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Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Opting In for a Different Kind of Football Season

August 27, 2020

Last week, Illinois running back Ra’Von Bonner became the first college football player to opt out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns. Soon after, Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley became the first projected first-round NFL Draft pick to opt out.

On Tuesday, two of the Big Ten’s biggest stars added their names to the opt-out list: Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman and Penn State linebacker (and Nebraska Friday Night Lights camp attendee) Micah Parsons.

Those two won’t be the last. Whether it be for personal health reasons, family concerns or to safeguard their professional futures, it’s likely that many of the athletes we expected to see out there making plays all over the country will not be part of this college football season.

Fans attending games has already been ruled out in some areas and while programs like Nebraska continue to hold out hope of putting at least some fans in the stadium this fall, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.

Programs all across the country have started and stopped workouts because of positive tests, and players and coaches alike have to abide by extensive safety protocols to make those workouts even happen.

Heck, we’ve seen images of specially designed helmets with full face shields to make it safer to play football during the pandemic.

For all these reasons and more, if we do get a college football season this year it will look unlike anything we’ve ever seen. And frankly, winning at all costs shouldn’t be as much of a priority as it normally is.

Health and safety of all involved will be the most important thing. After that, the biggets priority will simply be getting in as many games as possible.

The athletic departments and universities need the TV contract money to continue operating as they are. The players who choose to participate are invested in having a season for their own reasons — whether it be a love for the game, their teammates or the desire to improve their professional prospects. So a season will happen if at all possible.

The best way to approach that season is to head into it with an open mind and be ready to roll with the punches. One surefire way for this to all come crashing down is if coaches try to operate as usual and put winning above acting responsibly, as some alleged coaches at Colorado State have been doing.

Things are not going to be normal no matter how much we all want that to be the case. Nebraska isn’t getting those spring practices they lost back (sorry, Bill Moos). Teams that did the right thing and shut down their workouts after positive tests aren’t going to get those workout days back either. Programs are going to have to make the most of whatever time they get.

Things are not going to be fair for everyone. There won’t be a level playing field. Heck, some teams may not play the same number of games as others, and schedules will be focused more on limiting travel than creating competitive balance. Some games may have to be postponed or canceled if outbreaks occur.

Between opt-outs and likely positive tests during the season, we’re not going to see teams at full strength all year. Penn State and Minnesota have already lost their best players. Justin Fields or Rondale Moore or any number of other stars could be next, either by opt-out or positive test and the requisite quarantine period. Teams are going to have to rely on depth more than ever before.

Fans are going to have to be ready for that. They’re going to have to be ready for Ohio State to be missing Chris Olave or its starting offensive line or whoever else heading into the Michigan game. With Nebraska’s altered schedule and so much unknown, Husker fans have to be ready if the win total doesn’t look much improved in year three for Scott Frost.

Setting aside the seriousness of this virus on the grand scale and focusing in on our little sports world, it’s incredibly disappointing that we’re not going to see what kind of numbers Parsons would have put up for the Nittany Lions this year, or whether Bateman could improve on his gaudy statistics from 2019. It’s a huge bummer that we’re not going to see some of the incredible nonconference clashes that were previously scheduled and that we won’t get full 12-game seasons plus the entire bowl season.

But some football — even without some of the game’s stars — is better than none at all, and that’s the goal here: play as much football as conditions allow. If there was ever a season to hone in on player development and celebrate individual success stories rather than living and dying with every final result, this is it.

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