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Florida’s college football season kicks off tonight. Enjoy it for as long as it lasts

“This is an occasion that we weren’t sure was going to happen,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said. He’s right. So savor it.
Tonight's scene at Hard Rock Stadium won't look like this. But that's okay. Enjoy it while it's here.
Tonight's scene at Hard Rock Stadium won't look like this. But that's okay. Enjoy it while it's here. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sep. 10, 2020

When Miami kicks off the state’s college football season tonight against Alabama-Birmingham, the moment won’t be lost on Hurricanes coach Manny Diaz.

“This is an occasion that we weren’t sure was going to happen,” Diaz said.

So savor it. Enjoy watching new Miami quarterback D’Eriq King try to zip his way around the Blazers. Appreciate the first glimpse of the explosive new offense Mike Norvell has brought to Florida State in Saturday’s opener against Georgia Tech. Soak up the enthusiasm around Jeff Scott’s USF debut — a likely blowout over the Citadel.

Savor it all. We didn’t know if any of it would ever take place, and we still don’t know how long any of it will last.

Related: Why Miami’s D’Eriq King is the most important player in the state

On Aug. 8, the Mid-American Conference became the first Division I-A league to call off its fall season. On Sept. 8, the ACC issued a statement officially reaffirming its plans to proceed with fall sports.

In that month in the middle, the Big Ten and Pac-12 bailed, players sued, families protested and no less than the President of the United States intervened to try to salvage a season.

But here we are, on the verge of the weirdest season the state has seen since World War II.

It will not be perfect. The pageantry that makes college football so beloved in Florida and elsewhere will be muted, if not missing entirely.

Tonight’s crowd at Hard Rock Stadium will be limited to about 13,000. That’s 13,000 more fans than will be allowed inside Raymond James Stadium on Saturday. The empty seats weren’t an enormous eyesore last weekend in the sport’s soft open. Then again, Marshall and Texas State don’t have the same game-day atmosphere as Miami or Florida State. The environments could be more eerie than electric.

If last weekend was any indication, the on-field product will also be worse than what we’re used to, even by the traditionally low Week 1 standards. A four-play sequence in last week’s Southern Miss-South Alabama game featured an offside call, back-to-back false starts and an ineligible man downfield penalty. BYU blew out Navy by 52 Monday in part because the usually disciplined Midshipmen struggled to tackle.

Chalk it up to the abbreviated spring practice time and lingering coronavirus concerns that forced Navy and others to change their schedules and drills.

Related: Miami’s turnover chain will be back (and wiped down after every use)

“We’re probably the cleanest team in the country,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo told ESPN, “but unfortunately we suck at football right now.”

Although that’s a little harsh, his point remains. Expect sloppy football this weekend. But it’s still better than no football at all.

Reminders of that unfortunate possibility continue to hang over socially distanced stadiums. Three Big 12 games initially scheduled for this weekend (SMU-TCU, Oklahoma State-Tulsa and Baylor-Louisiana Tech) have been postponed because of outbreaks. On Wednesday, UAB coach Bill Clark told Birmingham TV station WBRC that a couple of his players didn’t travel to Miami because of positive tests, and the Gators' football program reported its first positive test since July.

And the unknowns are still swirling. As of Monday, Diaz still wasn’t sure how his team would bus to the stadium.

“You’re solving all these problems in real time and will be throughout the year, because one thing we’ve learned in 2020 is the situation is always evolving, it’s always changing,” Diaz said.

Even on the eve of this historic autumn, the sport’s biggest supporters must couch their optimism for the season.

Related: Every Florida 2020 college football game, ranked from worst to first

“There may be a couple games canceled here and there,” said ACC Network analyst Mark Richt, the former Miami and Georgia coach, “but I think we’re going to get it in.”

And that, no matter what it looks like and how it happens, is something worth celebrating.

• • •

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