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With Big Ten returning, college football still faces more of the unknown

  • Senior college football writer
  • Six-time FWAA award winner
  • Graduate of Stanford University

The calendar says it’s late October. The colors of leaves and the emergence of sweaters say the same. But here on Planet College Football, the concept of time is hard to grasp. The game’s internal clock needs a reboot. The coronavirus pandemic has taken our mileposts and shuffled them like a deck of cards.

The calendar can’t tell you who’s on the schedule, the way it has for generations. Michigan and Minnesota are playing Saturday night for the 104th time, but the Little Brown Jug game has never been a season opener. The calendar might say it’s Week 8, but for the Big Ten, it’s Week 1. Those early-season mistakes we’ve endured for the past month? Get ready for another month of them. Northwestern, 3-9 in 2019, sat out bowl season. The Wildcats haven’t played in 47 weeks.

“It’s been a long time since we tackled in a live game,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

We assume Northwestern will open against Maryland on Saturday night. The schedule is drawn up, but it can’t tell you which games actually will be played. Games are postponed days before kickoff. Games are scheduled the week before they’re played. Midweek reports of COVID-19 test results are becoming as dramatic and meaningful as final scores.

This is not the college football we signed up for. This is the college football we have. It sounds ungrateful to say, when we’re lucky to have any college football at all. But, in reality, this season is discombobulating. It’s difficult to trust in the narrative of the season when we don’t know who’s going to show up on Saturdays, when we can’t look at the calendar and have tradition tell us who is playing. Georgia and Auburn, a mid-November fixture since the 19th century, played on Oct. 3.

As the weather forces us to live more of our lives indoors, as the virus resumes its surge in state after state, odds are the disruptions to date are merely a preview. Players and coaches are all day-to-day. The Buddhist in you might say, “Aren’t we all?” But there are no Buddhists in college football. Coaches live to schedule and plan.

“I always had a plan I believed in so strongly that I thought it would win at Vassar,” coaching legend Bear Bryant once said.

Coaches plan practices in five-minute increments. They plot meetings. They script plays. This season, all that planning isn’t worth the sand it’s written on. A sport governed by tradition and coached by the anal retentive is operating on the fly, all of us — coaches, players, officials and fans — living at the mercy of a long nasal swab.

The coaches whose teams have yet to play have had the unrequested, unwanted luxury of watching college football.

“I think watching everybody else, if you didn’t earlier, you do now realize how fragile this is, how quickly things can change … in a 24-hour period,” said California head coach Justin Wilcox, whose Pac-12 Conference won’t kick off its season until Nov. 7. “Everybody has protocols they’re following, but nothing seems to be foolproof.”

The calendar says late October, and yet the quality of play says September. West Virginia averaged 5.9 penalties per game in 2019. This season, the Mountaineers are averaging 10 flags per game.

“You’re forming your discipline of your football team in your offseason and nobody had an offseason,” West Virginia coach Neal Brown said earlier this month. “Nobody had a summer. Your team chemistry is not good because your guys can’t spend the time they need [to] around each other.”

Just as the teams that are playing hope to approach midseason form, four more conferences will start play. Temperatures at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois, on Saturday night are expected to be in the mid-40s.

“We’re going out,” Fitzgerald said, “and here comes the wind blowing off Lake Michigan.”

In one sense, Wilcox said, this season is more like the game of college football than anyone realizes.

“You have all these great plans,” he said. “You [script] these 15 plays, and you’re going to score this many times. How many times does that actually happen? Never! Hell, last year, we fumbled the opening kickoff of the season. That was never in the plan.”

Wilcox talked about agility, being nimble, and he meant the thinking of his coaching staff. In the span of 72 hours last week, the Alabama coaching staff had to plan not to have head coach Nick Saban on the sideline for the first time in 14 years, then ditch that plan hours before kickoff and return to business as usual. That’s pandemic football.

Whittled-down rosters and whittled-down crowds. The energy that a full house brings to autumn Saturdays is missing. There are clusters of fans, sitting in odd patterns, if there are fans at all. That’s pandemic football.

The Big Ten returning to the field this week will color in some of the spots of this paint-by-numbers season. Here it is, late October. Maybe the trick is to look for the familiar where you can find it. Ohio State hasn’t lost a game. Rutgers hasn’t won one. Mack Brown is still 0-for-alma-mater. And Clemson and Alabama are Nos. 1-2. We search for mileposts that will help navigate another college football weekend today. We hold our breath for tomorrow. That’s pandemic football, too.

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