The Big Ten’s return won’t make this college football season seem normal

It could be fun. Definitely, it will be bizarre.

This season, FBS doesn’t stand for Football Bowl Subdivision. It is the Football By Any Means Subdivision. Okay, that’s FBAMS, but do not get carried away with particulars. Technically, this is Week 8 of the college football schedule, but it’s Week 5 for the SEC and Week 1 for the B1G and something between training camp and Week 8 everywhere else.

ESPN aired a Heisman Trophy preview special Wednesday night because it is supposed to be midseason right now, but the novel coronavirus continues to distort time. Even though Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is five games and 15 touchdown passes into a spectacular candidacy, there is no true Heisman race when two of the Power Five conferences have yet to play.

There is no accurate Top 25 poll at this point, either, but that thing keeps getting updated. Put the cozy autumnal routine of college football into the enormous pile of traditions that the coronavirus has ruined. Some things we ditch easily, but fans cling to college football because of the passion it stirs and the deep sense of connection it inspires. It is a sport on emotional autopay; our investment in it is debited monthly, mindlessly. And so, despite the irregularity, we keep anticipating that the obsession will take over.

It won’t. The sport can’t be fixed this season. It will keep stopping and starting into November, and even when all the major programs have returned, the season will struggle to find a rhythm. With winter looming and the nation already amid another major spike of coronavirus cases, it is likely that college football’s cumulative disruption will be greater than what any sports league has endured. And the lack of uniformity and centralized leadership will continue to make it that much harder to navigate the uncertainty.

It’s remarkable that college football has gotten this far with every league doing its own thing. It speaks more to the public demand for the sport than clear and strong leadership. College football has powered through — stubbornly and morally pliable — because some parts of the country might riot otherwise, and every other league feels pressure to follow the leader. When there’s not one accepted way of doing things, everything turns into an arms race. Everything is about competitive balance, keeping pace, playing the game beyond the game.

“We’ve tried to do everything we could possibly do to have a fall season,” Warren said on Aug. 11.

Thirty-six days later, it turned out Warren and the conference’s leaders figured out there was more they could do. Or rather, the Big Ten folded to intense public pressure and found a way through testing and medical protocols to justify the risk of playing pandemic football. The conference had to be in the national championship conversation. It had to listen to the complaints of its most influential football members, including Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. It had to alter its interpretation — or deepen its understanding — of the science that made it initially delay until the spring.

In August, the Big Ten went on the offensive, flexing its power, attempting to lead the sport toward caution. Only the Pac-12 followed. The SEC, Big 12 and ACC preferred a different risk tolerance. As soon as those three conferences started playing, the Big Ten and Pac-12 were destined to become anxious, unless chaos ensued. It has been a shaky ride, but just stable enough for the two patient leagues to feel left behind.

So the Big Ten realized it needed to play defense. It needed a fall season. The Pac-12, already suffering from diminished luster, couldn’t become the lone major conference to hold out. It is playing defense, too. And you thought the offenses defined pandemic football.

So here comes college football, in full (enough) force, raging against a raging virus. Combine its determination with the NFL, and it’s time for the most significant and inevitable clash of this arduous year in sports: covid-19 vs. our national pigskin obsession.

It’s a lopsided matchup. The virus will win. It will continue to disrupt, frighten and sometimes embarrass those who don’t respect its might. Without a vaccine, there’s no way to fight through it. The only proven method is to work around it as diligently as possible. It’s a hard demand to make of men who measure success one collision at a time. So far, football has been able to trudge along at its highest levels, minimizing the outbreaks just enough to keep playing. Games have been postponed, facilities shut down temporarily and routines thrashed. But somehow, the sport is well into a second month of action.

If we’ve learned anything about sports during this stressful year, it is to appreciate the simple privilege of being able to complete a season. Before this period began, many argued about the legitimacy of championships. Reality has made it clear that these winners should receive the same level of admiration, if not more, for overcoming the current obstacles. In addition, the act of crowning a champion has become a huge testament to the resolve and competency of these sports leagues.

The NBA, WNBA and Stanley Cup finals were as much a celebration of successful bubble experiments as a coronation of the Los Angeles Lakers, Seattle Storm and Tampa Bay Lightning. They were all laudable champions, but there was champagne for all who helped those leagues reach their pinnacle. The commitment, discipline and unity required could not be discounted.

And that is where college football’s greatest weakness presents a problem. In an odd twist, college football thrives while being instable and disconnected. Its lack of cohesion can be charming. At its best, the sport looks like a bunch of mismatched colors that manage to work together. But does that work in this sports environment? Does an every-conference-for-itself mentality work against an opponent as formidable as covid-19?

We don’t know the answer because no other sport functions this way. College football is always out of sync, yet when it matters, it finds alignment. This pandemic has a way of exposing loose systems.

More football, more problems. It looks like the sport is back together, but you can’t be certain whether it used the right glue.

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