Like most fans, Governor DeSantis wants Florida vs. Florida State in 2020. In truth, it's complicated
The SEC’s announcement last week that it will play a 10-game, conference-only college football season figured to be the death knell for Florida’s year-end rivalry game against perennial ACC power Florida State. The Florida schools had met annually every season since 1958, with the contest blossoming into one of college football’s best and most nationally meaningful rivalry games in the 1990s and 2000s.
The ACC had left the door open to scheduling 1 nonconference game, potentially allowing the Florida-Florida State game to be played, but the SEC ultimately shut the door on a number of SEC-ACC end of the year contests by adopting conference-only, despite strong objections from Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
Or so we thought.
Enter Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who Thursday publicly urged UF and FSU to play the game anyway, offering to help find a way to make it happen. Gov. DeSantis, who attended Yale, where he played baseball, has no dog in the fight. But he’s pushing for the game anyway, having made the remarks while speaking at a town hall forum on sports attended by former Florida State Heisman winner Charlie Ward and former Florida All-American and All-Pro Lito Sheppard. His reasoning? The game simply means too much to a lot of Floridians.
“It’s an epic rivalry, and if you’re able to play, you should play, give the fans what they want and look forward to every season” DeSantis said. “I’m going to see if I can make sure that rivalry game continues because I know it’s one we all look forward to each year.”
This might, of course, be a situation where DeSantis’ heart is in the right place but the answer isn’t that simple.
For one, it’s difficult to figure out when the game could occur. With the SEC adopting conference-only, and the SEC season slated to begin Sept. 26, late enough to theoretically allow the southern surge in the virus to recede a bit more, SEC schools won’t even begin practice until Aug. 17. That late start means that a Week 0 contest, now sanctioned by the NCAA, is out of the question, as SEC programs simply won’t have practiced long enough to play tackle football games in late August.
That leaves only two other options.
First, the programs could potentially meet on Sept. 19, when FSU has a bye week in the ACC schedule and a week before Florida’s SEC opener.
As much fun as it might be for Florida fans to dream of welcoming new FSU head coach Mike Norvell to the rivalry game by whipping the Noles at Doak Campbell Stadium in September, it’s a tough ask, both for players and the University of Florida.
To begin with, that game would be played a week before the date recommended by a group of physicians and medical consultants that worked with the SEC to determine the safest time to return to play. It’s hard to imagine the University of Florida officials bucking that advice simply to preserve a rivalry game. Further, if you’ve been watching the return to team sports unfold in Major League Baseball, you realize that sports outside the tightly-sealed bubbles established by the NBA, MLS and NWSL is a proposition that inevitably involves positive tests.
Some positive COVID tests are inevitable at every program in America. We’ve already seen the ripple effect of coronavirus on college football in offseason workouts, where multiple programs suspended workouts, contact tracing has failed, player family members have become sick and a number of players, from star linebackers to kickers with fun Twitter handles, have opted out. Is a rivalry game worth that risk? Especially with everything that will be at stake in the conference season?
If Florida did want to play the game — and Scott Stricklin has repeatedly said they do, if it is safe to do so — would FSU give up its bye week simply to preserve the rivalry? That’s a complicated question. The Noles will, of course, be installing a new system and building a new culture. They’ll also be navigating the early seas of their compressed ACC schedule and, of course, dealing with their own COVID containment. FSU announced Thursday they’d like to have 20-25% capacity at Doak Campbell Stadium this fall. Is that type of capacity and revenue worth the risk to players and their families in September, when most medical professionals believe the virus will still be widespread in Florida?
If the Sept. 19 option is a non-starter, the only other immediately available date would be to schedule the game tentatively for SEC and ACC championship week, operating under the assumption that the game could simply be abandoned if either program made their conference championship game. That’s actually not the worst idea in the world, especially if early prognosis about a viable vaccine being available by the end of 2020 proves correct.
But ask Dan Mullen or Mike Norvell if they want to play that game and not the conference title game, and you’d likely not be invited back to the next press conference.
At a minimum, this is a big ask on both sides.
The bottom line is that as much as, like Gov. DeSantis, we as fans and writers want things to be the same — this 2020 season will be far from it and COVID-19 will be the saboteur. This is already happening.
“Talking season” used to be fun: Spurrier one-liners, watching the Coach O Hummer commercial and saying ‘That guy won a natty’, Saban at the Winfrey being treated like Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, “New Gus” in a sweater vest in July, dapper linebackers with pocket squares and J. Crew suits. This year it’s been about defections, delays, programs canceling their season and coaches who make millions off players labor trying to avoid putting their foot in their mouth (looking at you, Dabo). Losing beloved nonconference rivalry games is just another likely COVID casualty.
Gov. DeSantis is right, that’s a shame. There just might not be anything he can do — at this point, at least — about it.