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Why the idea of bringing OTAs to college football is a complicated one

There's a scene in the movie Argo where the CIA's braintrust sits around debating options of how to covertly extract a group of American foreign service workers secretly holed up at the Canadian ambassador's home amid the Iranian hostage crisis of the late 1970s.

One plan would be to dress the group as teachers and have them bike hundreds of miles of mountainous terrain to the Turkish border. Another plan is to have them pose as Canadian "do gooders" inspecting the Iranian food supply. Ben Affleck's character then convinces the room to pose the hostages as a Hollywood film crew in Tehran to location scout an upcoming sci-fi movie. When Affleck is later selling that plan to his boss's boss at the CIA, he acknowledges that, yes, it is a bad idea, but it's the best bad idea they've got.

So it is in college football.

As the sport grapples with what it means to live in an indefinite hiatus for the first time in its modern history, a conversation emerged this week approximating how the the game can use the summer to make up for a lost spring. A popular idea has been to import NFL-style OTAs, where teams would gather for 10-to-15 day stretches over June, early July, or both.

As many positives as the idea represents, it also comes with challenges and drawbacks, many of which have emerged in conversations with sources over the past two days.

The first is money. While the rich have never been richer in college sports, the windfall that has carried the SEC, the Big Ten and the rest of the Power 5 to a lesser extent, plenty of schools at the Group of 5 level and lower are doing their best just to keep the lights on. In numbers released by the U.S. Department of Education and shared by FootballScoop this week, schools at the lower-end of the FBS are bringing in less than those at the top end of the FCS.

And that's before the ongoing coronavirus pandemic took a hatchet to athletics budgets across college athletics.

While schools across the landscape would no doubt delight at the opportunity to bring their players back to campus in June and July, finding the money to feed and house them would be a significant challenge for many schools.

Another option would be to bump forward the opening date of training camp by a couple of weeks. NCAA rules permit teams to begin practice 29 days before their first game, which for most teams at the FBS level would be on or around Aug. 7. Perhaps the NCAA could bump that date forward two weeks -- to July 24 or so.

But that carries a risk of its own. The vast majority of players did not go through spring football, and none have endured any sort of organized workout since early March, which could mean a 4-month gap by the time they get back to campus. They would then ask their bodies to ramp up from zero to 60 in a condensed time frame -- while doing so in the hottest portion of the year.

The harder players strain to prepare themselves in June, July and August, the greater potential exposure they wearing themselves down over the grind of the season by November and December.

Of course, such a schedule would not be unprecedented. It wasn't all that long ago that NFL and college teams put football away altogether in the off-season and training camp was used to whip players back into playing shape.

This leads into another, quieter concern with an increased summer workload: vacation time.

While no one is speaking up publicly (for obvious reasons), a number of coaches have reached out privately that July OTAs would cut into the one stretch of extended downtime that coaches enjoy over the 12-month calendar. As the recruiting calendar extended into June in recent years, the July vacation period has gained added importance for coaches to reconnect with family and recharge their batteries before the grind of training camp, the season and winter recruiting. Coaches often plan weddings for July as this is the only time of year they don't have to be constantly on the phone with recruits.

No option on the table is good, and all carry risk, tradeoff, and sacrifice. (If January 2021 rolls around and the worst sacrifice was some lost vacation time, we can count ourselves fortunate.)

In these unprecedented times, it's incumbent upon the sport's leaders to pick the least-bad option on the table, and in this case the least-bad option might vary program to program, level to level and conference to conference.