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Looking to the Spanish Flu for Answers

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What the 1918 College Football Season can tell us about 2020

NCAA Football: Florida at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we took a look at how the season played out during the last time a college football season took place during a pandemic. Using that, we are going to look at what we can take from that season to project what the upcoming season could look like.

What We Already Know

Last week we discussed that, for almost every team, the season was shortened or cancelled. Looking at this year, we have already seen the PAC-12 and B1G cancel, while the other Power 5 conferences have gone to an abbreviated 10 game schedule. Likewise, some schools allowed small crowds to attend games, and we have already seen schools do their own variation whether it’s 20% or 25% capacity.

These parallels indicate to me that much about how this season plays out we might already know if we do a little bit of research by looking back to our past.

Projecting the Future

One of the big things that fans might not be super happy about is that it is likely, at some point, games will be cancelled on short notice. This was a common occurrence in 1918, and unfortunately will be something that, as fans, we have to be prepared for this year. We have already seen this happen in other sports, too. Major League Baseball has been the most common league that has seen these last minute cancellations, and as more sports return without bubbles, it is likely even more will emerge. Another element that will probably make these cancellations more prevalent, is the availability of testing compared to 1918. One asymptomatic player could derail a season for two weeks. That’s just going to have to be the new norm we as fans prepare for.

However, the biggest difference that was clear from 1918 is the split national title. This was much more commonplace before the implementation of the BCS because the polls decided the champion, but for the first time in a long time this debate could return. If the season does go forward without the likes of Ohio State and Penn State, it is likely the “National Champion” will be disputed for years to come. The fans of the SEC and ACC will claim that, more times than not, the national champion comes from the those two conferences. However, B1G fans will tell you that Justin Fields and Ohio State were coming with a vengeance this year and were destined to take back the CFP.

What will make this situation even more interesting is if the six B1G ten teams that are still trying to play end up pulling it off while the rest of the conference and the PAC-12 remain cancelled. This would include all the main contenders that people thought had a chance to win the season, but would the PAC-12 still dispute the validity? That question has no clear and obvious answer. Over time, the dispute would likely fall away, but I think there would be some resistance in the beginning.

We are getting closer and closer to the beginning of the season, and as we do each day presents us with more answers. However, just as each day presents us with more answers, it often presents us with more questions, too. For now, all we can do is handle it as Coach Drink said on Zoom last week, “We need to choose faith, not fear, and hope, not worry.” Using this mindset and looking to the past for some answers like we have today, I can say I have faith there will be football played this season. To what degree? That remains to be seen. But, if 1918 is an indicator for this season, I think our Missouri Tigers will get to take the field this season, and I can’t wait.