College Football 2020, screwed up though it is, lends a modicum of normality in a year of misery

The SEC started playing football yesterday, which means college football as we know it has returned, even if the stadiums are 20% filled and the air is heavy with weirdness.

Mississippi State runs rampant, beats LSU

Mississippi State 44, LSU 34

LSU had just five starters back off the GREATEST TEAM OF ALL TIME, 13 of the departures went to the NFL, both coordinators are gone including passing game coordinator Joe Brady, who turned Joe Burrow into Josh Brolin as Thanos, the big guy with the scrotum-looking chin in that movie about the Avengers, who with a snap of his fingers destroyed half the universe after stomping mudholes in all Avengers’ asses for three solid hours.

Myles Brennan, the QB who Burrow beat out for the starting job two years ago, could have transferred somewhere else and played, but he stuck around and waited for his time to come, so this is the kind of kid you want to see do well. He didn’t do well in that fiasco against Mississippi State, but it wasn’t all his fault. He appeared poorly coached, standing in the pocket with open guys running wild until Mississippi State crushed his not-real-good offensive line and tackled him.

But he still threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns and scored 34 points, which is by no means awful. But LSU’s defensive backs stood around admiring State coach Mike Leach’s “air raid” offense, whose maroon-clad players ran all over the place and caught on-the-money balls thrown by born-again amazing quarterback K.J. Costello, and then ran at top speed, unimpeded through large, empty swaths of grass for, no shit, 633 yards.

The Bulldogs amassed 9 net yards rushing, but they weren’t the least bit interested in doing anything except slinging the rock to wide-open receivers. LSU managed but 80 yards rushing, which wasn’t enough to help poor Myles much at all.

LSU’s defense wasn’t great last year, but it was good enough with that offense raising havoc untold. This year, it really needs help – and here’s hoping cornerback Derek Stingley a rapid recovery from the mysterious disease that put him in the hospital on Friday night before the game. It wasn’t COVID-19 related, the school said. He’s their best DB, and might could have helped some – one guy that good can make a difference.

I’m not prepared to pronounce the defending national champions DOA, nor am I going to declare Mississippi State the Next Big Thing in college football.

But that game was not what one expected, and boy, LSU has some work to do. And boy, Tiger Stadium is one quiet place when it’s filled to 20% capacity and Mississippi State is throwing for 633 yards.


Love in the time of virus: Alabama at Missouri; Kentucky at Auburn; Florida at Ole Miss; Mississippi State at LSU; Tennessee at South Carolina; Troy at BYU

It’s the last week of September, the weather has been fallish since the hurricane last week, and finally, the SEC starts playing ball. Oh, and we passed 200,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus last week, too. That is equivalent to approximately every soul in Montgomery, where I live. If you don’t think that’s a lot of people, try driving south from downtown on I-65 at 5 p.m. Or north.

Wake Forest and Notre Dame postponed their game this week because seven Irish are down with the sickness. Why do they get to do that? Last year, Tua Tagavailoa broke his hip and Alabama had to play all the rest of its games. He was worth seven Notre Dame players, at least. If we’re going to play in the midst of a pandemic and you get a few sick ones, go to war with what you’ve got left. That’s what I say.

But Notre Dame and Wake Forest say they’ll play next week, probably, so we’ll see.

Missouri had 12 guys who missed practice last week because of various COVID afflictions, either contact tracing (SEC rules, you sit 18 days) or positive test (SEC rules, you sit 14 days). They got good news this week that they have only seven guys out because the tests last week were messed up and wrong. And it may be fewer, because they’re going to test several more times before kickoff.

Don’t look for Missouri’s governor at the Bama game. Gov. Mike Parson, who opposed mandatory masks in his state, has COVID-19 and so does his wife, who apparently gave it to him. He says he feels fine. But he canceled all his meetings and rallies and stuff, so I guess he’s not against quarantining.

Nick Saban announced that Alabama has zero COVID-stricken guys who’ll miss Saturday’s game, which should come as no surprise, really. If Nick Saban got COVID, COVID would die.

The SEC guidelines for playing are, if you have 53 scholarship players who can go, you play. If all your quarterbacks have sniffles and a fever, and you have to play a nose tackle QB, you better put in a lot of running plays. We may see the single wing make a comeback.

There’s a good idea Alabama will do that anyway this weekend – they can just hand it off to 6-foot-2, 230 pound running back Najee Harris who returned for his senior year instead of going to the draft after gaining 1,200 yards last season. They have four offensive linemen back from last year and the fifth one is probably better than they are, and they’re playing Missouri. Why throw? The guy might drop it.

Mac Jones took over for Tua last year after the broken hip, and did, well, he did all right. He started at Auburn and put up 59 points, only 14 of them were for Auburn because he threw two pick-sixes. It was his first true start, and the playoff was on the line, and it was at Auburn, and they had a top-five passing defense, and he still threw for 335 yards and four touchdowns for his own team, and Alabama scored 45 points, which is supposed to be enough to win, even if you do throw two touchdowns to the other guys. Oh, and of course, Alabama missed a short field goal that would have tied it late in the game. Alabama’s kicking game was horrible, as usual, and in an atypical development, Alabama’s defense was awful last year, and gave up 5.6 yards a carry to Auburn’s usually abysmal running game.

So, the big question is, does Mac, who has a really good arm, settle in as the starter or does five-star freshman boy king Bryce Young come in and do wondrous things, like Jalen Hurts did that time, or like Tua did after him? Or, will Alabama incorporate a 1-A and 1-B quarterback system so that both play? Nah. Probably not.

Alabama’s defense will be better because Dylan Moses is back at linebacker. He suffered a season-ending injury in preseason practice and didn’t play a snap in 2019. If he had, Alabama probably would have beaten LSU and Auburn because he’s good enough to blow up a game plan all by himself.

Alabama’s a 25.5-point favorite. Take it and give the points.

Florida at Ole Miss

The funnest thing about this game is that it’s Lane Kiffin’s return to SEC coaching. His turbulent career has been marked by leaving Tennessee high and dry to go to Southern Cal, where he got fired in the airport parking lot after giving up 62 points in a loss at Arizona State. He underwent career rehab as offensive coordinator at Alabama and did time in Group of Five purgatory before getting the shot at Ole Miss, a program trying to come out of a tailspin after scandal, fired coaches and sanctions.

Florida, under the less flashy but better coach Dan Mullen, is one of the favorites to win the East Division after going 11-2 last year. Their no-frills quarterback Kyle Trask is back, along with plenty enough weapons to outscore the Rebels. The Florida defense is supposed to be really good. We’ll see.

Mississippi State at LSU

Well, OK, this game might be funner than Ole Miss because the Bulldogs have Mike Leach as their new head coach, and overall, he’s funnier than Kiffen. He’ll throw it around and score some points, but probably doesn’t have enough talent yet to beat the defending national champions.

LSU QB Myles Brennan doesn’t have the marquee value of last year’s star Joe Burrow, but neither did Joe Burrow this time last year.

LSU lost 13 guys to the draft last year, including Joe Burrow, without whom they’d have gone 7-4 even with 12 other NFL players on the roster.

But can Mississippi State roll up into Tiger Stadium and win? Nah. Probably not. Even though Tiger Stadium will be limited to about 15,000 fans and its fearsome reputation as a hard place to play is out the window.

Kentucky at Auburn

Auburn. Come on. It’s Kentucky.

Tennessee at South Carolina

Tennessee is nationally ranked at No. 16, which is pretty high. At last report, Tennessee was a 3.5-point favorite. You’d think it would be more, or I would. The Vols have a linebacker named Henry To’o To’o, the greatest name in American sports.

They also have a quarterback named Jarrett Guarantaro who has been really inconsistent, to put it mildly. But he’s got two pretty good running backs, and if he can just hand off to them and not fumble, that would be nice.

South Carolina was pretty awful last year, winning just 4 games and losing to Tennessee 42-21. I doubt they’ll be a lot better this season.

Tennessee ought to cover 3.5, unless the Vols fall into their old habit of being godawful in the first few games of the season.

Troy at BYU

Troy beat the snot out of Middle Tennessee last week. Gunnar Watson, the quarterback, goes for the jugular.

I don’t know if BYU is any good or not. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Troy won.


Love in the time of the virus: College football is just awful

College Game Day at 7 in the morning is hard to watch with all the rah-rah rhetoric and forced joviality that plays OK when there are 10,000 college kids behind you who’ve been drinking since 3 on Friday afternoon. But they’re in an empty stadium, and they’re all sitting six feet apart in symbolic deference to the plague that grips our land, and Herb is saying stuff like “Hello, national championship!” when Rece Davis says, “So, what’s your reaction to the Big Ten decision to play, after all?”

On Aug. 11 Big Ten officials announced they were canceling all fall sports out of an abundance of caution. But after watching from afar for three weeks, they noticed there was an abundance of money being left on the table. So they changed their minds and promised they’d do the best they could to keep from spreading pestilence, death and destruction amongst their players, staff and the nation in general. And they’re going to start playing on Oct. 24, I think, and they’ll play eight games, all against each other, which will have them wrapping stuff up the first week in December or something like that.

And with the resurrected Big Ten announcing their return to availability for national and regional television time slots, the College Football Playoff began to stir like the scary guy in the white mask in those horror movies where just when you think he’s dead, and whew, tension release, it’s over, but wait! Oh no! His eyes fly open and he’s back up, a madman with a butcher knife just raising hell, stabbing every teenager in sight.

Why, Herb and Desmond and that other guy were saying the PAC 12 could even have time to play a few games and get eligible for a six, eight, shoot, how about a 16-team playoff, with a Group of Five team and everything because why the hell not? ESPN paid billions for the rights to the college playoffs, and it was laying employees off back when times were good, and coronavirus was just a gleam in some Chinese bat’s eye. The ratings haven’t been so great, so here’s the perfect opportunity to cheapen the regular season and play more playoff games, like they did in basketball, which makes a huge profit.

Meanwhile, on the TV in the background in my cluttered den, 22-point road dog Tulsa has a 7-3 lead over Oklahoma State in a game where both teams’ offenses looked like a puppy passing a peach pit.

Pitt, which hasn’t been any good since Dan Marino played, is facing Syracuse, which hasn’t been any good since Jim Brown played. Duke’s playing Boston College and Baylor canceled another game because everybody’s down with the sickness.

The SEC starts play next week, which might breathe a little life into this mess – but they’ve managed to stack the schedule so that there are exactly zero good games on Sept. 26.

To wit:

Kentucky at Auburn | 12 p.m. | SEC Network
Florida at Ole Miss | 12 p.m. | ESPN
Mississippi State at LSU | 3:30 p.m. | CBS
Georgia at Arkansas | 4 p.m. | SEC Network
Alabama at Missouri | 7 p.m. | ESPN
Tennessee at South Carolina | 7:30 p.m. | SEC Network
Vanderbilt at Texas A&M | 7:30 p.m. | SEC Network Alternate

I think that’s Eastern Time, but I’m not sure.


Love in the Time of the Virus: COVID 44, Tennessee 0; Alabama non-football student cases don’t bode well

Note to self: Get rights from SEC and Catholic Church to manufacture team rosaries. (Photo by Marilyn Davenport/flickr Creative Commins

Tennessee canceled a Saturday scrimmage because it had 44 players down with the COVID. Well, only “seven or eight” actually had it, the rest had been in close enough contact with people who did have it to be forced to sit because of NCAA protocols.

Coach Jeremy Pruitt only had 30 offensive players for what turned out to be a regular practice on Sept. 5. It only takes 22 to have a first-and-second string, but apparently Pruitt didn’t think they’d benefit from a game-type scrimmage.

I wonder.

If COVID does what COVID tends to do for the remainder of the football season, there may be games where you have to play with 30 offensive players, and if none of them happen to be, say, running backs, figure something out.

The NCAA protocols, for the record, stipulate that players who test positive must sit out for no less than 10 days, and be symptom-free for three days before they can return. Players who have had “high-risk” contact with a known infected person has to sit out for 14 days – that’s about how long it takes for COVID symptoms to show up. High risk contact is defined as being within 6 feet of somebody who tests positive for at least 15 minutes without wearing a mask.

I can see where this could happen a lot.

Virus Time at Bama

It could happen a lot at Alabama, where Coach Nick Saban made a decent argument for keeping the football team on campus. He said the players would be “a lot safer with us than they are running around at home.” Alabama has dozens of doctors and trainers watching over the flock, they’re tested several times a week, have their temperature taken every day, and their every move is monitored as closely as a 20-year-old college football player’s moves can be monitored.

But Saban made that proclomation before the students came back to campus. Alabama has roughly 40,000 students. And Bama is racking up COVID cases like the Crimson Tide used to rack up points out of the spread with a healthy Tua under center and Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddel in the spread.  

Last Friday The University reported that 846 more students tested, bringing the total to 2,047. Last week, the school’s administration released an email to faculty saying they were NOT (capital letters theirs) to tell their classes when students in the class had tested positive because it was a violation of HIPPA rules. 

So Alabama football players could be sitting in the same classroom alongside a student with COVID and never know it. Yeah, they practice social distancing in class, and everybody’s supposed to mask up (except the teacher), but sitting in a classroom with a bunch of other people breathing ought to present an environment the wily coronavirus could exploit to float around in until it found a ball player’s nose to grab ahold to. And when class starts and ends, you might slip over that 6-foot boundary because they never have enough doors in classrooms.

He comes down with it, slips under the radar into practice between tests and temperature checks, and Alabama has a defensive tackle playing quarterback against Tennessee on the road. All the Vols’ sick ones should be back by then. 

Am I paranoid? Do I entertain dark fantasies? Hell, yeah. I’m over 60 and have two known co-morbidities. I haven’t had a haircut since February, so I look like Santa with his cap off. My COVID radar is turned up to 11. 

QUESTION OF THE DAY: If there was a zombie apocalypse, would zombie football players still be eligible to play? 




Love in the time of the virus: College football is underway, God bless the children and save the land

This is two teams playing football in a 4/5 empty stadium in the Time of the Virus. Somebody won, somebody lost, but we won’t know the real outcome until two weeks or so from now when we learn how many, if any, developed COVID-19 because of their participation or attendance.

A nasty virus spawned in the guts of Chinese bats has swiftly infected millions of people from every nation on earth. The old, the young and the in-between have caught it from tiny, virus-packed droplets of human sweat, spit and snot that float on the air like falling leaves and flakes of snow will in a few more weeks. The virus causes a disease called COVID-19 that on occasion, blithely disables or kills people.

The college football season kicked off today.

The players weren’t wearing masks. I was sitting on my couch, as usual, watching the games and thinking, “For Jesus’ sake. Give those kids masks, and face shields while you’re at it.”

I love football like the Lord loves his Church. This is my favorite time of the year. I really wonder if playing at all is a good idea.

Why aren’t the players wearing masks in the sport built on those most violent expressions of intimacy, blocking and tackling, which knock droplets of sweat, spit and snot all over the place? Well, they’ve been tested, or so the grownups say, so they may well be the safest people in the stadiums filled to 20% capacity. That’s not to say they’re safe, because the virus is an insidious little bastard that has a tendency to crash parties and go up everybody’s noses into their lungs and various other places.

Maybe it’ll be OK. I hope so. But there’s that feeling again, the one I get way down in my creaky, old ex-newspaperman bones, when I know a terrible thing is about to happen, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. Figuratively.

In games whose scores will be little noted nor long remembered, 20 small-college teams from across the land appeared in their annual roles as lambs slaughtered on the altar of college football but this year, they won’t be rolling up into big schools’ cathedral-like stadiums and getting massacred for a seven-figure check and the glory of the athletic department’s budget. No. This year, for some TV money, they charged the coronavirus machine gun nests with no weapons but their own bodies, and hurled themselves over the barbed-wire fence so that three weeks from now, major conference teams who opted to play ball this season can run over their backs and into the marvelous fire. Figuratively.

Maybe it’ll be OK. Maybe a only few kids will get sick and in two or three weeks they’ll be back in the lineup bursting with antibodies and right as rain. Maybe the fans won’t take off their masks and inhale clouds of microscopic pathogens.

Maybe the fans won’t carry it home and sicken the vulnerable hoards. Maybe it won’t result in a spike in the numbers of the sick and the dead, and that CDC prediction this week of up to 400,000 dead by Christmas will prove to be a fake news and a hoax.

Maybe the dread that comes from decades of watching things swiftly fall apart then slowly, painfully get put back together is the overreaction of an old fart with a negative attitude.

Maybe not.