An Alabama at LSU 2020 season opener? It could happen

Terrill Weil

Come November, Nick Saban is scheduled to return to Tiger Stadium for the eighth time (once with the Miami Dolphins and seven times at Alabama) since his abrupt departure from LSU 15 years ago. The Nov. 7 date pitting LSU’s defending national champs against the team that has captured five of the last 10 college football titles is scheduled to be the ninth game on the slate for Ed Orgeron’s crew in 2020.

From this vantage point, it is projected that LSU vs. Alabama at Death Valley will be the opener for both schools in a season infected by Covid-19. This prediction depends on whether we are fortunate enough to have a football season amid thousands of Americans succumbing to coronavirus.

Health professionals and public officials are playing on foreign turf when analyzing what happens next in a frenetic and deadly environment, but there is hope since China was able to contain its outbreak in three months if the numbers from that country are believable.

The United States has the highest outbreak of total coronavirus cases in the world, doubling the number for China, which has four times the population of America .Louisiana is second in the country in per capita cases thanks to Mardi Gras and has a death count more than four times the national average. As is often the case, Louisiana is at the bottom rung of a bad list.

Historian John Barry of New Orleans penned the definitive book about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic which took 675,000 America lives at a time when the national population was 103 million people. In the fall of 1918, the U.S. also won a World War, and the Spanish Flu returned with a vengeance after a summer of abatement.

Provided our country does not receive a second wave of the disease when the weather gets milder, there will be Herculean efforts to salvage football. It is an economic and emotional engine that cannot be disregarded. The first Tuesday in November also provides a presidential election.

Those who live and die at the ballot box do not want to watch their careers evaporated in a Covid-19 haze. Look for football to begin at some time around the Nov. 3 election.

When the U.S. battled a collapse of the financial industry in 2008, Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote a best-selling book titled “Too Big to Fail” about the federal bailouts that saved the country from a Depression-era financial calamity.

College football and the NFL have become the National Pastime in our land. LSU football supplies a $55 million net infusion of cash each year. It funds every other program minus men’s basketball and baseball, which break even. Congress allocated $2.2 trillion in cash for Americans to survive the pandemic with hope that America’s most treasured form of entertainment and competition will roar back this year.

Without a football campaign, LSU cannot keep its athletic ship afloat. It can no longer pay its coach a $7 million annual salary, and athletic director Scott Woodward will not be able to absorb a $5 million annual loss on women’s basketball and allow more than $2 million in red ink for gymnastics. The university is unable to provide a life raft because more budget cuts are likely due to state coffers being drained by coronavirus.

The last time LSU did not play football in a given year was 1918. For a century, the stated reason was WWI. History professor Paul Hoffman says the root cause for no season 102 years ago was the Spanish Flu which afflicted more than half of the 600 LSU students with seven fatalities reported on campus.

LSU football in 1918 predated radio and television revenues. Games were played at State Field situated on the downtown Baton Rouge campus. The location at the site of the current State Capitol was home from 1893-1823 for the Tigers, who posted an 83-20-2 record at the quaint facility.

Tiger Stadium dominates the landscape of the contemporary Ole War Skule with a bowl primed for the arrival of 102,321 patrons in five months. On the morning of March 29th, a Sunday in which the rest of campus was eerily silent, a construction crew was working to beat the clock and install a new field at the fabled arena that is being readied for its 97th consecutive season of Tiger football.

The super scoreboard hovering about the field flashes “The Best” in anticipation of the Sept. 5 invasion of the Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners. The opener was designed to pay tribute to the 15-0 Bengals, who conquered the world in 2019. Let’s hope LSU’s 42-25 national championship victory over Clemson on Jan. 13 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is not the only college football game played in 2020.

Chances are overwhelming that the 2020 opener will be delayed. A potential Nov. 7 opener featuring Saban vs. Orgeron would mean that a 12-game regular season with a Christmas break would conclude Jan. 30. 2021. The SEC championship game could be played Feb. 7 with College Football Playoff semifinals Feb. 14 and the national championship game Feb. 23.

This is a realistic scenario under the strain of the most challenging crisis to invade American borders since the Great Depression. Covid-19 will be a factor in America for the next few years, but at some point our hospitals will not be overflowing with incoming patients needing critical care.

Health authorities predict that a herd immunity will evolve among us after cases peak. When the so-called curve of cases is flattened, campus leaders can start the process of weighing when to return students and professors to classrooms and athletes to fields of play.

Football is a distinct part of the fabric of this country. A year with no NFL and no college games to watch means no tailgating, gambling or chest-thumping for those who long to cheer their gladiators, consume large quantities of elixirs and release pent up tensions accumulated from a world that is rocking the foundation of many citizens.

It has been said that football is more religion than sport in the eleven states of the Southeastern Conference. Former LSU Chancellor Jim Wharton once lamented that “Everybody in Louisiana gets a case of the mully-gullies when LSU has a losing season.”

Coronavirus is a plague with fierce and uncertain power. But it should be no match for the passion of the masses to preserve football.

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