MONTGOMERY, Ala. — At 8 p.m. Saturday night, Austin Peay and Central Arkansas will take the field at the historic Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama. It is the only scheduled game of Week 0, the annual informal kickoff to the college football season that typically has little significance beyond wetting the appetites of hardcore college football fans. However, perhaps this game is different.
The last time two college football teams were on the field, Joe Burrow and the LSU Tigers completed a 15-0 season by crushing the defending national champions Clemson Tigers 42-25 in New Orleans to capture their first national title since 2007. At that time, the issues that have come to define the year were far from most people’s minds.
It would not be until March Madness and conference basketball championships that the first games would be canceled as the coronavirus first began to spread across the country. In time, all spring college sports would be canceled and every major sports league, including the NBA, MLB, NHL, NASCAR and MLS, would be put on hold as health and government officials from the federal level to counties and cities worked to fight the growing pandemic. Meanwhile, leaders of virtually every sport would be forced to decide whether or not to move forward with their seasons.
College football was no exception. Spring practices, including the spring football games, were canceled. The cancellation of conference media days in the summer, often the unofficial start of the season for many fans, followed. Although players returned to campus for summer workouts, major outbreaks of COVID-19 among teams seriously put the possibility of a college football season in question.
Of course, the debate centered on the question of whether the risk of COVID-19 spreading in lockers rooms and in the stands was worth the economic impact of the game.
According to Forbes, if the season was canceled, the local economies of many of the name-brand schools would lose $250 million to $140 million. This number not only includes the revenue generated by the games, but also the revenue generated by the economy because of the games.
Nationally, ESPN reported that a cancellation of the 2020 season would cost schools about $4 billion. Needless to say, university presidents, conference commissioners and the NCAA had a major decision to make with a ticking clock.
There had to be a number of questions answered first: Would students be allowed on campus? How would schools and coaches enforce public health guidelines? Would the schedule be adjusted? Would there be a postseason?
Fortunately for football, there were other leagues to observe. NASCAR led the way among major sports leagues with the return to racing on May 17 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, following a 3-month hiatus. The NBA returned with all involved in the games required to be travel to Orlando and stay inside a « bubble. » The NHL also returned in a bubble format. After an extended battle between the MLB and the player’s union, baseball also returned without a bubble. After an initial outbreak of cases, the number of cases has slowed, and it appears the season, a third of the length of a normal baseball season, will finish with a World Series champion. Other sports like boxing and soccer also returned.
However, college football is radically different than those sports. College rosters have sometimes well over 100 players with no representation from a union. In addition, unlike professional leagues, individual conferences and university presidents have more control over the sport than the commissioners, especially as far as scheduling is concerned. All of these variables kept the season in limbo until August.
Meanwhile, it seemed everyone from players, coaches, athletic directors and university presidents to the media and fans had expressed a different opinion for what the 2020 season would look like. Some saw a full season with the bowls and playoffs. Some saw a complete cancellation. Others thought the season would either be delayed or canceled a few weeks into the season. Still others debated whether the stadiums would be empty, full or somewhere in between.
Morehouse College, a private HBCU in Atlanta, became the first domino to fall, canceling its entire season on June 26.
By late-summer, events accelerated as new cases of COVID-19 began to climb nationwide. Most major conferences began to switch to a conference-only model, canceling all non-conference games. Other conferences agreed to play only one conference game.
Some of the smaller conferences in the lower divisions of the NCAA outright canceled their seasons.
On August 5, the University of Connecticut, an FBS independent, announced it would cancel their season, becoming the first FBS school to do so.
The ripple effect was immediate. On August 8, the MAC became the first FBS conference to cancel all fall sports.
The next day, the commissioners of the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, PAC 12 and SEC) held an emergency phone call to discuss the future of the season. It was during that phone call the Big 10 indicated they would likely cancel their season, after a majority of member university presidents voted in favor of it.
On August 11, the Mountain West Conference joined the MAC in canceling their fall sports. However, more significantly, reports came out that the Big 10 would soon announce the cancellation of all fall sports with the PAC 12 poised the follow.
Meanwhile, players held a conference call to discuss their next move. Out of that conference call came a plea to the powers that be: #WeWantToPlay. From stars like Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Alabama’s Najee Harris to less notable players like Pittsburgh’s Rashad Weaver and Iowa’s Nick Niemann, hundreds of players took to social media to demand a chance to play the season. Many of the players tweeted out a resolution describing how the season could go on with appropriate safety measures.
Coaches, fans and even President Donald Trump joined the movement, calling for conferences to allow the season to go on. It was the most united movement by college players across the country in the sport’s 150-year history and became a top story not just in the sports world, but for both national and local news outlets.
Despite the #WeWantToPlay Movement, on August 11, the Big 10 officially postponed the fall sports season, with the hopes of playing in the spring. As expected, the PAC 12 followed suit the same day in postponing its season.
In the wake of the news that fall sports, including football, would be canceled in the two of the five major conferences, the remaining conferences each released a statement saying the season would continue as planned. However, each conference acknowledged that a cancellation or postponement of the season was a possibility.
As of Friday, August 28, the ACC, Big 12, SEC, AAC, Sun Belt and Conference USA intend to play football. In addition, independents Army, BYU and Liberty all intend to have a season. Notre Dame will play its season as a member of the ACC.
Each conference, as well as the three independents playing football (sans Notre Dame) have released adjusted schedules for the 2020 season. All three Power 5 conferences are limiting non-conference games to one, with the exception of the SEC, which will play only conference games.
Most of the conferences are allowing the individual schools to set seating capacity as long as they follow various guidelines.
The ACC, which has 15 schools, including Notre Dame, will play an 11-game schedule. The schedule features 10 conference games and one non-conference game. There will be two open dates during the 13-week season. There will be no divisions for this season. The season will begin Thursday, Sept. 10 with UAB playing Miami. However, the first full slate of game will be Saturday, Sept. 12.
The ACC will hold a conference championship either Dec. 12 or Dec. 19 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. As a full football member of the ACC in 2020, Notre Dame is eligible to play in and win the conference title.
The Big 10 has postponed its season with the possibility of playing in the spring. There were reports the conference may try to start the season around the Thanksgiving holiday, however, the conference has not addressed those reports.
The Big 12 will play a 10-game schedule. The schedule features nine conference games and one non-conference game. All non-conference games must be played prior to Sept. 26 before conference play begins. There will be at least two open dates during the remaining 11-week conference schedule. Conference play begins Sept. 26.
The Big 12 will hold a conference championship on Dec. 12 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
The SEC will play a 10-game schedule. All 10 games will be conference-only games. Each team added two conference opponents in addition to the eight previous scheduled conference games. The schedule begins on Sept. 26. There will be two open dates during the 12-week season. One open date will be mid-season. All schools will have an open date for Dec. 12 to makeup for any postponed games.
Conference USA will play a 8-game, conference-only, schedule. Schools may add up to four additional opponents at their discretion. The conference season will begin Sept. 12 and will continue through Nov. 28.
The Sun Belt Conference will play a 8-game, conference-only, schedule. Schools may add up to four additional opponents at their discretion. The season will begin Sept. 3 and continue through Nov. 28.
The Mountain West Conference has postponed its season with the possibility of playing in the spring.
Army is scheduled to play an 11-game schedule, including its annual rivalry Navy on Dec. 12. They will also play Air Force on Nov. 7.
BYU is scheduled to play an 8-game schedule. Due to the cancellation of the PAC 12 season, the Cougars will not play their rivalry against Utah.
For better or for worse, there will be at least a beginning to the 2020 season. It seems appropriate that it will be in Montgomery, Ala. Montgomery made national news as a hot spot for COVID-19 in June. And in a year with so much racial strife, Montgomery’s history as the front line of the Civil Rights Movement in the 50’s and 60’s makes it even more appropriate for the season opener.
No one knows how the season will end, whether it will be in the middle of the season, at the conclusion of each conference championship game or with the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, scheduled to be played at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
First and foremost: What will conferences do if a school decides to cancel the season.? Naturally, all of those remaining games would be canceled. However, it does beg the question on whether the conference will follow suit if maybe two, three or four teams in a conference cancel the season.
If there is a case of COVID-19 on a team, there are a number of guidelines schools will need to follow that vary by conference. However, they all require a period of quarantine for anyone who tests positive for the virus. Of course, there is also the possibility that a school may need to cancel their season due to an outbreak of the virus despite efforts to contain the spread.
A question to come out of these previous issues is player eligibility. The NCAA ruled that athletes who compete in 2020 will not have a year of eligibility count against them. All players who wish to opt out of the season, or cannot compete due to the cancellation or postponed of the season, will also keep their year of eligibility.
Another question is how will the champion be determined. So far, the College Football Playoff and the bowl season in general are moving forward. Still, if there is a premature cancellation of the regular season or a cancellation of the post-season, college fans will still debate each other to declare a national champion.
In the days before the Bowl Coalition, the precursor to the BCS, one of many national polls declared a national champion. In many years, different polls named different champions. However, in the event that there is no postseason, a school, or even more than one school, may claim the championship if they are named at the top of the poll, though it is unclear if the NCAA will recognize the championship. This is not uncommon phenomenon, even with the playoff, as UCF claimed the 2017 national championship after being named number 1 in a poll, despite that one-loss Alabama defeated Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Most of those who cover the sport seem believe that no matter who claims the championship and how they claim it, there will be an asterisk next to the championship.
‘College GameDay,’ ESPN’s popular pre-game show that has marked the beginning of fall Saturdays since 1987, is also in question. Longtime analyst Kirk Herbstreit told Nashville’s 104.5 The Zone producers are still trying to bring the show on the road, though fans will not be allowed. He did open the possibility, however, fans may be able to join the show virtually.
If the show does go on the road, many fans may be wondering if Lee Corso will travel with the show. The beloved 85-year-old former coach and face of ESPN’s College GameDay since its inception would be considered an at-risk person to travel during the campaign. It is possible he could join the broadcast virtually, which many fans hope will include his trademark ‘headgear’ prediction at the show’s conclusion.
There seems to be one thing certain: College football will kickoff on Aug. 29. The stands will be quieter. The slate of games will look very different. However, it will be college football nonetheless.
As coaches across generations have told their players, fans should savor each moment. It is impossible to know when the final whistle will blow for the college football season. But from the moment the ball is kicked into the Alabama sky on Saturday until that last whistle blows, fans should proudly wear their school colors, shout from their couch and enjoy another season of college football, not taking any moment for granted.
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