How much will UGA’s football season be impacted by the pandemic?

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Could the pandemic possibly curtail the number of times Georgia fans will see the Dawgs play this fall?

UGA made it official this week that there will be no G-Day game in 2020, and restrictions on campus gatherings mean the Dawgs won’t have any spring practice, either.

Unless the SEC and NCAA allow football programs to make up the lost practice time this summer (most likely in May or June), that’s probably going to affect the quality of play early in the season.

But, while SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said this week he’s a glass-half-full kind of guy, and is hopeful the COVID-19 pandemic won’t affect the playing of a full schedule of games this fall, there are others in college football (including the head coach of Georgia’s opening opponent, the Virginia Cavaliers) who aren’t as optimistic.

The COVID-19 virus has put an end to spring practice this year in Athens. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall, whose team is scheduled to play Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sept. 7, told CBS Sports Thursday that he is preparing his team’s plans for fall camp on the basis of there being no spring practice at all.

“We’re preparing with exactly that model in place,” he said, “knowing that fall camp timing might even be pushed back, meaning that there certainly could be a chance that it’s not even be a full schedule played this year — if football is played, period.”

In a sports world turned upside down, such thinking might be considered alarmist by many. Let’s face it, though, a couple of weeks ago hardly anyone gave the least bit of consideration to the possibility of the complete cancellation of not just the NCAA basketball tournaments, but all spring athletic events.

So, yes, under the worst-case scenario, if a college football “nuclear option” becomes necessary, the season might wind up being delayed; trimmed back, with games having to be dropped; or the season even (shudder) canceled altogether.

If it’s just a matter of delaying the season’s start a couple of weeks, the conference championship games could be pushed back, as the SEC did in 2001 when Georgia and other programs postponed regular-season games the week of 9/11 and tacked them on at the end of the season. Thus, Georgia closed the season with a Dec. 1 game in Athens against Houston.

However, if the delay were any more than a week or two, and the season didn’t begin until October or later, some games would have to be dropped. (During the 1918 flu pandemic, the college football season didn’t begin until November, and lasted just five games.)

Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s team is scheduled to open against Georgia in Atlanta. (University of Virginia)

As the CBS report pointed out, if games are missed, it could have a tremendous impact on college athletics. College football revenue is the foundation for FBS athletic departments. Asked by CBS to consider a season without college football, one Power 5 athletic director said, “We’d end up cutting sports. We’d be firing people.”

That probably wouldn’t be the case at Georgia, one of the healthier programs in the nation, financially. Still, even with all games being played this fall, if the virus is still making the rounds, attendance (which already is declining across college football) could be impacted, if it’s allowed at all.

Already, the UGA Athletic Association announced this week it was extending the deadline for Hartman Fund donors to order season tickets by a week to April 6. Added the email to Georgia Bulldog Club members: “Should the current extenuating circumstances impact your decision-making process on purchasing football season tickets, please email to receive a phone call from a UGA Athletics Association representative to discuss flexible payment options.”

The note also said that, “as is our standard policy, in the unlikely event that games are canceled, the UGA Athletic Association will refund tickets purchased for that contest.” However, contributions to the Hartman Fund are not refundable.

Still, as long as full conference schedules are played, the Virginia coach thinks the 2020 season could count as a “legitimate” campaign. “The first step would be to eliminate nonconference games from the schedule … and only play a conference schedule,” Mendenhall said.

But, he said, “once you are under eight games, that probably becomes a nonlegitimate season.”

Considering how rapidly the SEC sports situation has changed, “to make an assumption about anything, including football next fall, is just irresponsible,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity told DawgNation.  

How will the loss of spring practice affect transfer quarterback Jamie Newman? (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

If it’s a matter of cutting back to a 10-game schedule (which many of us grew up with), Georgia could drop the cupcake games (East Tennessee State and University of Louisiana-Monroe) and the fan base probably wouldn’t mind very much. But, if it comes down to dropping all the nonconference games and just playing SEC opponents? Think of the uproar in the state if the Georgia-Georgia Tech game wasn’t played this year.

That’s a pretty depressing prospect, so, starting with a less extreme scenario that anticipates the full season being played, let’s take a look at what all of this might mean for Kirby Smart’s Dawgs.

The cancellation of the 2020 G-Day spring intrasquad game is only the fourth time since the G-Day tradition was born in 1941 that the game has not been played, UGA sports historian Patrick Garbin told me. The last time the game was not played was 2000, when it was canceled due to drainage problems under the Sanford Stadium field.

“There were two other occasions before this: 1943 because of World War II, and two years later, in 1945, primarily because of injuries,” Garbin said. “That year, it was reported the team was so injured in the spring, UGA had a 30-40 minute scrimmage instead of a ‘spring game.’”

The loss of the game itself mainly hurts in terms of recruiting, as under Smart it has become one of the premier events for hosting high school prospects.

It would be more hurtful to the team as a whole if the lost spring practices are not made up this summer.

That particularly would be a problem for programs like Georgia, which largely will be remaking its offense this season with a new coordinator in Todd Monken, and new starters in most key offensive positions — including a new quarterback, Jamie Newman, the Wake Forest graduate transfer who is expected to be the Dawgs’ starter behind center.

It’s not so much a problem with the depth chart not being established, since that frequently isn’t finalized until August, when freshman players have joined team. And, while some work on the base packages of the offensive and defensive playbooks is done in the spring, most of that work also is done in August, once the full team has assembled.

No, as a report in the Montgomery Advertiser noted, “spring practice is, for the most part, about individual player development.”

The lack of spring practice time might make playing Alabama early in the season even more of a challenge. (AJC file)

“Players improve technically and fundamentally during the spring, because the time for that is limited in the fall with all that goes into game plan, installations and prep work for what’s coming that week,” SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic told the Advertiser.

However, even if you’re just talking the base offense, it’s much easier for players to learn a playbook by repping it on the practice field than by watching video via teleconference (which would seem to be the only option as long as the Athens campus is closed to classes and student gatherings). That’s where restoring even a few of the 15 canceled spring practices, perhaps adding them to the beginning of summer camp in August at the very least, could be huge.

Sure, new arrival Newman and Georgia’s receiving corps can work on their timing and rapport during those unofficial workouts the players themselves organize during the summer, but there’s no substitute for a full-team practice.

Overall, with the loss of spring practice, you might think a program undergoing as much change as Georgia might be at a competitive disadvantage compared with a program like, say, Florida, which will have much more continuity in coaching and other aspects this season. But, that would be more likely to have an effect if the two teams were meeting early in the season. By the time the Dawgs and Gators play Oct. 31 in Jacksonville, Georgia should have made up much, if not all, of the difference.

Much tougher for UGA is likely to be that early-season trip to Tuscaloosa. Even under the best of circumstances, the Alabama game would be a terrific challenge for Smart’s troops. With an offensive remake still likely to be in progress at that point of the season, it looks even harder.

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