After an offseason full of frustration, argument and crippling doubt, the 2020 college football season kicks off at the FBS level Thursday night with Central Arkansas visiting UAB on ESPN3, followed by eight other contests through Monday night.
It seemed uncertain that we would get to this point this year, but since we’re here, let’s share some last-second thoughts:
1. This moment demanded more than it got from college football’s leaders
On the field, college football is a mix of chess tactics, athleticism and outright silliness. This was personified by Central Arkansas’ 24-17 win over Austin Peay last Saturday in Week 0’s FCS showcase game.
We saw a 75-yard run on the game’s first play, a couple of botched punt snaps and a turnover top hat. And let’s not forget the overly conservative fourth-down decision-making (some things never change) involving APSU’s Jeremiah Oatsvall, a quarterback who had nearly as many punt attempts as completions at one point. It also was a down-to-the-wire finish. This unscripted, wonderful game reminded many of us why we follow this sport to begin with.
Off the field, college football is almost impossible to defend. Its higher-ups lean on a definition of “amateurism” that was stilted and cynical when my parents were born and becomes more unjustifiable by the day. Conferences bicker and squabble and play to their tribes even during times when unity would help everyone at the table. And while the sport’s whole “no centralized leadership by design” thing is usually seen as a quirky personality trait, it rendered this billion dollar industry incapable of moving forward in unison during the greatest challenge of most of our lifetimes.
I hoped the power conferences would work in concert to figure out potential scheduling models and make the big decision of whether to play this fall or postpone until the winter/spring. And depending on the answer to the second question, plot out potential winter/spring options far in advance instead of waiting until August to even think about the idea in detail.
We got none of those things. Every conference weighed its own options mostly separate from one another and jockeyed for good PR. About 60% of FBS will attempt to play this fall, while 40% will attempt to piece together winter or spring schedules — independent of each other’s plans, once more. Despite Herculean efforts from players and plenty of coaching staffs, the sport handled the crisis as poorly as imaginable.
All the while, the sport’s leaders, such as they exist, still found time to create strawmen on the Senate floor in an attempt to limit these athletes’ earning power and economic rights. Even by this sport’s reasonably high standards for hypocrisy and contradiction, this was a master class.
With a spotlight shining on every single one of college football’s cracks and flaws, the sport showed the worst of itself. That fact doesn’t change now that we’ve got some games to distract us.
2. I still don’t think the Big Ten or Pac-12 made the wrong choice, by the way
On Aug. 11, Big Ten presidents, with support from commissioner Kevin Warren, voted to cancel all fall sports with the professed hopes of completing them in the winter or a crowded spring.
While Warren didn’t get incredibly specific, he still hit all the relevant notes: National trends were (and are) bad, testing was (and is) slow, contact tracing was (and is) impossible and the unknowns were (and are) scary. These factors were the primary drivers of the Pac-12’s, Mountain West’s and MAC’s own decisions to postpone, not to mention the NCAA’s suspension of every other fall sport (and lower-division football), after all.
The recent #WeWantToPlay push from players included a demand to “establish universal mandated health & safety procedures and protocols to protect college athletes against COVID-19 among all conferences throughout the NCAA.” If the Big Ten’s and Pac-12’s commissioners, presidents and medical advisers felt that bar could not be cleared in heavily populated campus environments, or that said universal procedures could not protect against the unknowns, postponement was perfectly justifiable. This was, as I wrote in August, a wicked problem with no truly right answer.
3. The thing about messaging is that it doesn’t stop
The job of commissioner is a political one.
Even if Warren’s decision was justifiable, he had to keep justifying it. His relative public absence allowed everyone else to take control of the narrative for a bit, from certain Big Ten head coaches to parent groups to the president of the United States. The burden of proof probably should have been on the teams and conferences still attempting to play this fall despite the lack of rapid-result testing and despite exploding case numbers on campuses throughout the country.
A lot of the current pressure on Warren and, to a much smaller degree, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, could dissipate as soon as these conferences release their own proposed schedules. We know they’ve talked about potential eight-game, January-start options. We know they’re supposedly fiddling with the option of starting around Thanksgiving if rapid-result testing is in place, and it’s at least possible that political pressure could lead to an even earlier date than that. But Warren’s credibility appears to have been wounded significantly, not because of the defensible decision he made but because of his inability to publicly defend it.
4. And what a strange season this may be
Obviously, the possibility of widespread fall cancellations will remain on the table throughout, and there’s nothing saying a winter/spring season will get off the ground. But think about the surreal calendar we could be facing if things go reasonably well.
Teams from Big 12, ACC, Conference USA, the Sun Belt and AAC begin play over the next two weeks, along with a smattering of rogue FCS squads. Then the SEC starts up two weeks later. Central Arkansas will have played three games by the time Arkansas plays its first.
These conferences all hold their conference title games in mid-December, followed by whatever sort of postseason comes about in late December and early January.
As a potential College Football Playoff is wrapping up, the Big Ten and Pac-12 begin their respective seasons.
A bunch of FCS conferences join in in February. It’s possible that this group includes some teams that also elected to play in the fall.
After the Rose Bowl is played as part of the CFP in January, a second Rose Bowl of sorts, pitting the Big Ten and Pac-12 winners, maybe takes place in mid-March or thereabout. (In a year with no Rose Bowl parade, we may get two Rose Bowls instead. Fair trade.) Maybe some other “bowls” pitting the No. 2, 3, etc., teams from each conference come together.
The FCS playoffs then begin in mid-April and wrap in mid-May, with the NFL draft falling in between. Maybe there’s a Celebration Bowl in there somewhere, too.
That’s approximately 8.5 months, from start to finish. The most relentlessly exhausting offseason in memory is about to segue right into the most relentlessly exhausting season in memory. Bring it on.
Heather Dinich breaks down the college football postseason possibilities with the Big Ten and Pac-12 delaying the start of their seasons.
5. Get mentally prepared for postponements and wild depth charts
UCA’s win over Austin Peay last Saturday was decided in part because all of APSU’s long snappers evidently had to quarantine and missed the trip, and a new long snapper predictably botched two punt snaps.
That’s probably not the only time something like that will happen, though we’re already seeing coaches make adjustments regarding how players are grouped or room together so that entire units aren’t wiped out because of positive tests. And there’s the quarantining of those who have been around people with positive tests.
This is all going to be really weird. And since we’ve already seen the postponement of quite a few early-season games because of campuswide coronavirus breakouts, there’s no telling how much rescheduling and cancellation we’re going to see.
It’s probably best to wait until a game kicks off to assume it’s kicking off. And even then, don’t expect to recognize all the players on the field.
6. This week’s SP+ projections
We have games, and we have SP+ ratings, so that means we’ve got some games to project.
Using a one-point home-field advantage — it’s subject to change as we get more data, but that’s where I’m starting out in this year of empty-to-mostly empty stands — here are the projections for this abbreviated slate:
UAB by 23.6 over Central Arkansas (92% win probability)
Southern Miss by 10.7 over South Alabama (73%)
Marshall by 22.6 over Eastern Kentucky (90%)
Army by 2.8 over MTSU (56%)
SMU by 21.2 over Texas State (89%)
North Texas by 27.7 over Houston Baptist (95%)
Memphis by 20.1 over Arkansas State (88%)
UTEP by 10.5 over Stephen F. Austin (73%)
BYU by 2.2 over Navy (55%)
(If you’re the gambling type, the biggest lean among these games is South Alabama +14.5.)
7. We’re going to see so much of Central Arkansas
On Aug. 13, the Southland Conference officially announced, like many others, that it was postponing its fall sports and exploring spring options. Four of its schools then proceeded to schedule games anyway.
Houston Baptist signed up to play three FBS teams. Abilene Christian scheduled two FBS teams and Division II’s West Texas A&M. Stephen F. Austin landed three FBS teams, one FCS and West Texas A&M. And of course, UCA scheduled nine games — three against FBS foes and six against the FCS. The Bears are playing two games each against Eastern Kentucky (which has itself scheduled eight games) and Missouri State, plus a Trey Lance Showcase game against North Dakota State.
This all makes part of me scream out, “What are we even doing right now?!?!” But another part of me admires the ambition.
These teams are not playing for a national championship or even a conference title, though they potentially could return to do that in the spring. They do stand to make some television money, and to be sure, this is a massive brand-building opportunity, especially for the teams that nearly set up an entire schedule. (You can find a smattering of Division II and III teams playing as well, and without any promise of TV revenue.)
8. Five particularly interesting teams to watch this fall
The average college football weekend is an outright flood of games. When FCS opponents are involved early in the season, we can creep over the 70-FBS-game mark for a couple of weeks, and even in the heat of conference play we’re looking at well over 50 games each weekend.
As the schedules currently are constituted, the largest number of games we’ll get in any one weekend this fall is 35.
The fire hose will be a little less strong than normal, and there are fewer big names to keep track of. That means you can enjoy a more curated college football experience, keeping better track of certain teams and players you might not have typically thought you had time to watch.
Here are five teams you’d be well-served following more closely than normal this fall:
1. SMU: Sonny Dykes’ Mustangs are one of seven teams attempting a full-on 12-game schedule, so they’ll be on your TV a lot. They also bring back quarterback Shane Buechele and receivers Reggie Roberson Jr. and Rashee Rice, either of whom could go for 1,000+ yards.
2. Louisiana: Your No. 2 Sun Belt contender behind Appalachian State, the Ragin’ Cajuns boast a Minnesota-esque “power running and lots of RPOs” offense, a big, meaty line and an aggressive defense. Coach Billy Napier is finding an interesting balance between innovation and old-school physicality.
3. North Carolina: UNC caught fire late in 2019, and quarterback Sam Howell is the personification of every wild urge offensive coordinator Phil Longo can come up with. The Tar Heels might still lack defensively, but they’ll challenge for the ACC title because of Howell, Longo and an offense with loads of returning production.
4. WKU: Tyson Helton’s Hilltoppers surged to 31st in defensive SP+ last year, and it appears they’re returning almost literally everyone. The Conference USA race could come down to two defense-first teams (WKU and UAB), and the one that manages to put a few more points on the board will be the favorite.
5. Central Arkansas: How many times have I mentioned the Bears in this piece? But UCA plays its home games on a purple and gray field and both scored and allowed 30+ points seven times each last year. What more can you ask for than that?
9. Ten particularly fun players to watch
Granted, maybe my single favorite college football player of the year, Memphis running back and utility man Kenny Gainwell, opted out of the season last week to prepare for the 2021 draft. But plenty of unique and super-fun players remain on the board:
1. CB Derek Stingley Jr., LSU: You already knew about him, of course, but here’s your reminder that while most of the incredible stars and personalities from LSU’s 2019 title run are gone, they aren’t all gone.
2. QB D’Eriq King, Miami: New offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s coaching DNA includes both air raid and Gus Malzahn, and he has maybe the best spread offense QB template in America available to him this year.
3. QB Sam Howell, UNC: This gunslinger threw for nearly 4,000 yards as a true freshman, and he didn’t even completely know what he was doing yet.
4. QB Sam Ehlinger, Texas: He’s got all the confidence in the world and one more chance to bring the Horns all the way back. (Well, maybe two, I guess, since everybody gets another year of eligibility in 2021 if they want one. But you know what I mean.)
5. S Richard LeCounte, Georgia: Kirby Smart’s UGA defense is an old-school, Saban-style boa constrictor, but LeCounte is particularly fun to watch, both in coverage and near the line.
6. WR Tamorrion Terry, Florida State: A lot of the sport’s most explosive receivers are gone, but Terry and his 19.8 yards per catch return, and he’ll be showcased in Mike Norvell’s delightful, “create as many nightmare matchups as possible” offense.
7. DE Quincy Roche, Miami: He logged 13 sacks at Temple in 2019, and while he originally was supposed to team up with Gregory Rousseau, who has opted out and declared for the draft, he remains incredible in his own right.
8. RBs Christopher Rodriguez Jr. and Kavosiey Smoke, Kentucky: Merge these two sophomores together, and Kavostopher Roke Jr. rushed for 1,149 yards (6.7 per carry) and 13 TDs last year. Both run with attitude, and Rodriguez puts off major Benny Snell vibes.
9. RG Aaron Banks, Notre Dame: This list needed some beef. Banks is enormous, mean and spry — he’ll pancake block you on one play, then snuff out your best pass-rush move on the next.
10. LB Blaze Alldredge, Rice: A flaming mane of reddish-blond hair and 20+ TFLs last year. Again I ask, what more can you ask for than that?
10. The 5 players I’ll miss the most
If I were to draw up the above 10 Fun Players list again tomorrow, it might contain 10 completely different names. But while I completely support and understand the decision-making of certain stars who opted out of playing this fall to prepare for next year’s NFL draft, a few of the decisions were particularly disappointing, at least from the selfish “Man, I wish I’d gotten to watch them play one more college season” perspective.
Here are the five that hurt the most:
1. LB Micah Parsons, Penn State: He was quite possibly PSU’s best linebacker, defensive end and nickel safety, and it was going to be fascinating to see what defensive coordinator Brent Pry was going to do with him.
2. RB/SLOT Kenny Gainwell, Memphis: Maybe my favorite skill position player in college football last year, Gainwell perfectly personified Norvell’s mismatch-based offense, rushing for nearly 1,500 yards while catching 51 passes.
4. WR Rondale Moore, Purdue: We were excited to see what he might do as an encore following a breakout freshman year, but he battled injuries and barely played in 2019. This was supposed to be the encore we hadn’t gotten yet.
5. LT Rashawn Slater, Northwestern: Slater was by far the bright spot on a dreadful Wildcats offense last year, but it was easy to see him potentially thriving in new coordinator Mike Bajakian’s tempo-and-beef run game. He deserved to leave after much better production than 2019’s.
(I didn’t put LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase on this list simply because I’m not sure what he possibly could have done to top what he did last year.)