Powerful southern leagues aim to forge on with fall football

Published 6:45 pm Saturday, August 15, 2020

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By Gary B. Graves and John Zenor, AP Sports Writers

Folks in the south aren’t giving up on their beloved fall tradition of college football just yet.

While other conferences have conceded the fall to COVID-19, the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12 are holding out hope they can play a shortened season with uncertain national championship prospects.

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From Oklahoma to Alabama to South Carolina, a number of states don’t have NFL teams and college football is king. Weddings and other events are planned around game days and states practically stand still for showdowns like Alabama-Auburn and Oklahoma-Texas.

“It’s so deeply rooted here and part of the culture of social life, tailgating and all that,” said Charles Reagan Wilson, professor emeritus at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

The Pac-12, Big Ten and some lower-profile leagues won’t play football this fall because of the pandemic. ACC teams? They are already practicing in preparation for a Sept. 12 start and the SEC and Big 12 are going ahead, too, with conference openers set for Sept. 26.

Still, powerhouse Alabama and other SEC teams head into Monday’s practices knowing college football is still on for them, but not guaranteed.

“That’s the only mood I feel like is going around is we don’t know if we’re playing and we really want to play,'” Alabama tailback Najee Harris said Friday. He then talked about his younger teammates.

“We try to tell them don’t go to parties, but like it’s kind of hard to tell somebody not to go to a party in college,” he said. “We understand it, but we’re kind of just telling them, ‘If you do go to a party, like make sure you guys are overly safe.'”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who led the Tigers to national titles in 2016 and 2018, said “the virus doesn’t go away” without football.

“Yes, guys could still get it and I could still get it,” Swinney said. “But we all have to make our risk assessments in life. It’s always been that way. It’s not going to be any different in the spring . . . Our football team has made its decision. Hopefully, people will respect our decision and allow us to play.”

Many fans are certainly hoping they are able to since Saturday game days would provide a sense of normalcy. That is true for players, too, many of whom have been involved in football since they were boys. Campus is also seen as a safe haven for some.

“Back where a lot of us are from, it’s not good for us to go back home right now during this time,” said Louisville quarterback Micale Cunningham, who is from Birmingham, Alabama. “I mean, you can catch the virus like you can catch it here, just being out on the street.”

Louisville coach Scott Satterfield said he believes the practice routines provide structure as players work toward the goal of Saturday football.

“We have all these protocols, we’re testing, we’re doing all these things to prevent any spread of this virus,” he said. “But if they don’t have a purpose, they’re 18- to 22-year-olds. I mean, do we think that they’re gonna sit in their room 24 hours a day? It’s not gonna happen.”

Another pressing question is who will be there to watch. Teams like Alabama haven’t announced plans for seating capacity, but athletic director Greg Byrne said it would be significantly reduced. Oklahoma is already planning for seating capacity of just 25%.

Has playing football been politicized? Wilson said he hasn’t seen governors politicize the issue but noted that all three leagues planning to play are largely in “red states.” President Donald Trump and Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both Republicans, have made pleas for college football to be played.

“I hope the ACC and SEC stick with their current plan which is to have football this fall,” McConnell said in a recent radio interview.

Chris Massaro, the athletic director at Middle Tennessee State, said it was important for leagues like Conference USA, where his program plays football, “to be in lockstep with these other conferences.” CUSA is playing its conference schedule and teams can schedule up to four non-conference games, too.

“I saw a map earlier that basically stretches across the South of the teams that are playing . . . it’s not only conference to conference, it’s also statewide philosophies,” Massaro said.

To Pac-12 and Big Ten leaders, a football season wasn’t worth the risk.

“Other conferences may play,” Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman said. “Certainly their presidents and chancellors and medical staffs and ADs and head coaches may land in a different place than we did, and that’s their prerogative. I think we as a Big Ten conference made the decision that we thought was in the best interest of our student-athletes, and there will be challenges that come with it.”

Republican Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves made it clear how important he thinks college football is in his state. He also said conferences that cancel football “are doing it because they’re scared of lawsuits and bad press.”

“College football is essential,” Reeves tweeted. “What do opponents of football think, these kids will end up in a bubble without it? You can get COVID anywhere. There are forces who want to cancel everything to avoid risk at all societal costs. It’s foolish. We have to balance risk & costs.”