SMQ: FCS Kickoff reveals strange, uneasy truths about 2020 college football season


College football returned on Saturday with an FCS thriller in Mobile. Fans were in the stands, masks dominated the sidelines, and teams were far from home.

For those who have followed my writing over the years, it is readily apparent that I have a soft spot for smaller programs fighting to remain relevant in a world dominated by the powerhouses of the Power Five.

I especially love FCS football, a spectacle I first started writing about as a student reporter for the Portland State Vanguard so many years ago when I returned to college to complete my long-delayed undergraduate studies. It pains me to even write the following words, given the impact that Saturday’s game could have for the FCS level more broadly.

That said, I must admit that I found it unnervingly hard to watch Saturday’s FCS Kickoff game at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama. After a spring and summer on lockdown, as fans wondered what might become of the 2020 college football season, the nation received its first answer to that question. On the final Saturday of August in the capital city of the Yellowhammer State, two defending co-champions of their respective FCS conferences matched up in a back-and-forth thriller before a national audience on ESPN.

Even as classmates on both campuses dealing with active cases of COVID-19 and others among the two student bodies locked down in quarantine after exposure to infected individuals, two FCS football teams traveled hundreds of miles to play a neutral-site game in front of a thinned-out crowd — in a state with a far greater prevalence of viral transmission than either team’s home state, no less.

Central Arkansas was 400 miles from home as the crow flies, playing a team based near Tennessee’s northern border with Kentucky that had traveled 300 miles to be in Montgomery. The Bears pulled off a late comeback, scoring in the final minute to defeat Austin Peay 24-17 in front of around 2,000 fans on site and for a television audience of millions.

The game itself was thrilling, a back-and-forth spectacle that went right down to the wire. The lead changed hands four times as the Bears and Governors traded blows in an unfamiliar setting. Austin Peay quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall punched in the tying touchdown and kicker Cole Deeds added the go-ahead extra point with only 100 seconds remaining.

Oatsvall, back from a lisfranc fracture suffered last season against Central Arkansas, showed that he is back to full health and still plenty capable of tormenting opposing defenses and guiding the Governors to victory.

Then the Bears responded, driving 78 yards in a half-dozen plays that used up only 66 seconds of game clock. Central Arkansas quarterback Breylin Smith found Lujuan Winningham for the winning score with only 34 seconds left, then followed it up with a successful two-point pass to Sam Camargo, to steal away victory at the end. Even then, Austin Peay still had the chance to respond. In the last half-minute, the Governors drove down inside the Central Arkansas 30 before Oatsvall threw an interception on the final desperate heave of the game.

It was the kind of nationwide audience that FCS teams dream of nabbing. It was also the kind of game that makes you wonder how we still sell the fantasy of amateurism.

The FCS got a chance to showcase the excitement of the I-AA game in front of the kind of captive nationwide audience that just about any team would dream of nabbing, even with diminished in-person attendance. That the Bears and Governors provided 60 full minutes of engaging, down-to-the-wire football allowed them to maximize the positive coverage.

It was also the kind of game that really makes you wonder how we still get away with the fantasy of amateurism. Freshman running back C.J. Evans had a storybook start to his career, taking the first play of the game for a 75-yard touchdown run and an early Governors lead. No matter how many more yards he runs for in college, though, Evans still cannot capitalize on the name he made for himself on Saturday night.

Oatsvall, his Central Arkansas counterpart Breylin Smith, and all of their teammates on both sides of the ball might never get to showcase their talents in front of such a big audience ever again in their lifetimes. Like Evans, none of them can turn their entertaining exploits into hard cash.

For those select few on either sideline who might harbor NFL interest, this kind of national slot — on a night with no other football games competed for the nation’s interest — offered the chance to open scouts’ eyes and perhaps earn a contract down the road. But even for those talented few who might someday sign a pro deal, the FCS Kickoff was a dream deferred without any guarantee of a future payout.

The football was the entire point for the evening

More than anything, what sticks out from this game is how it sets us up for a new reality in college sports that really looks no different on a structural level. Even as so much looked different around the stadium, the power imbalances for the people we actually pay to watch remained firmly entrenched in the fiber of the sport.

What did change were the ancillary trappings that differentiate college football from other versions of the sport. Spectators received a spectacle, normally so infused with cultural significance, that was stripped down to its barest essentials.

The school colors remained identifiable. The Governors were bedecked in red and white with a healthy dose of black, while the Bears donned traditional purple and gray as accents on their white uniforms. Yet both teams were hundreds of miles from their own campuses, playing in a sterile environment for the edification of a television audience.

Tailgating was prohibited, leaving fans to spend their pregame hours visiting Hank Williams’ grave or wandering down to the Capitol building. Neither program brought a marching band to the festivities, leaving a void in the atmosphere at a point when a diminished number of people in attendance had no chance to pick up the slack — especially without the liquid reinforcement that naturally occurs during pregame tailgates.

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The FCS Kickoff, then, was a window into what we really privilege most as Americans.

Unpaid laborers were sent hundreds of miles from home to advertise their respective universities, traveling to a state with more than 70,000 active COVID-19 cases in the midst of a pandemic. It was a confirmation that entertainment trumps public health concerns in our collective id, that we value the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat as performed by undergraduates more than the advice of the experts who have already graduated from such universities.

Two well-balanced teams played a thrilling contest, that much cannot be denied. That they were even in a position to play this game, though, indicates less that the novel coronavirus is a concern of the past than that we as a society are perfectly willing to risk young bodies for a few vicarious thrills. (Given what we continue to learn about the long-term impact of the sport to brain health, that in itself is hardly a shocking statement.)

The intent of this contest was to help those watching at home “feel on top of the world because football is back.” For many it worked just as intended, allowing for a dose of escapism. Players got to play, coaches got to coach, and millions at home had something to do on another Saturday night at home.

As thrilling as it was, though, I caught myself tuning in and out. Even recognizing the opportunity that this game presented for a level of football that often goes unappreciated by large swaths of the country, it was hard to watch a game that lacked the essence of college football as anything other than mercenary in nature.

I love college football in all its guises. I love that FCS teams had the chance to prove their merit to a nation of football-hungry fanatics. Yet on this Sunday morning after, I can’t shake the dirty feeling that young men continue to sacrifice themselves and risk their long-term health for a few fleeting moments of vicarious energy even when the rest of our society remains on high alert for a virus that can’t be wished away.

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