I was out walking Saturday near dusk along University Lake when I came to a point where the floodlights in Tiger Stadium were shining brightly across the still water.
I paused a moment to take in the silent scene. It was eight weeks until LSU’s scheduled season opener with Texas San Antonio. And beyond the question of would there be any people tailgating on LSU’s campus, or fans or even the LSU band in the stands, I had to ask myself:
Will LSU be playing on that Saturday, or indeed any Saturday’s at all this season?
Football, as George Carlin reminded us in one of his most iconic comedy routines, is rigidly timed. When the clock runs out, that’s it. Unless you’re talking about the 2018 LSU-Texas A&M game.
The clock has not run out on the prospect of playing a football season in this coronavirus-burdened world, but it is ticking by rapidly. And college football, it seems, looks like a team that’s down 10 points with about six minutes to go.
The will to play is there — mostly. A few smaller conferences, most notably the birth conference of college football, the Ivy League, have decided not to play any sports at all this fall. First, the Big Ten and then the Pac-12 announced they would play conference-only schedules. If only they can.
Elsewhere, conferences and schools are clinging to hope. The Southeastern Conference, Big 12 and ACC have dug in, for now, refusing to give up on a full season if they can help it.
Speaking on SiriusXM radio Wednesday, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey was asked if playing a full schedule was still a viable option for his conference.
“It is for us,” he said. “We have had some colleague conferences at the FBS and the bowl subdivision level, notably the Big Ten and Pac-12, that have pivoted to conference only.”
Those decisions didn’t put much of a dent in SEC scheduling overall. The only games canceled were against two Pac-12 foes: Alabama versus Southern California and Texas A&M versus Colorado. But Sankey suggested on another radio appearance on Fox Sports that there will be “opportunities” for Bama and A&M to replace those games because other schools have also lost games to cancelation. It is at least a hopeful sign that such contingencies will be needed.
But the time to decide is drawing short. Sankey pointed to July 24 as a key date, a date where SEC schools will need to transition from the summer conditioning work they’re doing now eight hours a week to preparing for the full-scale practices 20 hours a week that would need to start around Aug. 5-7 if the season is to begin on time.
“That is not an absolute date,” Sankey said, “but certainly one that is really important. And then for us we go into August with people returning to campus, which will be another learning experience for us all, and we know we are going to have to make a decision. So, I look toward late in (July) as a check-in point at least, and soon thereafter we will have to make a decision.”
There are strong opinions on all sides, and conferences and their commissioners are easy targets for criticism from the "Play Football" or "You’re Crazy to Play" crowds.
But imagine for a moment the momentous decisions at play here. Sankey spoke this spring about how emotionally fraught his decision was to cancel the SEC men’s basketball tournament after one day’s play. A decision that became part of a tidal wave of cancellations that wiped out everything from the Final Four to the College World Series and scores of conference and national championships besides.
Imagine trying to decide whether or not to play football. If you play and the sport becomes riddled with virus outbreaks, the criticism will be withering. If you don’t play and there is some medical breakthrough or break in the pandemic, as unlikely as that looks now, you’re in the position of canceling something with huge emotional and economic impact when you didn’t have to. Calling off the big show when you thought a storm was brewing and instead getting sunny skies.
“I just can’t imagine a scenario” where we don’t play, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley told ESPN. “Whether it’s something we do in the fall, whether it’s a shortened season, whether it’s spring, there’s nothing we should take off the table. Regardless of what we have to do, I don’t think there’s anything we can’t work around, and we can’t adjust and we can’t make work in order to play college football.
“We’ve all got to do our part on that.”
LSU coach Ed Orgeron perhaps said it best Tuesday during Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Tiger Stadium.
“We need football,” Coach O said. “Football is the lifeblood of our country.”
Of that there can be little argument. But the clock is ticking rapidly toward a go/no-go for launch call. And that has every stakeholder in the game, from commissioners and athletic directors to coaches and players, fans and even the media more than a little anxious.
The lights can go on in Tiger Stadium and in other stadiums across the country.
But will there be anyone home?