College Football After The Pandemic: First Thoughts

Alabama and Michigan players

The Coronavirus is causing widespread uncertainty regarding the upcoming 2020 college football season. Long time college football writer Matt Zemek weighs in on the topic

By Matt Zemek

Sports have been out of our lives (in terms of actual games to watch in the United States) for roughly five weeks. We are all still trying to adjust to the new dynamics of life in a pandemic, and right now, the delivery of relief checks or direct deposit payments from the federal government is a foremost thought on our minds. Sports have necessarily receded into the background, but of course, many of us are wondering what everything will look and feel like when sports return.

Let’s not try to answer every question or anticipate every possible scenario in relationship to sports after the pandemic. We’re going to be without sports for awhile. We have time to process and wrestle with these topics. Let’s take it slowly and not overload our brains with an avalanche of details.

When beginning to imagine what college football will look like after the coronavirus pandemic, a first thought is simply that the temperature in the room will be different. I’m not going to speculate at all on how this will benefit some teams or hurt others; that’s foolish and pointless. I can merely note, however, that the next college football season — whenever it begins, on the other side of this pandemic — will be a season unlike any other. It will have no comparison, no immediate reference point, to any previous event for any living American. That’s a plain fact.

The 1918 college football season — held in the same year World War I ended, and in which the so-called “Spanish Flu” pandemic moved through America — was truncated but not canceled. Dozens of teams played a handful of games. While we don’t know what the future holds, one thing which seems highly unlikely is the notion that college football — with the blessing of the federal government, governors, and city officials — would play a small handful of games and then stop operations.

The thought process behind that scenario above is that a “second wave” of the coronavirus would hit in winter, but that with improved testing, contact tracing, and antibody development, college football could play a few games in late September and then in October, before the flu season gets going. It seems beyond the realm of possibility. A far more likely outcome is that when we have a vaccine and it is deemed safe for fans to gather in stadiums again, the sport will resume, with the intent of remaining in operation for the long term.

Assuming that happens (whenever it does), yes, the temperature will be different.

It won’t be a case of LSU defending its national championship. The Tigers won’t be defending anything. They will — like the rest of us — simply be happy to play football again. It just isn’t going to be quite the same in the first season back, whenever that first season begins. Maybe after a month or so of games, the rhythm and routine — the colors, sights, smells, and sounds of fall Saturdays — will bring us back into a familiar world. Maybe the season and its anxieties and hopes will be vigorously felt after five or six weeks. Maybe we will be ripping head coaches and eviscerating the refs again. Maybe.

Yet, I can’t shake the sense that at least in Year 1 of college football after the pandemic lifts, college football fans are not going to hate Nick Saban quite as much (Auburn and LSU fans excepted). Vanderbilt fans might not be quite as depressed about losing games. South Carolina fans won’t be quite as exasperated about a season which failed to reach its potential. Arkansas fans won’t be impatient in the face of the Hogs’ needed rebuilding effort… and so on and so forth.

Every team and every conference, not just the SEC, will have to deal with the different emotional tenor of the first college football season after the pandemic. This is just one of countless ways in which the next college football season will defy easy categorization, making an already unpredictable sport even more unpredictable.

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