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How Florida’s only active FCS team is handling a spring football season

“Nothing’s normal anymore,” Stetson’s coach said about his upcoming six-game spring slate.
Stetson football coach Roger Hughes has led the Hatters since 2013.
Stetson football coach Roger Hughes has led the Hatters since 2013. [ STEVE_SIMONEAU | Courtesy of Stetson University ]
Published Mar. 9
Updated Mar. 9

When the Big Ten and Pac-12 voted against holding a traditional college football fall in August, spring became the sport’s last-ditch fallback option.

The possibility spread. Could the Gators, Seminoles, Bulls and everyone else move the season from the first semester to the second because of uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic?

It didn’t happen; the Big Ten and Pac-12 reversed course, and Division I-A withstood an abbreviated autumn.

But a notch down the NCAA hierarchy, the spring season stuck. As UF, FSU and USF continue the five weeks of scrimmages and drills of traditional spring football, Stetson University is preparing to kick off its six-game Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) season Saturday in DeLand against Davidson College.

“Nothing’s normal anymore,” Stetson coach Roger Hughes said.

Although some of college football’s earliest games happened in the second semester, meaningful contests this late in the school year haven’t happened since the early 20th century. That left Hughes and his colleagues without a clear blueprint to follow as a bunch of routine-driven minds tried to transform a tradition-rich game and culture.

Related: A brief history of spring college football: Michigan’s first win, initial Iron Bowl, a pants-less goat

The first thing teams had to figure out: Did they want to play at all?

Two of the state’s other FCS programs, Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M, decided their answer was no. They opted out.

At Stetson, the Hatters thought differently. The program doesn’t award athletic scholarships, so every player is paying to be at school and on the team. Hughes felt obligated to live up to his part of the financial arrangement by providing whatever kind of season he can.

“We’re making every effort to fulfill the promise we made to them when we recruited them,” Hughes said.

Stetson receiver Quinton Lane, a Robinson High alumnus, started four games in 2019.
Stetson receiver Quinton Lane, a Robinson High alumnus, started four games in 2019. [ STEVE_SIMONEAU | Courtesy of Stetson University ]

With that decision made, Hughes and the Hatters had to sort through the unusual logistics.

Stetson took its typical spring practice plan and moved it to the fall. That should provide an extra benefit of giving freshmen valuable practice time before their first season. And because the NCAA is giving every player an extra year of eligibility, they’ll have even more time to grow for next fall and beyond.

“It’s really one of those things where we can develop as much as we can out of the younger players,” Hughes said.

But long-term development isn’t Hughes’ only focus this season. It can’t be.

Although some seniors may want to return for an extra year, others won’t; this odd spring will be the final football season some of them play. They don’t want to be building for a future fall season. They want to win now.

Because the eighth season of Hughes’ Stetson career is unlike any other, he asked some of his Division I-A friends how they handled the fall. They stressed that the emotional toll of a stop-and-start season can drain players’ psyches, so he needed to keep things light and build in plenty of rest.

“One of the pieces I got: Less is more,” Hughes said.

Just as Hughes must watch players’ mental health, he’s also having to adapt to different challenges to their physical health.

After not playing since November 2019, the Hatters will tackle a six-game season (plus a potential playoff run), then play what will hopefully be a full, normal schedule in the fall. Hughes said this season’s practice schedule is comparable to a normal spring, but there are understandable concerns about how players’ bodies will handle the load.

“We’ve got to be smarter as coaches,” Hughes said. “If we do it appropriate, I think we can be pretty successful at it.”

Hughes already sees one advantage from the spring season. Thanks to a shorter schedule and the falling costs of tests, Stetson is saving money on its twice-a-week, in-season testing compared to what it would have spent in the fall.

Beyond that, Hughes hopes Stetson’s status as the state’s only FCS team playing this spring helps raise the program’s profile.

“I think we have an opportunity to possibly get to some people who still are football fanatics but haven’t had a chance to watch us because they’re driving to Gainesville or Tallahassee or Miami,” Hughes said.

Related: Florida’s early 2021 college football viewing guide

But what will those fans see? Hughes still is figuring that out amidst another spring of uncertainty.

“Everything has to be flexible,” Hughes said. “Put the ball down, and we’re going to play football whenever we get a chance to do it.

“We’re going to take care of what we need to do today to get better. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the circumstances and get better however we can within the circumstances.”