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Howell: Regional conference could be fun alternative in 2020

BOULDER, CO – SEPTEMBER 14, 2019: Air Force’s Timothy Jackson spins away from University of Colorado’s Chris Miller during the first half of the University of Colorado – Air Force NCAA football game on September 14, 2019. (photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

The last time Colorado played Brigham Young University in football, legendary Buffaloes quarterback Darian Hagan was a wide-eyed freshman replacing an ineffective and ill Sal Aunese.

On the other side, freshman quarterback Ty Detmer – who won the Heisman Trophy two years later – came off the bench to rally the Cougars to a 20-17 victory in the Freedom Bowl on Dec. 29, 1988.

Although they were conference foes from 1922-1947, CU and BYU don’t have much history on the football field. Even in those 25 years, they played just 10 times.

Given the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic, could the Buffs and Cougars meet up again this fall?

At this point in time, pretty much every option is on the table. It’s possible there is no college football season in 2020. Maybe it’s pushed back to January. Maybe it’s shortened to a conference-only slate that starts in October or November.

One thing we do know is that each state – and each university system – is going to set its own guidelines and they might be drastically different from state to state or school to school.

Earlier this week, the governors of Arizona and Florida announced that pro sports can return to their states, without fans. What that looks like in August or September remains to be seen, but it certainly opens the door for CU’s Pac-12 rivals, Arizona and Arizona State, to play.

Meanwhile, the California State University system, which includes 23 schools, announced its campuses will remain mostly online in the fall. That doesn’t impact Pac-12 schools, but it does affect Mountain West Conference teams San Jose State, San Diego State and Fresno State. It’s possible that California’s Pac-12 schools – Cal, Stanford, UCLA and Southern California – follow similar guidelines.

Definitive answers on what the college football season looks like might not come until late June or early July, although it’s safe to assume any model will include no or few fans in the stadiums.

For now, numerous scenarios are being thrown around and discussed, including some schools playing football even if their conference rivals can’t. Should California schools shut the door on sports this fall, that leaves big holes in the Pac-12 and Mountain West.

A possible solution for CU: How about a temporary, regional football conference that includes teams from the mountain states and Arizona?

Assuming football can be played in the Centennial State, we’ll start this Rocky Mountain Conference with CU, Air Force and Colorado State.

COVID-19 numbers are relatively low in Idaho, New Mexico Utah and Wyoming, so they might have a better shot of playing than the California schools. With that, invited to this party will be: Boise State, BYU, New Mexico, New Mexico State, Utah, Utah State and Wyoming.

Unless the state of Arizona reverses course, the Wildcats and Sun Devils could be open for playing, as well, so we’ll add them to the mix.

Basically, it’s a beefed up version of the old Mountain States Conference, which included CU, BYU, CSU, Utah, Utah State and Wyoming (as well as Denver) in the 1940s.

This 12-team conference would employ an 11-game, round-robin schedule where everybody plays each other once. There would be an imbalance of home games, but if this is the way to get football in the region, most schools would probably sign up.

For CU, the best part of an 11-game schedule is the guarantee that it could not possibly finish 5-7 for a fourth consecutive season. That, alone, ought to be appealing for Buffs fans.

Regionally, it would allow the Buffs to play some teams that fans aren’t used to seeing. They’ve played Air Force once since 1974, BYU twice since 1947 and Wyoming once since 1997. New Mexico and Utah State have been on the schedule one time each since 1949 and the Buffs have met New Mexico State only once ever, in 2005. Boise State and the Buffs have never played in football.

This is a hypothetical scenario, of course, but so is everything else being tossed around these days.

Ideally, life in general – including college football – is back to normal, or as close to normal as possible in the fall. The reality is that the 2020 college football season likely won’t look normal.

If drastic measures are on the table, a Rocky Mountain Conference could be an entertaining and practical, one year solution for college football in the region this year. Travel would be fairly simple for the 12 teams.

As for CU, it just might be manageable enough for the Buffs to get to that elusive six-win mark.