The Great Unknown
Uncertainty hangs over college football season
In past years, my social media feeds would be full of posts with famous grid iron stars counting down the days to the start of the college and professional football seasons with the number they made famous. Eighteen days out, there was Archie Manning in his Ole Miss red and blue. Fifteen, Tim Tebow in Gator blue and orange. Thirteen, Tommy Hodson in purple and gold. This year, with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to hang over our heads, those countdowns are missing as the start of the season and how it will ensue are a moving target.
Yesterday, less than a month before the college football season was set to begin, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) announced it would eliminate non-conference games and playing a 10-game season which will start on Sept. 26. The SEC is the fourth Power 5 conference to limit its 2020 schedule of games, and the Big 12 is expected to make a decision for its member schools in the coming week.
Where other conferences have moved to a schedule that allows for nine in-conference and one nonconference game, the SEC’s decision to play conference-only games will eliminate several in-state rivalry games between schools in different conferences – South Carolina vs. Clemson, Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, Kentucky vs. Louisville – and force its schools and traditional opponents to scramble to put together a schedule for the season. SEC teams usually play eight of their 12 games against conference rivals, including six against divisional opponents, one versus a permanent cross-divisional opponent, and one against a rotating cross-divisional opponent.
So many questions
Over the next few weeks, the conference’s athletic directors will have to sort out and approve the schedule for the coming season. As of now, there are five games still scheduled to play on Aug. 29. The ACC will begin Sept. 12, and the SEC will start Sept. 26. The Pac-12 will announce its plans next week. According to ESPN.com sources, the Pac-12 is expected to announce it will play a 10-game conference schedule starting Sept. 19.
By playing a conference-only schedule, college football fans will miss seeing Alabama take on USC, Arkansas playing at Notre Dame, and, of course, the rematch between Texas and LSU in Death Valley.
Without inter-conference games, it will be more difficult for the parties responsible for determining team rankings to establish accurate polls that go toward determining which teams will play in the College Football Playoff.
But bigger issues face athletic directors and administrations. Before any ball is placed on a tee and kicked, schools still have to make a decision on whether they will allow fans in the stands. If so, how many can attend and maintain a safe environment?
Quarantining infected players
Risk management will play a significant part in dealing with the virus while trying to retain a sense of normalcy by playing this fall. At all levels – prep, collegiate, and professional – football staffs will be diligent in protecting the health of their players and opponents. If a player is infected, they must be kept away from other players and coaches to ensure the health of the team. That could have major impacts if a key player or players have to be kept off of the field.
Injury is part of the game and must be accounted for, but if several team members come down with the disease, games could be postponed or cancelled. Leagues and conferences seem to be laying the groundwork for a season in which teams may not be able to complete the revised, limited schedule. There is a strong probability that some teams may be able to play a full 10 games while other may be forced to play fewer. Standings would be based on win percentage, but, in college and high school football, poll rankings would be impacted as there wouldn’t be as many opportunities for teams whose schedules are cut to display their talents head-to-head.
A season like no other
After the amazing 15-0 national championship-winning 2019 season, LSU fans are ready to see what the team has instore for 2020. The team has to replace its starters at quarterback, running back, one wide receiver, tight end, and its entire offensive line, who all went to the NFL. Still, the Tigers are considered one of the strongest teams in the SEC. Normally, these players, like quarterback Myles Brennan, would have had the spring and fall to prepare, practice, and jell with their teammates. This year, they will jump straight into the fire of SEC competition without the benefit of warming up against cupcake teams from other conferences and divisions. LSU is not alone in this position. New players have to be prepared and ready for action. But it would be a travesty, if say, Alabama (which is also grooming a new starting QB) and LSU both head into their meeting in Death Valley undefeated, yet had to sit starting players due to the virus.
Just one week into Major League Baseball’s return, outbreaks have hit teams and forced games to be cancelled. There is no reason to believe that football will not be affected. We’re in for a wild season, one like we’ve never experienced before. It’s going to be a roller coaster ride. Hang on tight!