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Mark Knudson’s Three Strikes Blog: Broncos schedule full of “don’t knows”…CU would get a break not playing CSU, and a plan for a delayed college football season

Strike One: It’s almost like Christmas for NFL fans when the league officially releases the schedule for the upcoming season. It’s immediately time to start analyzing and adding up the wins and losses. More than a few fans have already determined what the Denver Broncos final record is going to be (assuming we have an NFL season.)

Obviously, none of us know much of anything. We don’t know which teams are going to rise up and have big seasons, and which ones are going to stumble while carrying the weight of expectations. That whole “strength of schedule” thing is actually totally meaningless at this point. We don’t – and won’t – know which teams are playing/have played the hardest slates until next season is completed.

All we really know at this point is what we don’t know.

For instance, we don’t know how Drew Lock will handle being the main man coming into the season. We don’t know how he will mesh with new Offensive Coordinator Pat Shumer. We don’t know if the offensive line will hold up – or if Garrett Boles will give up holding.

But mostly we don’t know about any of the Broncos opponents. Will the Super Bowl champ Kansas City Chiefs suffer any sort of Super Bowl hangover? Or will the pickup right where they left off? The two other division rivals will be playing in new venues this season – the Los Angeles Chargers will play in the brand new SoFi Stadium and the Raiders have moved into a fabulous new pad in Las Vegas. How will these unfamiliar surroundings effect the outcomes of games…especially for a Denver team that hasn’t played all that well on the road historically?

Then there are questions about players – specifically quarterbacks – that the Broncos will face.

They open against the Tennessee Titans, led not by Marcus Mariota, whom Denver forced to the bench during a 16-0 whitewashing last season – but instead by Ryan Tannehill, who helped Tennessee to the AFC title game after taking over. How will the Broncos handle this challenge?

A week later, the Broncos travel to Pittsburgh to face Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Normally this would be a huge challenge – and it still could be. But Big Ben is coming off a serious elbow injury that caused him to miss almost all of last season. His off season training has been questioned. Will Denver be facing the same Roethlisberger – now 38-years-old – that they’ve struggled against in past seasons? Or will this be a less formidable version of the future Hall of Famer?

And speaking of aging quarterbacks…the Broncos get another shot – likely their last shot ever – at Tom Brady when the six-time Super Bowl champ comes to town with his new team, Tampa Bay in late September. It’s hard to imagine we’ll see vintage Brady in that unfamiliar uni. Remember, Father Time is still undefeated…and he’s got his hooks in the 42-year-old Brady. Could the Broncos farewell tilt against this Hall of Famer become a fond memory for the Predominately Orange?

And two weeks later, the Broncos pay a visit to Brady’s former team, the New England Patriots. Who will be taking the snaps for Bill Belichick’s team this season? Would the six-time Super Bowl champion coach really go into the season with Jarrett Stidham as his quarterback? Or maybe Belichick had his dog making draft picks last month as part of his master plan to tank for Trevor Lawrence? This is likely to be Denver’s best chance to beat the Pats in New England since Shannon Sharpe was on the phone to the Pentagon.

So…we can go down the schedule, game-by-game, and predict which one’s the Broncos will win…or we can just wait for the games to be played to find out. Hard to be wrong doing the latter.

Oh…10-6. If there’s a season.

Strike Two: Before COVID-19 shout down everything, new Colorado State head football coach Steve Addazio – who was hired in early December – was able to put together his entire coaching staff, meet all his returning players, participate in signing a full recruiting class, introduce his new offensive and defensive schemes and even sneak one week of spring football practices.

Still, like the great majority of other first year head coaches, the shutdown will most certainly hamper Addazio and his coaching staff as they try to get ready for what we all hope is a normal college football season. But his situation could have been worse – a lot worse.

Down the road in Boulder, no coach anywhere has gotten a shorter end of the stick from COVID-19 than new University of Colorado head football coach Karl Dorrell.

Dorrell was hired on February 23rd, shortly after Mel Tucker bolted the Buffs to take the surprise job opening at Michigan State. Dorrell didn’t get to be involved with recruiting. He had to throw together a coaching staff, he barely got to finish setting up his office and meet some of his returning players when everything got shut down. There was no kind of spring practice for CU.

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So when (if) Dorrell and CU travels to Fort Collins – for the first time since 1996 – to play Addazio and CSU on September 5th, it would certainly appear that one new coach – the guy who also has the home field advantage – has a distinct edge over the other in terms of preparation.

The Rams also bring back the more veteran group of players returning, including quarterback Patrick O’Brien, Biletnikoff Award candidate Warren Jackson and last season’s freshman All-American Dante Wright. If ever there was a season in which little brother was in position to take down big brother, 2020 would be it.

But about that “if.” See, what the pandemic gives, the pandemic could very easily take away.

No one knows for certain if there will be a college football season, and if there is, what form it will take. Delay the start of the season by a few months? Play games with no fans in the stands? Postpone the season all together, or just play conference games? All of the above are distinct possibilities.

And each of these possible changes would benefit Dorrell and the Buffs in terms of playing the final game of the “Rocky Mountain Showdown” series. Only if everything happens as scheduled will CSU maintain an edge.

Delaying the season would give Dorrell and his coaches time to start to catch up to everyone else in terms of preparation. Even if the NCAA gives teams some extra time to get ready for the 2020 season, it will be hard for Dorrell and company to get done everything they need to get done in time, but any delay will help.

Playing the game in front of an otherwise empty Canvas Stadium would negate most of the Rams home field advantage. The annual game with CU is the only game most Rams fans circle on the schedule. It’s the only game no one wants to miss. There is no fervor like anti-CU fervor.

Postponing the season or wiping out the non-conference portion would mean the Buffs could skip playing CSU altogether…at least until their next scheduled meeting in 2023. CU fans look at the CSU game as a no-win situation anyway. Win, and they were supposed to. Lose, and it’s an embarrassment to the program. Losing to your perceived ‘little brother’ and then having to live with it for a full calendar year is always brutal. Not playing at all is seen as the better option.

And by the time the two schools meet again in 2023 (and again in Ft. Collins in 2024) Dorrell and Addazio may be long gone, anyway. If either or both are still in their respective gigs, Dorrell and the Buffs will have regained their typical “power five” advantage over their in-state rivals.

No one is actively rooting for any type of disruption in the 2020 college football schedule. But if you’re Karl Dorrell, there is a little disruption that’s easier to live with.

Strike Three: While it’s very likely that the NFL season will start on time and games will be played – at least at the outset – with no fans in attendance, the situation with college football is far more unsettled.

NCAA reps are on record as saying that school MUST be in session, with students able to be on campus, for student-athletes to compete in sports. That is unlikely to be the case nation-wide by September. What’s more likely is that different conferences will set up different scenarios under which they can play football. The need to play some sort of schedule is critical to the survival of all college sports – not just football. On the heels of losing the entire NCAA basketball tournament(s) revenue, if a college football season is wiped out, it’s unlikely that many non-revenue sports will survive.

The idea of pushing the season into the spring is full of major obstacles. Can you imagine football and basketball seasons going on simultaneously? Fans can’t be in two (or more) places at once. But a delay in starting what could be an abbreviated season is possible.

Of course, there are many unknowns still to deal with – including the strong possibility of a new surge in virus cases when the weather cools down again in the fall. But knowing what we know now, the idea of starting the season in say, mid-October and playing over a 10-week span would allow all the conferences to crown a champion. Here’s where it gets interesting.

After playing say, a 10-game season that doesn’t include a conference title game or a long lay-off in between the regular season and post season could give fans what they’ve clamored for – and expanded college football play-off.

How about this (currently unfinished) idea just for 2020: We take the champions of the Power Five conferences AND the Group of Five conferences, and we have a 10-team play-off that incorporates the bowl games.

The opening round is a play-in games (the TBD Bowls) between the four lowest-rated conference champs. (These would presumably be G5 schools, but you never know…)

The remaining eight teams are then seeded one-through eight with #8 vs. #1 in another TBD Bowl, and so on. Until we get down to the championship game. The two title game competitors will have played an extra three games is all.

You’d be using eight bowl games as part of the play-off. You could play other bowls if it’s deemed feasible and safe to do so.

This could be played out in January and early February – when football is still the big deal, and before March Madness. No overlap. As it should be.

This idea isn’t perfect, but the elements of it are important in that it wouldn’t ave a negative impact on the 2021 season, either. Recruiting would be affected for one cycle, but everyone would be dealing with the same situation, so there would be no disadvantage to any schools in that.

They need to find a way to play games. There’s a lot more than conference or national championships riding on it. But it has to be smart. And safe.

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