It’s April, and for college football fans that means we are neck-deep in spring practice season. While that sentence normally wouldn’t move the needle for all but the most addicted of fans, that it has been two full years since we’ve been able to say it is reason enough to crack a smile. As America begins to get swept up in a wave of post-peak COVID euphoria – the number of citizens with protection against the disease is swelling, our economy and prosperity is growing, and we can start to reacquaint with family and friends that seem long-forgotten – even looking a few months into the future feels like it has just enough certainty that brings comfort.

So as we are taking the first steps towards a new college football season, it seems as good a time as any to share some expectations on how it will feel both familiar (pre-2020), but likely still a little different.

You can discuss the 2021 College Football season here.

What should feel the same

We haven’t heard much of anything thus far in the way of statements about the upcoming football/fall seasons from the leaders in college athletics; and that’s probably a good thing. I interpret the silence as an indication that everything is going to proceed as scheduled. Summer workouts will start in late July, practices will begin in August, and on Saturday August 28th the five games scheduled for what is colloquially referred to as Week Zero will go as planned. Same goes for Weeks 1-13 from the beginning of September through the end of November, and culminating with Championship Weekend Dec 3-4.

That means the return of non-conference games. Most of these are games that wouldn’t otherwise have been missed by most fans, but some of them are. Perhaps more importantly, many of them serve as a barometer of how good an overall conference is vs its peers, an important distinction in the Playoff rankings. And of course there will be some games that are appointment viewing; Georgia vs Clemson Sept 4, Oregon at Ohio State Sept 11, Auburn at Penn State Sept 18, and Notre Dame vs Wisconsin Sept 25, to name a few. Speaking of Notre Dame, their one-season conference affiliation will end and they will again play a 12-game schedule as an independent. Whether their season in the ACC, which was widely viewed as a success for all involved, will be just an anomaly of circumstance or the impetus for eventual long-term affiliation remains to be seen. I’d bet on the former, at least for the foreseeable future.

One other thing that will feel familiar to fans is…fans. At the game. Most stadiums last season featured more cardboard cutouts than living humans, and “canned” cheering tracks piped in by the broadcast network. Some venues in locales where limited gatherings were permitted did have stadiums at up to 25% capacity, but even then a very noticeable element of football was missing. That should change this season, since the schools badly need those ticket revenues. So expect a lot more people in the stands. But that also segues to….

What should still look different

While the hope is that we can all return to our pre-pandemic lifestyle in time for the coming football season, the reality is that the specter of COVID will likely remain with us for quite some time. So don’t expect to see too many stadiums packed to the gills with fans this fall. Again, that may be permitted by state and local authorities in certain places, but it will ultimately be up to the conferences and schools as to how many tickets they sell, and whether the fans feel comfortable enough to buy those tickets and come face-to-face with complete strangers, mask or no mask.

Since COVID will still be here, I’d also expect the testing protocols that were in place last season to remain. Same goes for quarantining of anyone who tests positive and, worst case, postponement or cancellation of a game if one of the participating teams has a big enough outbreak. Masks on the sideline will remain as commonplace as before. Players will still be urged to stay away from any non-football activity that involves large gatherings – and kids being kids, not all of them will follow that guidance.

As of this posting, every American age 16 and up should be eligible to receive a COVID vaccination. Thus far the NCAA has been relatively silent about vaccinations for athletes. I suspect they’ll remain mostly quiet, save a recommendation for all to get their shot(s). Of course the US achieving the aspirational status of herd immunity depends on nearly everyone being protected against the virus, including college football players. But for now, if players are to get vaccinated they have to seek it out on their own, just like most of the rest of us.

For comparison, the NFL recently stated it will not require its players to be vaccinated, nor other team employees (though unvaccinated employees will not be permitted contact with players). The league did “strongly recommend” its players get vaccinated. But NFL players have a union (which also recommended its members get the vaccine) that can intervene on their behalf to prevent such forced mandates, while college athletes do not. Still, don’t expect any vaccine mandates from the NCAA, conferences or individual schools. I expect it’ll be a personal choice.

So circling back, while there should be more certainty to what kind of football season we will have in 2021 as opposed to 2020, unknowns still lurk. Namely where will we stand in terms of ending pandemic status? That’s for the scientists and doctors to determine. But what I can say for certain is that the will, desire and necessity ($$$) to have as close to a “normal” college football season as possible is there.

Mike Lowe
Mike Lowe

College Football Analyst

Mike is a Baltimore native living in Portland, OR since 2007. He currently runs his own business specializing in video production and online marketing. Prior to that he was a legal technology consultant, worked for 9 years at Johns Hopkins University and served 6 years in the Air Force. He also enjoys travel, food, beer, and is a volunteer at the Oregon Humane Society.