Our pigskin picks? Let’s see if there’s a college season first

It has become a custom for this space to offer, on or around Memorial Day, a glut of predictions as to how the still-distant college football season will unfold. Eagle-eyed readers will note that we're in mid-June and no pigskin pickin' has been committed. Has this correspondent yielded to popular demand and simply shut the heck up?

Uh, no. (Sorry to disappoint you.)

Simply put, that the guy who has an opinion on everything cannot in good conscience offer predictions on a season when he’s not sure how that season, logistically speaking, will look. He’s also not yet sure – you’ll hate this part – there’ll be a season.

I’m fully aware that colleges want to play football. I know they’re taking the steps that need to be taken to prepare to play football. But do this: Google “college players test positive.” Here’s what, as of Friday morning, were the top results.

From the Miami Herald: "Four players test positive at these Florida universities" (meaning Florida State and UCF).

From Yahoo Sports: "Three more Alabama football players test positive" (bringing the total to eight).

From the Houston Chronicle: "Two Texas football players test positive." 

From CBS Sports: "Three Auburn players test positive."

Google "Dr. Fauci," and you'll find this, from the New York Times on Tuesday: "Fauci warns that the coronavirus pandemic is far from over." 

We’re acting as if the worst is behind us. Let’s hope/pray that’s true. But what if it’s not? On CNBC this week, an Arizona resident said: “If you go to the mall out here, nobody’s wearing a mask. We’re not even thinking about (the virus).”

From the Washington Post on Wednesday: "Arizona (has begun) seeing a precipitous rise in cases and a flood of new hospitalizations, straining medical resources and forcing the state's top medical official to reissue a March order urging all hospitals to activate emergency plans."

No, I’m no epidemiologist. I did, however, ask Matt Ryan this week if he’d feel comfortable playing before full stadiums. He said what you’d expect: He’d have to trust what those in charge of safeguarding the health of NFL players advise.

As for epidemiologists: The New York Times polled 511 of them and asked when they'd again feel comfortable doing usually ordinary stuff – shaking hands, getting a haircut, eating out, going to church, flying commercial. Of 20 categories, this came in last: "attend(ing) a sporting event, concert or play." Sixty-four percent of learned respondents said they'd need more than a year to feel safe doing that.

The college football season is scheduled to start around Labor Day. That’s not a year from now; it’s 2-1/2 months. We can’t know if the uptick in positive tests signals anything more than the inevitable consequence of re-opening. It’s believed the heat of summer will reduce transmission, but it’ll get cooler come fall, which is when college football is played. No matter how much money is involved, I have a hard time imagining we’ll see anything approximating full stadiums again in 2020, which brings us back to pigskin pickin’.

Georgia is scheduled to play Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 19. If no fans are allowed, that’s a plus for the visitors. It’d be almost impossible to pick against Bama at home in normal circumstances, but these are abnormal times. Think of the Bulldogs’ opener against Virginia, set for Labor Day in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. How many of those 72,000 seats will be occupied? Any?

The NBA has opted to play in a Disney bubble. ESPN reported this week that more than a few players aren't thrilled. The MLS is also planning to resume at Disney. As Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan told the AJC: "I don't know if anyone truly feels comfortable." And these, we remind you, are pros. They get paid serious money. Collegians do not.

Even in regulated workout groups keeping a social distance, some college players are testing positive. You can’t play football at a social distance. (If you did, the final score would be 150-149.) What happens if/when campuses re-open to all students? Is every FBS program capable of housing 100 players plus coaches/analysts/trainers in a Disney-like bubble for five months? No? What happens if re-opened campuses see a COVID-19 spike with the first chill of October? Do campuses close again? Does college football halt as abruptly as the NBA on the night of March 11?

This week the Secretary of the Treasury told CNBC: "We can't shut down the economy again." On the same day Steven Mnuchin voiced that sentiment, the Dow fell 1,800 points on fears of a second wave. From Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal: "COVID-19 feels like yesterday's story – we don't want to think about it, we're barely out of the house. But it's tomorrow's story too." 

I realize there are those who insist the coronavirus has been overblown. I’d suggest that, without precedent, this mighty nation shut itself down for two months, and still more than 110,000 deaths have been reported. Maybe the risk of infection/death is just something we’ll have to endure until a vaccine is found – the cost of doing business, to put it in unbelievably crude terms – but I’ve never been convinced that sports, especially on an amateur level, are an essential business.

As much mindless fun as it’d be to type, “Georgia will go its usual 11-1 and Georgia Tech a surprisingly good 8-4,” what’s the point if, in my heart of hearts, I wonder if the entire season will be played? Or how, or even where? With no cocktail party attached, what’s the point of Georgia-Florida in Jacksonville? Why not hold it in Valdosta? What if some colleges decide not to play? What if some start and then stop?

I wish, really and truly, I had happier tidings for you. But COVID-19 is bigger than Steven Mnuchin, bigger than Greg Sankey, bigger than Dabo and Saban. Again from Dr. Fauci: “The virus will decide.” Until it does, predictions seem silly – even to this infamously silly predictor.

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