How coronavirus could negatively impact the 2020 college football season
There are things bigger than sports right now. That much we know. That much you’ve probably heard about the last few days.
But eventually, we will get back to a place where sports are being played and our favorite escape will return to all of its glory. When that is, nobody knows.
Even though college football season is still a solid 6 months away (thankfully), it appears that this is going to have an impact on the sport in 2020. That’s not my way of saying we’ll see games canceled or anything like that. But it is worth pointing out that spring football as we know it will not exist in 2020.
Soon after Georgia and Auburn already announced that they postponed all spring football activities, the SEC suspended all team activities until April 15. Five teams had already started spring practice. Vandy and South Carolina had spring games scheduled for early April. Four more teams had spring games scheduled for April 11. Seven more teams have their spring games scheduled for April 18. At this point, it’s hard to imagine any sort of spring football in the near future when we just saw the NCAA wipe out championships. Shoot, even The Masters is postponed.
What’s the result of this for college football? My best guess is that it lessens the product. There’s a reason that teams practice and scrimmage in the spring. If it didn’t help, they’d just tell everyone to stay home.
So I apologize for this being considered a “negative” story during a time when it seems like that’s the overwhelming tone, but hey, at least we’re talking football?
Here are the 5 ways I think the sport will be hurt in 2020:
1. Quarterback battles
One aspect spring practices/games allow teams to see is separation at the quarterback position. A reduction or cancellation of those things will obviously limit the opportunities to see these guys play side-by-side. For coaches dealing with quarterback battles, that’s an issue.
Shoot, even quarterbacks who are returning know the importance of those reps. Remember how crucial last offseason was for Jake Fromm to get on the same page as his young wideouts? That learning curve proved to be a steep one.
Or what about a new transfer quarterback trying to win the starting job like like D’Eriq King? The former Houston quarterback dealt with the death of his father and Miami even changed the practice schedule to accommodate for him, but then on Thursday, we found out that the ACC shut down all spring practices:
This has been a weird year so far.
— King (@DeriqKing_) March 13, 2020
Another example for why spring practice actually matters for quarterback battles was a situation like Auburn’s last year. The Tigers had a 4-way battle that appeared to be wide open. After spring camp wrapped up — a camp that included a full-contact scrimmage for quarterbacks — Gus Malzahn made the determination that it was down to Bo Nix and Joey Gatewood.
Yes, the expectation is that fall camp will still give quarterbacks plenty of reps, but I can’t help but think that teams who return a wealth of experience at the quarterback and receiver position have an even stronger advantage on the teams who don’t.
2. Getting early enrollees up to speed
“Welcome to college, freshman. Just in case you thought this wasn’t all new enough, we’re going to totally change your schedule so that all your classes are online and the practices you just started are now postponed.”
That’s not a curveball any freshman expects to get. A lot of the early enrollees are just figuring out how to function without their parents for the first time. Now, they could be in a situation without practice? That’s not going to help their development.
Such a major trend in college football during the latter half of the 2010s was how much more freshmen were relied on. There’s no longer this belief that true freshmen can’t succeed at the Power 5 level, and much of that is because they get quality reps as early enrollees. By the time fall camp rolls around, they understand the system and that learning curve isn’t nearly as steep as it once was.
Am I saying freshmen are destined to ride the bench in 2020? No, but freshmen who dominate a spring game or wow coaches in spring practices often have the leg up to win starting jobs in fall camp (see Stingley, Derek). Again, just like I said with there being a reason that spring practices exist, there’s also a reason early enrollees exist. Their path to playing time might be a little tougher to navigate now.
3. New coaches
In the SEC alone, there are 4 new coaches. You can bet that all of them were planning on having a normal spring practice as they navigated their own new surroundings. To have a hiccup in the schedule certainly puts them at a disadvantage as they try to establish their culture. Even a suspension and not an outright cancelation hurts.
New coaches are already forced to deal with essentially having 2 weeks to field an entire recruiting class because of the Early Signing Period. That’s on top of hiring a new staff, as well. That’s why it’s not even fair to judge a coach until he gets a full recruiting cycle.
This feels like another hurdle for them to clear. If new coaches had it their way, they’d get an increased amount of time to practice in order to add structure to the lives of their players. It seems inevitable that there will be a lack of structure, and it will make a difference.
Picture being a guy like Mel Tucker. He showed up late to the party as it is. Then he found out on Friday that the Big Ten suspended all team activities until at least April 6. That’s precious time that’ll go to waste.
BREAKING: The Big Ten Conference announced all organized team activities have been suspended until April 6 and will be re-evaluated at that time.
— Chris Solari (@chrissolari) March 13, 2020
All he and other new coaches can hope for is that they’ve got some veterans in the locker room who won’t treat this time as a vacation.
4. Players coming off season-ending injuries
If players get a full spring practice workload, then this is somewhat of a moot point. Again, it’s hard to envision a spring scrimmage though. That’s the issue. For players like Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson, you can bet that a spring game in front of fans would have been an important thing for him coming off his season-ending injury. Even with a lessened crowd or limited contact, the mental aspect of that was significant.
It’s a case-by-case basis, but going on the field for the first time in fall isn’t ideal. Could someone like Wilson or Alabama’s Dylan Moses be a bit more timid at the start of the season? Or will instincts just take over and they’ll be back to their pre-injury selves? I don’t know, but I do know that I can’t guarantee the latter scenario.
In a perfect world, they’d get those reps in a somewhat simulated environment before the start of the season. We we know all too well right now, this isn’t a perfect world.
Hold on. I’m not saying that games are going to be played in empty stadiums. I’m not even saying that we’ll at any point during the 2020 season look at the crowds and be like, “wow, this weak crowd must be from coronavirus.”
What I am saying is that according to CBS Sports, college football attendance is at its lowest since 1996. Even the almighty SEC had its lowest average attendance since 2000. College football attendance fell for the 6th consecutive year.
In other words, the margin for error is slim. The overwhelming feeling as to why this trend exists is because of the combination of increased ticket prices/cost of attending a game with increased increased TV options. We’re a few days removed from thinking there would be an NCAA Tournament without fans because of coronavirus fears. If there’s any fear still lingering, some might decide not to roll the dice on the in-person experience when the at-home experience continues to improve.
That’s my only point. If I’m predicting today, I’d be stunned if we saw Alabama or Ohio State playing in front of half-empty stadiums. I’m pretty sure you could tell those fan bases that they’d get coronavirus just for entering the stadium and you’d still get nearly-packed house on a given fall Saturday.
But the longer this uncertainty lasts, the more likely we see this carry into the start of the season.
Here’s hoping that we’re all able to move along and get back to as close to a normal college football season as humanly possible.