“It’s just a game.” Probably my least favorite combination of words in the English language. Why do I start this love letter with those words? Probably because I hear them ringing in my head from anybody who doesn’t understand the implications of this post-COVID world on everything college football represents. I also use the words, “love letter” because this is my proclamation to the girl I’ve had a crush on practically my entire life. Everybody knows about it, but also, we’re finally at the point where rejection is imminent. Stay with me here.
My beloved Big Ten Conference on Thursday announced they will not be playing non-conference games this upcoming football season in order to keep players safe and limit travel around the country during times of the coronas. Do I fully support this? Of course, I do, because I’m a decent human being who understands the real threat this virus poses; especially to the safety of these student-athletes that lay everything on the line for my school. (THE Ohio State in case you don’t know anything about me) Where my complete devastation lies is in a few short weeks, I fully expect the college football season to be canceled. So, from here on, I’m going to break this letter into 2 parts, if you’re still with me. First, to the inevitable end of a college football season in 2020, which is something I never thought I would write out in my lifetime and second, to the possibility we have a season, but only conference games being played. I think both scenarios deserve attention.
First, the end of a college football season. Every year, I take a trip back to Columbus the week of Thanksgiving. It’s hands down and unequivocally my absolute favorite week of the entire year. I call it the Markiewicz trifecta. Three huge events in the span of 7 days. That would be my favorite holiday of the year, Thanksgiving, where we get not only NFL games but fun college football games on Black Friday leading into rivalry weekend. My sister celebrates a birthday in this time and then, of course, The Game. If Ohio State plays a team up north at home, it’s the best day of tailgating and family time of the entire year. If it happens to be in Ann Arbor, well, we started a tradition last year that includes waking up before the sun and enjoying the best damn bloody mary bar you’ve ever seen, in honor of my late grandfather who LIVED for The Game and enjoyed a good bloody on occasion. My life wouldn’t be what it was without him and I miss him every day. Why am I telling you this long and drawn out personal story? For one, this won’t happen this year, even if games are played. The Big Ten will move this game up to September in case the coronas make a stand in late November. However, let’s save that for the next scenario, in which games are played.
The very first weekend of college football games is a celebration, and now always arrives Labor Day weekend. I have taken off the Friday before because I can’t focus on anything else. This is where marquee nonconference matchups would primarily take place, but that is all but gone, including an Ohio State trip to Oregon, Jimmy Harbaugh’s trip to Washington and many more. With so much uncertainty in our current world, who knows what happens with these games? That’s gone. How about an Ohio State trip to Happy Valley to face Penn State in what has become one of the conference’s hottest rivalries? Gone. I’ll miss the white out and the anticipation coming before that night. I can’t even properly express my affinity for big time regular season games. The crowds, the hype, the implications, but more importantly what it means to a school and a community. I’ve been to some UCF games over the years in Orlando that have MATCHED the excitement and intensity of any school in the country. A story of a program still being written. Put that book down, because I don’t know when another chapter will be written. 2021? Can you even guarantee me that? Are you a scientist? You know what Corona will become? Maybe Biden gets elected and it turns out he knows exactly how to get rid of a deadly virus, right? Our prayers are answered! Everybody wears a mask and the country is saved! You and I both know that is not how life works. Now I’m getting on tangents because I’m so hyped up on coffee and I knew this would happen.
Since I’m probably losing people by now if it hasn’t happened already, let’s dive into the 2nd scenario, which provides more emotional stability and practicality. Before (I believe) the entire season is canceled in a few short weeks, the other four Power 5 conferences will follow suit with the Big Ten and move to a conference schedule. What does this mean for the sport? Well, a playoff will still definitely exist, however teams will have a much smaller window for error. A huge nonconference win can sometimes fix a slipup in conference play, but here perfection will be demanded. I still think we end up with a playoff consisting of Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and a team to be named later. This would have been my preseason prediction anyway. But with so much uncertainty about the virus and player’s safety, it’s going to be a tough task just to get a season finished. Maybe we still have championship weekend, lining up a showcase for each conference with their 2 best teams, but there won’t be any fans. The two biggest games of the year, Big Ten title game in Indy and SEC Title game in ATL, always sellouts, won’t have any fans, and that’s even if we can make it to DECEMBER. DECEMBER. There is nobody that can accurately project what DECEMBER is going to look like when you can’t even tell me what AUGUST will bring.
Look, any games I can get will be a gift. If we get to start playing games, I will be celebrating and thanking every mask-wearing civilian for allowing games to kick off. With only conference games being played, forget lowly nonconference opponents, these games will matter NOW. Like baseball, if that season even gets off the ground. Yes, every game will matter and there will be excitement but college football, unlike any other sport in the world, except maybe soccer overseas, relies on the atmosphere provided by its fans. It’s not the same without them, and yes you could argue that for every sport, but I’ve argued for years college football environments are the most special you can find in sports. That’s gone. What about players who don’t want to risk their health or injury with the NFL Draft looming in April? I wouldn’t blame Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrence one speck if they decided to use this time to train and prepare themselves for the draft. They’re already locked in as the 2 best QB’s in the 2021 class! Nothing left to prove from a professional standpoint. And this, folks, brings me to my next point.
Still with me? Why are we risking the health of student-athletes in the first place? This is why I think there will not be a season. Right now, we’re kidding ourselves. It’s not safe. I am not for putting these boys in danger just so I can break open a case of white claw and lay down some bets. For professionals, it’s an entirely different story because they are looking for paychecks to feed their families. What are these players getting out of this? It’s not safe. This is unprecedented. There’s no scenario where I even feel comfortable about any of it, and this is coming from the guy who wants nothing more than to see these boys take the field together. But I won’t be there to sing the fight song or the alma mater while I put my arms around my Dad. It’s in those moments I feel my late grandfather the most, singing with me, and it’s moments like these that make this more than a game for me. It’s family, tradition and years of learning what it means to be a Buckeye. Insert any school name in that sentence! For my co-host and brother-from-another-mother Brad Thomas, it’s what it means to say, “Roll Tide”. For my roommate it’s what it means to be a Knight. How about a Gator? Seminole? Even a damn Wolverine! Right now, I think we must put these feelings and aspirations on hold for the good of the community and the safety of these players and their families. Cancel the season. Let’s get this coronas figured out before we get back to a semblance of normal, because pushing these boundaries is what got us here in the first place and I don’t know about you, but I’m tired. Tired of worrying about everybody’s health and safety, tired of hearing stories from others who have said goodbye to loved ones, tired of not seeing my friends and family, tired of all the uncertainty.
It’s not just a game to me. It’s a way of life. This is me saying goodbye for now and hoping in a year’s time we have this thing figured out. Maybe by this time next year I can start previewing Power 5 conferences and their primetime nonconference matchups soon to follow. Maybe I can book that flight for Thanksgiving week and enjoy that bloody mary bar while my Buckeyes make the trip to Ann Arbor. Maybe I can move past this rejection and once again continue my love for the game.