After months of uncertainty, college football is finally back…sort of. Week one of the 2020 season didn’t feature a single Power Five squad, the Iowa Hawkeyes won’t be taking the field again for god knows how long, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether any of the teams who kicked off yesterday will still be playing football a month from now. But any port in a storm, as they say, and after months of uncertainty about whether we’d get ANY college football this season, who am I to turn my nose up at a Saturday night primetime matchup of two 2019 bowl teams in Memphis and Arkansas State?
The games themselves were more or less the same, albeit with some notable cosmetic differences. Coaches stalked the sidelines in masks, and not a single offensive coordinator had to hide their mouth behind a gigantic playcard out of fear of the other side reading their lips. Referees’ whistles were replaced by “electronic whistles” that were activated by touch, their sound occasionally swallowed by the chasm of largely empty stadiums.
Most of the college football heavy weights won’t be kicking off for a few weeks/months, which gave several Group of Five teams (most of them located south of the Mason-Dixon Line) a chance to show out for the starved masses desperately craving any morsel of gridiron action. The showdown between the Memphis Tigers of the AAC and the Arkansas State Red Wolves wasn’t as competitive as some might have hoped, as the Red Wolves defense had no answers for the Tigers’ tight end Sean Dykes, who torched Arkansas State and looked like the most athletic player on the field by a wide margin.
Any Hawkeye fans who adopted last year’s opponent Middle Tennessee State as a team of interest for the pandemic-ridden fall season were sorely disappointed after watching the Blue Raiders get shutout by a talented Army team 42-0. Like Iowa in 2019, the Black Knights proved they could run the ball down the throats of the Blue Raiders, and for the first time in eighty or so years, Army looked like the most impressive team in college football this week. Army and other teams with somewhat gimmicky offenses could cause particular headaches to opposing defenses this season, as disrupted schedules and large-scale absences from practice due to potential COVID outbreaks could make preparing for these unique schemes more difficult (Overreaction Monday column idea: “Is Army Football Back?!”). Meanwhile, it’s back to the drawing board for MTSU coach Rick Stockstill, whose hopes for a bounce-back season behind dynamic quarterback Asher O’Hara took a serious hit last night.
Two teams who do seem poised for improvement are South Alabama and Texas State. The South Alabama Cougars were an abysmal 2-10 last season and had one of the worst offenses in college football, but showed that they had some real playmakers in their receiving corps during a nice win over a Southern Mississippi team that made a bowl game last year and is starting true freshman Frank Gore Jr. at running back (wow, does it ever make me feel old to type that last part). While Texas State wasn’t able to pull the upset against a talented and experienced SMU team, second-year coach Jake Spivital’s offense is littered with promising young talent who proved a much tougher out than the Mustangs likely expected. Those who tuned into this game were also treated to an early favorite for catch of the year courtesy of Texas State receiver Jeremiah Haydel.
The best matchup of the week has been reserved for this evening, however, when BYU and Navy square off in what should be a fascinating meeting of contrasting styles and is one of the few early season games of 2020 that I would likely be excited to watch under normal circumstances. BYU’s program has lost some of its luster since Bronco Mendenhall departed for Charlottesville, VA, but they have an experienced defense that should match up fairly well against Navy’s triple option offense, a gunslinging quarterback in Zach Wilson who can produce both exhilarating highlights and excruciating mistakes, and has several players named “Romney” suiting up for them, so there should be plenty of highlights to go around. Fans interested in watching this game can tune in to ESPN tonight at 7:00 PM (CST).
Is it strange that the BYU/Navy game is easily the most compelling contest of the week? Was it boring to watch teams like Marshall and North Texas run roughshod against overmatched opponents from lower levels of competition? Am I a little concerned that I now have hot takes about South Alabama football, a program of whose existence I only recently became aware? The answer to all of these questions is an unequivocal “Yes.” But with reports of coronavirus infections skyrocketing on college campuses nationwide and after learning that Tennessee cancelled its pre-season scrimmage due to 44 players being unavailable with over half of them being held out for COVID-related reasons, I’ll choose to be grateful for any college football I can get this fall.