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LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (1) points to the end zone after getting a first down in the second half of LSU's 63-28 win over Oklahoma in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Saturday, December 28, 2019, at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga.

Once again it’s feeling uncomfortably like March, when the sports world was switching into hibernation mode. Only this time, it's with more masks and without the bearable temperatures.

The sports news of shutdowns and cutbacks is flying at Operation Warp Speed, but not yet with the positive outcome of delivering a coronavirus vaccine. Can college athletics deliver unto all of us a football season? That is the increasingly unsettling question.

According to the folks at SportsBetting.ag, in Las Vegas it’s now a 50-50 bet that the 2020 season will be postponed until the new year.

The NBA, NASCAR, professional golf, horse racing, big soccer leagues, even Major League Baseball — with its “I hate you! I hate you more!” internal strife between players and owners — are finding ways of cracking the code to playing again. At least they are giving it the old, pardon the pun, college try.

But for college athletics, July 9 will be remembered as Retrenchment Thursday. The Big Ten made the stunning announcement that it will play, at best, a conference-only schedule this season. Sorry, Tulane, and your guaranteed paycheck game Sept. 12 at Northwestern. We’ll see you down the road. Or never.

Hey, every conference has to look out for No. 1 (though in the Big Ten, only one of its 14 teams, Ohio State, has a legitimate shot to finish No. 1).

But what I gather from folks around the Southeastern Conference and elsewhere is that this announcement blindsided the other Power 5 conferences.

The ACC and Pac-12 are reportedly considering similar moves, but no such announcements had come from those conferences as of the moment I hit the send button on this column. The Division II CIAA and SIAC followed the Ivy League’s decision to move fall sports to the spring, with no guarantee that this can happen, either.

Of course, in these parts, most folks are wondering what will happen with the Southeastern Conference. And more to the point, college football’s reigning national champions, the LSU Tigers.

There was a report Thursday that the SEC might discuss a conference-only game plan next week, but again nothing official. There was a statement late Thursday from SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, saying the league will continue to meet with medical advisors to “determine the best path forward.”

But to me, it was significant that there was no Thursday bombshell from the SEC like we got from the Big Ten — not to mention a reminder I was given that no SEC school has a regular-season game with a Big Ten team this season.

The SEC will ultimately chart one of three paths: 1) no season, or at least not one until early 2021, which would be highly problematic in itself; 2) a conference-only season; or 3) a season with a full schedule of conference and nonconference games.

To achieve the latter, the SEC is going to have to think outside the box. That includes the possibility of an SEC school going to an opponent like Tulane and saying, “Sorry to see you lost your guarantee game at Northwestern. We just lost our nonconference game that weekend with Wossamotta U. How would you like to come our way to play a game? We’re sure we could arrange a nice honorarium from the student fund.”

And by outside the box, I mean completely out, which means possibly keeping players and coaches basically in a box. Or a bubble. Or a mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnalls porch, for you old Johnny Carson fans out there. You want to insist on having a season only if players go to class on campus? Why couldn’t LSU arrange for student-athletes to attend classes in the Carl Maddox Field House or the Pete Maravich Assembly Center? Why couldn’t some sort of NBA-like arrangement be arranged?

Perhaps, and only perhaps at this point, the easiest way to arrange this would be with a conference-only schedule. There are ways SEC schools could do that and even retain a 12-game schedule.

Here’s one suggestion: Have each team in each division play everyone in their division twice. Home and home. That’s 12 games. Then the two division champs meet for the SEC title in December per usual. Or as close to usual as we’re going to get this year.

But that’s only one suggestion. I continue to hope LSU can play everyone on its schedule. The Sept. 12 game with Texas would be the Longhorns’ first visit to Tiger Stadium since 1953. Texas-San Antonio and Nicholls State could really use the money from their games at LSU, especially this year. The Big Ten’s move has enormous ramifications and could end up landing its member schools in court with programs holding contracts for guaranteed games.

The Big Ten’s decision could turn out to be a harbinger of things to come for every Power 5 conference. Or it may be a premature reaction — especially if a virus therapy like monoclonal antibodies could, as one company has suggested, come along by the end of the summer to bridge the gap to effective vaccines.

But the time to reach decisions for LSU, the SEC and the rest of the non-Big Ten college football world is ticking fast. Hopefully all the stakeholders need to be thinking of non-traditional ways to get this season in, or LSU may have a second “silent season” on its record books to match the one in 1918 erased by World War I.


Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com