ATHENS — Saturday night marked the start of a college football season like no other before it, and certainly, none that will follow.
There was a celebration of sorts when FCS Central Arkansas and Austin Peay kicked off amid the challenges brought on by COVID-19, the politics of an election year and social injustices.
No doubt, there will be an asterisk in the history books next to the year 2020, and quite possibly the respective sports seasons playing out amid mostly empty stadiums and under bubbles.
But as far as Georgia coach Kirby Smart is concerned, any asterisk that accompanies this season’s SEC champion should shine brightly and be celebrated.
The SEC, looking for uniform testing and flexibility in scheduling should an outbreak force games to be moved, went to a 10-game, conference-only schedule.
“The only asterisk that would be by that would be, ‘This is the toughest team there ever was,’ because they went through 10 games in our league and played a championship game,” Smart said.
“Hats off to them, because they need an asterisk saying they were the national champions, in my opinion, because it’s going to be tough in terms of the number of practices we have and fighting COVID.”
No doubt, the 76 of 130 FBS programs still practicing and playing have had to fight through cancellations, delays and detailed health protocols just to get to this point.
It’s a certainty there will be more complications and challenges ahead for the student-athletes and program leaders at each turn leading up to the SEC’s Sept. 26 opening weekend and beyond.
Saturday night’s FCS football game and the first weekend of fall scrimmages, however, generated momentum to help put the turbulent summer offseason in the rearview mirror.
Of course, there remains some fallout after the Big Ten and Pac-12 folded in early August, their leadership under the impression they were ahead on optics, and that other leagues would follow.
The SEC, Big 12 and ACC instead held strong, willing to play out the fall practice schedules and give science, medicine and their student athletes a chance to make it work.
There remain some critics eager to belittle the efforts and suggest a season that falls outside the norm might somehow be inferior.
But Smart quickly pointed out how the SEC’s unprecedented 10-game league-only schedule, and the difficulty of playing such a deep, physical slate in back-to-back fashion, would make this season’s champion even more remarkable.
No doubt, teams may be forced to win games without their best players on the field should there be an outbreak in the clubhouse. Protocols are in place for those infected with COVID-19 and those exposed to sit out.
Smart revealed Georgia’s strategic plans to alter practice rotations and meeting schedules to help mitigate risk should there be an outbreak.
“If you told me how many guys had to miss games in a 10-game schedule, because of exposure or because of a positive, they probably would really have an asterisk on the championship,” Smart said. “One game you could have your starting quarterback out, and that could play a major factor.”
Fortunately for Georgia, the Bulldogs are particularly well-stocked at the quarterback position.
Still, UGA has the sort of front-loaded SEC schedule that doesn’t allow for much margin for error, with rivals Auburn, Tennessee and Alabama in order, and no home games between Oct 10 and Nov. 21.
It’s not a stretch to suggest winning the SEC Championship will be more difficult this season than winning a four-team College Football Playoff.
Smart also made it clear he doesn’t think this 2020 national championship team should be burdened with a negative connotation, either.
“As far as the national championship, basically it’s the teams that are playing,” Smart said. “If the teams that are playing play, I don’t see why it would have an asterisk, because it is what it is. It’s beyond the kids’ control.”
Some Big Ten and Pac-12 followers, and perhaps others looking to cause a stir, might still suggest this year’s championship somehow tainted.
“But these teams in the SEC won’t do that,” Smart said. “Not after playing 10 games, a conference championship and possibly two playoffs.”
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