Welcome to the 2020 small-college football season – debuting in 2021.Yes, COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc on schedules.
Case in point: Tarleton State coach Todd Whitten has spent the week after the Super Bowl preparing for his season opener Saturday against McNeese State. While he’s been forced in his past 10 years in Stephenville to adjust preseason camp because of 100-degree heat, the culprit this January was eight inches of snow that fell.
”We’re having to learn as we go,” Whitten said in a phone interview. “There’s never a dull moment.”
While the FBS managed to go through a full season this fall, the NCAA took a different approach with the Football Championship Subdivision as well as Divisions II and III. Because of the pandemic, abbreviated seasons were moved to February. A few Division III teams already started last week.
Only the FCS will have a postseason, with a 16-team playoff again finishing at Toyota Stadium in Frisco. Instead of early January, the championship game will is set for May 15.
Does it matter? It’s still football and winning is still fun. Division III McMurry broke a 14-game losing streak Feb. 6, beating Sul Ross State 17-14 and giving coach Jordan Neal a Gatorade bath afterwards.
”Change is always a little difficult for everybody,” Whitten said. “I think that’s in our nature. We’re used to having spring ball and then having a spring game. This is just different and it was different in the fall. You kind of have to fight through that.”
For now, the return to the field is enough incentive. By the time Saturday arrives, the Texans will have spent one year, two months and 21 days between football games.
“Whenever you tell us to step out there, we’ll suit up,” Khalil Banks, a senior running back from The Colony told NBCDFW 5. “We’re going to get the energy going and play some football.”
Like every other school, Tarleton will be dealing with COVID-19 issues, with regular game-week testing, social distancing in practices and workouts and masking.
“It used to be in normal times you worried about the game plans, the kids and their academics. There are so many other things to think about now,” Whitten said. “A lot of the same things you saw with SMU and TCU and North Texas in the fall, I’m sure we’ll have some of the same issues.”
Tarleton has something additional on its plate. After going 23-2 the last two years in the Division II Lone Star Conference, the Texans are starting the transition to Division I in the FCS WAC, with new locker rooms and an upgraded stadium that will be at 50 percent capacity (about 6,000).
Tarleton isn’t the only school with challenges. FCS member Sam Houston State had demolished its football facilities for a rebuild scheduled to be finished in July.
“We’re living a life without locker rooms or offices right now,” coach K.C. Keeler said in a phone interview.
“You pull up and see the kids walking to practice with their shoulder pads and helmets in hand and they get dressed at the field. It’s kind of funny. It kind of brings you back to your pee wee football days.”
Sam Houston State, which was 7-5 last season, has reached the FCS semifinals three of the last six seasons and is targeting Frisco again.
North Dakota State, which has won eight of the last nine FCS titles and has made Frisco its home away from home, has seen 10 players exit who were expected to be part of the team in the fall. Among them: quarterback Trey Lance, a projected first-round NFL pick.
Sam Houston State and Tarleton had minimal defections, with Keeler noting that several key players are essentially getting the redshirt seasons they missed as freshmen, including defensive backs Zyon and Tristin McCollum and Jaylen Thomas.
To avoid wear and tear and with COVID-19 as a concern, Keeler and athletic director Bobby Williams decided to play a Southland-only schedule of six games with an off week after every two games.
”I told the kids every season has their own unique challenges, this one probably more unique than most,” Keeler said.
“But if you want to play we have to get it done. If you want to play, you can’t let your guard down.”
Normally, FCS and Divisions II and III get overshadowed by the FCS.
This season, they’re the only game in town, with a chance to lure casual fans.
Already Fox Sports Southwest Plus has picked up the Tarleton State-McNeese game, with AD Lonn Reisman calling it a “showcase” opportunity.
“So many times when the Super Bowl is over, there is such a void, like what are we going to do now,” Keeler said.
“Now you have good college football and you have it every weekend through the spring.
“I think we’re going to get some good audiences. I think people are going to tune in. The Super Bowl is over. Now people are looking for a football fix and I think we can be the football fix.”
— to www.dallasnews.com