Like most of you, this weekend marked the first time in my life that the college football season got underway and there wasn’t a team that I care about to root for.
Weirdly, I was a lot less affected by its absence in the moment than I imagined I would be. As Saturday approached, I figured I’d spend the day forlorn, noticeably missing that sense of anticipation that wells up inside me as I wait and wait and wait for the Cougars to finally kick off as I watch the milestones tick by — College GameDay, east coast games, etc.
I don’t want to give the impression that it was no big deal. I definitely was wishing on Saturday that I had a Washington State Cougars game to watch, and I’m definitely super pissed off that so many things I care about — WSU football, educating children face-to-face, hosting gatherings at my house, traveling — have all been ruined to one degree or another by the refusal of our country’s leadership to do what’s necessary to bring COVID-19 under control.
I haven’t spent a lot of time truly contemplating my emotions on this front. These days, I honestly can’t find the emotional bandwidth to get too worked up about things that are trivial, and WSU football — in spite of all the time I’ve invested into it over the course of the last 25 years — actually doesn’t matter.
There probably also is the little detail of all of our sports seasons being completely fouled up at this point. There was an NBA playoff game on ESPN at the same time college football was being played on another channel. And then you add in the fact that none of these games were being played in front of any more than a few thousand fans, plus the fake crowd noise on the broadcasts, and it’s like ... is this even real?
It would probably feel like it was real if my team was playing; I don’t seem to have issues with getting excited about the Seattle Sounders dropping a 7-1 beatdown on the San Jose Earthquakes, so maybe I’m just engaging in my own little set of mental gymnastics in order to cope with all the loss. Like I said, I’ve only gone about an inch deep thinking about the meaning of sports in These Unprecedented Times, and I just can’t convince myself to contemplate it any more than that.
But watch the games, I did, even as I couldn’t shake the feeling that all this college football might be a big mistake.
I realize that there are conflicting interpretations of just how much risk these athletes are taking on, and that some people will take that to mean that both sides have equal validity and subsequently will land on “everything will be fine.” I get it, and those people could prove to be right. But I’m just not wired that way. Nobody knows the long-term impacts of contracting the virus, even in asymptomatic people, and a doctor saying he thinks it’s not a problem* just isn’t good enough for me when the majority of health officials are skeptical and nobody — not the players, not the fans — is actually hurt by a little patience. Most of these schools, including ours, can survive whatever financial hardship would be endured; we can’t bring someone back to life.
*Once upon a time, some doctors were endorsing cigarettes as “fine.” It might be worth remembering that doctors aren’t a monolith and there’s a long history of some of them not exactly being at the cutting edge of health issues.
But that’s not the world we live in. Many schools played on Saturday, and many of those games were on TV, and I found myself watching bits and pieces of games throughout the day, just like I always do.
And it seems momentum is building for a return of Pac-12 football before the end of its self-imposed January 1 moratorium. The Big Ten, which was the first Power 5 conference to announce it was postponing until the spring, is reportedly going to be taking up a vote this to potentially come back in late October, and as we all know, votes are usually only taken when the outcome is known. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense that they’d hold another vote to reaffirm their original decision, so at this point, I suspect it’s just a matter of the Big Ten setting its actual start date, which I’m sure will provide enough time and games for Ohio State to get into the CFP.
The Pac-12’s situation is a little more complicated. Half the teams in the conference — those located in Oregon and California — continue to face state-mandated restrictions, largely because there just aren’t enough tests for their states to feel comfortable with the large gatherings (full-team practices) that would be required to ramp up for a season. But the conference will supposedly have enough tests by the end of September to test athletes daily, which means it could potentially be up and running for a season with a mid-November start.
If you’re skeptical that it’ll actually work out that way ... well, I really can’t imagine a scenario where the Pac-12 gets left on an island as the only Power 5 conference not playing. It just seems implausible from a common sense standpoint, as the longterm damage to the conference relative to its peers could be devastating. So, I guess you can start trying to reserve those rooms at the Quality Inn for all the Saturdays in November and December on the off chance they’ll let a few of you into Martin Stadium.
When that happens I’m sure it won’t be hard for me to find the excitement again, even as all those reservations still sit in the back of my mind.
What We Liked: Arkansas State
The Sun Belt had itself a heck of a day on Saturday, going 3-0 against the Big 12, and I caught quite a bit of Arkansas State’s 35-31 win over Kansas State.
Blake Anderson has quietly built a program there that, while not quite breaking through to the national scene a la UCF, is winning more than it’s losing and establishing itself as one of the better Group of 5 schools.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed about Saturday’s win was that Anderson managed the game precisely as I think G5 teams should against their Power 5 counterparts.
Take this sequence, for example.
With the game tied at 21 early in the 4th quarter, the Red Wolves’ drive stalled out at the KSU 34. Stuck in the classic no-man’s land, Anderson sent out his punt unit, which promptly ran a fake punt pass. KSU actually was set up to defend it! Only one problem: The receiver ran right by the safety, who was close to the line of scrimmage, and the defender was forced to interfere to stop the touchdown.
On the next play, the Red Wolves ran a reverse throwback to the QB, which picked up 17 yards. Two plays later, they were in the end zone for a 28-21 lead, having ripped off a 21-0 run:
That run of TDs, by the way, started with a double pass TD:
But it wasn’t all tricks. KSU scored the next 10 points for a 31-28 lead, and Arkansas State held the ball with 2:30 left to play, needing at least a field goal, which would force overtime. With KSU clearly expecting the Red Wolves to pass, the first 32 yards of that drive came on the ground, moving Arkansas State to the Kansas State 33. Three plays later, and with 38 seconds to spare, the Red Wolves were in the end zone as Layne Hatcher tossed a TD to Jonathan Adams Jr. (his third of the game — more on him in a sec) to seal the win.
Anderson said he was “excited, but not surprised,” about the win, which is a thing coaches are supposed to say, even though this was Anderson’s first win over a Power 5 school in his six-plus years in Jonesboro. That last part is one of the more interesting parts of this whole story.
Anderson’s name typically pops up these days whenever there’s a vacancy in that region, and he was connected with both the Missouri and Baylor jobs this offseason. But he hasn’t yet left Arkansas State — a place that rallied around him during his wife’s battle with terminal breast cancer — and maybe he’s on the verge of building something special.
Or maybe it was just the weirdness of this season. If it is for real, we probably won’t know for a while; the Red Wolves don’t play another Power 5 school this year. However, they do play both Louisiana and Coastal Carolina, which apparently is a better test, anyway.
Who Impressed: Jonathan Adams Jr.
Jonathan Adams Jr. is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds and he used all of that to abuse Kansas State for more than three hours on Saturday, reeling in eight catches for 98 yards and those three touchdowns.
That first one didn’t even count! But it deserves another look:
Insane catch by Arkansas State WR Jonathan Adams. Overturned on review but still amazing. pic.twitter.com/DwVDHXJr6q— Max Olson (@max_olson) September 12, 2020
Adams came to Arkansas State four years ago as a two-star recruit out of hometown Jonesboro High School, measuring 6-foot-3 and just 175 pounds. He’s steadily improved each year:
Career stats for Jonathan Adams Jr.
It appears he’s headed for a huge senior season. These are the kinds of stories we love about college football.
What Needs Work: Special teams
It seemed there were more special teams blunders than usual on Saturday, which leads one to the natural conclusion that COVID weirdness played a role. Or maybe that’s just recency bias, and this happens every year in week one.
Still, it’s undeniable that special teams execution played a pivotal role in many of these games that produced unexpected outcomes. We already mentioned Arkansas State’s fake punt; Louisiana had two kick returns for TD against Iowa State. Texas State, meanwhile, used a 91-yard punt return to tie the game against Texas-San Antonio ... and promptly missed the PAT.
It’s the kind of stuff that drives fans crazy, but also is one of the reasons why we love our big drunk sport of college football. PJ covered many of the incidents on Sunday, but I’m just going to go ahead and throw in my favorite one, just for its sheer entertainment value:
It’ll get better. I think.
Up Next: No. 17 Miami at No. 18 Louisville
One thing that hasn’t changed this year: Lots of crap matchups in the first couple of weeks of the season. This is the only matchup featuring two ranked teams, and it should be a fun one.
Miami is coming of a trouncing of UAB (31-14) and Louisville did the same to Western Kentucky (35-21). Both teams feature explosive offenses, with the Hurricanes led by Houston transfer D’Eriq King. REMEMBER HIM?
I’ll be pulling up a chair and having a beer for this one. Kickoff is at 4:30 p.m. PT on ABC.