The opening weekend of Power 5 college football has finally arrived after one of the more challenging summers in modern history that included the coronavirus pandemic and a racial reckoning in America.
Arguments have been made about whether games should happen because of the pandemic, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 postponed their fall football seasons. Meanwhile, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are pushing forward with revised seasons.
So here we are. College football is back, but the pandemic and its effect on games being played is still real, and no kickoff is going to change that reality.
We’ve already seen numerous postponements. On Aug. 26, NC State and Virginia Tech postponed their opener, and TCU and SMU announced the same on Sept. 4. The next day, Tennessee canceled practice with 44 players out. On Tuesday, Temple postponed its opener against Navy, and Baylor postponed its Saturday opener against Louisiana Tech.
There are two pieces to this. First, if schools are going to attempt to go through with a season (which they obviously are), it’s crucial for them to continue to take these kinds of precautions. The health of the athletes is more important than trying to push through a game or practice in September.
The other — and much lesser — piece of this is that it’s a good reminder the season can be canceled at any time because of an outbreak.
Major League Baseball, like college football, doesn’t have a bubble. Because of COVID-19 cases, numerous MLB teams have had games postponed. Football is a sport with much more contact, and you can’t make college athletes be responsible outside of the facilities and off the field.
Also, the circumstances under which professional athletes are willing to take the risk of playing during the pandemic are far different from those of “student-athletes.” Pro athletes are paid and have protections, whereas collegiate athletes do not. No matter how you feel about college athlete compensation, one cannot argue in good faith that the logistics of what is happening right now are fair or just.
It will be undeniably weird to go through with this season given the pandemic and surroundings. There will be few or no fans in the stands, no band music blaring from either end zone, and less of the other bells and whistles we’re accustomed to.
But we’re going to try to enjoy this version of college football. Because right or wrong, this season is a thing that’s happening.
All we can hope for is that the athletes are protected to the greatest extent possible by their respective universities — which would also make it more likely we’re going to get a full season.
Now, let’s get to the action this weekend.
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Lyles: Be on the lookout for any sloppy play or surprise upsets this first week. Navy got absolutely washed by BYU on Monday night 55-3, but the Midshipmen aren’t nearly as bad as they looked. Practice was put on pause right as spring began, and getting back into summer conditioning and starting camp was off a normal schedule.
Some teams are going to be better off because of pure talent, depth, continuity or a combination, but this could be a week where we get to see just how much the pandemic has affected teams on the field.
Hale: Manny Diaz’s latest forays into the transfer portal — QB D’Eriq King, and pass-rushers Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips — will all make their Miami debuts tonight against UAB. While Diaz doesn’t want de facto free agency to be his chief strategy for personnel acquisition in Coral Gables, there is a lot of talent between these three players. King was a legitimate Heisman contender at Houston before getting hurt late in the 2018 season, then sat out the final eight games of 2019. Roche is arguably the best pass-rusher in the nation, but he’ll be making his Power 5 debut after transferring from Temple. Then there’s Phillips, who was the No. 3 recruit in the country in 2017 when he signed with UCLA.
Can this new group of transfers turn Miami into a contender? Tonight should offer some real insight, particularly given that UAB is solid, and last year’s Canes lost twice to Group of 5 competition.
What else to watch
GameDay comes to Wake: After Iowa State and Minnesota hosted ESPN’s College GameDay last season, that left just 10 Power 5 schools that have never hosted the show, including Wake Forest. Well, we can now scratch Winston-Salem, North Carolina, off the list, too — sort of. Yes, Wake will welcome GameDay on Saturday, as the Deacons host No. 1 Clemson to kick off the season. But it won’t exactly have the feel of a typical show with hundreds of fans holding signs crowded in front of the stage. Such is life in the pandemic.
So, how legit is this GameDay visit?
Wake is planning a “virtual pep rally” Friday night, the downtown skyline will be lit in gold, and the school is planning a drive-in watch party at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds. There will also be a residence hall sign contest, with winners getting cutouts displayed in the stadium. Wake wants to keep the signs coming for GameDay, too, so the school collected a bunch from fans via both drop-off and mail, for placement on the GameDay set.
“We’ve been back in school and our students have been incredibly resilient and adaptive and all of that nicely fits in with [our] first ever GameDay appearance here,” Wake AD John Currie said. “That’s certainly a tribute as well to Clemson and the program they have, but at the same time, we’re certainly not going to turn down the opportunity. Our goal is we create such a great scene in these unique times that we’ll have a strong case for a comeback visit.”
The GameDay duties might check off one item from the Wake Forest bucket list, but a bigger one still remains. The Deacons have never beaten a No. 1-ranked team in their 112-year history — an 0-8 record, including a 63-3 drubbing by top-ranked Clemson in 2018.
Offensive fireworks: There aren’t any top-25 matchups this weekend, but we do get a look at a showdown between two of the country’s best quarterbacks when Louisiana heads to Iowa State. Only four QBs will be playing this season after throwing for 3,000 yards, 25 touchdowns and fewer than 10 picks, while completing at least 64% of their throws. Two are Heisman favorites in Trevor Lawrence and Sam Ehlinger. The other two? Iowa State’s Brock Purdy and Louisiana’s Levi Lewis. No surprise then that both teams can score plenty. They combined for 15 games scoring at least 34 points last season.
Notre Dame in the ACC: There are plenty of quirks that will make this season seem awfully strange, but perhaps the biggest one is seeing Notre Dame as a full-time ACC member. The Irish will play the first conference game in the program’s 121-year history when they kick off against Duke on Saturday. How will it go? Well, the Irish have played 31 games vs. the ACC since partially joining the league in 2014, and lost just eight. Three of those losses were to playoff teams, and another was to an undefeated Miami in 2018. So, no, Notre Dame probably isn’t too worried about life as a conference member. Still, it is worth noting one of the biggest upsets the Irish have endured since their tie-in with the ACC started came in a 38-35 loss to Duke in 2016.
App State/Charlotte rivalry: Appalachian State AD Doug Gillin and Charlotte AD Mike Hill have talked for two years about an annual rivalry game between their schools, but both inherited some long-term scheduling that has made it tough. So, consider this year’s matchup a small silver lining of the pandemic-created scheduling nightmare. Both App State and Charlotte had openings on the schedule, and inking a deal worked out perfectly. Last year’s matchup between the two was a back-and-forth 56-41 App State win that came with some salt in the wound for Charlotte, which inadvertently left its famed “Club Lit” sign in the visitors locker room. So, perhaps this year the 49ers can come away with a win or, at least, find the old sign between some couch cushions.
Musical selections: In addition to what to watch for this Saturday, there’s reason to listen for some quirks to games, too. Teams will be allowed to pump in music and noise to account for the lack of fans, which should make for some strange moments. Dabo Swinney joked this week that he’s hoping for a little Marvin Gaye at Wake Forest, though Deacons head coach and noted Talking Heads fan Dave Clawson might simply hope there’s no “Burning Down the House” by Clemson’s offense.
Under-the-radar game of the week
Lyles: Louisiana at Iowa State. Sun Belt teams win games against Power 5 schools. Last season, Appalachian State beat both North Carolina and South Carolina on the road, Coastal Carolina beat Kansas, and most notably, Georgia State knocked Tennessee around. Louisiana, which went 11-3 last season, is one of two favorites to win the Sun Belt, along with App State.
Hale: Georgia Tech at Florida State. This also marks the first time the two teams have played since 2015, when Georgia Tech pulled off one of the most stunning last-second upsets in recent memory, knocking off a 6-0 FSU team by blocking a last-second field goal and returning it for a touchdown. It is also the debut of Mike Norvell as FSU head coach, and perhaps a first look at Georgia Tech freshman QB Jeff Sims, a onetime FSU target on the recruiting trail.
Upset pick of the Week
Lyles: Louisiana over No. 23 Iowa State
Hale: Coastal Carolina over Kansas
Arguably the biggest highlight from a light Week 1 schedule was the “Impact Players” graphic during the Marshall-Eastern Kentucky game, which showcased Colonels offensive lineman Jackson Bardall‘s receding hairline, long blond mullet and scraggly beard. We talked with Bardall, whose EKU team plays another nationally televised game against West Virginia on Saturday, about the response to his impressive mane.
ESPN: Your photo became an instant favorite on Twitter during the game Saturday. What was the response you heard from folks afterward?
Bardall: I got a lot of people I went to high school with saying, “Dude, you’re famous” and “You’re trending on Twitter.” I did enjoy reading the comments though. My favorite one was: “Sees this picture, immediately wants to listen to Molly Hatchet.” Lot of Hulk Hogan references.
ESPN: How did this look come to be?
Bardall: It came to be just because college. Throughout my life, it was clean face, zero on the side, one on the top flattop. The complete opposite of this. I got to college and said, “Mom and Dad aren’t here, so I don’t have to cut my hair anymore.” Plus, I could see it starting to recede, falling out extra hard, so I said, “Screw it. Let’s go and see what happens.”
ESPN: What is the maintenance routine for such an amazing look?
Bardall: A lot of it is just natural. It just falls out this way on its own. I do shampoo and condition at least once a day. And if we’re doing something without a mask on, I do like to comb out my beard, put a little beard oil in to help it get out and a little bit more fluff to it. But that’s it.
ESPN: On a more serious note, you guys shared a powerful statement on racial justice before the Marshall game, with everyone wearing shirts in support of police reform. How did that come to be and what did it mean to you?
Bardall: When we knew we were going to be on ESPN and had that big platform, Coach Wells brought up the idea, “Do you want to do something?” The players took that and ran with it. We talked to our position groups and got some support from the diversity and inclusion office and came up with that saying. It’s really awesome to be a part of a locker room and a team that is that into it. In those meetings, I didn’t say much. I’m not as affected as many of my other teammates, so I tried to just support where I could.
What we’ll miss in Week 2
Lyles: Fans. It’s for the best to have limited or no fans right now — there’s no denying that. But the big plays that make us love college football won’t have the same feeling without the reactions of thousands of fans. A good example is the “Kick Six.” The play is amazing regardless, but part of what makes that moment stick with you forever is the way Jordan-Hare Stadium erupted, and the sea of fans on the field afterward. We aren’t getting that in 2020.
With 30 seconds left in the football game, all this Marshall fan can do is dance to celebrate the Thundering Herd’s win.
Hale: I’m with Harry here. I’m going to miss the fans. But more specifically, I’ll miss the fan memes. It’s the best part of watching college football on TV — the zoom-ins on miserable LSU fans, bored FSU fans or excited NC State fans. Sure, Week 1 gave us the dancing Marshall fan, but these are going to be few and far between this year.
Players to watch
Lyles: Clemson DT Tyler Davis could be in for a big game against a young Wake Forest offense. In 2019, Davis had 45 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 6.5 sacks and 2 pass deflections as a freshman. The Demon Deacons’ offense ranks 109th in Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings. Sophomore quarterback Sam Hartman has promise, as do other young pieces on the Wake offense, but Clemson’s experienced and talented defense might be too overwhelming.
Hale: Western Kentucky DE DeAngelo Malone. If you haven’t watched much of the Hilltoppers before, this should be a nice introduction to their star edge rusher. Malone finished second in the country with 21 tackles for loss last season, while adding 11.5 sacks and 16 QB hurries. Now consider Louisville is replacing left tackle Mekhi Becton, a first-round draft choice, and ranked 99th in pressure rate allowed a year ago.