The 2021 college football season holds the promise of a return to normal after a pandemic-wrecked fall led to cancellations, postponements and headache after headache.
The games are on. Fans are getting ready to head back into the stadiums. College sports is entering a new era, with less-restrictive transfer rules and players who are permitted for the first time to be paid endorsers.
And the pandemic is not over. While there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic that this season won’t be the struggle 2020 was, there is still more than a little uncertainty about how this all plays out — on the field and off as No. 1 Alabama tries to win a second consecutive national title against a host of challengers.
“It’s an interesting time,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown said.
Is it ever.
The season is a go, unaltered at this point, with all the conferences onboard —- unlike last year at this time. Vaccination rates among college football teams appear to be significantly ahead of the general adult population.
Last season, 118 Bowl Subdivision games were either canceled or postponed as teams battled COVID-19. There will be no rescheduling of games in 2021. Conferences have said teams will be forced to forfeit if they can’t field a team because of COVID-19 issues.
Health and safety protocols are still not uniform across all of major college football, but the common ground is this: Unlike last year when everyone was being tested frequently for the virus, only unvaccinated players and team personnel will be subject to routine surveillance testing. Only unvaccinated individuals will be automatically be quarantined if they come into contact with someone infected with the virus.
“That gives us a competitive advantage in my mind, as we should not miss any time as a football team due to COVID,” new Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said before the school proudly tweeted the team had reached 100% vaccination status.
Many coaches have been publicly encouraging vaccination.
“I think it’s irresponsible to not to get the vaccine,” said Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, whose team also is 100% vaccinated.
Not every coach is taking this approach. Washington State’s Nick Rolovich initially said he did not plan to be vaccinated on a campus where it is mandatory for all students and employees before saying he would comply.
Where the pandemic could have a deeper impact is with fans. The number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths has been on the rise. But schools have been touting a return to full-capacity stadiums and tailgating after a season of playing in mostly empty buildings.
“I’m really excited, man, just to get back in The Swamp finally with 90,000 screaming out there,” Florida defensive end Zach Carter said.
It seems unlikely those plans will change unless local governments step in, which happened last week in Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors’ opening game against Portland State on Sept. 5 will be played without fans.
Oregon and Oregon State became the first Power Five schools to announce fans will need to show proof of either vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to attend their games.
“I think disruptions that players had to deal with, and may still have to deal with in the future relative to our circumstance right now, (are) probably something that helps them be a little more resilient,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
SUPER SENIORS AND TRANSFERS
The NCAA froze eligibility for every football player who played through the uncertainty of the pandemic last season, essentially handing them another year to play if they wished.
The result is hundreds of players who would have otherwise had no choice but to move on after 2020 will be back playing in 2021. Call them super seniors, and they won’t count against the scholarship limit of 85. Other players are back after opting out of 2020.
Longtime Utah coach Kyle Whittingham described his roster, brimming with extra experienced players, as “the most unique since I’ve been a football coach.”
Then there are the transfers.
After an NCAA rule change in the spring, football players can now transfer one time and be immediately eligible to play. For decades, transferring players would have to sit out their first season after switching schools. It led to more player movement than ever.
“Transfer portal’s changed everything. Super seniors coming back has changed everything,” Brown said.
The NCAA lifted its ban on college athletes earning money from their names, images and likenesses on July 1, and football players started cashing in immediately.
Quarterbacks are endorsing fast food and offensive linemen are promoting barbecue joints. At Michigan, Ohio State, North Carolina and Texas, players will be making money from jersey sales.
Every Miami football player was offered a deal to make $500 a month to promote a local gym and a Utah-based company will pay every walk-on at BYU the equivalent of tuition to promote its protein bars and snakcs.
Saban said Bryce Young, next up to be Alabama’s starting quarterback, has NIL deals lined up that could be worth $1 million.
There are concerns about how all this money will affect team culture, competitive balance and corruption, but college sports is mostly trying to embrace the change.
NCAA REFORM AND CFP EXPANSION
Two of the biggest stories in college sports will be taking place off the field this season.
A plan to expand the College Football Playoff from four to 12 teams is in the pipeline. There still appears to be support, but the Southeastern Conference’s planned addition of Texas and Oklahoma in 2025 seems to have leaders in other conferences stepping back to take in the full picture.
“There’s lots about the current playoff expansion proposal that is good,” said Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff, an unequivocal expansionist. “The real question is the details of that. The details unfortunately were worked out with a subset of the folks who have to sign off on it. The result is not every detail was covered and not every concern was addressed.”
The next CFP managers meeting is scheduled for Sept. 28 in Chicago.
Meanwhile, the NCAA is in the process of scaling back, starting with a rewrite of its constitution this fall. The result could be a national structure for college football that is shaped more than ever before by conferences.
Put it all together and college football is in the midst of a dizzying period of change. As for the immediate future, at the very least it looks better than last year.