charter flights -- the rest of the pieces actually fall into place quite nicely.
Player opt-outs before bowl games have become the norm -- NFL hopefuls can reduce the risk of injury in non-playoff games and begin their draft preparation -- and create some angst and apathy among fans about the sport's postseason. That's not a problem if your bowl matchup is actually Week 1 of the season rather than a month after your season ended.
Think bowl games don't have any meaning? These non-conference matchups would be some of the most important games of the year for every team.
Believe there are too many bowl games? Nope. There are not enough! In this system, everyone's eligible to play (though not everyone will land in an official neutral-site bowl game; some teams will play on campus based on the number of bowl host sites) -- with the previous season's record helping to determine the bowl site and opponent.
And since the games are played in August -- with the biggest matchups coming over a holiday weekend -- it sets up perfectly for fans to travel (and more butts in seats for the host cities, too) while opening up more locations in the Northeast, Midwest and even abroad to host games.
Most importantly, we'd be creating a 10-day college football extravaganza that would rival the opening weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament. It'll be wall-to-wall bowl action -- with no competition from the NFL -- to whet your appetite for the season ahead. Who wouldn't be excited to see Tulane and Hawaii kick off at midnight on a Tuesday, followed by a new bowl game in Dublin, Ireland, pitting Boston College against Northwestern at 8 a.m. Wednesday?
And don't worry, the most tradition-rich bowls -- the current New Year's Six -- still get played at season's end as part of our newly designed playoff.
What they're saying:
Appalachian State athletic director Doug Gillin, member of the NCAA Division I football oversight committee: "Your first reaction is, 'Well, that sounds crazy.' But maybe there is something to it. I do think it probably would answer a couple things on opt-outs. ... In essence, a bunch of really cool kickoff games. I wouldn't say it's the dumbest idea I ever saw."
American Football Coaches Association executive director Todd Berry: "It has been discussed amongst some of the coaches. ... In the current environment, it might be a good time period to look at this idea. Because what many [bowl games] have turned into is exhibition games at the end of the season, and opportunities to play your young players at the end of the season. It might be even more beneficial to do them prior to it."
Power 5 athletic director: "Length of the season, obviously, then becomes an issue. That's something we hear a lot from students. How much is too much? You would have a full coaching staff, the opt-out issues, that would be helpful. Also, those teams that have good seasons and don't make the playoff have nowhere to go, right? From a motivational standpoint, from a what-are-you-playing-for standpoint, it's a give-and-take. The reason why I'm open-minded to the concept that if [the CFP] goes 12 [teams], there has to be some type of off-ramp for bowls, where maybe they all don't go that way, but some can."
Power 5 coach: "The bowl viewership is up exponentially. People watch football and the numbers, it's unbelievable how many people watch s---ty bowl games. I don't think I'd be fired up that I get left out of a bowl game for my seniors, based on last year's team. You're going to have a hard time getting coaches excited about that."
Executive director of Bowl Season Nick Carparelli: "At their core, bowl games are designed to stimulate tourism in a community during a time of year when people are not typically traveling. Staging a large number of neutral site games at the beginning of the season would run contrary to this mission. Late summer weekends are prime vacation days for many people and there are numerous other entertainment options at that time. While it would certainly be exciting to see those match-ups at the beginning of the season, I am doubtful they would be properly supported by the schools or their fans."
Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek: "You would need to change habits of fans who use bowl opportunities for holiday travel while kids are out of school and many professions have flexible work schedules. Bowl games in August would interfere with the start of school in most communities and end of family vacation schedules. Also, many of the bowl destinations are packed with general tourism during this time period and may not be able to accommodate bowl games."
Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman: "It's almost like a preseason game. It's a meaningful game, but to play one bowl game and then you get to your season and everybody fights to get to the playoff, that's interesting. They used to have all those kickoff classics and stuff like that, but to make it a nationwide thing, that's really interesting input."
Northwestern offensive tackle Peter Skoronski: "Bowl games are supposed to be a reward, a showcase of the best teams that team. If you had a Week 1, you never know what's going to happen to people. Those aren't necessarily the best teams. Those teams could end up not being very good at all. That's what I think makes bowl games special, because the other teams had great seasons. Now they're there. That's what they're meant to be."
THE REGULAR SEASON
September through mid-November: Weeks 2-11 with a second open date
Sep. 1 through Nov. 27: Active dates (for recruiting)
Week 12: Bracket Buster weekend for the non-Power 5
Week 13: Rivalry week
Week 14: Championship weekend, but everyone plays
Week 15: Army-Navy game
What's changing: With bowl games now serving as Week 1 of the season, the more traditional matchups begin a week later and run through mid-November with two key changes. First, there will be no more matchups against FCS opponents. Second, we're adding an extra off week for every team, giving players more time to rest, recover and relax.
A newly expanded playoff (we'll get to that in a bit) gives more opportunities for the Group of 5, but we also want to ensure those teams get to maximize their resumes, so we're taking a cue from BYU and Coastal Carolina -- who scheduled a 2020 game amid COVID-19 cancellations on just five days' notice -- and setting up a "Bracket Buster" style weekend during Week 12. Non-Power 5 teams can opt in to the Bracket Buster weekend before the season, with home teams determined then. Once the bulk of the season plays out -- say, around Week 10 -- the best of teams in the non-Power 5 should be clear, and matchups will be determined based on maximizing quality of the games. These primarily would be non-conference games, but teams could also schedule conference opponents (that they had not played) to boost their profiles.
Finally, championship games will still be played the first weekend in December -- but so will lots of other matchups. During the COVID-shortened 2020 season, the Big Ten and Pac-12 both found an extra week for games by scheduling every team to play the final weekend of the season alongside their league championship contests. Matchups will be determined as teams are eliminated from league championship game contention. It was a good idea then, and it should happen across the country moving forward.
Why it works: For starters, we're not touching the best parts of the season, like rivalry weekend over the Thanksgiving holiday, the Army-Navy showdown on center stage on the season's final Saturday or the inevitable Texas loss to Kansas.
Instead, we're editing out the worst parts of the regular season with a few key tweaks. Those 70-7 games against FCS teams need to go, ensuring a better inventory of non-conference content. (Don't worry, we're offering a financial carrot to the FCS programs in the spring.) Putting a full slate of games on championship weekend also allows for an extra off week during the season, easing some of the physical burden on players that has served as a stumbling block in playoff expansion talks. Plus, we're giving Cinderella a chance to attend a palace ball with our Bracket Buster weekend. The winners will get a big boost in their playoff hopes -- and hopefully put to rest some of that monotonous "They ain't played nobody!" talk -- and the smaller conferences get an entire weekend to celebrate their best teams.
What they're saying:
San Diego State athletic director JD Wicker: "It was really good when BYU and Coastal came together. Bracket Busters on the basketball side are trying to make a comeback, and there's definitely been some discussions. On the football side, one thing we're working on, from a scheduling standpoint, is how can we ensure our best teams are playing each other year in and year out? We're looking at our scheduling at how we can create some flex scheduling within the conference to create some matchups."
Buffalo athletic director Mark Alnutt: "I'd be in favor of an additional conference game there if that would help, rather than trying to schedule a non-conference opportunity. ... If something like that was put together, the Bracket Buster weekend would be combined with that Week 14, where you have an opportunity to play an additional conference game. There also has to be some logistics behind it. The determination needs to be made by Week 10, Week 11 or whatever it may be, that, 'Hey we want to play this additional game.'"
Power 5 athletic director: "What if you played another conference? If you partner up in a P5 format, and you match up 5 versus 5, 6 versus 6, the TV execs would go bananas, and the student-athletes would be really excited about that. I like that: Non-playoff teams, and it goes to that point about, if you're in a preseason bowl and you're not in the conference championship, what are you playing for? Well, you're playing for a nice seed to play the Big Ten's No. 4. That's intriguing."
Group of 5 athletic director: "I like the [Bracket Buster] idea. ... The challenge of it is logistics. Travel is hard. When you get selected for a bowl game and you play 13 days later, it is hair on fire to get the organization done to travel that quickly. When you're moving 160 people, the equipment that's necessary and everything else, and you're talking about how quickly can you turn it around, it's going to be hard. And you also enter the time of finals. A lot of institutions will push back. It's one thing if you're playing in a championship game or a bowl game, but a lot of institutions will push back against playing in December."
PLAYOFFS, RECRUITING and AWARDS SEASON
Monday after conclusion of regular season: Coaching interviews can begin
Monday after conclusion of regular season through Dec. 31: Winter transfer window
Third weekend in December: 12-team playoff opening round
Jan. 10 through Jan. 31: Winter OTAs
New Year's weekend: Playoff quarterfinals
First Monday in January through March 1: High school recruit signing period
Second/third Thursday in January: Playoff semifinals
Fourth Monday in January: National championship game
Last weekend in January: Awards shows and Heisman ceremony
What's changing: The conference commissioners may not be able to agree on an expanded playoff, but we did. We're following the 12-team model proposed during the summer of 2021, with six conference champions guaranteed a bid, along with six wildcards determined by the College Football Playoff committee.
The opening round of the playoff -- featuring the 5 seed vs. the 12 seed, 6 vs. 11, 7 vs. 10 and 8 vs. 9 -- will be played the third week in December on the campus of the higher seed. The quarterfinal and semifinal games will be hosted by the New Year's Six bowls -- Fiesta, Orange, Cotton, Peach, Sugar and Rose bowls -- rotating annually. The national championship game will need to move back a couple weeks to be clear of any NFL playoff conflicts, and will be played at a rotating regional host site.
Beyond the playoff, we'll also be instituting transfer windows, the first of which begins the Monday following the final regular-season games of the year and ending at midnight on Dec. 31. (Note: We'll also add a weeklong window for transfers after the national title game for players participating in the playoff. Players on non-playoff teams will not be eligible to move during that window.) That coincides with a new approach to Signing Day for high school recruits -- opening a signing window (or a new official Signing Day) on the first Monday in January (or Tuesday, if it overlaps with New Year's Day), then keeping the signing period open until March 1 for all high school recruits who wish to be eligible for games that fall.
The current recruiting calendar contains two signing periods: one that starts in the middle of December and one that starts in the beginning of February.
Coaches and recruits have dead periods, meaning no in-person contact, in August, a winter period from mid-December to mid-January, most of February and most of July. In the spring and fall, there are six- to eight-week periods for coaches to go off campus and evaluate prospects.
Outside of the dead periods, recruiting is always happening with official visits in the spring and fall, satellite camps and on-campus camps and constant communication through text, call and social media.
In our recruiting calendar, we want to simplify things for coaches and recruits. Rather than having dead periods, quiet periods and evaluation periods, there are active and inactive stretches.
If the calendar is in an active stretch, coaches and recruits are able to conduct on- or off-campus visits and evaluations. In inactive stretches, no in-person contact is allowed, but coaches can still communicate through text, phone and social media.
The coaching carousel is starting earlier and earlier, and creating disruption to recruiting and other areas of the sport. To rein it in, we are implementing an NFL-style system for formal interviews that teams conduct. Teams must reveal publicly who they are interviewing, and can only begin the conversations on the Monday after the regular season. Those who violate the policies are subject to penalties, including loss of spring practices.
Since we're moving bowl games to the start of the season, we'll still need to offer teams a chance to practice in the winter. Now, instead of bowl practices, we'll have January OTAs -- voluntary workouts with limited contact designed to give younger players, early enrollees and transfers a chance to get their feet wet and work directly with coaches.
Lastly, who's tired of seeing the Heisman awarded before the season is finished? Awards season is another relic of the old bowl system, but it's time to make some big changes. So, college football should take advantage of the public's appetite for football and disinterest in the Pro Bowl by setting up a weekend of awards and celebrations after crowning its national champion but before the Super Bowl.
Why it works: Enough ink has already been spilled on playoff expansion, so no need to explain further. The bottom line is a bigger playoff opens more opportunities for more teams in a sport increasingly defined in binary terms: Were you a playoff team or not?
Adding transfer windows is already in the works in college football, but these dates allow coaches to enjoy some roster certainty -- particularly in season -- while still giving players who want to transfer ample time to make their decisions. Any players hoping to transfer to a school within the same conference must enter the portal during this window.
When an early signing day was enacted, the idea was to allow high school athletes who had already made their decisions to sign a letter of intent and put their recruiting to rest. Instead, it's become the only signing day that really matters. By pushing back to Jan. 1, we can limit the pressure to land recruits in early December and reduce the incentive for transfers to leave their current school early or for ADs to fire a head coach midseason. We'll also punish programs that want to interview an active coach before the regular season ends by restricting their ability to hold winter OTAs and even spring practices.
The addition of those winter OTAs, which can be up to 10 days of non-tackle practice ("thud" practices, as coaches call them), also gives coaches more hands-on time during the critical weeks when they first inherit a new roster for the coming year.
What they're saying:
Yurachek: "I personally believe 12 is the right number for playoff expansion. Top four teams receive a bye to one of the four current New Year's Six bowl games. Teams 5-12 play on-campus or within the current non-New Year's Six bowl structure [Citrus, Houston, Alamo, Las Vegas] and winners feed into the New Year's Six bowl games."
Carparelli: "We have heard many coaches voice their concern over the timing of the early signing period interfering with the bowl game experience for the players and staff. There is so much going on in December for these football programs. Moving the signing period to after Bowl Season would provide a great relief to the system and allow the players and coaches the opportunity to fully enjoy their experience."
Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz: "There are always going to be [midyear enrollees], but what we're trying to fix is kids leaving their teams in the middle of the season because they feel like they have to be enrolled somewhere in January. We have an academic calendar that dictates everything we do. So there's a lot of inherent pressure to get a kid -- he can't just show up at a school in March, unless you're on the quarter system, which by the way, creates another advantage if you're on the quarter system. That's been a thing that's been a factor in the portal. So, could we go to a model where you have more mini camps, more OTAs in the offseason? You still get your practice days but it's just a little different timing."
Mark Alnutt: "The thing I see us evolving to, especially the work with the transformation committee, is doing away with all these different [recruiting] designations. Doing away with quiet, eval, contact, dead. It's either recruit or not recruit. That helps deregulate some, but it also has more of a defined time period of when you can do all this stuff, and be able to mesh in the high school early signing period to the late signing period, along with the financial aid signing period, which has no signing period for the transfers. Just trying to be able to collect all of this at once, and have these periods of dead period or live recruiting."
Power 5 coach: "I would just add two more hours to the week in the offseason, a combination of walkthroughs and meetings for two hours each week. You're in the weight room for eight. Just just give me an hour's worth of meetings and an hour's worth of walkthrough. I'd even be willing to go four weeks, 12 practices [in the spring] to be able to get that access to 10 hours the whole offseason. Because I can get more time with the guys, more football time with them, what do I need three more practices? You probably got to give something up to get something."
Skoronski: "[Playoff expansion] sounds good, but the four teams we have already, the No. 1 is already killing the No. 4 seed in those games, so what's going to happen when they play the No. 16 team or whatever. They could probably expand to maybe six, but then everyone is going to say, 'Why didn't 7 or 8 make it?' There's going to be tradeoffs."
Illinois safety Sydney Brown: "A bye week is huge for recovery, for my body, for my mind, to rest, rejuvenate, be able to go into next week even better. So I think that rest period would be important. You look at money, though, with a big playoff like that, it almost looks like March Madness, wouldn't it? So I think that'd be huge for college football, especially the fans being able to put money on it. It'd be good. That'd be cool."
Three days after the national championship game: Deadline to enter NFL draft
Seven days following the national championship game: Transfer window for playoff participants
February: Inactive dates for recruiting (No in-person contact)
March 1-April 15: Active dates for recruiting (In-person contact, mainly off campus for evaluation purposes)
March and April: Spring practice with spring games vs. FCS opponents
April 1: Deadline for players to opt out of NFL draft
Third/Fourth week in April: Schedule releases and bowl matchups determined
April 16 through May 15: Inactive dates for recruiting
April 15-May 15: Spring transfer window
May 22: Spring transfer signing date
May 16-June 30: Active dates for recruiting (Primarily visits to college campuses)
Last week of May through second week in June: Window for summer OTAs
July 1-July 20: No team activities (summer break for coaches, players, staff)
What's changing: Spring practice typically resonates with fans for one reason: They've missed football. Beyond that, it's a whole lot of nothing. Coaches are increasingly worried about injuries and limit reps for star players and contact all around. Spring games barely exist as it is. So let's give the spring a little juice by moving the dull FBS-FCS matchups from the regular season.
Virtually everything else about the NCAA's rulebook has been deregulated in recent months, so why are we still preventing players from returning to school if they're not happy with their draft stock? Once Pro Days and the combine have run their course by the end of March, any player who wants to return to school can do so -- or enter the transfer portal.
Once most schools have wrapped spring practice -- and just ahead of the NFL draft -- it's time to steal back a few headlines by combining scheduling news into a weeklong media showcase. Each Power 5 league will get a day to release its own schedule, plus bowl announcements for the following season will be made in a NFL draft-style televised event.
We'll also institute our second transfer window of the season for any players unhappy following spring practice, but close it with a signing date so the roster can be more or less set before summer school/training begins. We'll also start ramping up for the new season with a summer OTA session, where coaches work with summer enrollees, along with the rest of their team for up to 10 days.
Late May and June will be the window to hold on-campus and satellite recruiting camps. Each school has a total of 10 camp days that can be used at any time during this window. Unlike the earlier active period for recruiting, activities in this period will primarily occur on campus (prospect visits).
Why it works: The genius of the NFL and NBA's marketing apparatus is they've successfully made their sports part of a 365-day news cycle. College football hasn't. But that can change! We're all about creating fun conversations, big news and fan engagement throughout the long offseason.
Giving the spring games some flair is a great first step. Sure, the games will still be glorified scrimmages -- but fans who yawn about a matchup against an FCS opponent in September will certainly be far more eager to plunk down some cash and show up in person in April, when they're starved for some action on the gridiron. And rather than two-hour-long commercials for each program, spring games can now be viewed as legitimate TV content -- and schools never shy away from a chance to boost TV revenue a little more, right? Plus, the payouts for FCS schools to appear in these games will still be valuable additions to their annual budgets, even if they're not quite as rich as they are now. Lastly, just think how fun it will be when the inevitable spring upset happens, and you can taunt your rival for the remainder of the offseason for losing to the likes of The Citadel, Jacksonville State or Eastern Washington.
Speaking of made-for-TV content, the new schedule release week will help college football force its way to center stage again, particularly when it comes to the bowl selection show. Our plan would split all teams into quadrants -- think NET rankings -- based on the previous year's results, then do the same with bowl sites, based on how much NIL revenue they're planning to distribute in a group-licensing deal that would pay players for their participation. Each bowl will get to select a team from its own quadrant until all bowl slots are filled. There's nothing like planning your summer vacation destination to convince viewers to stay glued to their TVs for a few hours on a Saturday in April.
Those June OTAs, which are currently not permitted, can have a big impact, too. Schools would have approximately a three-week window where they would pick 10 consecutive days to hold no more than five non-contact sessions that would involve coach-directed activities. The current calendar strongly incentivizes players to enter the transfer market sooner than later, so they can ensure they're enrolled at their new school in January and can go through spring practice with their new team. That incentive loses some of its luster if players can now work directly with coaches in June. Since nearly everyone takes summer classes, too, the extra time commitment for players really isn't an issue.
What they're saying:
Berry: "We talked about that about six years ago, about maybe the spring game being replaced by an FCS game. That way the FCS can have some availability for the financial benefit of it. There's some concerns right now about even having a spring game, because many of our coaches kind of feel like the only thing that I'm doing in the current environment is basically showing all of my young players that maybe didn't play last year to the whole world and if some of them show up very well then all of a sudden, they're in the portal looking for more NIL money someplace else."
Power 5 coach: "I'm not going to play any of my good players. You're going to get a glimpse of the young guys. I'd rather do something in the spring, but you're going to have a lot of good players not playing. So what are you really doing? How much inventory are you really going to be able to move?"
Power 5 administrator: "Coaches will see it as, 'Hey, this game doesn't mean much, but I know our guys want to win, so they're going to play to that level. But why are we going to risk our players sustaining some kind of season-ending injury in the spring, so now they're out for the real season in the fall? So the quality of team we would put out there would not be very favorable. I think we have to be careful on the name of the game. Instead of calling it a game, we probably need to lean more on scrimmage, stay away from the word 'game' to control the expectation of the crowd."
Clemson athletic director Graham Neff: "I love that. The downside is some coaches get into putting something proprietary on film. The spring, with intrasquad, gives coaches the ability to flex it up or flex it down depending on what they want. If they've got a new defensive coordinator, let's be vanilla. If you have to have some battles, you flex it up. So having a [real] game, there's going to be a little bit more aversion from coaches. But if everybody's doing it, the parity is still there."
Arizona coach Jedd Fisch: "I would love some OTAs, I would love some opportunities to practice. You have 15 [spring practices]. What I like is that other phase that you have in the NFL, where you could go on the field, no contact, but you could be with your players. We're now getting this summer for the first time, where you can go on the field for up to two hours a week, where you can work with your players on skill instruction, full practice with no pads and no contact. I think that's great. We could use more of that."
Gillin: "There needs to be a signing period in the [late spring]. If you can't sign them, you're literally recruiting that transfer. School X has a cornerback and he committed out of the transfer portal on May 1, but there's nothing binding. Somebody else comes in and offers them the XYZ NIL deal, or just a bigger, better school. And then they're like, 'Well, I'm out. I'm going to commit there.' There's got to be a signing period, like May 15. That's enough time to be admitted [for the fall]. There would be a question of when's enough time to get them admitted for summer. That's one, collectively, we need to figure out. When can they sign? That's what needs to happen. It is a little bit of a blind spot, where it's good for these guys to commit, but they can commit to five places if they don't have to sign anywhere."
Would our calendar work?
"I thought it was really innovative," a Power 5 athletic director said after reviewing it. "That's what we need right now, just some chalk and a board and go to work on it. Just 30,000 feet, it seemed like you were trying to find a real compromise on a lot of issues."
We put aside prior biases about bowls, recruiting and other areas to look ahead to a schedule with enough flexibility, logic and fun to match all the changes in the sport. The player transaction landscape will continue to evolve, and the postseason will look different in the coming years.
The goal was to modernize college football's calendar to keep up with all that change and make it work for as many constituents as possible. After all, solutions, not long-held complaints, are the only way to push the sport forward.