With the COVID-19 pandemic still firmly entrenched in America, schools are going all out to ensure their players are protected from potential outbreaks. Let’s say these procedures continue into the season: What’s your biggest worry about the season as things stand right now?
Brandon Kiley, Lead Football Writer: Well, given the news of the week, I think there are plenty of concerns. At the top of the list: Is the season going to be played at all? It’s a legitimate question, despite what some may say. I hope they’re able to play. It’s good for all of us. But it’s certainly not a guarantee.
The first real signal of concern came from the Big 10 this week when they announced B1G schools will not participate in non-conference games this fall. It’s the first real admission among the P5 conferences that the pandemic is going to affect the season in a real and meaningful way.
So, yeah, that’s my biggest worry. I still think they’re going to try to play. But I don’t have the same certainty about it that I once did.
Nate Edwards, Football Editor: My biggest worry about the season isn’t whether it starts or not, it’s whether it has to shut back down. Because football is such a vital source of income for athletic departments and such a dependable economic jolt for the area the school is in, everyone is going to do whatever it takes to make sure that it’s okay. But you can’t continue normalcy if everyone starts getting sick again, especially the student-athletes who are paramount to that economic wheel spinning. Because people are people, Americans are Americans, and young people are young people, putting all of those entities in a concentrated area for multiple hours talking, drinking, yelling, spitting, shouting, singing....there’s going to be explosions of cases if we’re not careful.
And we won’t be careful. Even if there are no fans in the stands, people will still congregate to watch. And when cases spike because we’re trying to have a normal season, does that normal season continue or shut down? The increased cases and possible deaths will be depressing but won’t impact most people; the removal of something as big as college football will be a blow felt by everyone, even those who don’t follow the sport.
Josh Matejka, Deputy Editor: It seems macabre to point this out... but what happens if a player or coach dies as a result of the continuation in play?
I’m going to give you a second to think about that. I know the statistics and death rates, especially for young, healthy people. They’re not high. We’d all like to think no one will lose their life because of this virus over the course of the season, whatever it may look like.
But... what if? What happens then? You hate to even get into the discussion of ethics at that point because, if you’re asking this writer, one life isn’t worth one season of college football. Point blank. Period. Full stop. And if someone loses their life (god forbid), then serious questions need to be raised. Do you cancel the season? Shut all college athletics down until there’s a vaccine?
Essentially what my main concern boils down to is the health and safety of everyone involved. The thought of what things may look like in a potentially deadly scenario haunts me. I’m sorry if you think that’s hyperbole — but those are the stakes at this point.
The question of playing in front of fans still hasn’t been sorted out officially, but it seems likely that many games will be played in empty stadiums. What effects do you see this having on teams across the country?
Brandon Kiley: Oh, it could be huge. There have been studies done on many professional sports suggesting “home field advantage” is overrated, and that the real advantage comes from the way the crowd influences the referees more than the way the crowd has an impact on the game itself.
I don’t believe the same to be true in college football. There are a number of stadiums that are difficult to win at for reasons beyond the quality of the opponent. Crowds in college football have a tangible impact on the games. If that isn’t the case this season, there will be a number of teams - especially in the SEC - that will be affected.
Nate Edwards: Simple answer is that it can remove home field advantage. Oregon’s Autzen Stadium and Washington’s Alaska Airlines Field (yup, that’s what they call it) are designed to amplify the sounds of a smaller crowd to make it feel like a wall of sound crashing onto the field. The Horseshoe, The Big House, or any of the SEC fortresses to football will be eerily quiet and remove that deafening sounds. Can you imagine LSU’s Death Valley without fans? Or playing Mississippi State without the cow bells? It’ll certainly be easier to hear so that confusion should be lifted for visiting teams. Then again, if visiting teams are delaying their travel until the day/night before, you might be getting more jet-lagged/travel exhausted opponents so it might even out.
Josh Matejka: Obviously home field advantage would be impacted, and probably in ways we can’t even imagine. Simply put, we don’t know how to process live sports without fans. When the Baltimore Orioles played to an empty stadium a few years ago, it felt like an episode of the Twilight Zone. Now imagine college football without the country’s most exuberant fans.
You can’t. And to pretend to try and analyze all the ways the game would be changed would be somewhat foolish. We just won’t know until we see it.
The NCAA seems pretty committed to playing the upcoming season, but with the threat of a fall wave on the horizon, there’s at least a chance that changes. So put your prediction out there — will the 2020 college football season actually happen?
Brandon Kiley: You really had to make me do this, huh?
I’ll predict that the season happens, but in a way unlike anything we’ve seen before. It will be exclusively conference games. There will be no, “bowl games.” The college football playoff will be the only “postseason” to speak of. I would imagine there will be plenty of non power-five conferences that opt out or decide to push their season to the spring. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the top NFL prospects opt out of this season and instead start training for the 2021 NFL Draft.
It could be a mess. Everything is on the table. But there’s a lot of money on the line, and money is what makes the world go round. For now, I’ll stick with my prediction that we’ll see a college football season, even if it’s unrecognizable.
Nate Edwards: Yes, but not a full season. There’s a chance that some schools just flat out don’t play, or maybe a conference refuses to start up (Ivy League is possibly doing a spring season, Pac 12 might not play at all). You could also see a season where you have a scenario like non-cons are scrapped, or a 10-week season, or no post season, or some variation of that. But given the rise of cases, the spectre of a fall explosion on top of that, and the risk that the players and coaches are making, I just can’t see a “normal” college football season playing out.
Josh Matejka: Yes, if only because the economic model of college sports is almost impossible without some form of football. Like BK said, it may be unrecognizable. The conference-only scheduling seems possible, even somewhat feasible. But even in that scenario things will be messy. Players and coaches will go missing at random times after positive tests, and I imagine some will opt out of the season entirely. Do the teams commit to playing a full schedule no matter what, even if cases are soaring and serious?
Best case scenario seems like we have some sort of full, albeit abbreviated season with a CFP and champion at the end. Worst case could be no football at all or a season interrupted by tragedy.