Pining for the return of Razorback football this fall

It’s only been a few weeks since ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit sent shockwaves though college football fandom when he speculated that there would not be a college football season this fall.

As popular as the former Ohio State quarterback is, he faced a hailstorm of criticism, pelting him from all directions for the comments.

Maybe it would have been better for him to keep his thoughts to himself, or maybe, college football fandom needed the shock to wake everyone to the reality that returning college athletics to business as usual isn’t going to be quite as simple and quick as we would like it to be.

Over Easter weekend, Herbstreit’s ESPN play-by-play partner Chris Fowler posted a speculative video opinion piece on Instagram that wasn’t quite as dour as his cohort’s gut-punch opinion, but it basically said much the same thing.

It’s Fowler’s “informed speculation” after speaking with not necessarily decision makers but with informed insiders that a “normal” college football season as we know as “normal” is possible but not exactly probable because of the scope and logistics of the COVID-19 pandemic, which put a halt to the entire athletic word just a month ago.

Everyone knows how big college football is, or at least we think we do. There are 129 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams. Sixty-four of those teams are among the Power 5 Conferences, and there’s Notre Dame, which has no football conference affiliation but still carries a Power 5-type stick.

In the minds of most, the power conferences are all that really matter. That said, to play a 12-game Power 5 season, all of the FBS teams and some of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) teams are needed just to fill every team’s schedule.

The rub is that the United States is a such a huge country that not every state or city is on the same time-table a far as when the the virus reaches its apex or when it would be safe for teams to train, practice, and play, or when an area of the nation might suffer another relapse of the virus.

Just think about the Southeastern Conference. The league’s strength is that it features teams as far west as Texas A&M and Arkansas, as far north as Missouri and Kentucky, as far east as South Carolina and Florida, as far south as LSU with the rest located in between.

It might be safe to begin some kind of team preparation for the upcoming season June 1 in some of those areas, but not in others. It might not be safe to gather in some of those places until August or September, if then.

As we are learning, safe is a relative term.

And before players can be brought to campus, the universities themselves will have to open back up. Athletics may wag the dog or seem to some of the time, but it’s not going to do so when it comes to re-opening these universities.

Certainly, allowances have been and can still be made for college athletics, but if it’s not safe for Joe Blow students to attend classes on a campus, how do you explain to parents of scholar-athletes that their sons need to be there to train for and practice football?

Those are just a couple of the hurdles governors, mayors, chancellors, athletic directors, and conference administrators have to work through before college football or any college teams begin to train, practice, or play again.

As Fowler said in his video, all that has to come together at some level of certainty over the next month to six weeks to reasonably see the college season begin on time.

It could happen, and it is what the conferences and colleges are planning for right know, but no doubt other contingency plans are being explored.

Fowler said he believed there would be a college football season for the 2020-21 season. The financial implications for college athletic programs is too great for it not to happen if there is any possibility of playing. However, Fowler speculated the season could be pushed back into October or November, or even moved to the spring, which he indicated seems to be the prudent move in his opinion.

Again, that is just one insider’s informed speculation.

Arkansas Senior Associate Athletic Director, Kevin Trainor, who has worked for Arkansas’ athletic department, the Cotton Bowl, and the SEC, in varying capacities since the early 1990s, wrote in his column “Razorback Road,” a newish feature on Arkansas’ athletic website, that nothing is certain and that progress against the pandemic will dictate the timeline in which college athletics advances. However, he also wrote that fans shouldn’t mistake speculation as any sort of definitive confirmation.

Trainor’s column doesn’t specifically address the speculation of Fowler, Herbstreit or anyone else, but it absolutely points out that no firm decision about the 2020-21 football season has been made yet because it’s just too soon for it to happen.

Trainor also asks for the public to cut everyone a little slack whether they seem overly pessimistic or optimistic about college athletics returning in the fall.

That’s just sound advice. Sometimes we all get a bit too worked up over things we’re passionate about.

I dearly hope we have college football on time this September with all its pomp and pageantry, but fully understand that may not be possible.

One thing I would suggest that the NCAA and the conferences consider if the college football season is pushed into spring, is whether it would be possible to play baseball and softball in the fall.

Baseball and softball aren’t the contact sports that football is, and while certainly players do get in close proximity, it’s much less so than in football or basketball. Of course, teams would still have to practice, travel, and basically live together to make it happen.

Ah, well, just a passing thought on a chilly April morning as we all continue to hunker down and hope for the best.