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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Knoxville's Neyland Stadium, shown before Tennessee's home football game against UTEP in September 2018, is set to host seven contests for the Vols during the upcoming season, but the coronavirus has created uncertainty for college football this year.

There are 130 teams in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision, spread across 41 states and competing in 10 conferences, save for a handful of independents.

The goal is to have all those teams start the upcoming season at the same time — whether that's close to Labor Day as scheduled or later — and play the same number of games.

With each passing day, though, it becomes apparent the COVID-19 pandemic is going to make that goal difficult to achieve. Despite the best intentions of conference leaders, the possibility exists of college football being played in SEC country before it begins in Pac-12 territory — or something else entirely.

"I can't say enough about the extent to which they're working closely together, spending time together, communicating with each other," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said of the conferences. "And I think that's the most important thing. It gives us a chance to come up with an overarching policy and an ability to start together.

"Having said that, I think we all recognize that there is a significant chance that that may not be possible."

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AP file photo by Joe Raymond / Notre Dame vice president and athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the leaders of the top conferences in college football are doing their best to work together in hopes of having a full college football season for the 2020-21 school year.

The coronavirus is affecting different regions of the country in different ways, prompting a wide range of responses to fight the spread and revive economies.

Some states, such as Florida and Georgia, have already begun to allow nonessential businesses to reopen. Others, including California and Washington, are going more slowly. Where that leaves them all four months from now is hard to predict, and the uncertainty is reflected across college athletics.

College sports leaders have repeatedly said there can be no return to competition without campuses being open to students — and those decisions will be made with guidance from state and local public health and government officials. Tennessee came out Wednesday with perhaps the most definitive statement yet from a school about reopening in the fall.

The NCAA football oversight committee has agreed on a six-week plan for teams to prepare to start the season. Teams would ideally be on campus by mid-July for the season to start on time.

Beyond that, the NCAA has little influence on the logistics of college football. The conferences are mostly in charge, with commissioners leading the way.

The heads of the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences say they have been in almost constant contact since the NCAA Division I basketball tournaments were canceled on March 12.

"Based on the very positive and close collaboration among the leaders in college football and discussions with schools, other leagues and the medical community, at this point in time we are planning to start the football season on time and together on a national basis," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said.

But can that plan hold?

An interview SEC commissioner Greg Sankey did last week with a Jacksonville, Florida, radio station became a headline when he said: "There is room for different conferences to make different decisions." In a Big Ten Network interview, league commissioner Kevin Warren suggested something similar.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Sankey said the Power Five conferences are more connected than ever and noted the importance of nonconference football games scheduled this season such as Arkansas at Notre Dame, Colorado at Texas A&M and Southern California versus Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

"There is a motivation to remain connected," Sankey said.

He also said if a small number of schools cannot play, it might not stop everyone else.

"What's the critical mass? I don't have that number. I don't think there is a need to predict that now. In fact, I don't even have to answer that now because we have an asset of time," Sankey said.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Georgia's Rodrigo Blankenship kicks off during a home matchup against SEC East rival Tennessee on Sept. 29, 2018.

Notre Dame is a member of the ACC for most sports, but the Fighting Irish are among the six independents in the FBS. The Irish are unique, though, with a storied history that includes double-digit claimed national championships, a multimillion-dollar television contract with NBC for football and the fact that Swarbrick is part of the College Football Playoff's management committee. He is part of the group made up of the commissioners of the 10 FBS leagues, with the Power Five schools joined by the Group of Five's American Athletic Confernce, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference and Sun Belt Conference.

Swarbrick said a lack of uniformity could make it impossible to have a normal season.

"How many games do you need to have in a regular season to have a playoff?" he said. "What might a reengineered schedule to do the postseason and the bowl games? What about records? What about Heisman Trophies? Is a team whose schools decides it can't participate credited with a forfeit? I hope not."

Notre Dame has a scheduling agreement with the ACC for five games per season, so Swarbrick said he is confident the Irish would be fine if there is an abbreviated season that prioritizes conference play. The other independents — Army, BYU, Liberty, Massachusetts and New Mexico State — could be scrambling to fill schedules, though.

Swarbrick said he has encouraged conferences to consider, if necessary, a scheduling model for a truncated season that allows teams to protect traditional nonconference rivalries, such as Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Clemson-South Carolina.

"But I'm not concerned," he said, "about our ability to have a challenging, robust schedule even in the conferences."

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