Bad day for college football could reverberate in the South

Two of the big boys of college football decided – despite a wave of hashtag protests – to pull the plug. Now it is time for us holdouts down South to hope for the best but gird for the worst.

The Big Ten opted out of playing in the fall Tuesday, which undoubtedly sent tremors through places like Birmingham (Michigan) and Athens (Ohio) and maybe Atlanta (Illinois).

That has to deeply, on a gut level, concern those who live in warmer latitudes and in like-named cities. Places where college football is deemed as indispensable to the fall as helium is to the party balloon or blood is to the heart.

Huge dominoes have fallen. Are they crashing our way?

Know that it’s really big news when the coronavirus pushes back football in the Big Ten and the Pac-12. But also understand that if those in the SEC and ACC eventually are compelled to do the same, that would represent a seismic culture shock. Then we’d be talking about a family crisis.

Of course they love their college football in those other precincts, too. But Southerners have elevated the sport to a way of life. Some would say we have made it too important, but lose a season’s worth of games and then tell me that it didn’t hurt.

Perspective isn’t absent here. We know it has been close to seven months since the first case of the coronavirus was confirmed in the U.S. and that we’ve lived through far graver things than the putting off of a little tackle football. This disease has picked and picked and picked at the fabric of life, badly fraying it. Denying a Southerner his or her college football would be just another colorful thread pulled loose. Just so happens to be a thread tied at one end to the soul of the South.

Atlanta is the self-proclaimed College Football Capital of America, and has the Hall of Fame to prove it. The South holds ultimate power in the sport. Results don’t lie: Here is where 14 of the past 15 national champions hang their helmets. We let Ohio State, bless its heart, have one in 2014.

The credentials are all here for a massive letdown if they can’t realistically pull off any kind of season amid concerns for health and safety. If other sports can somehow carry on but the sport that seems to matter most can’t, then the rest of 2020 inevitably will play out beneath a cloud.

Even just contemplating Southern Saturdays in autumn without college football is a bleak exercise.

If it happens that the SEC and ACC go dark, too, the leaves might as well not bother turning.

The over-priced coffee merchants can forget making everything taste like pumpkin.

As a matter of fact, let’s call off fall altogether if the Georgia-Alabama game gets canceled. Let’s just go straight to dreary winter.

Might as well make Thanksgiving optional, then, too. The NFL will get you only so far. Do you really want to spend a long weekend in a food quarantine with extended family and have no college football to fill all the chilly voids between arguing politics?

ExploreCunningham: College football needs to play play in a bubble but won't

As with all segments of the coronavirus story, the developments within college football have been dizzying, changing with the wind. Just less than a week ago the Big Ten was announcing its conference-only schedule with a kickoff Sept. 3. Then, after a weekend of hand-wringing, all that vanished.

As of now, the SEC, ACC and Big 12, three-fifths of the college football elite, have not turned back on plans to play. They are, in the grandest football tradition, taking their time, running the clock, before making the call on whether to go their own way and play or to follow the trend of shuttering until the worst of the virus passes.

Surrender is so foreign to the sport. Taking to their platforms, coaches and players around the college football world have pleaded to continue. They argue that they are safer within the strict confines of football than out in the real world – mind you, that’s before they’ve engaged in any real slobber-knocking on the field. They argue why they should postpone a season until proved absolutely necessary. Even the tweeter in chief in Washington, D.C., has adopted the hashtag, #WeWantToPlay.

All around the SEC and ACC, outposts that base so much of their identity on a game of undergrads await a verdict from the lords of football.

Imagine Clemson, S.C., without college football, the good folk at the Esso Club left with nothing to toast but memories.

Picture Auburn, Ala., with no reason to paper Toomer’s Corner after a big win. Here litter is joy. Oh, the sadness of a clean town center on a Sunday dawn.

College football in the South is just such a defining experience. It is the ringing of the chapel bell after a big Georgia win. It is the beautiful gathering at The Grove at Ole Miss, back when it was acceptable to gather. It is the night terror of playing in Baton Rouge.

Such experiences – or as close as they can approximate now – hang in the balance. And powerful forces are now tipping them toward a shutdown.