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With college season starting, brace yourself for ugly football

Pete Thamel
·9 min read
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The kickoff of the college football season last Saturday – the immortal matchup of Austin Peay and Central Arkansas – reminded us all of the glory of televised college football. In a 2020 season where nearly 40 percent of the teams punted on the fall and there’s been more chatter about contact tracing than contact practices, the four quarters of college football provided cathartic entertainment.

The game also gave us a window into what we can expect from this college football season. Austin Peay’s best player was unavailable (DeAngelo Wilson) and a missing long snapper led to a run of fumbles and quarterback pooch kicks. The general sloppiness braced us for what coaches say should be expected this season, especially in the upcoming weeks.

With the FBS college football season kicking off Thursday – buckle up for Southern Miss hosting South Alabama and old friends Central Arkansas playing at UAB – Yahoo Sports polled 30 college coaches, coordinators and assistant coaches about what the on-field impact of COVID-19 restrictions will be. With most schools missing a majority of spring practice and both positive tests and contact tracing proving disruptive at more than two dozen programs, coaches have concerns about how all the inconsistency and instability will impact the product on the field.

Sifting through all the answers, it’s clear that coaches are bracing for a season like no other. The biggest on-field concerns have been overall conditioning, a lack of rhythm due to lack of consistent practice reps and the weekly prospect of potential roster chaos from positive tests and contact tracing. A majority of coaches expect some ugly and sloppy football, especially early in the season. Some are optimistic there won’t be a noticeable impact.

“The quality will be inconsistent,” a veteran coordinator told Yahoo Sports. “Not enough repetition to get consistent performance. Will be like an average golfer’s round. Some really good. Some really bad.”

That answer is countered by some optimism that experienced teams will have a significant edge, especially because of the extra mental preparation teams have had through extra Zoom calls in the spring and walk-through practices this summer.

“It’s funny, I’m not really sure,” said Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, who opens with Clemson on Sept. 12. “I’d say this, physically and conditioning and strength-wise, we’re not close to where we’d normally be now. But mentally, kids knowing assignments, we’re way ahead.”

The CFB 2020 logo is displayed on the field prior to the College Football Playoff title game between LSU and Clemson on Jan. 13, 2020. (Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The CFB 2020 logo is displayed on the field prior to the College Football Playoff title game between LSU and Clemson on Jan. 13, 2020. (Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Here are five ways this most chaotic of offseasons could translate.

1. Conditioning

Let’s start with Clawson’s original point about conditioning. That theme manifested itself a few different ways.

Wake Forest is one of many Power Five programs that relies on the Catapult system to track the speed of players. Clawson said overall, Wake practices have been cleaner because of the extra mental reps. But eventually, the conditioning reveals itself. “At this point, our ability to sustain a practice after the first hour-and-a-half, hour-and-40, it’s not nearly where it’s been,” he said. “We can’t go as long as a year ago.”

As practice goes on, Clawson said that players are running at about 10 to 20 percent less speed than they were the prior year. A speedy player who ran 20 mph a year ago, for example, is down to 16 to 17 miles per hour.

Another Power Five coach found a similar dip, thanks to limited spring ball and inconsistent conditioning. He called his team’s conditioning “awful” and said it creates a chicken-egg conundrum that the program hasn’t been able to figure out. If you practice, it zaps your legs. But if you don’t practice, “You’ll look like a clown show on gameday.”

The coach said the lack of summer training and no access to high-speed treadmills have dimmed the top speeds of his high-end skill players. Players who’d hit 22 mph on the GPS tracking systems last year have yet to touch 19 through more than a dozen practices. He’s searching for creative ways to practice, yet still rest his players’ legs. “I’m going to try and get most of my game prep done this week and only spend like an hour-and-15 on the field during game week.”

The sheer amount of plays team can run will likely be impacted for tempo-based offenses: “There won’t be as many points because kids will be out of shape, they won’t be able to run as many plays,” said a Power Five offensive coordinator.

2. Schemes

Baylor offensive coordinator Larry Fedora knows things will look different this year: “I don’t think there’s any doubt the quality of football is going to be affected,” he said.

Not only will contact tracing inevitably knock players out of games, but it will also get guys out of shape. The prospect of losing starters means more practice reps have to be given to backups. A majority of coaches pointed to the rhythm of the pass game as something that will be significantly impacted, especially early in the season.

The challenge for a new staff like the one at Baylor is getting the practice reps to master a new scheme. Fedora said last week that he has about 50 to 60 percent of what “you’d really like to have” in his offense. That’s going to lead to less sophistication. “It may cause teams to simplify their schemes,” Fedora said. “I do think the quality of that game itself is going to change this year.”

Miami coach Manny Diaz disagreed with the notion of a thinner playbook, even with a new offense under coordinator Rhett Lashlee. “We’re not an overly complex offense,” Diaz said. “If you were in a highly complex system with a lot of different concepts, that’s different.”

Diaz doesn’t forecast much of a drop: “I don’t think you’ll see a [distinct difference] in quality of play when you turn on ESPN.”

3. Who can play?

The old Bill Parcells axiom about the “most important ability is availability” will be a defining mantra of this college football season.

The season is shaping up to where there will be lots of drama in the minutes before kickoff, as schools announce what players made the trip or beat writers furiously cross-check their rosters. Wise bettors will be waiting until the last possible moment to put in their wagers, as games will be susceptible to significant eleventh-hour betting-line swings.

Depth is usually a coaching talking point that prompts beat writers to roll their eyes during spring ball. But in this uncertain season, depth matters.

One coordinator summed it up this way: “Every team still trying to play is only a few injuries, positive tests or contact tracings away from having a position group or unit depleted and having to try and piece a game plan together not knowing until the day before that week’s game who may or may not be available to play.”

Another Power Five coordinator pointed out that one aspect teams could struggle with is both running and stopping tempo, as the roster disruptions have inhibited the ability to practice tempo on both sides of the ball.

“Quality will suffer with interruptions,” said another coordinator. “Depth and health of roster will be critical. Both in terms of insulation from COVID and conditioning levels. Playing football requires a different level of conditioning, [and] interruptions will present challenges in this regard as will depth depletion.”

One area that has coaches worried is the sudden loss before games. “If you find out on Saturday that you’ve lost a guy and he’s been getting the reps the whole week, it’s going to be an issue,” Fedora said.

A goal line pylon is shown prior to the start of the 2019 College Football Playoff title game between Alabama and Clemson at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, CA. (Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
A goal line pylon is shown prior to the start of the 2019 College Football Playoff title game between Alabama and Clemson at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, CA. (Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

4. Specific areas of impact

A handful of coaches mentioned tackling – both worried defensive coordinators and wishful offensive coordinators. As football rules have been tailored more to safety prior to the pandemic, the quality of tackling has been in decline in the sport. “I believe the defenses will suffer the most from the lack of tackling and how coaches have had to trim back team work,” said a Group of Five defensive coordinator. “Offenses can run plays on air, defenses can’t.”

A bunch of coaches mentioned special teams, especially because so many new players could end up thrust into roles because of missing players and contact tracing. Former Boston College and NC State coach Tom O’Brien singled out the punt game as “the biggest concern for any coach” in the kicking game. “All the things that can go wrong – punt return and punt block for a score – are huge game changers.”

Multiple coaches mentioned it could take a few weeks for rhythm and timing to emerge, and that’s on both sides of the ball. “Did we have our thousand hours needed to become an expert?” said a Power Five assistant. “No. Timing, units that work together like offensive lines, communication may all suffer. Most programs will have to choose where to invest their time and where to trim the ‘fat.’ ”

The absence or diminished size of crowds will also be a variable, from allowing teams to verbally send in signals to not intimidating visiting teams. “More than anything, the atmosphere will suffer the most,” said a coordinator. “College fans are what makes the experience for the players. It will be interesting to see the energy and emotion of the players with little to no fans.”

5. Trenches

One of the most interesting football observations came from an established Power Five defensive coordinator. He wasn’t as concerned about the timing of the offense or tackling. “I think the big guys are going to be affected the most by not having spring practice and the offseason workouts,” the coordinator said. “It’s easy to go throw and catch. It’s hard to simulate blocking people and getting off blocks.”

This will be especially true in situations where teams have paused and returned, which will be a defining dance of 2020. “When people have a situation where they miss a few days and come back and are out of routine, that affects the big people more,” the coordinator said.

This is also where less hitting in practice could come into play, as the line of scrimmage features contact on every play. “Base fundamentals of blocking and tackling are a major concern because we’ve been so overwhelmingly conscious of contact and protecting the guys,” said another Power Five coordinator.

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