The college football season kicks off this week though it won’t look anything close to what was planned before the COVID-19 pandemic took over.
We won’t be covering Alabama versus USC in Dallas this Saturday in what would have been the marquee game of the weekend. USC isn’t even playing this fall.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 both bowed out of a fall season though there have been reports of the Big Ten considering a possible Thanksgiving start. The SEC pushed back its season start, which means Alabama and Auburn fans will have to wait until Sept. 26 to see their teams take the field.
There will be football this week, though. Two of our in-state FBS teams, South Alabama and UAB, will jumpstart the season this Thursday. UAB gets Central Arkansas at home, a game that wasn’t even scheduled until Aug. 20, while the Jaguars travel to Southern Miss.
When college football starts, it’ll barely resemble what we’re all accustomed to watching. There will be fewer fans, no tailgating at many schools, masks worn on the sidelines, and your favorite player may be missing because of COVID-19. It’ll be weird, and yet, it will be football.
Ahead of the official start to the season this week, here’s a look at the most important looming questions.
Will we get a full season?
It’s the biggest and most challenging question to answer. For now, put it as to be determined. The six remaining FBS conferences seem determined to start their seasons at least, but no one can definitively say that they’ll make it to the finish line. There have already been multiple games rescheduled because of COVID-19 outbreaks on teams, which should only continue as the season progresses. The SEC moving to a conference-only schedule gives it more flexibility if those situations pop up. However, you could still see some possible forfeits if programs can’t field a big enough team. Another question to consider: Will any team drop out after it starts 0-4 and is missing several players? It’s a concern around college football.
Will this be an asterisk season?
Simple answer: Yes. Even though the Pac-12 has been entirely irrelevant in the College Football Playoff era, not having the Big Ten this season means we’ll always remember it differently. Led by quarterback Justin Fields, Ohio State was a legitimate title contender. Penn State, ranked at No. 7 in the preseason Associated Press poll, could have easily worked its way into the CFP. That said, as long as the ACC, Big 12 and SEC stay in the game, whichever team emerges as the national champion won’t be without merit. Seven of the preseason AP top 10 teams are still in the mix and don’t forget that the last five national champions have come from the ACC and SEC.
How many players will opt-out?
We’ve already seen notable names throughout college football opt-out of this coming season because of COVID-19 concerns. Alabama and Auburn have largely been spared from that trend — Chandler Wooten was a significant loss for the Tigers — but there could still be more to come. As the season starts, don’t be surprised to see additional players drop out of the season after getting COVID-19 or experiencing a team outbreak. The NCAA allowing every player to have another year of eligibility should help keep more players in the game initially, but it won’t stop some from opting out knowing they’ll still have another year of eligibility. Another thing to consider is with additional heart testing coming after myocarditis concerns, you could see more players have to step away from previously undetected underlying issues.
Will there be bowl games?
The College Football Playoff pushed back its rankings schedule but still plans to go ahead with a four-team playoff even with only six conferences. It gets more complicated for the overall bowl system, given there are more bowl slots (80) than available teams now (76). There was already an expectation that the typical bowl requirements (.500 record) would be thrown out this season, but will everyone automatically go to a bowl game this season? Further, would a 2-8 team even want to spend the money to go to a bowl game if it couldn’t bring any fans? There’s a lot of money at stake here, and ESPN, which operates more than 10 of the bowls, needs the TV inventory so don’t expect the bowls to disappear. There’s the real possibility, though, that bowl games can’t fill all their slots this season after the fall and have to push back to the spring to include the other four conferences.
What happens with the Heisman Trophy?
The most prestigious individual award in college football has a tricky problem this season. Does the Heisman Trust focus on only the players who participate in the traditional fall season? That’d give the edge to players like Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler and Alabama’s Mac Jones. Or does it wait for the Big Ten and Pac-12 to play their seasons so contenders like Justin Fields have a shot? The Heisman hasn’t made a decision yet, and there’s no easy answer. The Heisman is a significant event in December, so don’t be surprised to see it stick with that slot, eliminating the Big Ten and Pac-12 from consideration. That said, everything is seemingly on the table right now.
John Talty is the sports editor and SEC Insider for Alabama Media Group. You can follow him on Twitter @JTalty.