TAMPA — For most of the summer, the 2020 college football season has been besieged by an all-out blitz of uncertainty, a relentless set of disclaimers storming off hope’s figurative edge.
But as we reach the cusp of September, the whens appear to be overpowering the ifs.
The latest signs indicate a sizable portion of the country and every part of this state will at least embark on some semblance of a fall season. When it kicks off (See what we did there?), it figures to be bizarre, malleable and abbreviated.
“Everybody keeps throwing these curveballs out there for us,” Gators coach Dan Mullen said.
As that coveted first kickoff nears, we’ve attempted to break down just how this wholly surreal season will look, sound and feel. Brace yourself, and your senses:
Just like everywhere else in society, you’ll have to get used to masks and social distancing on the sidelines. Florida State coach Mike Norvell and USF defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer have used clear face shields. Mullen has been sporting a neck gaiter.
Either way, it adds another layer of complexity to their communication.
“Coaching’s a lot of teaching and so it’s just harder to teach and harder to communicate,” Mullen said. “So you just got to kind of fight through that a little.”
Team areas usually sit between the 25-yard lines. This year, the NCAA expanded them from one 15 to the other to give players more room to spread out.
Instead of watching four captains hold hands on their way to midfield for the coin toss, each team will send one player to meet with an official or two. No honorary captains allowed, either.
Marching bands won’t be performing on the field at many schools, including those in the ACC and American Athletic Conference, and don’t expect to see opposing bands visiting other stadiums. Many bands likely will be limited to performances in the stands, perhaps with masks or covers over wind instruments. Some might be downsized.
Mullen hasn’t heard anything definitive about whether the SEC will allow teams to pipe in crowd noise, like what the NHL is doing in its bubbles.
The NCAA has been encouraging electronic whistles to cut down on the spread of “droplet-filled air,” so even a false start call will sound different.
At least 10 players from the state’s five biggest programs have opted out, including Miami preseason All-America defensive end Gregory Rousseau.
When the Gators started preseason camp, they were without four key players (receivers Kadarius Toney, Jacob Copeland and Trevon Grimes, plus defensive lineman Zachary Carter). All four have returned. USF linebacker Devin Gil, a graduate transfer at Michigan (and father) whom coaches were counting on to provide veteran depth, is among a half-dozen Bulls who have opted out.
The roster fluidity will continue as more players opt out (or back in) or because of inevitable outbreaks. Oklahoma recently had one position group nearly wiped out because of COVID-19.
Teams are preparing for that by training players at multiple positions, putting an even greater premium on versatility, and attempting to increase practice reps across the board.
“For all of our guys, we’re giving ’em an opportunity to get reps,” USF coach Jeff Scott said.
“We’re going into a season with COVID(-19) that each and every week, you could lose multiple players at multiple positions. So more than ever in college football, you need to have your entire roster ready to go and ready to play.”
To that end, UF has had five players get reps at center.
“This could be a year where an offensive line guard could play tackle, tackle could play guard, guard could play center,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said. “There’s going to be some flexibility with that this year.”
There will be more flexibility in other ways, too, because the NCAA is allowing players to participate without losing a year of eligibility. Coaches can take more chances with personnel — like using a freshman regularly in a specialty package without burning his redshirt.
“It definitely opens up a lot of doors,” Norvell said.
The lost spring practices could also carry over into the fall. With fewer reps, teams might be sloppier, especially if positive tests force younger players onto the field too early.
The flip side is that coaches had more free time to tinker with new ideas, which could lead to some unexpected wrinkles.
Although attendance limits will differ by school and by state, stadiums will be emptier everywhere.
FSU, Tennessee and Mississippi expect to operate at about 20-25 percent capacity. And regardless of the specific number at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (Florida hasn’t announced its plans yet), you won’t see throngs of fans linking arms and swaying together to We Are The Boys.
Tailgating will be different at each school, too. Miami isn’t allowing it. FSU is. USF has made no decision.
At least one school, Texas, is following Major League Baseball’s lead by allowing fans to purchase $50 cutouts that can help fill the Longhorns’ seats.
As for one of the sport’s other big traditions, College GameDay? Analyst Kirk Herbstreit recently told a Nashville radio station that ESPN plans to continue the traveling road show, maybe even with virtual fans like those on NBA telecasts.
The disruptions have already started, beyond the cancellation of fall seasons in the Big Ten, Pac-12 and elsewhere.
Two weeks ago, Florida International postponed its start of the season and now won’t kick off until Sept. 26. On Wednesday, the ACC delayed the North Carolina State-Virginia Tech opener from Sept. 12 to the 26th because of an outbreak in the Wolfpack’s program, and two more (East Carolina-Marshall and Troy vs. Louisiana-Monroe) were postponed Thursday.
Conferences built their master schedules with disruptions like that in mind, and they’re already being used.
Teams normally announce their full schedules in the winter or spring and set matchups years in the future. USF’s trip to Notre Dame on Sept. 19 was finalized Thursday. And it’s possible that teams, or entire conferences, could still bail on the season, especially if schools see COVID-19 spikes as classes begin.
Miami athletic director Blake James called the ACC’s 11-game season “very aspirational” when it was unveiled last month. Keep that in mind if — sorry, when — the games begin.
Opening dates for state schools
Sept. 10: UAB at Miami
Sept. 12: The Citadel at USF
Sept. 12: Georgia Tech at Florida State
Sept. 19: UCF at Georgia Tech
Sept. 19: Florida Atlantic at Georgia Southern
Sept. 26: Florida at Mississippi
Sept. 26: Florida International at Liberty
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