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Five things we’ve learned about college football in the coronavirus era

One month in, we’ve learned new coaches aren’t doing as bad as expected and the odd home environments are affecting outcomes.
Masks on the sidelines aren't the only unusual thing about this college football season.
Masks on the sidelines aren't the only unusual thing about this college football season. [ THOMAS GRANING | AP ]
Published Sep. 30, 2020
Updated Sep. 30, 2020

Now that the first month of this wild college football season is over, let’s take a step back to reassess the landscape. Here are five things we’ve learned about the sport in the COVID-19 era:

Related: Why a youth movement could be risky at Florida State

1. The emphasis on schedule flexibility was justified.

USF is one of the many teams that had a game called off because of the coronavirus pandemic.
USF is one of the many teams that had a game called off because of the coronavirus pandemic. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

As of Wednesday morning, 23 games have been postponed or canceled for coronavirus-related reasons.

Forget whether that number is higher or lower than what you would have expected a month ago, or three months ago. It’s the reality.

Related: USF’s Jeff Scott says accumulation of coronavirus issues led to postponed game

Once teams return to play from outbreaks, their on-field performances aren’t suffering. Teams that couldn’t play because of high case numbers are 4-3 in their first game back.

2. New coaches aren’t doing as bad as you might have thought.

Mike Norvell's Seminoles have struggled so far, but other new coaches are doing OK, relatively speaking.
Mike Norvell's Seminoles have struggled so far, but other new coaches are doing OK, relatively speaking. [ DON JUAN MOORE | Don Juan Moore ]

The conventional wisdom was that teams with first-year coaches would miss the abbreviated spring practice time the most. The numbers don’t yet support that theory.

New Division I-A coaches are 11-7 overall and 8-7 if you remove games against I-AA teams.

Records alone are misleading —it’s not realistic to expect USF to upset No. 7 Notre Dame on the road in Jeff Scott’s second game — so advanced metrics provide a better evaluation. Of the 11 teams with new coaches that have played so far, six are lower now in the SP+ advanced metrics than they were in the preseason. That includes Florida State (down from 27 to 57) and USF (down from 78 to 98).

Related: Florida State, Mike Norvell have been unlucky. But that’s no excuse for this ugliness.

These numbers will change once the other conferences begin and teams get deeper into their league schedules, but the early returns aren’t as bad as expected.

3. Offenses are ahead of the defenses.

Defenses have struggled early in the season, including in Saturday's Florida-Ole Miss game.
Defenses have struggled early in the season, including in Saturday's Florida-Ole Miss game. [ THOMAS WELLS | SEC portal ]

This observation was obvious on the opening weekend when Navy struggled to tackle BYU, and it continued through the SEC’s first Saturday.

Teams are averaging 29 points per game against I-A opponents. That’s up a point from last year at this time.

Related: Dan Mullen earned his gift from Steve Spurrier. But his Gators have bigger goals than a $2 bottle of wine

Florida coach Dan Mullen has a few theories to explain the slight shift: The lack of spring practice eliminated a lot of tackling drills. Quarterbacks could throw around with receivers during the altered offseason schedule, but defenders weren’t able to practice wrapping up and bringing players to the ground.

“I think it’ll change as the season goes on,” Mullen said.

4. The play has been sloppier.

The first month of the season was not exactly beautiful to watch at times.
The first month of the season was not exactly beautiful to watch at times. [ AL DIAZ | adiaz@miamiherald.com ]

Teams are averaging 58.6 penalty yards per game against I-A teams. That’s up two and a half yards from the first month last season.

Fumbles are up, too, from 1.3 per game this time last year to 1.5 now. Teams are averaging .18 blocked kicks per game. That’s up from .13 during the entire 2019 season.

Add in the poor tackling, and it’s not your imagination: The game has not been as crisp as usual.

5. The home environments are weird.

Empty (or emptier) stadiums are having short-term and long-term effects on the sport.
Empty (or emptier) stadiums are having short-term and long-term effects on the sport. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

More than any other sport, college football thrives on pageantry and raucous environments. That meant a muted environment for a primetime, historic rivalry game between Florida State and Miami felt more jarring than basketball in a bubble.

The environment is having a tangible effect on the outcome. Home teams are winning 59.5 percent of the time, which is on pace to be the worst figure since 2005, according to CBS Sports.

Teams, notably, aren’t selling out their limited capacities. Miami’s opener against Alabama Birmingham drew an announced crowd of 8,153 — more than 4,000 below the attendance cap. Mullen started his weekly news conference Monday by reminding fans that tickets are still available for the Gators' home opener against South Carolina.

Related: Seating capacity for Bucs, USF home games to reach roughly 16,000

The takeaway: Just because fans can go doesn’t mean they want to yet. And considering the downward trend in nationwide attendance, it’s worth wondering whether fans who are opting out now because of COVID-19 concerns will keep watching from home whenever the pandemic subsides.