SEC football opens minus big crowds, tailgating, some stars

John Zenor
The Associated Press

Southeastern Conference football games won’t have their normal scenes of packed stadiums and partying tailgaters.

Gone, too, are some of the league’s best players, including LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and much-anticipated new Georgia quarterback Jamie Newman. In the season of COVID-19, SEC teams finally open their 10-game league only schedule on Saturday.

It mixes excitement with a healthy dose of uncertainty. How many games will be canceled or postponed? Which teams can avoid being decimated by positive tests at a certain position or losing their starting quarterback?

Even SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said Wednesday: "I still am in the hold my breath moment a bit.”

So are coaches. Players are still opting out leading up to the first games, including Vanderbilt linebacker Feleti Afemui and Texas A&M linebacker Anthony Hines III.

Sankey, meanwhile, does have a new definition of what qualifies as a successful season.

“Being in Atlanta on Dec. 19 naming a conference champion, I would define that as a success,” he said.

Most SEC coaches are playing it close to the vest in identifying players who will miss the game because of COVID-19, if they have any. Their silence is as much about a competitive edge as players' privacy.

As Florida coach Dan Mullen said: “You’ll find out Saturday.”

The situations could be fluid, with testing continuing during the week. Alabama's coach, Nick Saban, said Monday there weren't any players for the second-ranked Crimson Tide out for the game with COVID-related issues.

“But we’re testing every day so that’s kind of an ongoing process as to how that goes,” Saban said.

No. 8 Auburn had a half-dozen players returning from quarantine on Tuesday, coach Gus Malzahn said.

Aside from which players will be available, another adjustment will be the mostly empty stadiums.

Most teams are allowing 20-25% capacity at games, though Vanderbilt won’t have fans through at least October. There's also no tailgating on campus, or band performances.

There’s no way to measure the impact of COVID-19 will have on this weekend, much less for the season. But there have already been some winners and losers with players opting out, creating unexpected challenges for teams.

• Texas A&M has had at least five players opt out, including leading receiver Jhamon Ausbon, who had 66 catches for 872 yards last season. Hines, the No. 2 tackler last season, just announced his decision on Sunday. Wide receiver Camron Buckley is also out for the season with a knee injury. Also sitting out is projected starting cornerback Elijah Blades, along with backup quarterback James Foster and safety Derrick Tucker.

• Losing Chase was a big blow for an LSU team already replacing Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrows. Chase set SEC records with 1,780 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns en route to winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver. Safety Kary Vincent (47 tackles, four interceptions) and standout defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin are also opting out.

Coach Ed Orgeron is hoping his team is largely in the clear for much of the season because “ most of our players have caught it.” He said those players who have recovered from COVID-19 don’t have to be tested again for 90 days under SEC protocols.

• Georgia might be just fine without Newman, especially with former USC starter JT Daniels eligible for the season and joining the competition with D'wan Mathis (presuming his knee is deemed ready for action). But it's still a blow for a team that must replace Jake Fromm. Plus, as of late Wednesday morning, coach Kirby Smart said Daniels has “not been medically cleared” to play while recovering from an injury last season.

•Fans and tailgating traditions are taking a big hit, too. With mostly empty stadiums and no pre-game walks through cheering fans. Even The Grove at Mississippi will be closed for tailgating and the Walk of Champions.

“We’re playing for each other,” said Ole Miss center Ben Brown, who took over the starting job after Eli Johnson opted out for the season. “It’s awesome having a crowd. It’s awesome having the Grove and the Walk of Champions. That’s awesome. That’s a Ole Miss tradition, but we still have to play on Saturday."

Many are having to play without teammates who opted out of the season, too.

Vandy center Grant Miller said it's not altogether new, comparing losing those players to teammates suddenly going down with injuries.

“You just have to have a next man up type of mentality,” Miller said.